BORN TO BE HIGH AND WILD
Whether from cities or plains, some feel at home only among soaring peaks
BRIAN BERGMAN | Jun 23, 2003
LIVING IN CALGARY, the mountains are never far from view. On a clear day(and in Alberta, after all, most days are clear), I can see the snow-capped Rockies shimmering to the west. For me, it's a constant reminder of a majestic landscape only an hour's drive away, one I have the good fortune of visiting frequently. And, as is often the case, I've learned it's the people, as much as the peaks, that make the place.
Mountain people, to borrow a phrase, are different than you and me. Typically, they've heeded a call: though born and raised in cities, on the prairies or by the sea, they feel most at home surrounded by peaks thousands of metres high. Many make an economic sacrifice to live where they do, working a variety of jobs to pay the bills. The most obvious common denominator, though, is a love of the outdoors -- and, in many cases, of pitting themselves, at great risk, against nature. These are people who, in the words of the 1960s chestnut, "take the world in a love embrace." Here are the stories of six who were born to be wild.
WILL GADD, 36, EXTREME SPORTS ATHLETE
Gadd does it all: ice and rock climbing, paragliding, caving, kayaking, downhill and cross-country skiing. What he doesn't do is sit still -- or at least not for long. Next month, he's off to Austria for an 800-km paragliding race across the Alps. "No one ever died wishing they'd spent more time at their desk," says Gadd. "Life is to be experienced."
Gadd spent much of his youth in Jasper and now lives in Canmore, just outside Banff National Park. He strapped on his first pair of skis at age 3, climbed his first waterfall at 12 and began kayaking at 14. He was a relative late bloomer when it came to paragliding: at 24, a sports magazine assigned him to cover a paragliding competition. "I watched those guys fly," he recalls, "and said, 'OK, I'm going to have to learn how to do this.' " Gadd is now the sport's world record distance holder(423 km).
Extreme sports weren't always Gadd's calling. At one point he intended to be a lawyer, and in the 1990s, while living in Boulder, Colo., he carved out a lucrative career as a magazine publisher and sports marketing researcher. But Gadd wanted to return to Canada -- and to the mountains. "Boulder, like Calgary, is on the plains," he says. "And when I'm on the plains, I feel very exposed. It's like I'm a fly and someone out there has a fly swatter."
Since settling in Canmore in 1998, Gadd has made a living as an athlete, writer(he has a how-to book on ice climbing out this fall)and filmmaker. He's also been able to indulge in a favourite pastime: watching the orange glow on the peaks in the evening as the sun settles in the west. "Each of those alpine sunsets has probably cost me a lot of money," he says with a boyish grin, "but I don't give a shit. It's worth it."
KRIS HOLM, 29, MOUNTAIN UNICYCLIST
The images are stunning. Legs spinning and arms outstretched, this Victoria native can be seen in a pair of recent documentaries as he careens down the side of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's highest peak, and negotiates thousands of ancient stairs cut into a mountain pass in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. All in a day's work for Holm, who is something of a cult hero in mountain unicycling. Holm, who now lives in Vancouver, where he works part-time as a geology researcher and lecturer at the University of British Columbia, says there's nothing all that intimidating about what he does. "It's really not as dangerous," he insists, "as it looks."
OK, if you say so. Holm got his first unicycle for his 12th birthday, after seeing a local street performer ride one while playing a violin. An avid rock climber, Holm was soon testing his toy on some of his favourite terrain. But it wasn't until 1998 that he learned, via the Internet, that mountain unicycling was an emerging sport. After winning several North American titles, Holm last year earned the top technical mountain unicyclist award at the World Unicycling Championships held in Seattle.
For Holm, unicycling is more than a sport. "It's about taking this crazy thing and riding it in some amazing places," he says. To Bhutan, for example. Few foreigners are allowed into the kingdom and Holm wondered how he and fellow rider Nathan Hoover, of California, would be received. Not to worry. Schoolchildren swarmed them in villages, and some monks in traditional garb took the curious vehicles for a spin. "There's something about a unicycle," muses Holm, "that makes people smile."
SHARON WOOD, 46, MOUNTAIN CLIMBER AND MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER
Even though she was born in Halifax and raised in Vancouver, Wood has always been more attracted to rock than water. "I left home when I was 16," she says, "and what I knew was this: I wanted to live in the mountains." Wood headed to Jasper, lied about her age and got a job as a tour guide at nearby Maligne Lake. She subsequently worked as a cook, a barmaid and a ski lift operator, all as a means of staying in the landscape she loved. Wood also discovered another passion: high-altitude mountain climbing. Soon enough, it would take her to the top of the world -- and lasting fame.
In 1986, Wood became the first North American woman to summit Mount Everest. The feat led to a second career as a motivational speaker. These days, Wood, who lives in Canmore, gives between 30 and 40 presentations a year. "Mountain climbing is such a tangible metaphor," she says. "The notion that it's not always the biggest and strongest one who gets to the top; sometimes it's the most innovative and creative."
