American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

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  • Publication Year: 1951

Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, by Frank S. Smythe. ix+260 pages, with three maps and 39 illustrations, two in color. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950. Price, 20/-.

There are three kinds of books about mountains. One kind makes scientific specimens of them; another makes glamour girls of them; a third makes friends of them. It is very sad that this is Frank Smythe’s last book, because his have all been of the friend kind. No one else has written of mountain adventures with such a harmony of love, excitement, poetic insight, humour and disapproval. In this vivid account of failures and ascents from Mt. Alberta to Mt. Lloyd George, plus chapters on The Beaver and the wartime training of the Lovat Scouts, you will find the most libellous remarks on record about the Canadian Underbrush, Canadian Screes, and People Who Won’t Drink Water While Climbing:

I have climbed with men who carefully sucked stones on their waterless way, while they mumblingly reproved me in the intolerable manner of the abstainer when I drank out of every stream I came to. Yet it appeared to me that I was going better…during the latter half of the day. I might also point out the danger of a stone in the mouth, as cases have occurred where men have swallowed their stones in the excitement of a sudden emergency.

You will find alarming descriptions of escapes from crevasses and of close calls from lightning (“My feet felt as though they were being driven into the ground and impaled on innumerable upright needles”), from rock falls, from avalanches, and from solo climbing. You will find pride (in coming safely back from what he almost admits was a naughty solo excursion on Mt. Assiniboine: “The situation had changed from light-hearted fun to something dour and grim”), and you will find prejudice. Smythe sinks his first piton in 30 years of mountaineering into a Canadian Rocky, and the chagrin brought on by this compromise echoes through the next chapters. Shortly afterwards, however, he cheerfully boards a plane and flies over hundreds of miles of what would have been backpacking into the Lloyd George Range. It is hard to see how one compromise differs in essence from the other. But, as he says, “it is knowing where to draw the line which counts in life.”

You will find in profusion the wry humour which is such a trademark with him:

To reach this ledge it was necessary to execute a manoeuvre on to what is known in climbing circles as a mantelshelf … In order to understand the problem the reader should cease from reading this account and climb on to his own mantelshelf… Where the ledge commenced it was blocked by a large slab of rock. It was not possible to pass above or below… (so) I made my way over it, embracing it with the same cold and calculating care with which as a small boy I embraced my aunts.

You will find many passages of the poetic description with which he is equally at home:

The valley we entered was perfect in its beauty. Mist was lying ih is meadows and twining amongst the conifers, exploring the lacery of branches with white and slender fingers. It lay in silvery pools caressing the tall plants… I talked with David, but my own voice sounded strange and unnatural in my ears and I did not hear very much of what was said. I was listening and listening for what— the pipes of Pan? I do not know. I only know I was under the spell of some subtle enchantment.

And, as always in Smythe, there are the graceful, agile transitions from handholds, in the sublime to footholds in the comic. This book is filled with hair-raising adventures with “dark brown objects” which turn out to be bears, are invariably ferocious, charge directly at him, and are only deflected at the last moment by bear- curdling shrieks at the volume and pitch of which Smythe indicates satisfaction. There should, perhaps, be a study some time of the unique relationship between Frank Smythe and the bear. Clearly there was communication. The bears unfailingly concluded that here was Something which did not love a bear. Topping all else, this book relates the bear story with which Frank Smythe has regaled various mountaineering gatherings. It concerned a large grizzly which had been foraging around Jasper Lodge where Smythe was stationed with the Lovat Scouts:

One night I arose from bed and proceeded to descend the steps. I was half-way down when I perceived at the base of them a dark shape which moved slightly. I was descending on top of the bear.

There was only one thing to be done, and I exercised the only persuasion I could think of. He gave one bound and rushed away as hard as he could go, exactly like a cat when from a window you hurl a basin of water upon it …

R. P. Brundage

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