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John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains

By Lisa Baile

Review By David Rossiter

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 240-241

For over a century, the Coast Mountains have drawn British Columbians, through both gaze and gait, to embrace the rugged peaks for which they are known. And, from the exploratory expeditions of the Mundays in the first half of the twentieth century to the ski descents of Trevor Peterson and Eric Pehota in the 1990s, these mountains have served as the landscape upon which several high-profile mountaineers have made their names and livelihoods. With John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains, Lisa Baile provides a biography of a man who was drawn to the Coast Mountains to a degree that perhaps no other British Columbian has been, and who gained a rather limited fame and livelihood from that embrace. His is a tale that deserves to be known.

Baile, an environmental educator and fellow mountaineer, presents her subject in a circular narrative that begins with the naming of a peak in memory of Clarke at a ceremony hosted by the Squamish Nation. She then tracks back in time and traces his path towards attaining this memorialisation through three interwoven themes: his life at home in the city, his exploits in the Coast Mountains, and his emergence as an environmental educator. Throughout, Baile shapes the story around comments offered by Clarke’s friends and colleagues.

In developing the first theme, Baile sketches the roles of family life and the seminary in shaping Clarke’s earliest encounters with British Columbia’s mountains. She also recounts his experiences as a young man attending the University of British Columbia in the early 1960s. There, while taking courses in geology and geography, Clarke found the Varsity Outdoors Club to be a link between life at home in the city and the places he really wanted to be: the peaks and valleys of British Columbia’s coast.

As the 1960s fade and the 1970s dawn, the narrative emphasis shifts from Clarke’s formative years in Vancouver to his expeditions in some of the most difficult-to-reach regions of the province. Throughout the middle of the book, Baile details Clarke’s exploits spanning four decades. From the 1960s to the 1990s, he completed hundreds of first ascents, as well dozens of multi-week high-alpine traverses. Most compellingly, a significant proportion of this travel was undertaken alone. Certainly, Clarke climbed with partners, but Baile makes clear what set him apart from other mountaineers: his ease at being alone in undeveloped mountain environments. While summiting a peak might have been the goal for Clarke, it did not constitute the main moment of satisfaction. Rather, it represented the culmination of an experience of environmental immersion.

In rounding out the story, Baile connects Clarke’s love of the Coast Mountains to his shift away from expeditions and towards environmental activism (particularly around the Sims Creek valley in the mid 1990s) and education. Rather than continuing to turn his back on an under-satisfying urban environment in favour of a mountainous one, Baile shows how Clarke grafted an understated political edge onto his wealth of mountain experience, thereby producing an effective style of communication that garnered much respect in the environmental education community.

By connecting these themes through an occasionally emotional narrative, Baile does us the twin service of adding to the historiography of mountain recreation in British Columbia and providing an exemplar of how critical environmental politics emerged out of the aesthetics of outdoor adventure recreation.

John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains
By Lisa Baile 
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 287 pp. $29.95 paper.