Events / Reviews


John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains
Review by Bruce Fairley, Canadian Alpine Journal, 2013, vol. 96, p. 146.

John Clarke was an unusual figure to become pre-eminent in the world of West Coast mountaineering at his point in time.   He emerged onto the scene in Vancouver just as his great predecessor, Dick Culbert, was easing into retirement from climbing, and although Culbert’s most noteworthy companions – Glenn Woodsworth, Paul Starr and Fred Douglas – continued to climb at some level, their most noteworthy ascents were largely behind them.

The later climbs of Culbert and his circle set the new tone in the Coast Mountains, which in keeping with alpinism in the rest of the world was tilting dramatically towards the technical and the difficult.   Although he would likely have performed well in this arena, Clarke chose a different path.   Turning his back on technical climbing, he embarked instead on a series of long traverses through remote and usually unexplored country, ascending the many unclimbed but often easy peaks on route.   For the first dozen or so years, Clarke generally travelled solo, not, as this new book makes clear, because he shunned company but because it was simply not possible to find companions who were prepared to devote weeks of time on such uncertain projects, where one streak of bad weather could keep a party tent bound for a week.  

Also, what Clarke was doing was simply too far out of the mainstream of climbing development to be of interest to many of his contemporaries.  In one of his earliest pieces published in the Canadian Alpine Journal of 1972, he opened his account of his recent traverses in Garibaldi Park with these words:

By 1971 one way to describe any remaining unclimbed peaks in Garibaldi Park was to say they were pretty difficult to reach, not terribly high and technically very easy to climb.

This modest statement of the exploration opportunities available for his Garibaldi expeditions might have equally applied to many of the other trips which Clarke undertook during his prolific career.   Many of the areas he was the first to visit have still seen no further exploration, and the vast number of his first ascents were not technical.     His passion was to return to the exploration ethos of his lifelong heroes, Don and Phyllis Munday.   As Baile says,  “If there is a gene for exploration, then John Clarke inherited it.”  

When I began Lisa Baile’s new biography however, I was curious about how the author would deal with some evident difficulties inherent in documenting the life of this unique individual.  Firstly there was the problem of geography.   Clarke’s explorations unfolded in places with names like the Ha-iltzuk Icefield, the Whitemantle Range, the Kitlope, the Klite River, the Tahumming – places only a handful of devotees have ever heard of.    Clarke shied away from the big name peaks like Waddington and Monarch , and the geography of the Coast Mountains is so mysterious to most readers to begin with that I was certain the author would face challenges just placing the journeys on the map, so to speak.

Secondly there was the issue of the primary sources – the written record left by John Clarke himself.    Prior to reading this book I had read pretty much everything John Clarke had published in the Canadian Alpine Journal concerning his travels – more than 35 articles.   Yet I would still have had difficulty saying which were the real highlights of John’s career.  

Clarke himself  wrote in a very muted style.   His voice was essentially documentary.    It is not untypical to find numerous passages in his writing such as this:

Then I climbed the two 7800 ft peaks on the ridge to the east and the 7600 ft peaklet between them; and then two days later the 7500 ft peak 2 mi. east of the 3700 ft contour on the main glacier.   This peak has the best views of the main glacier and all its tributaries I have seen. [Klinaklini Country, CAJ, 1987,vol. 71  p. 37]

Don Munday, in some ways had a similar style, workmanlike rather than dramatic, yet one still finds throughout Munday’s work sentences such as the following:

On this exposed rock face the full fury of the storm smote us, the wind nearly pinning us to the rocks; lightning and thunder now came simultaneously , flash following flash so closely that the alternate brilliance and blackness left us almost blinded; rain, hail and snow lashed us in turn. [The Apex of the Coast Range, CAJ 1927]

John Clarke would never have written such lines, even though he certainly endured storms as ferocious and unrelenting.    Perhaps to too great an extent he tended to brush aside and underplay the more exciting episodes of his travels.    His greatest writing is really not about mountain heroics but about the incredible splendour and beauty of the mountain world.   But as Yeats says in another context and speaking of literature in general: “Processions which lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.”     So I wondered how Lisa Baile would sort through the multitude of journeys to illuminate those that were the most important and how she would bring the necessary drama and emphasis into the tale.

And finally there was simply the sheer volume of the climbs he completed and the fact that the majority of the peaks he climbed had no names.    One could easily see the author slipping into the trap of reciting the ascent of one peak after another, so that each trip came to sound much the same as the previous.

Baile has overcome these potential difficulties by focusing on John Clarke, the man.   In taking this approach she crafts a highly readable and surprisingly fast-paced account of a powerfully driven climber who was also (some might say notwithstanding) a great human being.  