From the kitchen of her home, just off Canmore's main street, Wood has a spectacular view of the Rockies. "Being able to step outside my door and be on the side of a mountain in minutes is a big part of who I am," she says. While the speaking gigs mean frequent travel to distant cities, they help provide a comfortable life for Wood and her sons, Robin, 13, and Daniel, 11(she is separated from the boys' father, Chris Stethem, a snow hazards expert). Even so, Wood finds public speaking far more stressful than scaling a mountain. "I'm kind of shy," she says. "To be an introvert and a motivational speaker is challenging."
For Wood, one of the biggest draws of the mountains is the people. "They are different than in the city," she says. "They are friendly, unpretentious and they look you in the eye." Oh yes, and one more thing. "I think we are kind of greedy. We want to squeeze all of the juice we can out of life."
SID MARTY, 58, MOUNTAIN POET
Marty is a bear of a man -- big hands, big laugh, big opinions. He's lived his life in broad strokes, too. Consider the many labels applied to him: poet, singer-songwriter, author, freelance journalist, park warden. Most of all, Marty is a man of the mountains. Heck, he wrote the book on it, 1978's appropriately named Men for the Mountains, a lyrical account of Marty's years with the national parks service in Banff, Jasper and Yoho. It raised the ire of his employers for its depiction of some senior parks officials as incompetent at best and duplicitous at worst. Shortly after the book appeared, Marty, who describes himself then as "young, foolish and headstrong," quit his job.
The son of a trucker, Marty grew up in Medicine Hat and Calgary. After studying English at Montreal's Sir George Williams University, he pursued a graduate degree at the University of Calgary. But he began to realize academia was not for him. He wanted to write and to live in the mountains, which had held him in thrall since age 17, when he landed a job as a dishwasher at Lake O'Hara Lodge in Yoho. Working as a park warden, he figured, was a way to do both.
After he left the parks service, things got tough. Freelance writing proved precarious and housing costs in Canmore, where he lived, were getting prohibitive. He and wife Myrna(the couple have two grown sons)bought land in the foothills country near Pincher Creek, Alta. The Rockies are on his doorstep, and Marty continues to explore them, on foot and horseback. But the move still clearly rankles the big guy. "There are so many people living in Canmore only because they have money and think it's the place to be," grouses Marty. "They make it impossible for people who love the mountains to afford to live there."
STEPHEN HERRERO, 63, GRIZZLY BEAR EXPERT
It's 1967, and the Vietnam war is raging. A disillusioned Herrero is looking for a change. Born in San Francisco and raised amid the saltwater marshes and farmlands just south of the city, he's watched developers destroy the wild places he grew up with. Now, America is mired in a war he opposes. With a Ph.D. in animal behaviour and ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, Herrero decides to take a year off to travel with his wife and three young children. Four months later, he finds himself in Banff, excited at the prospect of putting down roots in a new, less despoiled, country.
That's pretty much how Canada became home for one of the world's foremost experts on grizzly bears. With one additional twist: the Herreros were actually headed to Montana's Glacier National Park that summer, but veered northward after hearing that two people had just been killed by bears. The fatalities, the first in Glacier's history, led some scientists to declare grizzlies inherently dangerous and urge they be eliminated from national parks. "That seemed a topic worth researching," says Herrero.
Over the next 30 years, while teaching at the University of Calgary, Herrero did just that. The vast majority of bear attacks, he found, involved animals habituated to eating human food and garbage. Bear-proof trash bins introduced in the 1980s dramatically reduced the threat. Herrero wrote an authoritative book, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, and was instrumental in changing the popular perception of grizzlies from terrors of the wild to animals which need, and deserve, protection.
While he resides in Calgary, Herrero's field research takes him frequently to the mountains, as does his love of climbing and skiing. "Over time, a part of you is there," he says. "It's a pretty special thing."
SHERRY NEWSTEAD, 32, SNOWBOARDER, STUNTWOMAN AND TALENT AGENCY OWNER
Newstead doesn't exactly fit the macho stereotype of the freewheeling snowboarder. At five foot one, 112 lb., the blond, blue-eyed beauty could easily be in the movies -- which, as a matter of fact, she often is. Newstead's film credits, as a stunt snowboarder, include Agent Cody Banks and MVP 2 and MVP 3. Since 2001, she has run her own agency, Action Talent, which links athletes with directors and producers of feature films and commercials. It's all part of Newstead's effort to carve out a post-competitive career -- and to stay put in Whistler, B.C., the mountain resort town where the North Vancouver native has lived for the past 12 years.
Barely out of her teens, Newstead fell in with a group of hard-core snowboarders, mostly guys, who congregated in Whistler. Soon, she was boarding competitively -- and excelling at it. For two years, she reigned as the Canadian boardercross champion and was headed to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano as a member of the national team before being sidelined by an injury.
The mountains have also brought her romance. On July 12, Newstead will get married, in Whistler, to downhill skier Rob Boyd. In words that echo the sentiments of many a mountain person, Newstead explains why she plans to never leave her adopted home. "The people here are fun, outgoing, positive," she says. "They know there's more to it all than just working. Life is too short for that."