Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review: Summit Tales - Early Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

I haven't really mentioned many hiking books here, but I've been reading so much outdoors material lately it seems like a crime not to. I alternate between regional, worldwide, current and historical in my reading, so I'm somewhat all over the map... literally and figuratively.

While mountain climbing is not something I've done, early exploration of the Canadian Rockies is a big favorite topic for me. How did people manage to climb such rocky peaks in the early 1900s without the benefit of the equipment we have today?How were maps drawn, weather monitored? How did it feel to discover unknown (to the white man anyway) peaks and passes? Did women climb?

Summit Tales - Early Adventures in the Canadian Rockies shines a light on this topic and tells of the amazing people who set out to chart and photograph the Canadian Rockies, and became some of North America's first mountaineers along the way.

Mountains were not originally climbed for pleasure, but for science. They were scaled for sample gathering, early photography, glacier research or for creating maps. The hardy men (and women) who climbed these peaks did so with nothing more than ropes and ice axes for equipment, and boots with nails driven into the soles for hiking boots, often lugging pounds of 1900-era surveying equipment.

Many photos even show the men happily walking along a treacherous ridge while calming smoking a pipe!

In fact when mountaineering began to get "sporty" and there was the inevitable fatality, there was a country-wide outcry to ban mountain climbing outright. There were only 2 deaths attributed to falls in the first 30 years of climbing in the Canadian Rockies, due in large part to the Swiss guides brought in to ensure safe climbing.

Summit Tales introduces us to the people who helped shape the Rockies by discovering and naming the peaks and passes we all love today. There were definitely some characters and personality from all walks of life (largely European, but the Americans made their mark as well), and while not all are models of good behavior -- or even all that likable -- their tales and politics are fascinating to read.

Only a precious few women make the cut, but they are there. As astounding as it is to see photos of men on a peak, perfectly dressed in hats and suits for the camera, it's even more astounding to see the women dressed to the nines as well, wearing boots that I'm sure were intended for anything but hiking.

Most of the history covered here is from about 1890 to 1925, and if there's one complaint about the book is that with each notable climber separated into his own story, it's tough to gauge which climber's story is intertwined with another's. Some climber's groups seemed almost dependent on each other, while others' seemed to exist in their own bubble.

Fans of the backcountry around Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway will enjoy this for the history of this magnficent area. I liked it purely as a outdoors fan and local history buff, while climber will probably be interested in the roots of the area and the politics and exploits surrounding the the first ascents of many peaks. There's even a little for photographers as there is plenty of description of climbers lugging heavy load of surveying and photography equipment to the top.

Photos of the area over a hundred years ago are alone worth picking up the book.

I believe it's out of print now, but the local library has quite a few copies, and Amazon has used copies for sale.