“There’s something in a mountain, in particular a big, steep, difficult mountain, that cries out to be climbed,” says Chic Scott, one of Canada’s all-time mountaineering greats. “Many people don’t feel it, but if you do, it’s almost biological.”
In Scott’s living room in Banff, well-worn climbing axes and cross-country skis lean in the corners, and he’s surrounded by orderly stacks of range maps, historical articles and family trees, some of it source material for his most recent chronicle. These days he’s the authority on Canadian mountaineering history, but it’s still easy to look past the sweater and collar and parted hair and imagine him clinging to a windswept cliff, beaming. “But now the mountains don’t call for me to climb them,” he says. “I must not be producing the climbing hormone anymore!”
Nature or nurture, some strong force started pulling Calgary-born Scott up rock faces and onto peaks when he was in his teens. By the 1960s, he was part of the first wave of Canadian climbers who could rival the Brits, Americans, Austrians, French and Swiss who had long dominated the sport in Canada. He and fellow mountaineers Don Gardner, Charlie Locke and Neil Liske made history in the spring of ’67 by completing the first Jasper-to-Lake Louise high-level ski traverse, a 21-day expedition over — not below and between — a 300-kilometre chain of Rocky Mountains. A few days before Christmas that same year, Scott, Gardner and Eckhard Grassman made the first winter ascent of Mount Assiniboine, the Alberta-B.C.-border-splitting, 3,618-metre giant, which they approached from the Alberta side and summited in wild chinook winds and pelting snow.
Few dream of reaching those heights, and fewer still achieve them, especially in such abysmal conditions. Scott would eventually go much higher, including his 1973 feat of becoming the first Canadian to reach a Himalayan summit (Nepal’s 6,275- metre Myagdi Matha). For decades, when he looked at a mountainside, he saw the unclimbed routes and unspoiled powder lines for his skis.
The Rockies beckon everyone differently. And whether conquering and christening gruelling new routes or negotiating a well-marked trail on the way to the cosy security of Skoki Lodge, says Scott, we all go for the same few reasons, each with our own mix. “Maybe it’s for the physical challenge or overcoming weaknesses, the thrill of the climb and adventure, fellowship or even ego. For others it’s the spiritual aspect,” he says. “What moves us all, though, is the beauty of nature. And to some it is everything.”