Chic Scott’s business card is printed on plain white stock.
It has no graphical elements. His name, mailing address, phone number and hotmail address are in Arial font. The card is single sided, black and white.
In spite of the fact that his climbing resume is among the most varied and impressive of any mountaineer in Canada, despite the fact he’s authored more than 10 books which straddle the worlds of skiing, guiding, mountaineering and history and have introduced thousands of people to the alpine, his business card bears no mention of a profession, or even a job title.
Perhaps that’s because one of the mantras the 69-year-old Scott has lived by is “Get a life, not a job.”
Or maybe it’s because, even after all of those books, all those first ascents and all of the honours bestowed on him, he’s never really considered himself a professional.
“I’m an amateur—in the literal sense of the word,” he said.
The word amateur, he pointed out, comes from the Latin verb amāre, which means to love. A professional, on the other hand, is someone who does something for money.
“I never really had that side to me,” he said. “I love the mountains and I love the experience.”
Fifty-three years ago this Victoria Day Long Weekend, that love was first ignited. In 1962, a 17-year-old Chic Scott could see the mountains from the Earl Grey Golf Club in Calgary, where his father was a member and where Chic washed clubs between rounds. He was from a well-off family and was expected to be a doctor or a lawyer, if he didn’t go pro in golf.
“I was a better golfer than I ever was a climber,” he said. “I was shooting in the mid-70s when I was 15-years-old.”
The mountains, however, were beckoning. A fellow he knew told him if he was really interested in visiting the Rockies, he should sign on for one of the local youth hostel association’s trips. He did. The group he carpooled with drove to Parker’s Ridge and stayed at the first incarnation of the Hilda Creek hostel. There, Scott put skins on his skis and went ski touring for the first time.
“That was the end of golf,” he laughed.
More than that, it was the beginning of his storied path in the mountains, one which, later in life, in times of confusion and duress, he would occasionally lose sight of. In the mid 1960s, however, his obsession was full blown. He and his climbing partners formed life-long bonds on the rock routes of Yamnuska Mountain in Canmore and on the high snow slopes of 11,000 foot peaks. Rock climbing and ski mountaineering, for Scott, were always synonymous.
“I just loved the beauty—the spiritual, emotional, literary and artistic experience of the mountains,” Scott said. “The record keeping, the first to do this or that really doesn’t interest me much,” he said.
Ironically, the romanticism which eschewed the braggadocio ended up placing Scott securely in the record books. It was 1966. He was at post-secondary in Vancouver, during a particularly dreary autumn, and he was yearning for the hills.
“It rained for months on end,” Scott recalled. “I was getting really depressed and I thought I needed a dream to get through university. I wrote a letter to Charlie Locke and said ‘let’s do the Great Divide Traverse.’”
Locke, who would go on to found the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies empire, was, along with ski pioneers Don Gardner and Neil Liske, up for the challenge. The four had been inspired by stories of Hans Gmoser’s failed GDT attempt in 1960, but instead of going south to north like Gmoser had tried, they planned to ski from Jasper to Lake Louise.
“The most difficult question to answer was whether to go on cross country skis or on [alpine touring] gear,” Scott said.
Eventually they chose the lighter set up, using wax, not skins, to grip the snow during the 350 km expedition. It took them 21 days to complete the first ever Great Divide Traverse but, as was their wont, the group hardly told anybody about their journey. It wasn’t until Scott pioneered two other huge ski traverses—the 120 km Rogers Pass to Bugaboos Traverse and the 200 km Northern Selkirks Traverse—that he decided to record the 1967 feat in the Canadian Alpine Journal.
“We didn’t write it up up for 10 years, we just went home,” Scott said. “There was no press to meet us, no fanfare…it just evaporated.”
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A significant portion of Scott’s recorded memories suffered a similar vaporization—for different reasons, however.
In 1969, in-step with the counter-culture revolution, yet out of his element, Scott plumbed the dangerous depths of drug use, a period in his life he describes as “confused and depressed.” In the midst of his experimentation, he said he did something he will always regret: “I was getting into eastern mysticism and Buddha and overcoming the ego and all that sort of stuff,” he said. “For some reason I got it in my mind that taking photographs of yourself and your friends was egotism so I burned all my photos.”
Everything pre-1969 was destroyed. All of his shots documenting his learning to climb on Yam, his early ski mountaineering, his adventures with various Rockies legends, his season of climbing in the Alps …incinerated.
“What a shame,” he said, shaking his head.
That may have been a regretful fork his his mountain path. But there aren't many.
For example, his unusual meander to securing his place in the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides: On his first attempt at the exam, in 1970, he didn't have the patience for the nascent process. He walked out on his examiners (“I was young, quite talented and had a big ego”). During his second go-round, in 1975, he suffered a breakdown during the test (“my drug experience, a tragic expedition in to the Himalayas and a broken heart caught up with me”); he passed the assistant ski guide exam in 1990 but subsequently failed the full guide’s exam in 1993 (“I’m not a very pretty skier”); and bizarrely, he was denied honorary membership even after founder and then-president of the ACMG Hans Gmoser put that motion forward (“certain components of the ACMG didn’t like me at all”). That point was a sour one at the time. Today, Scott, who would eventually be “allowed” into the ACMG, enjoys telling the story of how he responded to the news in 1993 that he didn't ski good enough to pass the guide's exam.
“I walked out of that meeting and I said to myself 'I’ll show them who the ski guide is," he laughed. "I said: 'I’ll write the guidebook.’”
And he did. The first edition of Summits and Icefields was published in 1994. Since then, its two volumes have become the obligatory companions for ski touring and mountaineering in the Rockies and Columbia ranges.
“I was planning on being a guide…but when I failed the exams…what that did was turn me into a writer,” he said.
What it also did was turn a whole bunch of resort skiers into backcountry enthusiasts. With Summits and Icefields, Scott opened Canadian adventurers’ eyes to new, wintery, wild worlds. As he was writing it, he admits he was conflicted as to whether he should be “giving the secrets away,” but for the sake of the places themselves, he decided it was better to promote what he knew rather than guard that information.
“These parks and our mountain wilderness will not be appreciated unless you have people out there,” he said. “And if it’s only a few people that go out there there won’t be any political will [to protect them].”
Moreover, he felt that there’s more than enough wilderness to go around—especially compared to the Alps.
“In Europe the snowy Alps are the same size, approximately, as the Columbia Ranges—from McBride down to Nelson, that’s it. But there are 500 million people within a weekend’s experience [of the Alps].
“I felt that there was just so much space in our mountains and so few people that it would be so hard to overcrowd it.”
Today, even though Scott doesn’t climb anymore, and he didn’t ski much this past winter, he still believes that Canada’s Rocky Mountains are unspoilt (“you can still have the same adventure today we did on the Great Divide Traverse”). He still feels that the mountains offer the most pure human experience, as long as you’re getting yourself up by your own steam (“real men and women ski uphill”). He still would rather share stories about the magic of the mountains than boast about his accomplishments (“following my mountain path has always pulled me back from hard times in life”).
While his values haven’t changed too much, Scott knows the place his mountain path traversed 50-odd years ago is occupied by a new group of upstart climbers. These days, he is happy to be the story-teller, historian and mentor.
“I remember how thrilled I was when I met Hans Gmoser,” he said.“I’m enjoying the role, now that I’m the older guy.”