Mountaineering & Climbing Introduction
Victorian mountaineering practices first came to the Rockies in the 1880s. Wealthy amateur sportsmen – British and American, mostly, along with their requisite European guides – initiated mountaineering's earliest age from the railway hotels along the newly-laid transcontinental line. Their objective was first ascents of unclimbed peaks. And they found much to do in Canada. In those days, mountaineers usually climbed in parties of three or more. A party of two was ill-advised. To climb alone was unthinkable. Such ethics were deeply rooted in the prevalent notions of risk in late-Victorian mountaineering culture. Aside from a few railway surveyors, locals were slow to catch on. Lamenting Canadian apathy towards the sport, The Alpine Club of Canada – which was modelled upon its British predecessor – was formed in 1906. Despite slight diversions from the earlier climbing ethos enshrined by Victorians, mountaineering as sport in Canada generally followed the same tacit codes that governed the older, gentlemanly culture.
Of course, those now familiar with the sport will recognize that many of these rules no longer apply. How could they? For Victorians, to follow in someone else's footsteps up a previously climbed peak was not seen as sporting – it was recreation, perhaps pleasant and challenging, but it wasn't sport. Thus it was merely a matter of time before all the great peaks were climbed. The sport would have been finished. Such was the predicament in the late 1920s, in the Rockies at least, when the period of easy scrambles to impressive summits had more-or-less exhausted itself. Older climbers with leisure time and money were lured elsewhere. And another generation was left to make changes in the form and goals of mountaineering to ensure its future as sport.
Mountaineering in the Rockies remained moribund for decades. While local mountaineers continued to demonstrate their eagerness for pioneering excursions "off the beaten path," expressed, for instance, in the elaboration of ski mountaineering throughout the Great Depression, their unwillingness to embrace new European climbing techniques put many of the difficult international climbs of the interwar period beyond their reach. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the technical level of expertise achieved by climbers in the Rockies was, arguably, comparable to that of the 1910s.
Everything changed after the war. Newly arrived European and British immigrants initiated a new era of mountaineering. And their sport – enter rock climbing, pitons and all – was hardly recognizable to the old guard in Canada. Difficulty and risk were embraced and codified in a grading system developed a decade or two earlier by German climbers. Unclimbed summits remained valuable, but getting to the top by new routes or by new variations (in winter, for example, or with less aids, perhaps), as well as the athleticism and skill required to carry out the task, was increasingly valued above all else.
The older generations rallied against the trend, but it made little difference. The sport democratized in the boom decades of the 1950s and 1960s in ways never before seen. Alternative climbing clubs sprung up in Calgary and Edmonton. New equipment from Europe and California became increasingly available. Climbing skills were honed and quickly applied to some of the most challenging alpine routes in the range. Routes that were seemingly unrepeatable by virtue of their technical challenge were shorn of their mythic status one after another, as the limit of what was possible was rearticulated by a new generation of climbers.
The shift was fundamental to the future of the sport. It allowed mountaineering to branch out, again and again, into various disciplines over the last fifty years: winter mountaineering in the late sixties, waterfall ice climbing in the seventies, sport climbing in the eighties, mixed climbing in the nineties, and so on. Each shift – while usually irksome to the preceding generation – led to progressively harder ascents in the alpine. Each reinvented "the game." Of course, this is not to say that the sport is without rules. Socially sanctioned "ethics" and moral suasion have always tightly governed mountaineering and are circulated, mostly, through the sport's literary products: guidebooks, monographs, journals, and now climbing magazines and blogs.
Thus, mountaineering as sport is quite unique – "an exception to the rule," wrote sport sociologist Peter Donnelly. "Institutionalization has a petrifying effect on sports, freezing them at the moment the rules were written and enforced, and stifling the creativity of subsequent participants. Try to imagine what ice hockey or soccer would look like today if each new generation of player had had the capacity to make changes in the form and meaning of the sports – to reinvent them."
At home and abroad, climbers from the Rockies have been on the leading edge of international mountaineering trends for decades now. Some of those trends – like waterfall ice climbing, for example, or modern mixed climbing – were elaborated and pushed forward right here, which speaks not only to the creativity and tenacity of local climbers, but also to the unique climatic and geographic circumstances of the region.
The following timeline focuses on the sport's major developments in Alberta, its key players, its literature, and its organizations. Significant achievements of Albertan climbers beyond the province are also given attention, as are the significant infrastructure developments at home that have impacted the sport for better or worse.