John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains
Review by Ron Dart in "Cloudburst", Spring/Summer 2013.
Cloudburst is the newsletter of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC. Ron Dart is a member of the Vancouver Section of the Alpine Club of Canada
I have memories of the clearest crystal mountain days imaginable, when we fortunates in the heights seemed to be sky people living in light alone. J.E.H Macdonald, 1928
John Clarke (1945-2003) was, when alive, a living mountain legend of sorts—a mythical white mountain goat that was more at home on the high ridges and rocky terrain than in the drudgery of city life. There was no doubt that a biography of Clarke was in the offing and had to be written—the question always was when would the research/writing be done and who would take up the mantle? Lisa Baile was perfectly positioned and poised to write the unfolding tale of Clarke's mountain journey. Lisa had worked with Clarke on many a trek and she has both a probing touch and a journalist's ready pen. Both were, in some ways, sky people who knew what it meant to live in light alone.
John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains tells, in touching depth and detail, the life journey of Clarke as a young man and mountain novice to a master of the ancient sentinels. The tome, rightly so, lingers at the final phase of Clarke's life when illness overtook him and he went into the west. Clarke's life, I some ways, can be divided into four overlapping seasons: 1) the longing to leave city behind and live the mountain life—Clarke did his apprenticeship with many of the west coast mountain elders in those day, 2) his maturing life and long trips in the diverse Coast Mountains, 3) his turn and commitment to teaching a new generation about the mountains and ecological lore, and 4) the last phase of his journey when his body was wracked with incurable illness and his death in 2003.
I found some of the sections in John Clarke most instructive and insightful. Clarke's many trips with John Baldwin are more than worth many a reread. The anecdotes on Clarke and Baldwin both in the mountains and on skis in the mountains tell us much about Clarke's limited ski abilities and the reason Baldwin has become an icon of West Coast skiing. The death of Randy Stoltmann in 1994 (Chapter 14) was a definite turning point in Clarke's life. There can be no doubt that Clarke was shaken and reshaped by Stolmann's death—he was there when it happened. It was after 1994 that Clarke, in a more serious and focused way, became more and more the educational and political activist for the environment, working closely with ecological groups, 1st Nations, governments and schools. Clarke became, after 1994, mountaineer turned mountain prophet—a sort of Coast Mountains' John Muir. The man of the sky and light brought such sky light to those in the city.
Lisa Baile should be lauded for her exquisite and evocative biography on John Clarke. The photographs used in the book illustrate wisely and suggestively Clarke's life. Clarke's publications are duly noted and Clarke's varied and complicated life amply revealed John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains is burnished gold—so much said, and there is so much yet to be said. Clarke was one of those sky people who knew what it meant to live in light alone and such sky people have still much to teach us.