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.
While the conference presented the obvious opportunity to network with individuals in your specific fields, the common theme of mountains meant that helpful insights often came from unexpected sources. Rollins, for example, is also an avid recreational speleologist, so she had much to offer the aforementioned cave-bound paleontologist. Conversely, she was interested to hear of developments regarding the ongoing Spearhead Huts Project, which pays close attention to waste management concerns.
Reflecting the conference location, but also the current state of Canadian mountain studies, the Rockies and Columbia Mountains were far better represented than our local Coast Mountains. Conference organizer Zac Robinson, a Rockies specialist himself, acknowledged this imbalance, and stated his desire to increase the presence of coastal specialists at the institute (a not-so-subtle hint to any aspiring mountain nerds out there).
One exception was Samuel Johns, a graduate student in the Geography Department at the University of British Columbia. Johns's research examines the "weekend warrior" archetype of ambitious urban professionals who frequently escape the city to play as hard as they work. Johns's presentation centered upon the intriguing question "to what extent are the mountains a resource to be extracted by weekend warriors."
For these folks the mountains are a crucial part of their weekly routine and personal identity, but they form a specific, intensified relationship with mountain spaces that differs greatly from those who actually reside there. Johns is in the early stages of his research, and is still looking for Vancouver-based interviewees. He can be contacted through UBC's Geography Department.
"Interdisciplinarity" has been a buzzword among Canadian universities for some time, with the belief that much novel and fruitful research can be pursued beyond the confines of traditional academic disciplines. It was this line of thinking that led to the CMSI's formation last year.
As biologist Dr. David Hik, a central figure at both the CMSI and the United Nations-sponsored International Mountain Day, states, "Mountains cover about 20 per cent of the earth, they are islands of biological and cultural diversity, and more than half of humanity relies on mountains for fresh water for drinking, to grow food, support industry, or generate electricity." Climate change is bringing mountains and glaciers even greater prominence. Through mountain-centric study, Hik and his CMSI colleagues hope to gain a unique perspective leading to novel solutions for many pressing concerns both within and beyond the Earth's mountain regions.
Mountain-minded institutes exist elsewhere, most notably the Center for Mountain Studies at Perth College in the U.K., and the Bern, Switzerland-based Mountain Research Initiative. However, these two organizations focus heavily on development studies and environmental sciences, respectively. Aside from being North America's primary node for mountain studies, the CMSI features a far higher number of researchers exploring the cultural dimensions of mountains. The arts, humanities, social and natural sciences are all well represented at the CMSI.
After the concept was hatched in 2009, it quickly became clear that there were already more than 20 professors at the University of Alberta for whom mountains figured prominently in their research interests. They were spread throughout four separate faculties, however. The CMSI was officially formed in 2011 to facilitate collaboration between these disparate mountain scholars and their students.
Today, the CMSI offers a Mountain Studies certificate (similar to an undergraduate minor) for University of Alberta undergrads, and CMSI professors are accepting mountain-focused graduate students through their respective faculties. Long-term, they are working on achieving full department status, which could lead to a potential for an interdisciplinary Mountain Studies major for undergraduates.
The CMSI hopes to not only support successful mountain-focused research projects, but also grow a budding community of scholars who lead the way into a new field of study. This conference and other collaborative projects offer much promise for the future of montology (the study of mountains) in Canada. Thinking Mountains participants and conference organizers were thrilled with the inaugural event, and plans have already begun for Thinking Mountains 2, to occur in late 2014.
For more information on the CMSI and Thinking Mountains conference, visit www.mountains.ualberta.ca.
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