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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 ...

One morning, the mountains that surround Banff disappeared. A bank of cloud had invaded and obscured them. Suddenly, the town was a floating island, a nowhere. It lasted a few days, on and off, and was more unsettling than you’d think.I like having mountains in the backyard. I’ve come to rely on their strict edges, their implacable, hard-to-impress presence around the human circle of the town. They remind me of a snooty condo board in an exclusive building that will never truly approve of anyone.

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Then the bombs went off in Boston, and terrorists were thwarted from derailing a Via Rail train. The Tsarnaev brothers’ next stop, we are told, was Manhattan – no less than Times Square. Mountainous events that captured the obsessive attention of the world.

Details are everything. But then the news eats us alive – instead of controlling the furious pace of the present with our screens and our tweets and our multiple technologies, it controls us. We wolf down all the information we can see, and end up stuffed with exhausted despair.

As the news flooded in, I kept stepping outside and looking up at the peaks. Every time I did, I felt better.

Human beings have always been drawn to mountains – to climb them, name them, frame them, mine them, “conquer” them. And I’m not the only one who spends a lot of time looking up at them: Five million tourists come to Banff every year, and they all take the same pictures.

I’ve been trying to figure out why.

From the balcony of my northeast-facing room at the Banff Centre, I can see four mountains: Norquay (home to the first rope ski tow in the Rockies, in 1938), Brewster, Cascade and Rundle.

Cascade is the queen, named for the skinny waterfall that hypnotizes drivers as they flow into Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway from the east. Cascade is the blowsy turret that anchors the end of Banff Avenue, the town’s main street.

A wide band of snow around its midsection funnels down into four gullies, and looks very much like a garter belt. At 2,998 metres, she’s a big girl, Cascade, and sexy.

I prefer Rundle, 50 metres lower but more brooding and dramatic, more like a teenager. The southern face of Rundle is a continuous plate that tilts up out of the earth, then drops away on the other side – a 12.5-kilometre wedge between Banff and the town of Canmore, a thrust smeared across the sky. It embodies the contradiction of the mountains: their welcoming intimacy (the gradual slope you can walk up) versus their danger (aiieeeeeeeee!).

Over all, Rundle looks like a massive shoulder leaning into whatever’s coming. The cliffs of its peak, however, appear so private and intimate that they can take your breath away. It seems impossible something so close is nine hours distant on foot.

You’ve probably seen it. Rundle is the most photographed and painted peak in the Rockies. “Mount Rundle is my bread-and-butter mountain,” artist Walter Phillips once acknowledged. He was an Englishman who came to teach at the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1940 and stayed for 20 years before he went blind and died three years later. “I never tire of painting it, for it is never the same.”

There are entire subgenres of writing and painting dedicated to describing the permanent changeability of mountains, and why we long to look at them. But no one has ever nailed the experience once and for all.

Some writers don’t even try. Farley Mowat grew up on the Prairies and hated the shadowy, enclosing Rockies from the moment he first saw them as a teenager. He preferred an open landscape, the way others seek the ocean or a beach. A.Y. Jackson never got the hang of painting mountains, and admitted as much (he blamed the mountains). Writer Marni Jackson, on the other hand, once described the sight of the Rockies as “a strong signature across the bottom of the sky,” and has been using the mountains for inspiration, on and off, for 40 years. Onlookers project on to the Rockies what they need to see.

Not long ago at breakfast, I ran into Kevin Drew, co-founder of the band Broken Social Scene. He had been at the Banff Centre from Toronto for 10 days, and had written and recorded 14 songs, which seemed like a lot. He was wearing glasses, a blue tuque, his usual beard and a large parka that was itself of mountainous loft.

“Do you like the mountains?” I asked.

He said he loved them. “I like being surrounded by the size of them. And I like that you have to be who you are and where you are around the mountains. You can’t be anything else. They’re demanding.”

“Demanding?”

“Because they can be like your elders. They can say, like, ‘What were you thinking those last few months? We gave you everything and you come back like this? Get your shit together.’ You know?”

Mount Rundle was named for Rev. Robert Rundle, a romantic Wesleyan Methodist missionary from Cornwall, England. In 1840, at the age of 29, he took up an open offer from Hudson’s Bay Company governor George Simpson of transportation, room, board, an interpreter and £50 a year to any clergyman willing to tend the souls of natives in western North America.

After a 26-day boat journey from Liverpool to New York, and a further three-day trip to Montreal, Rundle set out on April 29, 1840, in a Hudson’s Bay canoe – for Edmonton. He arrived in October, eager to make his way to the Rocky Mountains, which seemed to hold a supernatural allure for him. Some historians claim that he was the first Protestant minister to make it west of Winnipeg.

Judging from sketches, he looked exactly like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments after Moses receives the tablets from Jehovah – slightly mad, but keen. Finally, in February of the following year, Rundle left Edmonton on the seven-day journey (his first) to Rocky Mountain House and the foothills. He was wearing lamb’s wool hose, woollen drawers, lined trousers, leggings, gaiters, a flannel shirt, a waistcoat, a coat, a pilot coat, a shawl, moccasins and a sealskin cap, and was further wrapped in a buffalo robe in his dogsled. Layering, it turns out, has been around a long time.

Rundle’s moods swung wildly. He missed England. He suffered from migraines and nosebleeds, and thought that the sled driver mistreated the dogs. He also found that roasted beaver tasted like pork (delicious) and that travelling at night prevented snow blindness. By the end of the month, his longed-for mountains were still disappointingly obscure. “How uncertain is everything here below,” he wrote in his journal, adding that “much depends on the state of the atmosphere.”

