Honouring Helen Sovdat – 2015 Mountain Guides Ball

“Right here, just beyond the mountains that you can see from the road, are unclimbed peaks. First ascents. New routes. It’s like taking candy. I just love doing it!” – Helen Sovdat

Save the date: October 24, 2015

Held during the otherwise quiet fall shoulder season in the Rockies, the Mountain Guides Ball is a high-octane, dirtbag chic celebration of mountain culture and mountain people. With dining, dancing, a silent auction, and great prizes, it’s well-known to be one of the year’s big parties in the Bow Valley. The list of past patrons at this joint Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) fundraiser is impressive. Pat Morrow, Lloyd Gallagher, Glen Boles, Bill Putnam, and so on – benefactors of the climbing community all.

On Saturday, October 24th, the mountain community will come together to celebrate Canmore resident Helen Sovdat as this year’s patron. No-one could be more deserving.

For the community, it’s a tremendous opportunity to collectively raise a glass and acknowledge those whose contributions have made a difference. Get your tickets right here.

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Helen on the Columbia Icefield. Photo by Renée Lavergne, 2013.

Helen exemplifies the best of the climbing profession. I could tell you that it’s because she’s pioneered long ski traverses along the crest of the Coast Mountains, or that it’s because she’s climbed the highest peaks in North America, South America, in Asia and elsewhere. She knows what it feels like to breathe the air above 8,000 metres. I could tell you that it’s because Helen was one of the first women in North America to earn full ACMG/IFMGA certification as a mountain guide, that she was a leader in a group that broke the mould of North American guiding as an all-male profession, and that she remains an inspiration to a whole generation of guides and leaders. Her accomplishments are staggering.

But none of that quite gets to it. Not really.

What makes Helen Sovdat so extraordinary is her unflagging humility and altruism. “I was totally surprised to hear that I would be the patron,” Helen recently admitted, during an interview. “I had to think about it for a while before I accepted. As a natural introvert, it’s tough for me to be in the spotlight. But I’m thrilled to represent the ACMG and the ACC. They’re both important organizations to me.”

Helen would much rather talk about the organizations and individuals who shaped her love for the mountains. UBC’s Varsity Outdoor Club. Outward Bound. Canadian Mountain Holidays. The ACC’s General Mountaineering Camp. She frames her “favourite climbing days” by talking more about the accomplishments of her climbing companions, friends and clients, than her own. Watching (helping) others succeed is what’s most meaningful to Helen. It’s about the people, not the peaks.

At fifty-six, Helen continues to plot new adventures, and to seek out places where she can share the excitement for the new and unknown. “I am just so happy that people want to come with me on my trips!” Helen says, laughing. But the reality is that Helen has amassed around her a very large group of friends, clients, and climbing admirers who would willingly follow her anywhere.

Descending from a first ascent of Unnamed 2939 in the Vermillion Range of the Rockies, with Foster Peak in the background. Photo by David P. Jones, 2011.

Descending from a first ascent of Unnamed 2939 in the Vermillion Range of the Rockies, with Foster Peak in the background. Photo by David P. Jones, 2011.

Today, Helen is an ACMG examiner herself. “It feels like I’ve come full circle,” she says, her hair more white now than blond. When she smiles, her eyes squint slightly, bordered by deep tan lines from a summer’s worth of work. She exudes competence, and remains at the top of her game. “Watching people transform from recreationalists into guides is an extraordinary thing. To be part of that process is very rewarding.” Mentoring the next generation of Canadian mountain guides is nothing new to Helen. Because she’s run private trips for decades, she’s always brought aspirant guides along to help out, and to learn. “It’s part of the job. Plus, it’s fun. I treat them as equals, and I learn just as much as they do. We’re a team.” The long list of Helen’s practicum helpers reads like the “who’s who” of the younger guides’ scene: Lars Andrews, Tim Haggarty, Conrad Janzen, Renée Lavergne, Madeleine Martin-Preney, Lilla Molnar, Olivia Sofer … the list goes on.

Helen still finds time for her own climbing trips. In fact, she’s presently on the cusp of completing that ultimate Rockies tick-list, the fifty-four “11,000ers.” Only a couple peaks remain. But Helen is in no rush. Rather than numbers, she’s more focused these days on “simply getting out and having fun.”

Her latest climbing partner – he’s the numbers guy. Since 2007, Helen has been running all over the range with guidebook author Dave Jones – “trying to keep up,” she says, grinning – collecting beta, pictures, heights and distances for his latest meticulously researched tome: Rockies Central (2015).

“Helen is one of those rare partners,” says Jones, “who loves to get off the beaten track and explore mountains simply for the joy of being in the hills. She takes everything in stride, whether a nasty bushwhack or more scree than one cares for, whether just for a scramble to a new peak or a fine technical climb on rock and snow.”

Helen’s adventures with Jones have forced her to reappraise her home range. “It’s so cool,” Helen whispers, leaning in as if to share a secret. “Right here, just beyond the mountains that you can see from the road, are unclimbed peaks. First ascents. New routes. It’s like taking candy. I just love doing it!”

Modesty prevents Helen from claiming a place as one of Canada’s most accomplished mountain guides, though she is that. Joy, compassion, inclusion, respect, strength and skill: these are the virtues that make Helen one of the guiding community’s leading lights, and continue to belay her to this day. Her example speaks to what’s best in all of us.

The joy of climbing, together.

The 2015 Mountain Guides Ball takes place on October 24th. Get your tickets here.

Zac Robinson

Zac Robinson

Zac Robinson is a historian and Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta. He’s the recent editor of Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933 (2014), and presently serves as the Vice-President of Mountain Culture for the Alpine Club of Canada.


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