CANMORE – In the world of climbing, Barb Clemes has, as they say, done it all.
She’s climbed at a high skill level on overhanging rock, on steep frozen waterfalls, on large, challenging glaciated peaks, worked as a professional guide and competed on indoor walls.
She was a member of the first Canadian women’s only team to climb North America’s highest mountain, 6,191-metre Denali; the first female to accomplish many of the Rockies’ great waterfall ice routes; and climbed the expert grade of 5.12 before – and after – giving birth.
With four decades of experience under her harness in various disciplines through an evolving range of equipment and styles, Clemes has earned a master’s place amidst Canada’s climbers.
It has earned the longtime Canmore resident an invitation to present at the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival’s Dirtbag Café event to share stories of Canadian women’s climbing achievements.
Clemes discovered climbing at 21 when, after graduating with a degree in physiotherapy from the University of Toronto, she travelled west to work at Vancouver General Hospital for two years. She also participated in a month-long Outward Bound course to experience a change from city life.
While she struggled with the cardio aspects of mountain adventuring, her background as a national-level competitive gymnast helped her excel at rock climbing.
“I fell in love, with this first exposure, to all aspects of climbing and travelling in the mountains,” Clemes admitted. “I loved the emotional aspect – fear; the intellectual – working out moves and systems [ropes and other gear]; and the physical challenge and creativity of rock climbing.”
She began by climbing the slabs and cracks of Squamish granite using traditional gear – placing protection that is removed by the seconder – on single and multi-pitch routes. She made easy alpine ascents on popular Coast mountains, including Garibaldi north of Vancouver and Mounts Baker and Rainer in Washington state. She then progressed to ice climbing on frozen waterfalls before embracing sport climbing on steep routes protected by bolts permanently drilled into the rock.
Today, she most enjoys climbing indoors at “fun and beautiful” Elevation Place, and on “social, safe, but challenging” sport routes outdoors. Her proudest accomplishments are not connected to individual peaks or difficulty levels, but to the experience of climbing in her 60s, and with some of the same women throughout the decades, and some young, keen female millennials.
“Though I have felt satisfied with some relatively hard alpine routes, waterfalls and multi-pitch rock, I feel in the end it is the friendships that have weathered all the years and are still growing deeper that make me the proudest of my years of climbing,” she said.
“Climbing constantly produces many intense situations and emotions and you can – though it isn't a given – more easily develop deep, long lasting and respectful friendships through sharing adventures, the unknown, fears, emotional highs and lows, disappointments, your successes and those of your partners.”
Sharing her stories on the Banff festival stage, she added, is a treat.
“The chance to be a storyteller, serious and humorous, of a time period when very few women were climbing, especially ice, rock and alpine, and to speak at such a respected festival as the Banff festival, is indeed a privilege.”
Clemes shares The Frilly & the Chilly at the Dirtbag Café next Wednesday (Oct. 30) at the Banff Centre’s The Club.