Notes from the Top
For Gripped Co-founder David Smart
The Summit of Excellence
As a southern Ontario teenager in the 1970s, David Smart escaped the boredom of suburbia by climbing the cliffs at Rattlesnake Point. As he pursued his passion, he also discovered, at his local library, that many climbers before him had written books – some exceptionally good – about their activities on rock walls and mountains around the world.
“I always loved adventure and history books as a boy,” Smart said. “I loved Beau Geste and Moby Dick, The Odyssey, but since I was too young to be a whaler or join the French Foreign Legion, I became a climber. When I found out there were books about climbing, I found a way to make it fill all my time.”
Smart’s passion for climbing, and for books about climbing have shaped and enriched his life ever since. You might recognize his name from the masthead of this magazine – Smart teamed up with Sam Cohen, who turned out to be a visionary publisher, in 1999 to create Gripped, and he continues to be involved as editorial director.
And, more recently, at the 2019 Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival, Smart was presented the Summit of Excellence Award, given annually to recognize an individual who has made a significant contribution to mountain life in Canada. The award is named for Bill March, a Calgary climber, author and educator who led Canada’s first successful Everest ascent in 1982. Previous recipients include Coast climber Don Serl, tireless mountaineer and guidebook author David P. Jones, climber and author Geoff Powter, award-winning author and former director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival Bernadette Mcdonald, and Sharon Wood, first North American woman to summit Everest. Smart is in very fine company.
Venturing beyond Ontario, as a young climber Smart made ascents of classic routes in Yosemite, the Alps and on the Rockies’ Mount Yamnuska. He’s also developed more than 300 new routes for others to enjoy in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, including Gold Rush, which he built with Brandon Pullan on Mount Rundle in Banff last summer.
In addition to writing five climbing guidebooks – the first, The Niagara Escarpment in 1984 which he convinced his grandfather to print – he’s also penned two historically themed climbing novels, Above the Reich and Cinema Vertigo, both published by Canmore-based Imaginary Mountain Surveyors. His poignant and humorous
memoir, A Youth Wasted Climbing (Rocky Mountain Books), was shortlisted for the Mountain Literature Award in the 2016 Banff Mountain Book Competition. His other guidebooks include Ontario’s Finest Rock Climbs, a guidebook to Devil’s Rock in Northern Ontario and the soon-to-be-released Northern Stone, co-written with Gripped editor Brandon Pullan.
Smart’s most recent book, Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss, a biography of the enigmatic early 20th century Austrian climber made the short list for the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Award for Mountain Literature, and the short list for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.
Smart said he was inspired to write about Preuss because while everything he read about the man spoke of his extreme views, he remained an exceptional climber. “He always intrigued me because all that was typically written in history books was about how extreme his views on style were, and yet he was the best climber in the Alps,” Smart said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to read a biography of him.”
An admitted lover of magazines, Smart has written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Alpinist and the Canadian Alpine Journal.
Writing about climbing, Smart said, came naturally as a means of recording and communicating his and his friends’ accomplishments, an extension of traditional guidebooks of that era which tended to focus on instruction.
“It was also a journal of the passions and achievements of successive communities,” he said. “I have always seen writing about mountaineering and climbing as an important discipline within the sport. As a kid, I always assumed that Chris Bonington, David Roberts, Gaston Rebuffat, Doug Scott and Royal Robbins and the rest were the best climbers because I could read their books.”
In teaming up with Cohen to create Gripped, Smart said their motivation grew from an absence of a Canadian climbing magazine. Two decades later, the company owns four titles.
“There have been many challenges, but we’re still doing well, publication-wise,” he said. “I’m proud to be able to provide a magazine that offers a voice for the Canadian climbing scene in which I made my own life.”
The current popularity of climbing has helped create a crisis within the sport, he added, a situation writing can help remedy.
“It feels great to add something to the culture, to tell stories most people don’t know or to increase our understanding and love of climbing culture,” Smart said. “There is a crisis in climbing culture right now with so many new climbers and so few of them really knowing or understanding our story. Writing about it can help with this.”
To this end, the contribution his book on Preuss has made was publicly recognized by master climber Reinhold Messner who praised it during an on-stage interview at the recent Banff mountain festival. “I was a bit surprised, but as he is an expert on Paul Preuss, I took it as a compliment,” Smart said. The shout-out from Messner aside, receiving the Summit of Excellence, Smart said, is a tremendous honour.
“Climbing has meant so much to me in my life and the Banff Centre has such an amazing role in mountain culture,” he said. And, he added, his passion for climbing is as deep as ever.
“[Climbing means] everything, almost, like it did when I was 17,” Smart said. “I wish I was climbing right now.”
David Smart on White Imperialist 5.10d, Grassi Lakes, Alta.