Among Whistlerites and mountain-folk around the world, fleeing school for the freedom of the hills is not only common; it is a downright respectable life's course. Earlier this month that paradigm was flipped upside down as mountain lovers from across the globe convened at a school to study, you guessed it, mountains. Unlikely as this might sound, from Dec. 11th to 15th the University of Alberta's Canadian Mountain Studies Institute (CMSI) hosted their inaugural interdisciplinary Mountain Studies conference, "Thinking Mountains."
Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of International Mountain Day, the conference was organized with the central aim "to promote dialogue about how mountains are understood physically, as ecosystems, in human history, and as part of world cultures." To that end it brought together researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, with the sole requirement that mountains feature prominently in their work.
The call of the mountain conference attracted historians, literary scholars, independent writers and filmmakers, anthropologists, development scholars, parks managers, climatologists, geologists, glaciologists, paleontologists and ecologists. While the majority of participants were Canadian or represented Canadian universities, several American scholars made the trip north (or south from Alaska), and other attendees came from as far as Sweden, France and New Zealand.
Keynote presentations featured such luminaries of mountain lore as UBC professor emeritus Julie Cruikshank, who has conducted groundbreaking research on glaciers and the indigenous oral history of the St. Elias Mountains; Sharon Wood, the first North American woman to summit Mount Everest; and renowned nature artist Robert Bateman.
Chic Scott, the don of Canadian mountaineering and now its leading historian as well, did not present at the conference but was ever-present throughout the week. He was frequently called upon during presentations to confirm facts and offer his authoritative perspective on a wide range of topics.
To counteract the downtown Edmonton campus's distinctly urban and non-mountainous setting, the conference concluded with an optional two-day field trip to Jasper. As well, all conference participants were given passes for the university's indoor climbing gym.
With participants representing such a wide range of professional backgrounds, the presentations and attendant conversations explored a number of issues surrounding work, play, and life in the mountains, past, present, and future.
One panel on receding glaciers examined changing perspectives of tourism at the Columbia Icefield, historical glaciology by Coast Range mountaineers, and efforts to construct a timeline for the return of plants and wildlife to the Rocky Mountains post-Ice Age by carbon-dating bones in caves across the Rockies' Front Range. Though representing distinct fields of inquiry, all three presentations highlighted the dynamism of mountain environments and how this constant change defines how humans and wildlife alike interact with alpine landscapes.
Conference participant Karen Rollins, Project Director for the Canmore-based Backcountry Energy Environmental Solutions (BEES for short), described how the conference provided a great "opportunity to meet like-minded individuals, share information, and come up with ways that we can work together in the future." She spoke as part of a panel on waste management in backcountry settings.