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11 The Sharp End: A Wild of One’s Own

Phyllis Munday and Mt. Goodsir, British Columbia. [Photo] North Vancouver Museum & Archives

In 1907, deep in the Canadian Rockies, Mary Schaffer Warren noticed a shimmer of approaching horses. One of the riders proved to be an English butterfly collector dressed in a dark, weather-stained gown, with a mosquito net draped across her shoulders. “Every inch a lady,” Warren noted, “from her storm-swept old Panama hat to her scarred and battered hob-nailed shoes.” With an air of grace, Mary de la Beach-Nichol bowed from her saddle as if the two women were meeting in a “drawing room” and not in the midst of a remote valley, far from any town. Warren considered her own attire–a boy’s navy shirt, a worn beaded coat–and thought of how much she’d shed of her upbringing: “There was little of Philadelphia left clinging to my shoulders.”

Depicted in Warren’s book, Old Indian Trails, the encounter between the two parties seems almost like an allegory of an era when European and North American women’s identities began to diverge from traditional Victorian notions of domesticity and dependence to the concept of the New Woman as someone capable and worthy of autonomy. Accompanied by guides, Warren and her friend Mollie Adams were carrying out a four-month journey, nominally to explore the headwaters of the Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers, but mainly, Warren admitted, to experience the freedom of forests and hills. As she sometimes acknowledged in her writing (and in the title of her book), none of the places she roamed were truly unknown; at most, they were unvisited or unmapped by non-Native explorers, whereas indigenous people had lived there for centuries. But there was another, more uncertain country that stretched before her, a shifting cartography of what the wild might mean to a woman of her society, what adventures she might be capable of there, and what tales of her own she might bring back.

Near the beginning of her narrative, Warren declared in the now-classic paragraphs that read like a manifesto:

There are times when the horizon seems restricted, and we seemed to have reached that horizon, and the limit of all endurance–to sit with folded hands and listen calmly to the stories of the hills we so longed to see, the hills which had lured and beckoned us for years before this long list of men had ever set foot in the country…. Then we looked into each other’s eyes and said: ‘Why not?’ We can starve as well as they; the muskeg will be no softer for us than for them…. There are some secrets you will never learn, there are some joys you will never feel, there are heart thrills you can never experience, till…you leave the world, your recognized world, and plunge into the vast unknown.

Even today, traveling westward along the highway from Calgary toward the Canadian Rockies can feel like the approach to another world. Initially, the mountains are a distant band of blue, rising pale and translucent above the dun-colored plains, a glimmer that seems like a mirage after so many hours on the road. At least, that’s how they appeared to me on my first trip to Banff National Park, in late autumn 2005. A mist descended as I drove past the first foothills. Deepening with dusk, slivers of clouds, the colors of ash and lavender, winded around wild shards of peaks and towers. During all the time I’ve spent there, climbing icefalls or writing in town, I’ve always had the sense–like a low, deep hum at the back of my mind–of a seemingly endless, shadowed forest stretching through valleys west and north, of a spreading light and dark of snow and wood.

In Wilderness and the American Mind (2001), the historian Roderick Nash describes the origins of the English term wilderness in early Teutonic and Norse languages from a root word for “will” that suggested “self-willed, willful or uncontrollable.” It’s also possible, he adds, “that wild is in part related to ‘weald’ or ‘woeld,’ the Old English terms for forest.” Long after the original wildwood vanished from Europe, images of deep forests lingered in fairy tales, places where heroes were lost, “bewildered,” and forced to find their way through landscapes of magic figures, beasts and trials (Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built, 2003). During the nineteenth century, the growth of cities had made the idea of the wild and the mythic more alluring. Mountains also began to seem like natural landscapes for storytelling: climbers in the Alps had traced the forms of sweeping narrative arcs, ascending natural ridgelines from valleys to summits and back again.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a few adventurous early twentieth-century women would be drawn to these dim woods and dark silver peaks–and to other ranges across the North American West that lent themselves to metaphors of quests and transformation. Many of their experiences, however, have remained in the margins of climbing history, confined to old alpine journals, specialized books and articles. For a long time, as the Canadian anthropologist Susan Frohlick notes, some historians have tended to describe mountaineering as an expression of “hypermasculine” values, an assumption that ignores the creative differences in individual men’s experiences and motivations, as well as the significance of women’s participation. Looked at more closely, the stories of early female explorers reflect a rich variety of imaginations, an intricacy of response and expression, at times seemingly interconnected and other times wholly singular, like the branches of innumerable trees. Recalling these tales, more often, might help us gain a vaster, more unfettered sense of what the pursuit of alpinism might be.

