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Climber’s Paradise: Making Canada’s Mountain Parks, 1906-1974

By PearlAnn Reichwein

Review By Ben Bradley

March 14, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 166-168

Two powerful and iconic institutions can be found at the centre of most histories of tourism and recreation in the mountains of western Canada: the Canadian Pacific Railway and the agency known today as Parks Canada. Their central role in shaping the mountainous west is undeniable. However, the steady stream of new books and theses about them can result in a partial picture being mistaken for a complete one. Historians still know relatively little about the myriad other actors that worked to develop, preserve, and/or promote western Canada’s mountain regions for their scenic, recreational, or ecological value. Even the Canadian National Railway has received but a tiny fraction of the scholarly interest drawn by its more southerly competitor.

PearlAnn Reichwein’s Climber’s Paradise examines the intertwined histories of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and western Canada’s mountain parks. She makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of how those areas were made into iconic landscapes and assets to the tourism industry. She shows the ACC to have been a kind of recreational vanguard, wielding influence that was vastly out of proportion to its small size during the first half of the twentieth century. It became an important player through organization, political connections, and cultural output that instilled knowledge of, and also inspired passion for, Canada’s mountain regions.

Reichwein blends social, cultural, and environmental history and draws on a wide range of sources, including ACC and government records. The book achieves an impressive balance of breadth and depth, and for non-specialists could serve as a general reference work on both the ACC and mountaineering in western Canada. Geographically, its main focus is on Banff and Jasper, but the ACC also held many annual encampments at national and provincial parks in British Columbia, and as far afield as Kluane in the Yukon. Historians interested in British Columbia’s provincial parks will pick up a few tidbits, but the general lack of information about provincial park policy is more indicative of British Columbia’s “hands off” approach prior to 1945 than of research missed by the author.

The six main chapters cover the period from the 1906 founding of the ACC — beneath the level skies of Winnipeg, of all places — up to the early 1990s. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the period before 1940. They describe the ACC’s origins, its early membership, and its peregrinating annual camps where participants cultivated a sense of camaraderie amidst climbing challenges and invented traditions. Here Reichwein argues that the common perception of mountaineering as an exclusive preserve of wealthy, healthy, educated white men is not entirely accurate in the case of the ACC. The denial of membership to Jewish applicants and the controversy over allowing a prominent Japanese climber to join in 1929 demonstrate the centrality of race and ethnicity in defining the “right kind” of club member. At the same time, however, well-educated women such as Mary Vaux, Mary Shäeffer, and Vancouver’s Phyllis Munday played central (if underappreciated) roles as ACC organizers, leaders, and editors of the Canadian Alpine Journal. Through the interwar years women made up forty per cent of the ACC membership.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus on the ACC’s interventions on issues related to development and land use in and around the mountain parks. The ACC weighed in on numerous development proposals and management plans, ranging from the well known, such as interwar hydro-power proposals at sites like the Spray Lakes, to ones that would be less familiar to most environmental historians, such as British Columbia’s 1955 Royal Commission on the Forest Industry. The ACC is shown to have advocated the principle of park inviolability, the cause of conservation, and the application of ecological principles to park management. For many years the club’s arguments held considerable sway in the corridors of power, but after the Second World War — when the ACC grew increasingly critical of development of parks as “playgrounds” for mass tourism — it was gradually marginalized, its voice drowned out by a tidal wave of middle- and working-class visitors. The club’s diminished influence over the parks was symbolized by its 1973 decision to relocate its headquarters from Banff to nearby Canmore.

Development and environment are not the exclusive concerns in these latter chapters. Chapters 5 and 7, for example, pay a great deal of attention to changes within the sport and culture of mountaineering. Furthermore, every chapter of Climber’s Paradise contains a handful of informative sidebars that shed light on specific events, places, practices, and individuals. Several also contain detailed descriptions of encampments or expeditions that captured key attributes of the ACC at particular moments. Every chapter contains well-chosen photographs including mountain landscapes, sporting shots of climbers in action, formal portraits, and informal snapshots that show what life was like in the ACC’s annual encampments. These images bring people and places to life, thereby increasing the appeal of this sound academic book to popular audiences.

Readers of BC Studies who are interested in the history of parks, outdoor recreation, tourism, and Canada’s elite and middlebrow cultures of nature will find Climber’s Paradise a valuable addition to their bookshelves. It fills an important gap in the literature, and hopefully it will encourage other studies that look beyond big institutional players like Parks Canada and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Climber’s Paradise: Making Canada’s Mountain Parks, 1906-1974
PearlAnn Reichwein
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014. 432 pp. $45.00 paper