'It gets in your blood': Pioneer rock climber reflects on decades of doing what she loves

Barb Clemes has been climbing mountains and glaciers for more than four decades.

Random outbound course got her hooked more than 40 years ago

Canmore-based Barb Clemes was a member of Canada's national sport climbing team and competed on the world circuit. (Brad Wrobleski-Ellis Choe/CBC)

Barb Clemes has been climbing mountains and glaciers for more than four decades. The Canmore climber was a member of the first Canadian women's team to successfully climb the highest peak in North America: Denali in Alaska.

She'll be giving a talk at the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival this week, but Clemes stopped by The Homestretch first.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Barb Clemes climbs Grotto Canyon near Canmore. (Brian Bailey/Submitted by Barb Clemes)

Q: How did you get started in rock climbing?

A: I had been a competitive gymnast. After studying physio at the University of Toronto, I came to work at Vancouver General Hospital. I took an outbound course.

I had never found anything I loved as much as gymnastics. And then, all of a sudden, I took this climbing course — thought I had died and gone to heaven. I found something I absolutely loved as much, and it just went on from there.

Q: What about it did you love?

A: It was really challenging in so many ways. Physically, of course, because it's hard that way. Intellectually, because there's a lot of ropes and systems, but also figuring out where you have to go and how you have to do it.

Also emotionally, because there are many aspects of climbing that are a little bit scary, so you have to conquer those emotions.

Plus it's outside.

It's so beautiful, you get to travel, and you're good at it right away.

Q: Sometimes people tend to gravitate toward things they do well, is that right?

A: I was good at the rock climbing, having been a gymnast, so I was flexible and strong. I wasn't as good at the mountaineering part. I wasn't a cardio athlete, so that was quite difficult for me.

Barb Clemes rock climbs in Thailand, with her daughter Mischi playing in the sand below. (Submitted by Barb Clemes)

Q: Do the climbs vary in length and time?

A: Yes, they can take a lot of hours in one day, or they can be day-after-day-after-day for weeks, like Denali.

Q: What has kept you going at it for as long as you have?

A: The main one is the relationships I've built.

I climbed with a lot of men and women in the '80s, but especially the women.

I am still climbing, even this morning at the climbing gym. I am climbing with some of the same women that I climbed with in the 1980s.

We have seen each other when you're afraid, when you're confident, when you succeed, when you fail — in so many ways. And that really bonds you together, and that's the most important thing.

It gets in your blood and you keep doing that.

Q: What are your most memorable climbs?

A: Some of the longer, technical climbs, like a one-day-long climb like Yamnuska, between Calgary and Canmore, because it's quite technical and quite exposed.

Squamish is another climbing area and, of course, Denali. That was the most time that I spent on one mountain.

And then some of the hard waterfalls that I've done.

Q: Are there challenges that are particular for women climbers that men don't face?

A: In the 1980s, we would be climbing in a one-piece suit, so we actually spent about 24 hours on one waterfall and you can't go to the bathroom in a one-piece suit.

Typically we're smaller, so if you're trying to carry the same amount of weight, it's a little bit more difficult.

Barb Clemes climbs Louise Falls at Lake Louise. (Submitted by Barb Clemes)

Q: How has climbing changed over the years, with gear and technology?

A: Oh, climbing has changed in so many ways.

In terms of the equipment, it's become lighter and more effective, but also in the belief of what's possible, because you build on what people have done before.

Now in the climbing gym the kids use chalk and don't even think about it, but there was a big pushback when chalk came out. [There was also] a big pushback when we started putting bolts in to protect ourselves, started to do it from the top down.

All of these things had pushback, and then, of course, competition started at the end of the 1980s, early 1990s.

So these are huge changes that had lots of pushback, but you could either be an early adopter or you could just keep fighting it.

Canmore climber Barb Clemes joins us in studio for a conversation about her life and career. 7:26

Q: How does it feel to be a role model for climbers?

A: It's actually pretty neat. I have a lot of my own role models. At a talk I did, some young women came up and spoke to me. 

They had a lot of role models in the hard, technical rock climbing because of the climbing gyms, but not on those big adventures that we were doing as women and exploring.

That's definitely fun.

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.