BOOK DETAILS LITTLE KNOW STORIES OF ROCKIES PIONEER
To help catalogue the stories that would become the foundation of her book about her father, Susi Pfisterer would load up the car, plunk her twin daughters in the back seat and collect her dad, Canadian mountain rescue pioneer Willi Pfisterer, from the local seniors’ manor.
She’d stick a tape recorder on the dash and point the vehicle towards Highway 93 South. Then they’d start to talk.
The exercise had multiple benefits: not only did the soaring summits and cavernous valleys seen along the Icefields Parkway spark her father’s memories of mountain rescues and epic adventures, but the white noise of the road and the rumble of the car’s tires lulled her girls to sleep. Then, at the end of their journey, they’d get to visit Susi’s sister, Eva, who lived in Golden, B.C.
“At that point he had chronic pain. Those trips made him feel better,” Pfisterer said about her dad. “But it was hard to keep track…he’d flip all over the place.”
Who could blame him? Willi Pfisterer, who scaled more than 1,600 peaks and took part in more than 700 rescues in his adopted Rocky Mountain home, had a lot of stories. Some are famous within mountain culture circles—like the time he told Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Mount Colin that if their climbing rope breaks “not to worry, I’ve got another one at home.” But others are less well-known, such as when Pfisterer brought that same famous client to the Athabasca Hotel for beers.
Now, to the delight of the Rockies community, Pfisterer’s tales have been brought to life. Thanks to his daughter’s new book, 50 Percent of Mountaineering is Uphill, the mountain exploits, operations and innovations for which Pfisterer was so well regarded have been chronicled in print. Local lore no longer, the modern reader gets a sense of what made one of the giants of mountain culture tick.
“He just never stopped,” Susi said. “He’d come home from a four week expedition and the next day we’d be out to a warden cabin or doing some other activity.”
Told in the first-person narrative from Willi’s point of view, the book is an engaging and educational adventure story featuring hundreds of archival photographs of the natural athlete and leader who came to Canada in 1955. The simple, humorous prose recounts stories equally exciting, triumphant and, at times, sad.
Pfisterer, who passed in 2010, wasn’t always comfortable with the notion of his story being made public. Over the course of his career he eschewed plenty of plaudits and took pains to avoid the limelight. “There are no heroes in mountain rescue work,” he was known to say. “Just teammates.” Indeed, even when he scaled a peak, rather than waxing on about his climb in the summit registry, the modest Pfisterer was known to scrawl a simple “Willi,” along with the date of his ascent.
Despite his humility, his daughter knew the value of the Austrian-born warden’s stories. Others did too, of course, and over the years plenty of authors had offered to write his memoirs; he always declined. Finally, Susi was able to convince her father that they should do the project for posterity.
“I said ‘dad, we’ve got to do this for your grandkids,’” she said.
It wasn’t an easy process. Although she relied on their recorded talks for much of the book’s content, Susi used her dad’s lectures, slideshows and discussions with other historians to fill in the missing pieces.
She also relied on her own instincts, much like her dad had done in the mountains, to find the proper cadence of the book. Whereas Willi has stories of a sixth sense guiding him—off a slope just before a deadly avalanche swept the hillside away, for example—Susi had to go with her own gut as she shaped the prose using her father’s wise, witty voice. Besides his achievements in the rescue business and his reputation for not suffering fools gladly, his unique sense of humour remains as one of his most fondly-remembered hallmarks among former colleagues.
“He used his humour to motivate people, to get them out of their funk, to get them out of tense situations,” Susi said.
On Saturday, May 14, Susi introduced 50 Percent of Mountaineering is Uphill to the community at a launch hosted by the Jasper Museum and Archives. She wasn’t looking forward to getting up in front of a crowd, she said.
Surely, however, if her dad’s philosophy of mountaineering applies to authoring a successful book, by now she’s on the downhill 50 percent.