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Feature - War and peace in the mountains

Battle zones, recreational playgrounds or sacred spaces?


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"Mountains are traditional zones of tension – physical, geographical and social – because they often form the boundaries between countries," Larry Hamilton, a Cornell University professor and mountain-environment conservationist, told a standing-room only crowd of 350. "Nineteen wars and seven armed conflicts in the past decade have been over border disputes in mountain regions, where misunderstandings have developed into social and political tension."

Another panelist, Harish Kapadia, one of India’s best-known mountain climbers, has first-hand knowledge of conflict in the mountains: his son was killed last year during a border skirmish between India and Pakistan in the Himalayas.

"I can only hope," he said, "that one day soldiers will be replaced by mountaineers."

But, according to Hamilton, mountain regions are also a place of hope and healing.

"Mountains can play a significant role in dissipating tension," he explained. "Mountains have an intrinsic metaphysical value – they provide solitude and spiritual renewal."

Kapadia agreed: "I am sure we can get there someday."

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Last weekend, the World Cup ski circuit made its annual stop in Canada at Lake Louise. Unlike Whistler, where races were cancelled by bad weather three years in a row during the late 1990s, the event went off without a hitch.

Race organizers have gone on the record as saying the snow conditions at Lake Louise – a 60-kilometre drive north of Banff – will most likely go unparalleled this year.

In another month or so, all eyes will be on Garmisch-Partenkirchen as the World Cup circuit heads to Germany in late January, 2002, for two men’s super-G races.

Former Crazy Canuck downhiller and current Whistler resident Steve Podborski won three times in Garmisch during the 1980s. Interestingly enough, the race course is called the Kandahar – the name of the Taliban’s current strong-hold in Afghanistan.

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Banff is the birthplace of mountain tourism in Canada. In 1885, the transcontinental railway connected Montreal to Vancouver and Banff National Park was established to help boost the area’s fledgling tourism industry.

Canadian Pacific Railway executives figured they could attract more people to the region – and, thus, help pay for the line – by building grand hotels in the western mountains. Hotels were placed in Banff, Lake Louise and Glacier House at the summit of Rogers Pass, and were staffed with Swiss mountain guides.

Today, Banff National Park sees an annual influx of 4.7 million visitors and the tranquil Rocky Mountains have been transformed into a tourist haven.

A sightseeing gondola is strung up the side of Sulphur Mountain. Three major ski areas – Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay – are located within park boundaries. Hikers and mountaineers clamber up and over mountain peaks and passes.