Three missives from the peaks

Three missives from the peaks
by Ron Dart


Mt. Garibaldi Park: Vancouver’s Alpine Playground
by Don Munday (1922)

In The Western Mountains: Early Mountaineering in British Columbia
by Susan Leslie (1980)     

[Editor’s Note: The following two book retrospectives were originally published in Cloudburst]

I was going through my library of mountaineering literature the other day and two books stepped out to greet me from a dustier part of the book shelves. I had forgotten I still had such beauties in my collection.

Don Munday and his wife Phyllis Munday are best known as first generation west coast pioneers in mountaineering, but Don was also a fine writer. Many were the more popular and scholarly articles he had published on the history and geography of mountains. But, Don’s missive, published in 1922, Mt. Garibaldi Park: Vancouver’s Alpine Playground, is a literary and visual bounty not to be missed; a collector’s item I would think. Don dedicated the booklet “to the truest lover of the mountains I know—My Wife”. The pamphlet (and the many black and white photos included in the booklet) was published shortly after Garibaldi became a park, and, in many ways, it was one of the first trail maps in BC for exploring and enjoying it. The multiple photos and potential destinations (many a good glacier trip worth the making) are described in intricate depth and detail.  There is a breadth in this 50-page overview from which many can still learn. The larger fold out map of Garibaldi Lake and environs is a delight to sit and ponder.  There is a grateful nod, by way of conclusion, to both The British Columbia Mountaineering Club and The Alpine Club of Canada, Vancouver section (Don and Phyllis were active at different times with both groups.).

I was fortunate for a few years to work with Susan Leslie at University of the Fraser Valley (she taught in the English department). In The Western Mountains, by Susan, is a hasty but insightful overview of mountaineering in Canada and the western mountains. The short eight sections in 75 pages cover much terrain. “The Alps of North America,” “A Field for an Alpine Club,” “Mountaineering at the Coast,” and “Mystery Mountain” are tasty morsels of chapters that whet the appetite for more. Many women are brought to the fore as innovative climbing partners with men and Susan covers, in a finely textured manner, some of the trips taken by groups in the Coast Mountains (and the legends and leaders of such challenging trips for those times). Needless to say, Don and Phyllis Munday are significant actors on such an expansive stage. Susan, like Don before her, has many a dramatic black and white photo not to miss, each picture a journey into the origins of mountaineering in the western mountains, the dramatic photo on the front cover and varied maps illuminating treks taken. The interviews done by Susan (included in this Heritage Series book) bring to light many of the women and men (and their memories) that are now mostly forgotten—kudos to Susan for her sleuth work in the 1970s to bring into being such a well-wrought and historically-pictured missive, text a beauty worth the heeding.       

The sweeping (but retreating) Athabasca Glacier. Photo Our Vanishing Glaciers, published by RMB


David and other Poems (1942)
by Earle Birney

David (1941) is, probably, the defining poem of Canadian mountaineering. There is no poem in Canadian mountaineering literature that reaches such Waddington-like heights. David, in many ways, launched Birney on a significant literary career. The poem was published in 1941, and in the Spring/Summer 2011 edition of Cloudburst, I summarized the evocative drama of the epic poem. David and other Poems was published in 1942, and this collection of poems won the much-coveted Governor General’s Award for Canadian poetry in 1942.

David and other Poems left the publishing tarmac in the midst of the Second World War.  Some of the poems, rightly so, reflect the wartime reality and ethos and others turn to the mountains for solace at a painful time. “Waterton Holiday” touches on the alpine beauty of the array of flowers by the lake as “Haphazardly, quietly, the mountains are weathering in the sun.” The poet is more than thrilled to escape from the “straight shrieking roads, the square fields, the cubes implacable factory and the unendable hurry” and be, in some ways, like the mountains that weather in the sun. The next poem, “Slug in the Woods,” is just that: a micro journey with a slug in the woods. The next poem, “Anglosaxon Street,” offers ample reasons why Birney much prefers thinking like a mountain and weathering in the sun than being in the city. The dour and gray world of city and street life has no real appeal, when seen for what it is, for the poet. There is, indeed, the longing for a “higher heartbeat” and a waiting for “mornstar and worldrise.”

“West Vancouver Ferry” ferries the reader far from the street into the passage across the water and what is seem from such a journey. “Reverse on the Coast Range,” interestingly enough, uses military imagery to describe mountain treelife: “hemlocks massed their heavy reserves,” “pines did guard duty,” “Lodegpole pines, straight and cold as gunbarrels.” Who was the enemy of the ancient forest? It was none other than “The flooding and fanning avalanche.” “Reverse on the Coast Range” is worth many a reread for a graphic and destructive description of the sheer force of an avalanche. “October in Utah” whispers and describes, in poignant detail, the turn to incoming autumn in Utah just as “Grey-Rocks,” if rightly heard, have an ancient and perennial tale to tell. “Smalltown Hotel” is short and pungent—not a place to spend real time. “Kootenay Still-Life” sets the visual stage for a crow to attack a vulnerable and exposed mouse.

