Lawrence Grassi: From Piedmont to the Rocky Mountains by Elio Costa and Gabriele Scardellato (review)
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Reviewed by
Elio Costa and Gabriele Scardellato. Lawrence Grassi: From Piedmont to the Rocky Mountains. University of Toronto Press. xx, 308. $32.95

The history of mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies begins with the Canadian Pacific Railway's bringing Swiss guides to its resorts in 1896–97 in order to provide tourists and climbers with the same sort of experience available in the European Alps. Famed climbers such as Edward Feuz and his three sons, Conrad Kain, and Rudolf Aemmer worked through the CPR and with the members of the Alpine Club of Canada, formed in 1905, to travel in new territory, climb new peaks, establish new routes and records, and create an environment where mountaineering and its practitioners thrived and attracted others who wished to venture beyond the valleys to the high country and high mountains [End Page 132] marked by what the eminent Canadian geologist A.P. Coleman called "dignity and measureless peace."

Differing from but as significant as the well-known professional guides, one man in this period from about 1920 to 1970 stands out in every respect: Lawrence Grassi – Italian immigrant, coal miner, unofficial climbing guide, photographer, trail maker, national park warden – was unique. His contributions to mountaineering in the Rockies are recognized on plaques erected in his honour by the Province of Alberta at Grassi Lakes above the town of Canmore and by the Alpine Club of Canada on the Oesa trail at Lake O'Hara, where he is described as one who worked tirelessly to make accessible the mountains he loved.

Costa and Scardellato's biography of Grassi presents what can be known of his early life in the Piedmont village of Falmenta, where he was born in 1890, and of his arrival in Canada and his work as a section man for the CPR first on the shore of Lake Superior and then at Field, British Columbia. He never again left the Rockies, working for the Canmore Coal Company in the Bow valley from 1916 to 1946, spending his later years at Lake O'Hara as an assistant park warden, and finally retiring in Canmore where he died in 1980. Throughout this time, he explored, climbed, guided (and famously rescued) other climbers, and established record numbers of first ascents, all the while creating, by extraordinary physical labour, carefully engineered and aesthetic marvels of walking and climbing trails.

The facts of his life, insofar as they can be traced, are accompanied by photographs, some taken by Grassi, and facsimiles of archival documents that illustrate the places and people with whom he was connected. Interviews and correspondence with those who knew him are included, as are accounts of his climbing exploits primarily with members of the Alpine Club and, from newspaper and anecdotal sources, previous versions of his life and accomplishments. Of particular interest is the appendix of letters to and from his family in Italy.

But it is in their reading of the correspondence that the authors move beyond the life and works. In fact, the tracing of names and occasions at times seems to suggest that a mini-history of Italian emigration to Canada is struggling to emerge through the life stories of Grassi and others from his village. Grassi's communications to his family, their responses, and independent letters to him provide not only information about other emigrants and relatives, and on the exigencies of life in Falmenta, but they also lead the authors to severe judgements on Grassi's character including, for example, his apparent ignoring of pleas especially from his mother to write and to inform them of his life in Canmore. To claim a lack of filial affection on the basis of a handful of letters that have survived, while nonetheless noting that family letters indicate others that have not survived were indeed written, skews the treatment of Grassi, as [End Page 133] does the failure to put the letters' heavy emphasis on finances, requests for gifts of money, and general neediness into the context of the times and events in Grassi's life first as a miner, living through a costly strike, then as someone with no employment at all during the Depression of the 1930s...


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