Finding the photo of my grandmother climbing in the Rockies in 1913 helped to answer a question that has always burned in my mind. As a girl from an ordinary, not terribly-athletic, middle class family, who grew up in Inuvik, Fort Smith, and Whitehorse, and eventually ended up stranded as a teenager in an Ontario suburb called Munster Hamlet in the middle of flat corn fields–
How in the hell did I ever end up becoming a rock climber?
I thought it might be because my father hiked the Chilkoot Trail with his government cronies a couple of times when we lived in Yukon, but for the most part, my parents were reluctant walk-the-dog-around-the-blockers. Physical exertion was not their thing. Certainly not climbing.
Yet since my pre-teens I’ve yearned for the wilderness. Yearned for escape. I used to dream of running away to the top of Grey Mountain, living off the land. In high school I was drawn only to one class: outdoor education. I cross-country skied and even went on an overnight in the winter with a real pack on my back; I went canoe tripping; I rappelled down the brick wall of our high school. I inhaled Thoreau.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In my memoir, End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood, (April 2018 – Random House) I address the origins of my climbing in the prologue. I was thirteen, on a Quebec language exchange when I met Jocelyn, a burly, bandana-clad Quebecois climber who showed me his mountain climbing equipment and took me caving and hiking. I was smitten. But looking back, I know I wanted to BE Jocelyn, not be WITH him. I craved his freedom, craved his control, craved his musculature.
Later that summer, in a fit of rage against my father (a typical state) I stomped away from our cottage, found myself under a (possibly) 100-foot rock face, and started to climb. Most likely my reasoning was, “Fuck ‘em if I die. It’ll be their fault.” An attitude that lingered well into my adult years and almost led to my death many a time.
I didn’t die (though I scared the hell out of myself). Instead, the triumph I felt at the top of that cliff, after successfully pulling myself over the top, coupled with the expression of unconcealed admiration on my father’s face when he looked down the cliff from the top, led me to write in my diary that night: “I’m going to be a mountain climber when I grow up.” A pretty improbable dream, just like my previous improbable dreams: of looking like Barbie, of being a movie star, of getting adopted by the Partridge Family. My unquenchable need for male attention (typical of most girls back then) aligned that day with my uncontrollable need to take physical risks, which led me on some hilarious adventures, and some very dark adventures. Bridget Jones in the mountains.
My grandmother’s adventures continued after her summer in the Rockies. And the more I uncover about her life, the more I recognize the strong connections between me and my grandmother. In fact, between all the generations of women in my family.
“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh, A Lifetime of Peace
My grandmother at (I believe) Woodlands, the camp she went to every summer in either Quebec or Ontario. In her journals she describes going on overnight canoe trips, portaging their gear, sleeping on pine boughs, swimming out to islands. She describes these as her “tomboy” years. And she did it all in a skirt and proper shoes!