In the 1909 Canadian Alpine Journal, Mary Crawford declared, “If for the sake of argument the question, ‘Should women climb mountains?’ were brought up it would be found exactly one hundred years behind the times.” A century prior, Marie Paradis had become the first woman to stand atop Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. In 1876 another woman, Mary Isabella Straton, participated in the mountain’s first winter ascent. As the nineteenth century drew to an end, women mountaineers became increasingly common in the Alps. Their status, however, was still uncertain. When Elizabeth Le Blond and Evelyn McDonnell completed an unguided winter traverse of the Piz Palu in 1900, their early all-female climb, Dorothy Pilley recalled, was “hushed up and regarded as somewhat improper” (Rebecca Brown, Women on High, 2002).

In 1904 another Englishwoman, Gertrude Benham, accompanied by the Swiss guide Christian Kaufmann, made several first ascents of peaks and routes in the Canadian Rockies. Yet although they reached the summit of “Hiji” ahead of anyone else, the glaciated mountain was later renamed “Mt. Fay” after a more famous male climber who took part in its second ascent. Benham herself described her first female ascent of the sharply pointed Mt. Assiniboine in such modest, understated terms that the Canadian Alpine Journal staff felt compelled to add a footnote about her “wonderful record of mountains.”

“It was a time of confusion and contradiction,” Mary Schaffer Warren’s biographer, Janice Sandford Beck, explains, “Certain doors were swinging open to women, but others remained solidly locked and barred” (No Ordinary Woman, 2001). The rise of female mountaineers and explorers coincided with the long struggles of the women’s suffrage movement. In some ways, the mountaineering world may have appeared more welcoming to upper- and middle-class women than other realms of public life did. Several early North American climbing organizations, including the Alpine Club of Canada, had large percentages of female members. But as the Canadian historian Zac Robinson points out, “There existed a clear distinction between what was considered an appropriate climb for a ‘lady’ and for a ‘gentleman.’…The writing produced by club members, with few exceptions, goes far to erase women from the ‘wild’ landscape in linking modernization with effeminacy.”

Gradually, more North American female climbers began to seek their own voices in mountain writing. Some wrote in stereotypically “masculine” terms of conquering and claiming peaks. Some, like Annie Smith Peck, insisted on the right to be simply a “climber” without any reference to gender at all. Other writers, the environmental historian Susan R. Schrepfer suggests, seemed to reflect a more traditionally “feminine” version of the sublime, concentrating less on images of desolation and terror, and more on “living” qualities of peaks, envisioning nature as an elaborate garden, evoking a sense of union and of “intimacy with place” (Nature’s Altars, 2005).

In 1929 Miriam Underhill and the French alpinist Alice Damesme made their famous “manless” traverse of the Aiguille du Grepon’s spiny crest, then one of the most difficult rock climbs in the Alps. Afterward, Etienne Bruhl declared, “The Grepon has disappeared.” In one sense, his metaphor was apt: climb by climb, many of the old alpine landscapes–as places only seen and described by men–were indeed fading, replaced by more diverse visions that were still evolving, unpredictable and new.

In 1926, after struggling through miles of dense woods, fording wild rivers and relaying seventy-pound loads, Phyllis Munday and her husband, Don, looked out beyond the granite fortress walls of Mts. Combatant, Tiedemann and Asperity. No climbers had been to this remote part of British Columbia’s Coast Range before. Flowing south, “Mystery Glacier” descended until it vanished into the darkness of distant trees. Its main source, still unknown to the climbers, lay concealed somewhere behind the crests surrounding “Mystery Mountain,” a black, cornice-crowned spire. Farther west, the flat light blurred the outlines of an immense, pale land of summits and snows. “We had outrun the mapmakers,” Don later wrote in The Unknown Mountain. “They knew where all the rivers went to, not always where they came from.”

By then, Phyllis Munday’s own life had traced an epic course that took her farther and farther beyond the borders of what was once imaginable for women. After her family moved to British Columbia during the early 1900s, she’d spent part of her childhood wandering the hillsides above Kootenay Lake, balancing along the wind-felled trees that lay across deep ravines, riding bareback and hunting grouse for family meals with a .22 rifle. When she began climbing in the mountains outside Vancouver, women still couldn’t wear pants in town. After leaving their houses in skirts, she and her female friends changed into bloomers and hid their other clothes in the forest (Kathryn Bridge, A Passion for Mountains, 2006). For women climbers of her era, dress itself became a symbol of metamorphosis, of crossing a distinct geographic line between the restrictions of urban society and the freedoms of peaks and woods.

