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Mount Rundle as captured in 1949 by Walter J. Phillips, an artist who came for a visit and stayed 20 years. (Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)
Mount Rundle as captured in 1949 by Walter J. Phillips, an artist who came for a visit and stayed 20 years. (Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

Ian Brown: Why we are so drawn to the magnitude and beauty of mountains Add to ...

At least four geological thrusts come to a head in the area, and one of the seismic consequences is the Banff hot springs. Native tribes considered the springs sacred, given their power to heal the wounded, but also a sign that there was a lot of disruptive mojo in the Bow Valley, both good energy and bad. “They selected Buffalo Mountain as the place where the spirits gather,” a Blackfoot elder named Tom Cranebear told me one afternoon. We were sitting at a table overlooking the peaks to the west of town, Sulphur and Bourgeau and beyond.

“But why do that on a mountain at all?” I asked.

“Well,” Elder Tom said, “you believe in heaven? Everyone believes in some form of heaven. The higher you get, you won’t have a problem getting the rest of the way up.”

“Why don’t natives climb mountains, then, the way other people do?”

He looked at me. He spoke with long pauses, the way native elders sometimes do. “Well, we don’t have the equipment, No. 1. But what’s the use of climbing the mountain? There’s nothing up there. So we don’t climb the mountains.”

Others do. Mountains emit a siren call to challengers: Their steep-ness and remoteness, their disdain for human access, seem to offend our pipsqueak egos. This past ski season, one of the must-do tricks for skilled teenage hot-doggers was to ski an exceptionally steep run at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, just across the B.C. border, while naked – or, failing that, to ski it non-stop while placing a cellphone call to your mom halfway down.

The climber who made the official first ascent of Rundle in 1888, J.J. McArthur, made no fewer than 160 such ascents from 1887 to 1893. The CPR’s Van Horne (who was, among other things, a painter) understood the appeal from the start: To attract paying passengers to his new railway (and later to his luxury chateaus), he touted “the challenge of the mountains” and their “1,100 unclimbed peaks.”

After an American climber fell to his death attempting a first ascent of Mount Lefroy near Lake Louise, Alta., the CPR hired Swiss guides Eduard Feuz Sr. and Christian Häsler to haul wealthy tourists safely upward. From 1899 to 1954, the 25 Swiss guides employed by the CPR never suffered a casualty. Conrad Kain, the famed Austrian guide, made 60 virgin ascents (often falling back at the last moment to let his paying client take the glory), and then wrote a memoir, Where the Clouds Can Go, in which he laid out his essential rules for guides. No. 1 was Never show fear. No. 4 was Lie when necessary.

Feuz and Häsler begat the likes of Norwegian Erling Strom, North America’s first professional ski instructor, who helped to persuade the railway to build Assiniboine Lodge, the backcountry’s first (still operating); Strom begat Bruno Engler, the mountaineering filmmaker, and Hans Gmoser, inventor of heli-skiing. (The two guided Pierre Trudeau into the Bugaboo range in the early 1970s.)

Gmoser’s doctor, Smitty Gardner, asked him to take his son, Don, into the mountains. Don Gardner, in the company of Banff-based writer and explorer Chic Scott and others, made the first Great Divide ski traverse across a mass of icefields from Jasper to Lake Louise, to cite just one of their remarkable exploits. Gardner had a thing for Rundle, too: He hiked up its Banff edge, traversed the long ridge, and descended into Canmore, in winter.

The history of the Rockies is knotted up like this, incestuous but interconnected, local history and local memory made bigger by the mountains that people from around the world cannot help but explore, traverse, climb up, ski down, hike or just adore.

The other day in a house next to the Bow River, I heard Chic Scott conduct a fireside chat with Ralphine Locke, an octogenarian who as a child knew many of the pioneers who settled Banff. She remembered the yellow cars that collected the first tourists from the train station on Victoria Day weekend. (In those days, the Banff Springs Hotel shut down for winter.) “That’s how you knew it was spring.” The house was packed with locals hanging on Ralphine’s every word – their living connection to the early history of their town.

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