News » Whistler

Canadian leads world’s climbers

Former ACC president takes helm



By Lynn Martel

With 97 member associations from 68 different countries representing over 2.5 million individual members, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) has its work cut out as it strives to represent the best interests of its members in matters of climbing and mountaineering.

And as the UIAA’s first non-Western European president, former Alpine Club of Canada president Mike Mortimer, who was elected to his new position at the UIAA general assembly in Banff in October, says his primary goal is to bring improved cohesiveness to the international organization.

“With such a large organization, reaching consensus can be as challenging at times as trying to reach consensus in the UN,” Mortimer said.

Founded in 1932 by representatives from 18 countries who gathered in Chamonix, France, the UIAA operates with an 11-member board and a council consisting of 19 members with voting privileges, hailing from such diverse homelands as Belgium, Greece, Romania, Korea, Ecuador, Russia and South Africa.

Marking its 75 th anniversary this year, the UIAA is the recognized international federation and acknowledged authority on all international climbing and mountaineering matters. Its nine active commissions oversee areas including access and conservation, expeditions, medicine, mountaineering, climbing safety and mountain protection.

As well, the UIAA is the governing body for ice climbing and ski mountaineering competitions, each with its own rules and regulations committed to fair play, drug free sport and protection of the environment. Each sport has its own calendar of international events with a World Cup, World Championship, continental championships and youth events.

Most recently, the Competition Climbing branch of the UIAA separated from the umbrella organization at the October general assembly, when it was decided that the International Council for Competition Climbing would administer the sport as an independent international federation, in accordance with Olympic Games requirements.

In the long term, Mortimer said, the UIAA would like to see not only competition climbing, which takes place on man-made indoor and outdoor structures, but also competitive ski mountaineering and ice climbing become Olympic sports, with a hoped-for target of 2018 for competitive ski mountaineering. While it’s been growing in popularity in Europe since the 1980s, competitive events have only been taking place in Canada for five years in Whistler, while Sunshine Village will host its second event in February. By working at a grass roots level to bring a higher profile to the sport through local activities, it is hoped it will grow to produce more international level competitions and competitors.

“These things take a lot of work,” Mortimer said. “There’s a really big difference between a fun event, like the Canmore (ice climbing) festival, and international events, like the World Cup competitions in Europe.”

With its head office located in Bern, Switzerland, Mortimer said he doesn’t see any unusual challenges arising from his residing thousands of kilometres and numerous times zones away in Calgary, despite the fact 95 per cent of the UIAA’s membership is European.

“We meet every six weeks or so,” Mortimer said. “A lot of our work is done electronically, and by telephone. It is a worldwide organization, with 95 per cent of its members in Europe, and the rest in North America, South America, Africa and Asia. But if you want to be world wide, that’s part of the deal.”

In some ways, he said, being non-European has its pluses.

“In North America, we don’t have any built in prejudices like many of the European countries,” Mortimer said.

Member organizations, such as the German alpine club, with over 700,000 members, he explained, yield considerable political power, as does Italy’s alpine club, which has the ears of no less than five members of Parliament.

“They live in the mountains, they know how to recreate in the mountains and the tourism industry is very, very important to them,” Mortimer said.

One of his goals, Mortimer said, is to work toward giving a sense of direction to different individual federations, while working toward a common good.

Reaching consensus among such a large and diverse group as the UIAA can provide a formidable challenge, Mortimer said, explaining that sometimes the differences in opinion and sensibility are ingrained in local or regional attitudes.

“For the most part, Europeans believe access to the mountains for recreation is a fundamental right, while in North America we see it more as a privilege, one that can be jeopardized or lost without proper considerations,” Mortimer said. “It can be complicated to make sweeping international statements. The main challenge is to bring orderly debate to the process. There was a reluctance to see change, but change is necessary.”

Born in Britain and raised in South Africa, after seven years of traveling the world Mortimer settled in Calgary 30 years ago, where he ran the popular retail store, The Hostel Shop, selling climbing gear and outdoor equipment for 22 years. A prominent member and prolific volunteer with the Alpine Club of Canada, he served as chair of the ACC C algary Section and the Huts Committee, where he laid the foundations for the modern hut system — now numbering 23 huts. In the 1980s he organized three major mountain leadership conferences for the ACC, and in 2001 organized and ran North America’s first conference on energy and waste management systems in alpine shelters. He served as ACC President from 1994 to 2001, represented North America at the UIAA, served as the ACC’s first external relations director, and also assumed the role of centennial committee chair for the ACC’s 100 th anniversary in 2006. In 2005, Mortimer was made an Honorary ACC member.

With his latest posting — also volunteer — Mortimer said his main goal would be to bring a sense of cohesiveness to the organization, and to lead the organization to recognize a more external view, beyond a Euro-centric one.

“At micro levels, the member organizations all have the same problems and challenges and opportunities,” Mortimer said. “I see what I’ve been doing with the ACC for the past 20 years as an apprenticeship.”