A YOUTH WASTED CLIMBING:
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID CHAUNDY-SMART
By Lynn Martel
No stranger to the world of climbing literature, David Chaundy-Smart and his recently published memoir, A Youth Wasted Climbing (Rocky Mountain Books), have already won the accolades of some of the most influential voices in the industry. In this interview, Lynn Martel gets behind-the-scenes with the author and digs into his writing process, his thoughts on climbing today, and how his adolescence has shaped him.
“I just didn’t understand people who found suburbia livable without something like climbing.”
So writes David Chaundy-Smart in his entertaining, poignant, youthfully exuberant and witty memoir, A Youth Wasted Climbing, in response to his high school principal’s suggestion that he see the guidance counsellor about his passion for climbing after his ascent of the CN Tower was broadcast on the TV news.
Fortunately, he ignored the suggestion and instead drove from Etobicoke, Ontario with his brother, Reg, to test their skills in the Rockies and BC’s Bugaboos. Returning to Toronto a few years later, where he’s stayed, Chaundy-Smart has continued to contribute to Canada’s climbing community, by advocating for his sport, putting up test-piece new routes in his beloved Niagara Escarpment area, and through writing. In addition to writing five climbing guidebooks, Chaundy-Smart created and remains editorial director of Canada’s climbing magazine, Gripped, which is better than ever after 17 years of publishing.
Q&A WITH DAVID CHAUNDRY-SMART
LM/ How did writing this book evolve?
DCS/ I always kept journals of my climbing and occasional journals of things that happened that I thought were important, as well as correspondence, photos, articles and guidebooks I had annotated and/or written. The project evolved from these beginnings 15 years ago when I first started to arrange the most important aspects on paper to tell the story of the people I began climbing with. Over the last five years I worked on it fairly continuously with much input from my brother Reg, with whom I started climbing. The editorial and moral support of writers Chic Scott (who more or less chose the name from a line in the book), Ed Webster, Paul Pritchard and Dougald MacDonald was really crucial to gaining self-confidence in what I had written. Finally, of course, I was lucky to work with Don Gorman, Rick Wood and the team at Rocky Mountain Books to bring about the published book.
LM/ Did you keep a journal through your teen years?
DCS/ Yes, I did, but in retrospect I sometimes find myself a little baffling in it. I also wrote several articles in the Canadian Alpine Journal, Climbing magazine and so on – please don’t read them! – as well as five climbing guidebooks. I believe that old-fashioned, long-form written climbing guidebooks tend to record the life of communities of climbers, their fears and their dreams and even in route names, something of their cultural and romantic interests and how they saw themselves. Please don’t tell anyone I named a route Psycho Lust for Yuppie Chicks.
LM/ While you were reading about climbing when you were young, did you think you’d ever write a memoir?
DCS/ I always hoped to be a writer, but my actual achievements as a climber were limited to the less-than-epic scale rock climbs I did, so I had to mature a lot to see that the real story I wanted to tell was about life.
LM/ Which climbing writers from your youth continue to resonate?
DCS/ I still love Jeff Long, the American climbing writer. He epitomized the cool, culturally sophisticated guy who was at home in Yosemite, the Alps or the Himalayas, and behind a typewriter. I still like I Chose to Climb by Bonington. Rebuffat’s prose is still as beautiful as when I first read it.
LM/ Is climbing still your key to satisfaction and happiness?
DCS/ I think what I got from climbing and how it affected everything that came after it and made me who I am has made it the key to my happiness. Through climbing I came to see places, people and things in the way I do today, and although I have done other things, what I became through climbing has been the lens through which I have seen them. I still climb; not hard, but I still climb.
LM/ How do you feel today about the crags and routes of your youth?
DCS/ The Niagara Escarpment, where most of my new routes are, is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and I have a much richer appreciation for the natural history than I did when I was young when the cliffs were mainly just potential climbs. I am delighted to see great young climbers coming out of the area who cut their teeth on some of my climbs. I still love the cliffs of New England, especially New Hampshire and the Gunks.
LM/ Do you see any particular ways the era of your adolescence shaped who you are today?
DCS/ We could climb wherever we wanted and there were no particular worries about whether what we were doing was going to be safe for hordes of people after us. Perhaps in the ’70s you sort of relished it not being so! In Toronto in the late ’70s there was a dismal anti-establishment cold war mood in youth culture that put a premium on doing what you liked and having it be chancy and maybe even annoying. Rock climbing wasn’t exactly a well-known activity anywhere, let alone in Toronto, so the people I knew who climbed were prepared to do things that were on the fringes of society. This extended to other areas of life besides climbing. I’m still a little prone to see adversity to law and order in climbing and elsewhere as just a little soulful.
LM/ You mention how you thought climbing could be a measure of how brave you were. Has that view shifted over the years?
DCS/ It was a measure of the bravery I was looking for in myself at the time. Any experienced climber who has observed their cadre mature and go on to their greatest achievements has a good sense of how they compare to them in bravery and perhaps commitment, and a perhaps unspoken sense as well as how simply mad they are. Now I know that there are many other things that comprise a life that don’t involve risk of bodily harm, but also take a measure of your bravery and make you show it more patiently. Love, fatherhood, spirituality and the creative life are examples.
LM/ How do you explain your CN Tower climb to your kids?
DCS/ I have four daughters, a nephew and a niece who is living in Canmore to climb now. The others have dabbled but it’s hard to seem cool to your kids. They all know about it, but aren’t that curious. I have heard, very occasionally, a line of argument that goes something like they should at least get to be as wild as I was and do some CN Tower equivalent thing or other. It’s debatable. I dispute it.
LM/ How do your parents feel about you publishing this book?
DCS/ My mother has passed away, but my father said he liked it. I thought he took it very well.
LM/ You spent time climbing in the Rockies. Why return to Toronto?
DCS/ I love Alberta, but after a few years the economy slowed down with a drop in oil prices and the unskilled labour market dried up. By that time I wanted to go to university because of my deepening intellectual interests, which I have never really seen as separate from climbing. Also, I have a deep love for the Escarpment country. It was there that I had always felt I could be the best cragsman I could be.
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.