Throughout her climbs, Phyllis always insisted on carrying the same weight as her male partners did. In the 1924 Canadian Alpine Journal, she wrote of the first female ascent of icy Mt. Robson, during an ACC trip: “Having seen my lady companion’s pack lightened, unbeknown to her, of the supplies she was going to carry, led me to guard mine closely.” Because Don’s left arm remained weakened from a wound sustained in World War I, he often relied on Phyllis to lead technical rock. She was always protective of her climbing partners: on one expedition, she brandished an ice axe to chase a grizzly bear from her husband; during another, she injured her arm by knocking a falling rock away from her sister.

Despite their many attempts, the Mundays never reached the top of Mystery Mountain (later called Mt. Waddington), but Phyllis declared that she wasn’t disappointed. In a biography of the couple, Kathryn Bridge estimates that the Mundays made more than thirty first ascents of other peaks, most of them together. Rather than fixating on summits, Phyllis’s love for the entire alpine landscape encompassed everything from the glow of light on glaciers to the songs of birds and the tiny veins on petals and leaves. According to another biographer, Cyndi Smith, Phyllis never thought of herself as a “role model for other women” (Off the Beaten Track, 1989). Perhaps, instead, amid the adventures of her life, we might glimpse a flickering vision of how a climber could be: fully human, courageous, reverent and wild.

Much has changed since the first decades of the twentieth century. More and more women around the world have proven they can climb as equals to (and with) men: Lynn Hill’s 1993 first free ascent of the Nose went unrepeated by anyone for years; Ines Papert won both the men’s and women’s categories of the 2005 Ouray Ice Festival; Pat Deavoll has carried out bold, exploratory expeditions to unclimbed peaks in the Greater Ranges; Silvia Vidal has soloed hard aid routes on isolated alpine big walls; Hafiza Bano and other Pakistani women have made winter ascents in the Karakoram. The amount of great climbing literature by women has also continued to grow, from groundbreaking histories such as Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom Climbers to lyrical novels such as Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things.

It might be in the realm of the unquantifiable–of aesthetic, literary and human experience–that the old stories offer the most relevance today. To become a writer, Virginia Woolf famously declared in 1929, a woman needed, among other things, a “room of her own,” a space away from the expectations of her society. In many ways, early female climbers fashioned temporary dwellings for themselves in the ranges of North America, woven together from shining icefalls, dark storms, craggy peaks and alpine flowers. The remnants of these written and unwritten lives have passed into our own, like the patterns of light and shadow drifting through a dense canopy of leaves. For the modern Canadian ice climber and IFMGA mountain guide Jen Olson, they helped inspire “a leap of faith to go against the cultural norm.”

There’s a wilderness of symbols we all cross before we reach real mountains. Growing up, so many of us have searched for imagined pathways in classic tales, for characters we think might offer some message or some half-sketched map, faint guidebooks for our future selves. The “frontier” in mountain writing, as the Canadian alpinist Sharon Wood suggests, may now lie in finding a voice that is “one of neither a man nor a woman, but of a person…a voice that is authentic to their being.”

Climbing is so often referred to as a form of self-discovery, and yet over the years, I’ve found I’ve understood little about myself on cliffs or peaks–at least not in any conventional sense. Instead, I’ve learned far more about the patterns and colors of ice, the changing textures of snow, the shifting hues of sun and moon. Along the golden spine of a mountain, I’ve felt that the closest I might get to some pure existence could be those instants when I might say, I am wind, light, rock, awe, and nothing more. For many climbers, both male and female, it’s an escape from the confinements of separate, outwardly imposed identities that we seek–the ability, the American climber Steph Davis explains, “to send off shoots in every direction and grow freely without restriction” (Chris Noble, Women Who Dare, 2013).

We can still outrun the mapmakers in our lives, even after so many corners of the world have been charted and documented. Those of us who have forgotten might relearn, as the environmental writer Rebecca Solnit suggests, to be at home in the wild and “at home in the unknown,” to recall the values of the mysterious, the uncertain and the unbounded. To leave room for undetermined spaces and infinite possibilities (A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2006). “Climbing command[s] a blissfully singular and laser focus that eclipse[s] any self-consciousness or smaller thoughts,” Wood recalls. “I feel an abiding sense of comfort when I rise above the trees–as if a profoundly powerful essence takes my hand. The desolate austerity punctuates my own sense of existence and self.” In such brief and wholly focused moments, when all layers of assumptions fall away, we might begin to glimpse an inmost and transcendent wild that is of–and infinitely beyond–all our own.

[Zac Robinson, Maurice Isserman, Tami Knight, Sharon Wood, Jen Olson, Sarah Ives and Carla Firey all provided advice for The Sharp End. With thanks also to Jon Popowich, who first introduced our editor to the work of Mary Schaeffer Warren.–Ed.]