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Thinking Mountains Draws International Crowd to Jasper


By Lynn Martel

Mountain regions, which comprise one-fifth of the world’s surface, offer important areas of study for academics in a variety of disciplines, including natural sciences, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities. From May 5 to 8, 2015, scholars and speakers from around the world descended on Jasper National Park for Thinking Mountains 2015. The goal? To better understand mountain people, places and activities.

Thinking Mountains_Image

Photo by Paul Zizka Photography

This week, over 140 academics, writers, artists, scientists, historians, climbers, community members, and special representatives from numerous western Canadian First Nations gathered in Jasper for the Thinking Mountains 2015 conference.

Hosted by the University of Alberta’s Canadian Mountain Studies Initiative (CMSI), the event’s delegates came from as far as India, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Austria, Indonesia, the UK, US, and across Canada.

The conference speakers comprised a highly accomplished group presenting on a range of themes, including mountain literature, glaciology, wilderness in mountain parks, mixed media artwork, conservation initiatives, caving, and the impact of war, earthquakes and water.

Mountain areas comprise about one-fifth of the world’s surface and serve as natural water storage and delivery systems, providing direct life support for about 10 per cent of the Earth’s inhabitants. They act as indirect life support for another three billion people and inspire recreational, artistic and religious experiences.

The event grew from the creation of the U of A’s Canadian Mountain Studies Initiative, whose long-term aim is to encourage and support interdisciplinary research and learning, as well as to engage with community members.

After the CMSI launch, the conference steering committee – comprised of professors from the U of A’s faculties of Arts, Science, and Physical Education & Recreation, as well as participants from Parks Canada and the Nakoda First Nation – expressed a shared desire that Thinking Mountains take place not at the U of A campus in Edmonton, but in the mountains.

“We were buoyed by the enthusiasm that came out of the 2012 launch of the Canadian Mountain Studies Initiative,” said Zac Robinson, assistant professor of Physical Education and Recreation, and conference co-chair.

“We were excited to hold the event in Jasper, specifically, because of its rich historic connections to Edmonton. Both Edmonton and Jasper were fur-trade posts, depots along the waterways for peoples moving furs and other goods across the country. There was a local connection there, not to mention a theme of exchange, that resonated with everyone.”


Thinking Mountains will occur every three years, and since it is interdisciplinary and international in scope, plans are for future gatherings to take place in other mountain towns and areas such as the Rockies’ Bow Valley, Vancouver or Whistler in the Coast Mountains, or Whitehorse in Yukon’s St. Elias Mountains. Or, perhaps one day, even in mountains outside of Canada.

With delegates from around the world attending this year, Robinson said he and his colleagues believe they’re onto a good thing.

“We had all the continents represented except Antarctica, but we had some glaciologists who spend a lot of time there,” Robinson said.

Keynote speaker for this year’s event was John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and author of several books, including The Third Man Factor and Frozen in Time.


Among several local presenters, Parks Canada executive director of Mountain Parks, Pat Thomsen, spoke on managing national parks in a modern world and the success and challenges that relate to Canada’s parks. Jasper National Park biologists, Greg Horne and Saakje Hazenberg, presented on bats in Jasper’s mountains, while University of Calgary researchers, Jamie Lantz and Shelley Alexander, spoke about coyotes in Alberta’s Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park. Ojibway Elder, Jim Ochiese, a Knowledge Keeper from Yellowhead Tribal College, led a medicine walk on Buffalo Prairie south of Jasper.

While most of the conference was open to delegates only, New Zealand climber and writer, Pat Deavoll, and Alpinist magazine editor-in-chief, Katie Ives, participated in a public presentation examining the question of whether mountaineering is the most literary of all sports.

As well, the Jasper Art Guild hosted an exhibit of images reflecting the similarities and differences between the Rockies and the Himalayan mountain environment and cultures. Delegates also took part in a mountain photography workshop and a field trip to the Columbia Icefield Visitor Centre.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, Dr. Buhhda Basnyat from the Patan Academy of Health Sciences in Kathmandu, who planned to speak about high altitude medicine, was obliged to cancel.

For everyone involved, Robinson said, it’s always a treat to meet others who share a deep interest in mountain related fields of study and recreation.

“Academics rarely meet professionally with others outside of our disciplinary specific fields of study,” Robinson said. “And so it’s a unique meeting in that sense. But, Mountain Studies is inherently interdisciplinary. Like anyone being in the mountains, you want to know a bit about the climate, the ecology, the history and culture, the geology, its literature, and so forth. For us as academics, this type of engagement pushes our own individual research in new and unexpected directions. It drives new research and ideas.”

Author of two books of adventure and nine mountain biographies, Lynn Martel explores the Canadian Rockies backcountry by skis, boots, camera and the written word.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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