Earle Birney, 1969. Photo courtesy UBC Archives

“Eagle Island” is a longer poem that laments the civilized, educated, urbane, and stifling culture of Ontario and turns, by way of resolution and contrast, to the western mountains. “To eastern young who’ve only books / To tell them how a mountain looks”. It is quite obvious where Birney plants his flag in this poem. “Eagle Island” is Birney at his west coast mountain best. “Lament” ponders the fleeting nature of both nature’s beauty and romance. “Monody on a Century” is wrapped, in many ways, with the reality of war. “And men with boots will put an end / To making smiles.”

“Hands” probes the many ways hands can be used—for building, creating, caressing, and soothing or for destruction, killing, brutality, and war. “Dusk on English Bay” starts from the delight of dusk in English Bay but quickly and nimbly moves to the harsh reality of war again, of dusk in other places. “France, 1941” and “War Winter” turn again to the reality of war—it could hardly be denied or ignored at such a tragic season. The latter part of David and other Poems does not flinch from hard decisions to be made in life—similar to David in that respect.

The final four poems in this slim volume or poetry, “In This Verandah,” “European Nocturn,” “Vancouver Lights,” and “On Going to War” search for places of rest in a world wracked by war and all its implications. Most of these poems are poetic realism at its searching best, but beyond war and the drabness of city and small-town life, nature and the mountains offer a place of reprieve from which to enter the fray yet again.

David and other Poems is replete with large life issues and set within the demands of war. Nature is neither romanticized nor idealized, but the mountains do know how to weather sun and storm, and, in this way, persist and linger when all else passes (as it inevitably will—including war itself). It is quite understandable why David and other Poems won the GG award in 1942. Birney had the sensitivity to immerse himself in both the tragedy and possibilities of life’s journey and offer a form of fragile hope that was neither naively idealistic nor impotently cynical or realistic—such was the poetic wisdom of Birney, mountains ever his icon and portal into deeper insight.


Peak Bros. exhibition poster, courtesy Whistler Museum

PEAK BROS: A Whistler Comic Strip 1979-1992
by Gord “Rox” Harder

Many are the books that have been published on the birth, growth, and maturation of Whistler-Blackcomb. Many also are the multiple guidebooks for trekking, climbing, biking, and huts-camping. The books are aplenty on ski runs worth the doing for all levels from beginners to advanced, off piste also on the agenda of many. But, the collection and publication by Whistler Museum of the whacky and on-the-edge ski antics of the Peak Bros., subject of a special exhibition in 2023, is more than worth the purchase and lively reads.

The graphic and short comic tales were published in The Whistler Answer and The Whistler Review—there are 21 short comics, often racy and ribald with tensions at the highest pitch between ski patrol and the pushing the limits of on-the-slopes safety (and much else) of the Peak Bros.

From left to right: ‘SO,’ ‘Rox,’ and ‘Crazy Harry.’ Harder Collection via Whistler Museum

Those who have some interest in the rawer, more unconventional, and the early testing-the-boundaries phase of Whistler slopes life will glean much from the Peak Bros.: A Whistler Strip 1979-1992. Obviously, much had occurred in Whistler life and growth before 1979 (and much afterwards) but the 21 snapshot comic strips offer the interested an animated gaze into a slice of Whistler life between 1979-1992.

The black-and-white comic strips were published in memory of Gord “Rox” Harder (1957-2020) who was the “original Peak Bro. and creator of the Peak Bros. comics.” The photo on the back cover of the comic booklet highlights Harder in colour with his rather dated thin skis, forest and blue ski in the background, snow at his feet, cigarette hanging out of his mouth —all quite sedate and the opposite of the actual comics—the front cover is much more a taster and teaser of what the reader is about to encounter in text and images, skiing ever the focus of the multiple melodramas and challenges between mountains, ski patrol, and Peak Bros.

Those who have some minimal interest in the history of Whistler-Blackcomb and have read most of the books, booklets, and much else on the mountaineering community will enjoy the romp through Peak Bros.: A Whistler Comic Strip 1979-1992—the booklet can be purchased through Whistler Museum and the Museum offers, needless to say, a more comprehensive approach to the birth, growth, maturation, and contemporary reality of Whistler culture and life.

montani semper liberi

-Ron Dart                  


Ron Dart

Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley since 1990. He was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s. He has published 40 books including Erasmus: Wild Bird (Create Space, 2017) and The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016). Editor’s note: Ron Dart has recently reviewed books by Torbjørn Ekelund, Jan Zwicky, Jan Zwicky & Robert V. Moody, D.L. (Donna) Stephen, Elizabeth May, and Stephen Hui (Destination Hikes) for The British Columbia Review. He has also contributed four essays: Canadian mountain culture and mountaineering, From Jalna to Timber Baron: Reflections on the life of H.R. MacMillan, Roderick Haig-Brown & Al Purdy, and Save Swiss Edelweiss Village to The BC Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This