DRAWN TO THE HIGH AND WILD:
Words by Lynn Martel
Photos by John Price
Known for her trademark laugh and generous spirit, Canmore-based climber Anna Smith was a prolific and cutting-edge climber whose passing has left a mountain-size gap in the climbing community of the Rockies and beyond.
Editor’s Note: Updated October 12, 2016
“I discovered my own personal truth to climbing, which is the high and the wild places,” said Anna Smith, when asked why she climbed in an El Cap Bridge video.
“The places [where] you are dependent on you and your partner’s decisions and those decisions mean life or death… and the beauty of those places and how blessed we are that that’s part of our lives… I think that’s fantastic,” she continued. “For me it was discovering that high and that wild and that mighty area – that blew my mind. This is what I want to do.”
And that is exactly what Smith, 31 was doing when she died unexpectedly in her sleep on Sept. 30 on a climbing expedition to the Indian Himalaya.
She and her expedition partner, Alison Criscitiello, both from Canmore, Alberta, had established a base camp (BC) at 3947 metres elevation in the Miyar Valley in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Communicating via email from India, Criscitiello said the two had climbed to their advanced base camp (ABC) at 4938 metres, where Smith went to sleep in their very small tent while Criscitiello slept outside in a bivy bag. Smith passed away sometime between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., when Criscitiello went to wake her for breakfast.
Despite obvious signs that Smith had been dead for many hours before she found her, Criscitiello attempted CPR for an hour before running down to base camp to alert their staff that evacuation assistance was required. Criscitiello then ran back up to the higher camp.
“I sat with Anna for two nights and three days, until an evacuation team from Manali was able to get to me on foot,” Criscitiello said. “It took one day to get her from our ABC to BC – which included a very difficult river crossing – and two days from there to get her out of the Miyar Valley and to the road head.”
“She sought adventure and had a love of the high and the wild,
and threw herself into these amazing places with courage
and wonder and joy, taking many of us along for the ride.”
An autopsy was performed in Keylong, followed by a cremation ceremony which took place in Manali. The cause of death was a medical condition, the details of which will not be shared to protect the family’s privacy.
Leaving her Parks Canada job to spend the last 12 months pursuing adventures in the mountains, Smith climbed difficult rock routes from BC’s Bugaboos and Squamish, to Colorado’s Indian Creek, to Yosemite in California and Chamonix, France. In the Canadian Rockies, her home mountains, she tackled challenging ice and mixed climbs with her trademark determination and infectious energy, adventures she related on her blog.
“Anna was truly inspirational,” said her friend, Derek Cheng. “She sought adventure and had a love of the high and the wild, and threw herself into these amazing places with courage and wonder and joy, taking many of us along for the ride. She made my life, and so many others, so much richer for that, and actually changed the way I live.”
In July 2015, with the help of The Alpine Club of Canada’s Jen Higgins memorial Fund and MEC’s Expedition Support Fund, Smith partnered with strong Rockies climber Michelle Kadatz for an expedition to the towering granite spires of Baffin Island, where they succeeded in climbing two big wall routes, becoming only the second team and first all-female team to free Mount Loki’s South Buttresses route.
In preparation for their Himalayan expedition, Smith and Criscitiello – who had previously climbed in the Indian Himalaya where she led the first all-female ascent of 6,930-metre Pinnacle Peak – were awarded the prestigious US Mugs Stump Award, and the ACC administered John Lauchlan Memorial Award. Criscitiello and Smith originally had their sights on unclimbed Brahmasar II and The Fortress in India’s Garhwal Himalaya, but switched their objectives due to extensive flooding in that region.
“She was a generous soul who would move nations
if she could to make your day better.
And she knew how to have fun…. You could hear her laugh
shattering the serenity of climbing crags the world over.”
“Our overall intent is to mount an expedition in the simplest manner possible,” Criscitiello wrote in their Mugs Stump application. “It is the experience of wild adventure and accomplishment that remains the most valuable objective of any project.”
While Smith’s trademark laugh was recognized at crags all over North America, she was also known and liked for her generosity, her positive attitude and her big heart.
“Anna was so much more than a climber,” Cheng said. “She was smart and witty, caring and warm, had a love of the little things – like wine from a bag around a fire after a hard day climbing, or thrashing some hip hop at 3 a.m. from her truck to enliven a pre-dawn start. She was a generous soul who would move nations if she could to make your day better. And she knew how to have fun. Her laughter is somewhat legendary, rambunctious and joyous on a transcendental level. You could hear her laugh shattering the serenity of climbing crags the world over.”
A memorial for Anna Smith is being held October 16th, 2016, at Creekside Hall in Canmore. Please RSVP via the Facebook Event to help organizers get an idea of numbers.
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.