CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 4 . . . . October 15, 2004
Women Mountaineers and Adventurers is a more accurate title for this book as most of the profiles focus on women who are closely associated with mountaineering in Canada, as climbers, guides, or in the case of Elizabeth Parker, a journalist who inspired the creation of the Alpine Club of Canada.
Spectacular scenery draws multitudes of tourists to the Canadian Rockies every year. The allure of the mountains is something the author, Canmore, Alberta resident Helen Y. Rolfe can identify with, having relocated there from Ontario in her early twenties. Rolfe could have omitted the first chapter as it summarizes the rest of the book with little unique content apart from a bit of historical context. Since most of the adventurers appear in a chronological order, it is odd that Rolfe chose to begin her bio-historical tales with the case of Sharon Wood, who, in 1986, became the first North American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the chapter, Rolfe demonstrates the treacherous conditions faced by the expedition and the crucial role of team commitment.
Gertrude Benham, was an English woman who spent the climbing season of 1904 obsessively climbing as many peaks in the Rockies and Selkirk Range as possible. This was an era when almost all climbers were men and when professional mountain guides from Europe were keys to the success of climbers. Women, like Benham, defied tradition, abandoning their Edwardian dresses for knickers and other practical mountain gear. Ironically, she helped to finance her activities by selling knitting and embroidery that she worked on while resting in camp. The Truda Peaks in the Selkirk Range are named in her honour.
Elizabeth Parker of Winnipeg spent a year and a half in the mountains at Banff where she sought the healing power of mountain air and mineral hot springs. Her love for the mountains emerged in her stories published in the Manitoba Free Press starting in 1904. Her writing was instrumental in bringing together Canadians with an interest in climbing into the Alpine Club of Canada. In 1906, its first year of operation, the club had just over three hundred members, seventy-seven of whom were women.
For over forty years, Caroline Hinman operated an adventure company called “Off the Beaten Path” that offered one-or two-month expeditions in the Canadian Rockies. Customers rode horseback, fished, hiked, and slept in tents in the rugged wilderness.
Georgia Engelhard, another climbing fanatic, broke her own record when, in 1936, she recorded forty mountain ascents in one season. In the mid 1940s she turned her attention to mountain photography and became quite successful in that field.
Allison is the last woman profiled in Women Explorers. While
early mountaineers like Benham were motivated in part by their desire
to “bag” mountain peaks (to be the first person to ascend
the peaks), Allison's quest for adventure in the mountains takes on
a new impetus:
The final section, entitled “100 Years of Women and Adventure,” is a chronology of women's achievements in the Canadian mountains as well as a parking-lot for interesting tidbits about many of the more recent adventurers whose accomplishments are not otherwise developed in the book. The book also includes a bibliography, a map of the Canadian Rockies and seven black-and-white photographs of most of the people featured in the work. Wood appears in colour on the front cover. The publisher was unable to locate a photo of one subject, Gertrude Benham. There is no index.
Rolfe's prose is serviceable. The truthful accounts that she presents are fairly interesting and appropriate for the series theme, “Amazing Stories.” Her accounts of the adventures of the two contemporary subjects are most successful in explaining obvious questions like “What drives these women?” Readers will acquire some new vocabulary and discover more about the history of Canada and the evolution of mountaineering as a recreational activity. This work will find a national audience, but I suspect that it will speak most effectively to residents of Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon who have more opportunities for first-hand contact with the tallest mountain ranges in Canada.
Val Ken Lem, a catalogue librarian at Ryerson University, Toronto, has visited and hiked in the Canadian Rockies and once stayed at the Alpine Club of Canada's guesthouse near Canmore, Alberta.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.