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Exploring historical mountaineering archives with Chic Scott

Chic Scott picks out significant moments of mountaineering adventures in Whyte Museum donation

BANFF – It’s a grey mid-February day as Chic Scott sits at a wooden table inside the archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, with some well-used scrapbooks and journals placed neatly in front of him. Pink and blue Post-It notes poke out of the top of the books, marking the pages he’ll skip to.

The legendary mountaineer, skier, historian and author takes me back to historical and significant moments recorded in the Canadian Rockies that he’s kept for safekeeping for four decades. Earlier in 2024, the Calgary Mountain Club (CMC) donated this significant collection to the Whyte of first ascents, articles, photographs, journals, and hut books. The collection is available for researchers and public viewing.

Time has discoloured the border of the old pages to yellowish as Scott flips through them and points to a hut book entry from late outdoor adventurer Billy Davidson, which immediately gets a laugh out of the former chair of CMC.

“He’s obviously just completely stoned when he was doing all of this,” said Scott with a laugh.

He reads out a guilty-as-charged line from one of Davidson’s hallucination-ensued entries, a snickering delight should the off-the-wall ballad catch you off guard. 

“‘On the first day of acid, my true love brought to me, one straight jacket and a fresh supply of LSD’ – I don’t know whether it’s politically correct these days, but it’s what we did at that time.”

The CMC already had a reputation for hard-drinking and hard-partying at this time, Scott points out. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for its members to show up to a bar and buy 100 glasses of beers at once.

However, being bar stars would not be the club’s fate in history, but rather, it would be known as Canada’s very best climbers leading the cutting edge of the sport.

The CMC guidebooks’ handwritten accounts of first ascents and route descriptions of climbing the hardest peaks in the Canadian Rockies are a testament to the CMC pushing the limits of what was possible. But hanging onto the old writings for safekeeping was more than nostalgia and they provide in great detail first-hand accounts of local mountain triumphs from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

From a North American perspective, mountaineering after the Second World War went through a boom period. The outdoor activity had been mainly for the wealthy crowd up until that point, with hired guides to navigate the not-so-easily accessible locations. However, after the war, there were better vehicles available that could access remote spots, as well as lighter recreational gear and tourism skyrocketed in the Banff area because people had more vacation time.

All the factors created a new wave of adventurers challenging themselves in the Canadian Rockies. Although, it was mainly Americans and Brits leading the charge until famous Canadian climbers like Lloyd MacKay and Don Vockeroth came up and were at the leading edge of the sport.

They were a “firecracker of a team,” Scott noted, who fondly read over some of his favourite moments from the guidebooks, which have significant history in Canadian climbing and mountaineering.

Brian Greenwood, a respected climbing pioneer in Canada and aesthetically pleasing writer, pencilled in many entries of first ascents such as the Grassi Ridge on Wawaxy Peak at Lake O’Hara. It was first climbed on July 9, 1963, by Greenwood, Phyllis Johnstone and Don Vockeroth and is “one of the finest routes in the Rockies,” said Scott.

Scott’s first time taking on the route was in 1970 when he was 25 years old and with a 14-year-old named Gary Jennings.

“I was working that summer as a guide for a teenage youth camp at Lake O’Hara. Me and this 14-year-old kid, we climbed the route. … It's a joy to be in a steep, exposed spot to be in control and know you can climb it without being scared. That’s one of the joys of climbing: to be in a wild and dangerous place, but to be in control,” said Scott.

Having just taken a rock climbing course a few days before, Jennings was volunteered to join Scott on Grassi Ridge.

“We were both smokers and I ran out of cigarettes on the climb, but he had some cigarettes and I had an orange to contribute so we shared an orange and smoked a cigarette,” said Scott with a laugh. “It was a different time when 14-year olds could smoke.”

A recurring climbing mountain featured in the guidebooks for first ascents is on Mount John Laurie – more popularly known as Yamnuska – which has a route that’s the most famous and classic rock climb in the Canadian Rockies. Scott co-wrote The Yam, which highlights 50 years of climbing on the iconic mountain. 

Over the decades, Yamnuska has been popular for climbers because of its ease of reaching and its steepness with a rust-colour wall of stone like nothing else around.

“It takes a certain commitment to deal with the exposure, it’s really bold climbing,” said Scott. 

“Physically it's fun, but there’s an edginess to it. It’s really edgy, that’s why they call it the Ragged Edge – the edge between falling off and staying on.”

Yamnuska is one of the busiest mountains in the region, with scramblers, climbers and hikers testing themselves on it. Safety and rescue teams are normally called to Yamnuska about 40 times a year for reasons like scramblers underestimating its toughness and needing to be heli-rescued, to more extreme cases like fatalities.

Yamnuska has been sort of a pleasure and pain thing for Andy Genereux, a rock climbing pioneer who has established more than 2,000 pitches and 600 sport climbs in the Bow Valley and Canadian Rockies from 1982 until now.

The climbing hot spot is the location of all three of Genereux’s helicopter trips off a mountain because of injuries. All were caused by rock failure, with the worst being a “refrigerator size” boulder smashing into him and snapping his leg “like a toothpick” during routine maintenance of a route.

As Scott says, it’s the kind of rock climbing experience that will have you saying to yourself, “‘Dear God, if I get through this I’ll never climb again’ and then when you get to the top, the first thing you say is ‘What are we going to climb next?’”

With about a dozen or so Yamnuska first ascents in the guidebooks, Scott narrowed it down to some of his favourites including The Red Shirt Route, first climbed on June 10, 1962, by Greenhouse, Heinz Kahl and Dick Lofthouse. 

“It probably has become the most famous and classic rock climb in the whole Canadian Rockies,” said Scott. 

Two entries include the first ascents of Yamnuska’s Grillmair's Chimney and Direttissima in the 1950s.

One particularly interesting point is Greenwood mistakenly thinking that John Lee Laurie, which Mount John Laurie is named after, was a missionary of the church, hence, the climbing route Missionaries Crack.

Laurie was actually a teacher and political figure who helped the Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda people preserve their culture and was a big factor in getting amendments to the Indian Act and promoting the causes of Indigenous peoples. In the 1960s, the Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation requested renaming of the mountain to Mount John Laurie.

Though it isn't uncommon for fond memories of the past to be kept for safekeeping, I asked Scott why he kept the books, pictures and clippings for nearly 40 years. His answer is he is a historian at heart.

“I have always appreciated the value of stories, and I knew that there were important and powerful stories contained in these documents and books,” he said. “So during the time I was club president, from 1985 to 1987, I went around to all the old-time members and collected these items which had already become scattered. And I just hung onto them as I knew I would understand their value and keep them safe.”

Now nearing 80 years old, it was time for Scott to find a new safe home and he chose to entrust these items to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Clarification: An earlier version said Chic Scott donated the collection of articles, journals, scrapbooks, lodge books and photographs to the Whyte Museum. However, the Calgary Mountain Club donated the collection. Scott had kept the items for safekeeping for nearly four decades, but did not own them.

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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