Women Adventurers in the Rockies

Women Adventurers in the Rockies captures the story of women who lead adventurous lives. Not all of them scale the peaks that surround us but each of them has met physical, intellectual, artistic or emotional challenges with a spirit of adventure that sets them apart.

Wearing everything from skirts to breeches to the latest in climbing gear, these adventurous women have walked, ridden, climbed and skied these peaks and valleys. They have established homes here, built a sense of community and welcomed visitors to the Canadian Rockies. Each of them has been shaped by these mountains, as each has shaped the culture of this place.

Hunters of Knowledge and Peace: Mary Schäffer & Mary Vaux

When Mary Schäffer (1861 – 1939) first came to the Canadian Rockies in 1885, she would never have described herself as an adventurer. She pored over the stories of explorers, but it was not until her first husband, Charles died that she began to follow in their footsteps. To finish the book about mountain wildflowers that Charles began, she had to acquire the skills that would take her into the backcountry and eventually enable her to travel through untracked areas by horseback to Maligne Lake. She not only became the first non-native woman to see this “string of pearls” as she described it, but also conducted the survey of Maligne Lake that ultimately led to its inclusion in Jasper National Park.

Mary Vaux (1860 – 1940) a contemporary of Schäffer’s and another Quaker woman, traveled with her father and brothers. She and her brothers studied the great glaciers and, with camera and film, captured a legacy in ice. Both Mary Vaux and Mary Schäffer were accomplished artists who froze the colours of mountain wildflowers in water and paint. Each of these women also recorded their travels in writing and left a record that provides insight into their adventurous spirits and indomitable humour.

From City to Backcountry: Lizzie Rummel & Fran Drummond

For 32 years, Lizzie Rummel (1897 – 1980), the backcountry baroness, welcomed visitors to wilderness lodges throughout the Canadian Rockies. Born in Germany as Baroness Elizabet von Rummel, she and her family were forced to leave in the turbulent time leading up to WW I. In 1938, after more than 20 years operating a ranch in southern Alberta, at the age of 41 she decided to try something new and began her long career running lodges at Mt. Assiniboine and Skoki. She is remembered fondly by all who knew her as simply “Lizzie.”

As part of her journey toward her backcountry career, Fran Drummond worked with Lizzie for a short time, but she brings her own special brand of welcome to her work at Twin Falls Chalet in Yoho National Park. Like Lizzie, Fran was also born far from the Canadian Rockies in Korea. In addition to a full-time job with Amoco Canada Petroleum Company in Calgary, for nearly 50 years, Fran Drummond has hauled 30-kg packs up the winding 18 km. trail to welcome her guests. Her contagious laughter, love and extensive knowledge of this place give her guests special insight into the Yoho Valley. Catharine Whyte (1906 - 1979), a friend of Fran’s was one of the people who encouraged her and supported her to make Twin Falls Chalet the wonderful place it is today.

Adventures in Art and Intellect: Catharine Whyte & Eleanor Luxton

Catharine Whyte never failed to support her friends and to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. She left a deep legacy of caring. She left her most enduring mark on Banff as a philanthropist, providing contributions to found such organizations as the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and the Banff Public Library. But first and foremost, Catharine was an artist. Raised in Concord, MA, she met Peter Whyte at art school in Boston and came with him to live in Banff. Her art captures the beauty of this place in bright skies over snow-crowned peaks. In addition to the gift of more than 800 artworks left by her and Peter, Catharine’s almost daily letters to her mother are a legacy that documents daily life in Banff in as profound and personal a way as her art.

Eleanor Luxton (1908 - 1995), was the only one of the women adventurers featured in this exhibition actually born and raised in Banff. Eleanor had a love of learning throughout her life. At an early age, this intellectual adventurer left her mountain home to pursue an education on Montreal. In the 1940s, Eleanor Luxton worked as a draftsperson for Canadian Pacific Railway. Even today, only 15% of CPR’s workforce is female. Eleanor returned home to Banff and is still remembered by her students as a remarkable and inspiring teacher. Despite ill health, she spent her later years documenting her family’s history. In her last year, Eleanor created the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation, dedicated to preserving and supporting the history of Banff and western Canadian history.

Pushing the Boundaries: Nancy Hansen & Diny Harrison

Early adventurers such as Mary Schäffer and Mary Vaux inspire many contemporary women. Each of the women I interviewed for this exhibition, remarked that they were honored to be in the company of such amazing women from the past. When Mary Vaux, at the age of 43, became the first woman to climb 3199 (10,495 feet) meter Mt. Stephen, it is unlikely that she could have envisioned Nancy Hansen (1969 - ) climbing all 54 peaks over 11,000 feet (3,350 meters) in the Canadian Rockies. Nancy was the first and only female to accomplish this feat.

The two Marys had only men to guide them when they visited here. In 1992, ninety-three years after the first Swiss Guide was brought to the Canadian Rockies by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1899, Diny Harrison (1958 - ) was the first North American woman to become an internationally certified full mountain guide and member of the International Federation of Mountain Guides. Like many of these women adventurers, her skill, talent and perseverance are tempered by a wild sense of humour.

Wardens' Lives and Wardens' Wives: Dorothy Carleton & Kathy Calvert

In 1946, when Dorothy Carleton (1919 - ), a war bride from the city of Reading, England, arrived at the door of her primitive one-room cabin with her Warden husband Ed, and their 3-month old baby, she could not have known that one day women would become wardens. She says, “I’m not a real adventurer like these other women,” but it took courage and a positive attitude to survive the long, lonely winters in the backcountry with only her children and husband for company, particularly for someone coming from a city. Of the more than 40,000 British war brides who came to Canada with their soldier husbands, there is no reliable information about how many returned home, with our without their husbands, but some, including Dorothy’s sister-in-law, could not make the adjustment.

It was not until 1973, more than 25 years later, Kathy Calvert (1947 - ) was hired as the first female warden in the mountain parks. Kathy’s climbing riding, hunting and skiing skills made her one of the best at her job. In addition to her career, Kathy continued climbing and skiing. She was on the first women’s expedition to Mount Logan in 1977 and in 1989 went on the first woman’s ski traverse of the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass. For the majority of the 9 years she worked as a warden in Yoho National Park, Kathy also led the public safety program.