Mountain language 

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In a previous life I was a climber in Britain — on the weekends, of course. Nothing serious, nothing involving sponsors, my vertigo would never allow for that sort of thing.

I'd get to the top of a relatively easy slab, sometimes bloodied and definitely bruised. I was a lousy climber but I loved it.

One time, I took part in a three-person traverse of the Snowdon Horseshoe in Wales. It was a bit of a windy weekend, around 90 mph, much rain; we had to chase our tent the night before across a sopping field and I have the unforgettable memory of a rising full moon illuminating us as we ran after it. It was like a big, green, glowing nylon tumbleweed.

We did the traverse despite conditions; it was also unforgettable.

"Snowdon" evolved from the Old English word for "Snow Hill," which reminds me that while I am still proud of my feat it's not exactly the Spearhead Traverse. Snowdon also has a Welsh name, Yr Wyddfa, which translates into "The Tumulus," which is defined as a mound of earth or stones over a grave.

Conditions being what they were that day, "tumulus" seemed apropos. The mountains were bereft of trees, the only life seemed to be heather and lichen and us; it was stark and altogether a Welsh kind of wilderness, one that suggests Celts and banished kings of old.

The Welsh name ties into an Arthurian legend. A giant called Rhitta Gawr had the unsociable habit of killing kings and making their beards into clothing. When he went after Arthur's beard, the king retaliated and defeated him; according to one version of the legend, Rhitta Gawr ended up buried under a cairn or mound or, eventually, Yr Wyddfa.

So what's in a name? Sometimes — hopefully — an extremely good story, a touch of history, the dreams and nightmares of ancestors, yours and others.

I think about this region, Whistler and the Sea to Sky, and I see a kind of missed opportunity.

Take "The Grimy One," better known to non-indigenous people as Mount Garibaldi, one of the most visually stunning mountains on the drive up from Vancouver to Squamish.

Nch'kay, as the Squamish people have always called it, is well named. Climbers know it is better to ascend it in the winter whatever the temperature than in the summer because the rock is scrappy, dusty, volcanic and very difficult to get up. Its silt creates the muddiness of the Cheekye River ("Cheek-eye" to state it phonetically for unaccustomed eyes and tongues. Nch'kay is pronounced almost the same way, with the "N" almost silent.)

In oral tradition, the Squamish say there was a huge flood over the region — and as far south as Mount Baker (Xwsa7k) in Washington State — and one of the only bits of land poking through the surface of this sea was Nch'kay. Survivors of the flood were in canoes and they tied themselves to the peak of Nch'kay to wait for the waters to subside.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, considered the father of modern Italy, is the man after whom Mount Garibaldi was named in the 19th century. His life story and the story of the Italian war for independence from Austria are epic.

But I want to know more about the stories of the Grimy One; for every story about that mountain, there are others that exist about the rest of the region and from no less than two traditional sources, of course, because the Lil'wat people have stories and separate language, too.

I would like to know these stories as well as I know the legends of Greek and Roman mythology, and I want others to know them, too, especially our children.

How do we bridge that?

Some overtures are made. The signage up the Sea to Sky Highway is in three languages in places. Whistler, for example, is Skwikw in the Squamish language. The Lil'wat language, for the peoples north of Whistler, have their own distinctive language and stories. Similar place names in local First Nations languages and information like stories will be available on regional trails, it was recently announced, too.

And the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in the Upper Village is a wonderful source of words and stories. It's where I've gained most of my knowledge, outside of speaking to friends from both communities.

But why not call Mount Garibaldi and the provincial park that surrounds it Nch'kay? Or to call the neighbouring mountain of Black Tusk, a great spike in the sky eroded from a dead volcano, by its Lil'wat name — T'akt'akmuten tl'a Im7imyaxa7en — or The Thunderbird's Perch. Sure, it's a mouthful for the uninitiated, but that only takes a little practice.

The languages which provide these names are in trouble, there are efforts to keep them alive and teach them to new generations, but I believe it would go a long way to showing respect that is long due and supporting these efforts by making the words and the stories part of the everyday experiences of everyone.


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