Coast Mountains legend John Clarke lived life to its peak

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Warm, sunny memories are particularly welcome on cool, dark days. In this case, picture a sandbar in the Sims Creek Valley, tucked into the Coast Mountains. It’s August 2010, and the Georgia Straight has journeyed an hour or so north of Squamish to attend a naming ceremony unlike any other.

In honour of legendary mountaineer John Clarke, a nearby peak is being christened. Hosting the sacred ritual is Squamish First Nation hereditary chief Bill Williams. As is customary, Williams presides but doesn’t speak, instead nominating Squamish carver Aaron Nelson Moody to conduct the celebration on his behalf. At one point, Moody calls on a number of attendees to step forward to receive an assignment: witness and spread the word of John Clarke’s manifold accomplishments. To that end, each witness is presented with four quarters knotted together in the corner of a scarf, a symbolic payment to fund the cost. Since then, two among the appointed ones, Lisa Baile and John Baldwin, have done just that.

Baile, who cofounded the youth-oriented Wilderness Education Program with Clarke in 1996, recently authored John Clarke: Explorer of the Coast Mountains (Harbour Publishing), about the explorer and mountaineer’s accomplishments and life both on and off the peaks. The Vancouverite notched some 600 first ascents in the ranges between the Lower Mainland and Prince Rupert, erecting a stone cauldron at the top of each to mark the feat, as original a way to get one’s rocks off as can be imagined.

Not that Clarke boasted about his successes. That was left to others, such as Michael McCullough, who penned a feature on Clarke for the Georgia Straight in 1992. The front-cover copy below his smiling face said it all: “John Clarke has made it his life’s work to climb every peak in the Coast Mountains. After a quarter-century, he’s bagged most of them.” At that point, he still had a decade to go before his untimely death from a brain tumour at age 57.

With his shock of white hair, trim white beard, and white climbing duds, Clarke exuded cover-boy charm. As proof of his spellbinding persona, Baile quotes renowned rock climber Peter Croft, who accompanied Clarke on a weeklong traverse in the Klattasine Range in 1986: “I’d look back at him in this white outfit with this white beard—more Merlin than Merlin. And what he was doing was magic.”

The fact that Clarke made many of his extended traverses alone, often for months at a time, was more a matter of circumstance than personal preference: few others could spare the time. Gregarious by nature, Clarke met his match in mountaineer Baldwin, who became his steadfast tentmate for 12 years. When reached at his Vancouver home, Baldwin, the author of two best-selling books on ski touring, told the Straight that what set Clarke apart was his determination to explore every inch of the Coast Mountains. “One of the things about John is that he made it happen. He figured out how to do a route and then headed out.”

Over the years, Clarke returned to favourite areas with Baldwin, such as the Tahumming River at the head of Toba Inlet, where the duo made three separate trips around the horseshoe-shaped valley. “Everything about it is a little more special,” Baldwin said. When asked to compare that topography with the trail Clarke opened between Sims Creek and Jervis Inlet that now crests Mount John Clarke, Baldwin laughed and said: “His route is a steep climb—7,000 feet up and straight down 7,000 feet. It’s not the tallest peak but gives out on top to a long ridge zone on the outer edge of the coast that he loved.”

After the 2010 naming ceremony, Baldwin and Baile, accompanied by their spouses and a coterie of fellow climbers, headed off overnight for the first official ascent of the summit. In Baile’s appraisal, Mount John Clarke—the apex of the wilderness classroom where he frequently led groups of urban youth—is a modest peak that commands breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.

On the phone from her Kitsilano home, Baile told the Straight that Clarke’s commitment to conservation was equally as powerful as his commitment to exploring the Coast Mountains. She ranked him as a modern-day Simon Fraser or David Thompson: “Imagine them going into a classroom and telling stories. That’s what John did, and kids adored him. A mountain isn’t enough; a school should be named after him.”

Care to experience a taste of Clarke’s Coast Mountains for yourself? Baldwin, honorary patron of the nascent Spearhead Huts Project, was quick to recommend a day trip that he and his wife, Linda Bily—an equally accomplished mountaineer in her own right—made to the Diamond Head region of Garibaldi Provincial Park in early December. “It’s easily reached from Squamish and is a good bet for anyone of any ability level on either skis or snowshoes. In the spirit of John Clarke, make it happen.” -

Access: Details on Lisa Baile’s book can be found at the Lisa Baile's website. Info on the Wilderness Education Program is on their website. Learn about upcoming presentations by John Baldwin, as well as his maps and books, at the John Baldwin website. For info on the Spearhead Huts Project, visit their website. For directions to Diamond Head, visit the Government of B.C website.

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