________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 4 . . . . October 15, 2004


Women Explorers: One Hundred Years of Courage and Audacity. (Amazing Stories).

Helen Y. Rolfe.
Canmore, AB: Altitude Publishing (Distributed by Saunders Book Company), 2003.
109 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 1-55153-873-3.

Subject Headings:
Women mountaineers-Biography.
Women explorers-Biography.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

** /4


Like many mountaineers before her, and many more to come, Georgia [Engelhard] fell in love with the Canadian Rockies. The towering walls of limestone were a welcome pleasure far removed from the skyline of tall buildings that encircled her home in New York City. Her love for the mountains, however, was slow to form. When she visited the Alps and the Dolomites in Europe as a young girl, she was somewhat reserved. The peaks were “handsome” she thought, but mountain climbing was simply “an insane sport.” More excited about horseback riding, Georgia had no ambition to climb. Besides, she was scared of heights.


Women Mountaineers and Adventurers is a more accurate title for this book as most of the profiles focus on women who are closely associated with mountaineering in Canada, as climbers, guides, or in the case of Elizabeth Parker, a journalist who inspired the creation of the Alpine Club of Canada.

     Spectacular scenery draws multitudes of tourists to the Canadian Rockies every year. The allure of the mountains is something the author, Canmore, Alberta resident Helen Y. Rolfe can identify with, having relocated there from Ontario in her early twenties. Rolfe could have omitted the first chapter as it summarizes the rest of the book with little unique content apart from a bit of historical context. Since most of the adventurers appear in a chronological order, it is odd that Rolfe chose to begin her bio-historical tales with the case of Sharon Wood, who, in 1986, became the first North American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the chapter, Rolfe demonstrates the treacherous conditions faced by the expedition and the crucial role of team commitment.

     Gertrude Benham, was an English woman who spent the climbing season of 1904 obsessively climbing as many peaks in the Rockies and Selkirk Range as possible. This was an era when almost all climbers were men and when professional mountain guides from Europe were keys to the success of climbers. Women, like Benham, defied tradition, abandoning their Edwardian dresses for knickers and other practical mountain gear. Ironically, she helped to finance her activities by selling knitting and embroidery that she worked on while resting in camp. The Truda Peaks in the Selkirk Range are named in her honour.

     Elizabeth Parker of Winnipeg spent a year and a half in the mountains at Banff where she sought the healing power of mountain air and mineral hot springs. Her love for the mountains emerged in her stories published in the Manitoba Free Press starting in 1904. Her writing was instrumental in bringing together Canadians with an interest in climbing into the Alpine Club of Canada. In 1906, its first year of operation, the club had just over three hundred members, seventy-seven of whom were women.

     For over forty years, Caroline Hinman operated an adventure company called “Off the Beaten Path” that offered one-or two-month expeditions in the Canadian Rockies. Customers rode horseback, fished, hiked, and slept in tents in the rugged wilderness.

     Georgia Engelhard, another climbing fanatic, broke her own record when, in 1936, she recorded forty mountain ascents in one season. In the mid 1940s she turned her attention to mountain photography and became quite successful in that field.

     Leanne Allison is the last woman profiled in Women Explorers. While early mountaineers like Benham were motivated in part by their desire to “bag” mountain peaks (to be the first person to ascend the peaks), Allison's quest for adventure in the mountains takes on a new impetus:

What fuels an explorer? For Leanne it is conservation. Her motivation for adventure has evolved from that of personal achievement to caring deeply for the big picture –– nature, the environment, the planet.

     In the 1990s, Allison joined her future husband Karsten Heuer and dog Webster on part of an incredible 3400 km journey along the spine of the Canadian Rockies. The expedition was part of the Y2Y initiative (Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative) that sought to create wildlife corridors linking existing parks and protected lands and had, as its immediate purpose, assessing the challenges faced by wildlife along the route. This story ends with Allison and Heuer embarking on a study of the porcupine caribou in 2003 that would last seven months and involve skiing and hiking some 2000 km.

     The final section, entitled “100 Years of Women and Adventure,” is a chronology of women's achievements in the Canadian mountains as well as a parking-lot for interesting tidbits about many of the more recent adventurers whose accomplishments are not otherwise developed in the book. The book also includes a bibliography, a map of the Canadian Rockies and seven black-and-white photographs of most of the people featured in the work. Wood appears in colour on the front cover. The publisher was unable to locate a photo of one subject, Gertrude Benham. There is no index.

     Rolfe's prose is serviceable. The truthful accounts that she presents are fairly interesting and appropriate for the series theme, “Amazing Stories.” Her accounts of the adventures of the two contemporary subjects are most successful in explaining obvious questions like “What drives these women?” Readers will acquire some new vocabulary and discover more about the history of Canada and the evolution of mountaineering as a recreational activity. This work will find a national audience, but I suspect that it will speak most effectively to residents of Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon who have more opportunities for first-hand contact with the tallest mountain ranges in Canada.


Val Ken Lem, a catalogue librarian at Ryerson University, Toronto, has visited and hiked in the Canadian Rockies and once stayed at the Alpine Club of Canada's guesthouse near Canmore, Alberta.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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