Untold mountain histories edge into the light
Every mountain is more than ancient granite or snowy grandeur set in a picturesque landscape. Each contains a story, and it’s these stories that rivet archival historian Zac Robinson, the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation’s newest researcher.
A long-time mountaineer of Métis heritage, Robinson focuses on the little-told and shrouded histories of those who explored the Canadian Rocky Mountains and the Columbia Mountains, the two most significant of Canada’s mountain ranges.
"I’m primarily interested in the stories that get pushed to the periphery,” says Robinson. “Western Canadian history has for too long neglected the mountains, primarily I think because it’s where people went to play and not settle. So much of its human history needs retrieving and careful positioning within larger western and Canadian histories.”
Robinson is currently at work on an edition of writings by Austrian Conrad Kain, arguably one of the most famous and admired of mountain guides in 20th-century Canada. But it’s not the story of Kain’s feats as a guide or mountaineer that Robinson is interested in, it’s the personal story of the working-class guide revealed in 142 letters written by Kain between 1906 and 1933 to his lifetime friend, Amelie Malek, who kept each one, then, after his death in Canada in 1934, painstakingly typed them out.“The letters were lost during the Second World War, when Vienna (where Malek lived) was sacked, but they resurfaced and were recovered,” says Robinson, who says the tale of the letters themselves, their loss and recovery, is as captivating as the man revealed in the letters.
“They’ve survived multiple ocean crossings, Nazis and burning buildings, and even the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, where they were being reviewed by a vacationing historian before being sent to Canada. He apparently waded to safety in waist-high water with them in his arms,” he says.
Robinson’s own interest in the mountains came via a master’s degree in anthropology before embarking on doctoral studies to examine the history of mountaineering in Canada.
“Growing up in lake-country Ontario, I first came to mountains and mountaineering through literature, through books. And by the time I permanently moved out West in the late 1990s, I was already hooked on all things mountains.” This fall, he’ll bring his passion for the history of sport, recreation and tourism to the classroom, where he’ll teach two second-year classes: one on the principles of tourism and another on the history of leisure and sport in Canada.
As for future research, Robinson says there’s no shortage of inspiration and opportunity. “Post-colonial theorists and writers have challenged us in the 21st century to look at history by connecting culture and empire, geography and literature. Bringing the history of the Rockies and the Columbias into this larger network of relationships has preoccupied me up to now, and I’m still a long way from the top.”