In her three-decade career guiding people on remote adventures from the Rockies to Peru to Mongolia, Helen Sovdat has confidently managed countless challenges.
But being named patron of the 2015 Mountain Guides Ball, a joint Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) annual fundraising event, is a whole other kind of challenge.
"I was totally surprised. I had to think about this for a while before I accepted," Sovdat said. "As a natural introvert, it's tough for me to get in to the spotlight. But I'm thrilled to represent both the ACMG and the ACC. I know that I am a bridge, strongly connected to both organizations."
Over the course of her impressive career, Sovdat has guided heli-skiers for Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) for two decades, and led climbing and backcountry skiing trips and leadership development courses for the ACC for 35 years. She is also an instructor for the ACMG's training program through Thompson Rivers University.
She pioneered ski traverses in BC's Coast Mountains, including, with partners, a 500-kilometre glaciated alpine traverse from Bella Coola to Vancouver. In the Yukon, she's made three ascents of Canada's highest peak, 5,959-metre Mount Logan, a ski ascent of 4,250-metre Mount Kennedy and climbed new routes and guided clients up Mounts Steele and Fairweather, among others.
"I love the expansive, wild Saint Elias," she said. "It's so remote, access is difficult, but it's magical."
She's led numerous international expeditions to Peru, Bolivia, Patagonia and South America's highest peak, Aconcagua. Her mountaineering expeditions to Mongolia are a favourite with her clients.
She's also made three significant Himalayan ascents, two of them 8,000ers. In 1996, she and Calgary's Marg Saul became the first Canadian women to summit 8,201-metre Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest mountain. That same year, Sovdat, Saul and the late Canmore climber Karen McNeill climbed 6,812-metre Ama Dablam.
Then in 2009, with both women marking their 50th birthdays, Sovdat teamed up her long-time friend Val Pitkethly, and a third teammate, Mel Proudlock, a British amateur with previous Himalayan experience, to climb 8,156-metre Manaslu. In so doing, Pitkethly and Sovdat became the first Canadians to climb the world's eighth-highest mountain.
For Sovdat though, B.C.'s Coast Mountains will always be her cherished training ground. Beginning with an ascent of the West Lion as a high school student in Vancouver, Sovdat worked as a Camp Potlatch counsellor before attending UBC and joining the fabled VOC and embracing adventures with other keen mountaineers including Steve Ludwig and writer and photographer John Baldwin.
"Every spring, a group of us would do a long ski traverse in a remote part of the Coast Range," she recalled. "Looking back, we were a lot closer to the edge than we thought. Our gear was simple. We had leather Telemark boots, thin parallel skis, strap-on skins, klister wax, 60-40 nylon parkas and lots of wool clothing. It was pre-GPS, and we only carried maps and compass for navigation. A short section of eight-millimetre rope and a few biners and slings was our climbing rack. We never roped up to cross the glaciers either. Our first long tour was from the Tchakasan Glacier to Meager Creek. What an eye opener for me!"
Fortunately, Sovdat's many weeks and years spent in the mountains since have endowed her with a deep wealth of knowledge of how to travel safely in remote, hazardous terrain. And, no matter the peak, the country or the ski slope, Sovdat is widely admired and sincerely well-liked by all who've shared a rope or ski turns with her.
"Helen is strongly representative of women in the profession and life of guiding," said ACMG president Marc Ledwidge. "She has taught, shared and role modelled the skills needed to live in the mountains and to ski or climb in frequently hostile environments. She began guiding at a time when women were not accepted in a traditionally male world and has persevered for over two decades pioneering ski traverses, heli-ski guiding and climbing in the great ranges of the world. Whether she is climbing for herself or at work guiding, she is supportive and encouraging to others around her, no matter their skill level or experience."
One of nine internationally certified female mountain guides in Canada, Sovdat is just the fourth woman to be honoured as patron in the MGB's 26-year history, and only second, after Sharon Wood, to be recognized individually and not as part of a couple. Sovdat said she embraced the opportunity to represent skilled, competent women in her profession.
"I know that my female peers and I are still a bit of an oddity." Sovdat said. "We started guiding at a time in the late 1980s when there were no role models. We've managed to make a career out of guiding despite gender roles and expectations. Over the years, women have become more accepted as guides and there are more getting involved all the time. Guiding is a lifestyle that I have totally embraced, and I hope to represent and inspire all of the women who are in the mountains. And I hope to bring the spotlight to women in the ACC and the ACMG. After all, the ACC wouldn't exist as it is without the input and drive of (co-founder) Elizabeth Parker."
Her reputation as highly professional, generous and humble make Sovdat an ideal choice for MGB patron, said ACC president Gord Currie.
"Her many friends in the mountains of the world speak to her quiet sincerity and appreciation of a good story," Currie said. "She is a respected guide, instructor and leader, and an exemplar of the melding of immense talent and humility."
Having attended a few MGBs over the years, which are semi-formal gatherings complete with four-course dinner, live music and dancing, Sovdat said she looked forward to dressing up.
"I enjoy seeing some guides in their lederhosen and others in their kilts," she said. "Beautiful dresses and shoes remind me of the red high heels that I wore on Cho Oyu. Mountain boots off and dancing shoes on!"
The ACC/ACMG Mountain Guides Ball takes place on Saturday, Oct. 24 at Banff's Rimrock Hotel. For tickets or more information visit www.alpineclubofcanada.ca.