In the meantime, he encountered a party of much-feared Blackfoot Indians. “I felt the insignificance of my stature in comparison to these tall sons of the plain,” he wrote. But Rundle had a way with natives: The Blackfoot invited him to their camp. He spent more time with the friendlier Stoney Indians, who believed that he had descended to earth from heaven, folded up in a piece of paper.

April had come around before Rundle recorded having a good look at the mountain peaks, albeit from a distance. “The sight seemed too grand and too glorious for reality,” he noted. He thought the view was what he see in heaven. He finally breached the front ranges and reached what is now Banff, “quite amongst the mountains,” in 1847 – “a time never to be forgotten.” To honour the occasion, he conducted services by moonlight in Cree. I wish I’d seen that.

On his way back to Edmonton, he fell off his horse (something he did with regularity) and broke a wrist so badly that the arm was nearly useless, forcing a trip back to England at the age of 39.

He never returned. But Rundle’s good reputation with local tribes persisted, so much so that, when James Hector, the lead geologist (and surgeon) of the Palliser Expedition, which was surveying routes for the Canadian Pacific Railway, passed through the area in 1858, the Stoneys were still singing hymns and praying. Hector named Mount Rundle for the earnest reverend. The mountain proceeded to make its next mark in Canadian history by blocking the way of the oncoming railway.

The CPR had hired Major A.B. Rogers, an American, to find a route through the Rockies. (Rogers Pass, the site of some of the best skiing and worst avalanches in Canada, is named for him.) He was an impatient, irascible ass – his mustache was so long and white and thick that it looked as though two streams of smoke were billowing from his infuriated nostrils – who proposed getting around Rundle by running the railway through its much smaller neighbour, Sleeping Buffalo Mountain, via a 275-metre tunnel. CPR president William Cornelius Van Horne was outraged at the projected delay and cost, so the idea was dropped. But the mountain is still called Tunnel, except by the Blackfoot and other tribes, who stick with Sleeping Buffalo – what it looks like if approached from the west.

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.

Mountains have this macro-scoping effect. The weather can shift and turn circumstances deadly on 10 minutes’ notice, even on a mountain highway: You have to pay attention and plan for a range of eventualities. The reward for such deliberateness is both a sense of being able to handle yourself and resignation in the face of inevitable change and random chance. When Eduard Feuz was helped up to the high country for a last visit before he died in 1944, he stood and called out goodbye to each of the surrounding peaks. I can only imagine how devastated he must have been, knowing that he would never return to that clean, pure, practical place.

The outside world breaks through the protective ring of the mountains regardless. From Banff, via Twitter and cable and website, last week’s bombings in Boston were clearly horrific but somehow seemed to lack the conviction of international terrorism. (Deaths notwithstanding, the maiming they caused may be the most persistent legacy of the Tsarnaev brothers, their most potent symbol.) Everyone in Banff seemed to have watched the footage, but – as was not the case in cities in the East – no one mentioned it unless I brought up the subject. Maybe it was because Boston is a long way from Banff. Or maybe the mountains make you private.

One evening while I was asking people why mountains mattered, I had dinner with Charles Noble, a well-known western poet, and Dave Eso, an emerging one. Mr. Eso is in his 30s and was taking part in a workshop for experimental spoken-word poets at the Banff Centre. He admired the work of Mr. Noble, who is in his 60s and is a part-time Banff resident, and had invited him to dinner at the centre. The poets in the seminar were lively types, working on monologues and performance pieces and songs about such subjects as fear and drunken dates and what it means to say “I love you,” especially prematurely.

Charles and Dave are intimidating conversationalists. They talked about Marx and Heidegger. They talked about forms of rhetoric, about how sometimes experimental poets want to avoid “intentionality” or any appearance that they are doing anything so dorky as actually “writing” a “poem,” because that way they might attain a less artificial authorial stance and hence deeper feeling. Poetry is a brainy pastime, especially these days.

Suddenly, I realized that experimental poets and people who like to look up at mountains are doing the same thing, just in opposite directions: The poets try to take something abstract, like an idea, and make it concrete, whereas admirers of mountains try to take something huge made of rock and ice and snow and turn it into an abstraction they can carry around in their minds, a mental key chain from a place that is hard to get to but gorgeous to think about.

I suppose what the mountains seduce us with, in the end, is the promise of solitude – the chance to get where hardly anyone gets to go, up high, to the top, alone. Among the high peaks, the promise whispers, you will finally have a chance to think for yourself, to be an individual, beholden to no one, and nothing, and no event – a ridiculous fantasy that has been criticized by Freudians and philosophers as the irresponsible selfishness of thrill-seekers and introverts and narcissists.

In 1972, in a paper entitled Psychopathology in Alpinism in the Canadian Alpine Journal, a group of researchers concluded that the “mean personality type” of alpinists displayed “schizothymic features and a tendency to avoid contact with other persons.” As if that were a bad thing.

But mountains also make you humble. They remind us how much we need to experience beauty, and how rarely we do; of how crushing it can be not to get where you always longed to go, and how that disappointment can make you deeper. They remind us how carelessly we surrender our privacy and our solitude to the phone, the screen and the keyboard, and to others.

I know Elder Tom and the Blackfoot say there is nothing at the top of the mountain, but that presumes nothing has no value. Because this is the other thing: When I step out on my tiny balcony to see those peaks, I often remember poet Mary Oliver’s questioning of “the empty spaces of the wilderness:” For something is there,/ Something is there when nothing is there but itself,/ that is not there when anything else is.

“Formless yet palpable,” as she put it, “Very shining, very delicate. Very rare.” Something you need to believe still exists when you return to the flat, hot, terrified city.

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