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Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies. Sean Dougherty. Rocky Mountain Books, Calgary, Alberta. 1991. 320 pages. 129 marked photos. Several sketch maps. Soft cover. $19.95.

It is a truism that the younger crowd always believes that its predecessors didn’t know much of anything and didn’t do anything really of note. Thus the condescending tone of this book. In evaluating it, it is difficult to be impartial and objective when one reads in the foreword that previous works of this sort were done “primarily by poorly-informed nonresidents.” Thus are gratuitously dismissed 70 years of efforts by Howard Palmer, J.M. Thorington, Bill Putnam, Chris Jones and the present reviewer. Nonresidents all, who participated in exploration and first ascents in the Canadian mountains, and the chronicling thereof, before very many Canadian climbers had emerged from the primeval slime. (Is “nonresident” used because many of the people associated with this book are themselves not native-born Canadians?) Certainly Schliemann knew a lot more about Troy than the Turks who farmed amongst its stones. Why is it necessary to put others down in order to elevate oneself?

To be fair, I am poorly-informed about many of the recent, highly-technical routes put up in the past 10 or 20 years by climbers several generations younger than myself. And it is on these routes that the author has done a useful piece of work, judging from those with which I am familiar. Indeed, he would have been well-advised to concentrate solely on these modern routes, relegating the normal routes to the descent. He is not sufficiently selective. 200 routes is too many, but of course he and his publisher are seeking as large a market as possible. Even Rébuffat in his classic selection of routes in the Mont Blanc massif—an infinitely richer venue—keeps it to 100.

Speaking of selection, except for the remote “musts” like Assiniboine or Clemenceau, the orientation is toward climbs easily accessible from the road, especially rock routes in the Kananaskis or in the vicinity of Banff. Why no mention of routes in the Royal or Mummery or Freshfield or Alexandra or Chess or Sir Alexander Groups? Ah, because they require a long bash or they are in British Columbia, or both—and this book was subsidized by an agency of the Alberta government. There are a number of routes that I would inject in preference to some that are included: Mount King George by the east face of Val Fynn (he wasn’t a Canadian either, simply the best climber of his time in Canada!); the traverse of Mount Balfour; Mount Mummery; the traverse of the three central peaks of the Lyells (if not all five); the north face of Mount Brazeau (oh, so many days from the road); Mount Hooker (again many days from the road); the traverse of Mounts Shipton, Chettan, and Irvine; and little old Mount Parnassus in the Fryatt.

The author is inconsistent too. He talks about avoiding shit piles and then selects Pinnacle and Mitre, both of which I remember as classic examples of the genre. Nor do I remember any 5.5 pitch on the latter; had there been any such difficulty on that loose crap, I would have not dared to try it. And except for Mount Fay and Deltaform, why mention the rest of the ten peaks except as part of the complete traverse? In fact, the route on Mount Fay to which my name is attached fits the crappy description as well. The author is altogether too casual about the generally dreadful rock in the Lake Louise district, which can provide a frightening experience for the climber who comes from afar.

As part of his castigation of the pre-existing AAC guidebooks, which his book presumes to replace, the author writes “often the information about the way up is incorrect!” Mr. Dougherty will find that errors are an occupational hazard in guidebook writing. To wit: after climbing the north face of Mount Belanger, any reasonable person will descend on the south side rather than go back down his up route. (2) After surviving the east face of Mount Babel (IV, 5.10, A1 ), the climber is advised to descend by the north ridge (III, 5.5) when it is a walk-off via the south ridge and an hour or so to the Colgan hut. (3) Mount Bryce is big, remote, and difficult by any route, yet no mention is made of the easiest route off, which goes down the south glacier and traverses easy ledges in the direction of Thompson Pass. It’s all in the old book. (4) No rappels are necessary to descend the west face of Mount Columbia, nor are there any descent anchors in any case. (5) For those intrepid souls who complete the grand central couloir on Mount Kitchener’s north face, it is suggested that they descend by the east ridge (a route I recommend in the upward direction), rather than walk off the back on the normal route. Maybe these heroes never loose their composure and never get tired? And it would be nice if my name were spelled correctly, but doubtless that’s part of the put-down.

The most positive feature of this book is the profusion of well-marked photographs, which will be helpful to even those who are not hard men. Some other good things: the somewhat complicated and worthwhile, descent of Mount Victoria to Lake O’Hara via the Huber Glacier is well described. Mount Hector, a real “dog” in summer, is described, and suggested, as a ski ascent, as are several of the Columbia Icefields summits. The author has done a service in ferreting out information, which doesn’t appear in the journals, about recent difficult climbs from those who have done them. For those modem climbers who like to drive from place to place, bagging those climbs which build a reputation, this is probably a useful book. But for the traditional recreational mountaineer, who simply enjoys the outdoors rather than being an athlete, it is not a substitute for the comprehensive old guidebooks.

Robert Kruszyna