The problem of dealing with the sheer quantity of trips and the enormous expanses of geography Clarke traversed is deftly handled.    The author was fortunate to have travelled with John Clarke and to have known him well.   The journeys which Baile chooses to emphasize are introduced by explaining the context in which they occurred.   Firstly there was simply the desire to bag unclimbed peaks.   Later a more pure attachment to exploration entered the equation.  Finally it was simply the desire to soak up the vastness and splendour of the wild mountain country which drove the agenda.  Baile has interviewed pretty much everybody who shared a journey with John Clarke and drawing on these interviews, unpublished letters, and her own conversations with Clarke she is able to supplement his written accounts with many additional details that are not found in the journals—ranging from encounters with bears and wolves, the destruction of air drops by grizzlies, and hair-raising flights into the mountains in bush planes.  We learn how Clarke chose his objectives, planned his food, acquired his trip companions, and we share his wonder as he rounds the next corner in the mountains to discover a new vista beyond imagining.  

For example, the chapter “Mount Mason Mania” begins as follows:

John’s heroic efforts to climb Mount Mason in the spring and summer of 1990 illustrate key elements of his character: his focus and determination and his patience in the face of obstacles.... John was smitten with Mount Mason the firstt time he saw its prominent dark rock horn curving into the sky... he didn’t know for sure if the peak was virginal.. .but he just knew the horn was too tempting to ignore.

So Clarke recruits Sandy Briggs, a strong mountaineer from Vancouver Island, following an Alpine Club of Canada slide show and the pair, never having climbed together before, is off for a three week trip.  They romp through some previously unvisited mountain country before the inevitable streak of bad weather sets in.   We share Briggs commentary on Clarke’s camping skills (John was the first person I really ever met for whom camping was an art form), taste in novels (. . . really cheap, . . . useful for soaking up condensation and spilled soup), and style of jokes.   The pair is joined by a third climber, Lewis Kaiserseder, who helicopters in, but the poor weather continues.  We follow the story through John’s diary entries; Clarke is relieved when the other two, both heavy snorers, move into an igloo and he can spend a silent night in the tent. After numerous days of confinement the trio head for the valley without ever getting a good look at Mount Mason, but no sooner is he home than “John’s mind seethed with plans for phase two of siege of Mount Mason.”    We follow the story through two more attempts before the prize is finally attained.

Knowing myself something of both men, I was especially intrigued to see what Baile would make of the partnership between John Clarke and John Baldwin, who was by far Clarke’s most important and regular companion.   Her chapter entitled “The Two Johns” contains an entertaining account of their first meeting and deft character sketches of each protagonist.   It seems that Baldwin and Clarke formed the perfect partnership, a union of minds to rival that of Tilman and Shipton; as Baldwin puts it, “We got along instantly.   We were totally on the same wavelength and wanted to do the same things.   It was fantastic.”   Though Baldwin acknowledges differences in character between them, the two never seem to have fought or argued, and although of course one knew they were always out there, in retrospect it is quite astounding how much ground they actually covered together.  This chapter also recounts the story of the traverse around the headwaters of the Tahumming River, the expedition that both men considered their most magical trip of all.
Also of interest to many climbers will be the trip to the Klattasine with Peter Croft.   As Clarke said, “If you want to climb a remote peak and need someone to lead a short 5.8 traverse – then Peter is definitely the man to have along!”   Peter’s discussion of the dynamics of what might have seemed a somewhat improbable duo confirm that Clarke’s competence and enthusiasm for the mountains charmed even the greatest of technical climbers.

But the book is about much more than Clarke the explorer of the Coast Mountains.   We learn of John Clarke, archivist of the heritage landscape of Vancouver, rising early to systematically photograph the old buildings of Vancouver before they disappeared, then investigating the story of the vanishing architecture he documented.    We learn of the many women who shared parts of his life, and of his relationship with the Squamish First Nation.   And of course extensive coverage is given to his important and lasting work in conservation and wilderness education.   I found particularly interesting the story of Clarke’s high school years and his early introduction to climbing.   He was fortunate to be included in the 1967 B.C. Mountaineering Club expedition to the Manatee Range, where he found himself in the company of an exceptionally strong group of mountaineers, and as a young climber to have roped up with Esther and Martin Kafer, who provided sound mentoring.

The chapters entitled “Family Matters”, which discusses John’s relationship with Catherine Stafford and her two teenage sons,  and the final chapter, called “The Last Traverse”, are deeply affecting and both certainly brought a tear to my eye.

I think most mountaineers who read this book will put it down with the thought that if they could have had only one last mountain journey in their lives they would wished to have spent that journey with John Clarke.   It is very fine thing that Lisa Baile has written such a heartwarming biography of one of the greatest figures in Canadian mountaineering, and it a great achievement to have so fully brought John Clarke to life.