The Extraordinary Life of Dennis Smith


Emma Priske, Reporter

Conquering massive peaks, standing on top of the world, the adrenaline rush. For many, mountaineering has become a way of life, an addiction. Although the exact origins of rock climbing are unclear, it was considered to be a recreational activity popular amongst people in Italy, France, and England in the early 19th century. Once rock climbing gradually began to gain traction, so had the creation of the Alpine Club in 1857. The purpose of this club was to create a space in which mountaineers from all places could foster support and education to those who also enjoy climbing. It wasn’t until the 1950s when rock climbing made its way over to America, adrenaline ensued and addiction began. 

Thriving amongst the hippie counterculture movement, climbers from every region had made their way over to Yosemite, with one goal in mind- to summit the greatest peaks in America. El Capitan and Half Dome soon became the gods of Yosemite, of which climbers began to idolize. With the movement of climbers into Yosemite, the reign of the Yosemite Valley Stonemasters had begun- and they had not forgotten to bring their hippie counterculture stereotypes with them. Long hair, Jimi Hendrix on full blast, and not a care in the world besides climbing. The Stonemasters consisted of idolized legends such as John Bachar, Lynn Hill, Ron Kauk, Jim Bridwell, and many more. During their time spent in the national park, the Stonemasters established a number of popular routes amongst the Yosemite granite such as Aquarian Wall, Pacific Ocean Wall and Zenyatta Modatta. 

 West of Yosemite, in the foothills of the Flatirons in Boulder Colorado, climbed Dennis Smith. Dennis was an ordinary climber with extraordinary goals in mind, one of these being the great Emperor’s Face of Mt. Robson in Jasper National Park Canada. Mt. Robson rests at 3,954 metres, towering above every other peak in the Canadian Rockies. Robson offers a variety of routes, including the Kain Face. 

According to Fred Beckey- American rock climber, mountaineer, and author- some popular routes were “…The classic Kain Face, by which Conrad Kain made the first ascent of the mountain guiding two friends up the 250m ice face. It required over 700 chopped steps. For the hardcore alpinist, the Emperor Face rises 2500m from Berg Lake, offering 1500m of difficult climbing. And for the alpinist seeking a committing route within an attainable difficulty there is the huge North Face route or the exposure of the Emperor Ridge. There is NO non-technical route on this mountain. Robson earned the nickname “The Great White Fright”, it truly is.”

Walter Smith, Dennis’ brother, recounted their childhood growing up- “We had a normal middle class suburban environment growing up in Dallas. I was about six years older. Dennis was smart but was not disciplined enough to do well in school. Some friends at his place of work introduced Dennis to bouldering and basic climbing, after that he joined the local climbing club. I considered Dennis a loner type; he really didn’t care about social norms. He was an outdoorsy type that enjoyed being in the mountains. He was somewhat of a thrill seeker, and his body type was suited for climbing.” 

When asked about what significant climbs Dennis had completed, Walter stated “Other than the Long’s Peak Climb and watching him do some bouldering with his club around the Flatirons, I didn’t participate in his climbing activities. Early in his climbing career we took a trip up to the Tetons with Ann and the kids where Dennis took some lessons at the Exum Climbing School for a couple of days in 1978.”

In order to complete Dennis’ goal of climbing Emperor’s Face on Mt. Robson, Dennis would need to be experienced with mixed mountain climbing. Mixed climbing is a combination of ice climbing and rock climbing generally using ice climbing equipment such as crampons and ice tools. 

Corey Buhay, journalist for REI, states that “ Maybe you boulder until gazing skyward gets you on a rope. You sport climb until untouched walls demand gear. You plug cams and stoppers until the treeline gives way to snow and ice. And then you look at partially formed lines or high alpine peaks and place pick to rock. This is mixed climbing, a culmination of several other disciplines, and perhaps the last tool in your toolbox.” 

In order to gain experience with mixed climbing, Dennis would need to also be experienced with ice climbing, and while there are several climbs within Colorado that require necessary ice climbing skills and equipment, it is unclear whether or not Dennis had climbed these routes before. This may have led people to question his ability to perform well with mixed climbing, especially on Mt. Robson. 

Joe Harder, who had previously climbed Mt. Robson had described it as a mountain that  “does indeed command authority and respect, its sheer vertical pre-eminence providing a jaw-dropping, soul-enthralling sight. As Milton and Cheadle recorded in 1865: “On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak.””

Mt. Robson is a king amongst many other mountains, demanding respect for it’s difficult terrain and technical routes. 

With mixed climbing, comes risk of avalanches. Many ice climbers come well-prepared with knowledge of avalanche conditions and preparation in case one were to occur. However, Dennis was not. Walter stated that “I believe Dennis and his partner were not experienced enough to handle the avalanche conditions on that climb.”

And so Dennis Smith and his partner (who unfortunately remains unidentified), sought out to climb one of the greatest peaks in the Canadian Rockies. 

On August 25, 1982, the RCMP in Valemount was contacted by family members of two climbers who had failed to return to work on the expected date. They had expressed interest in climbing a number of mountains, mostly in Jasper National Park. One of the routes was the Emperor Ridge on Mount Robson and it was decided to initiate a helicopter search there,”wrote the American Alpine Club. 

British Columbia’s helicopter search amongst the Rocky Mountains found the bodies of Dennis Smith and his lead partner- who remains unknown, in the west bowl of Mt. Robson. Evidence of an avalanche was present. 

Reports presented by Walter Smith, Dennis’ brother, state that “It appeared that the victims had descended the west face of Mt. Robson by rappel, using a 9mm rope, and was hit by an avalanche at about 3000-m elevation.” 

The American Alpine Club had also written that “the bodies of the two climbers were discovered in the west bowl of Mount Robson. It appeared that one of them had been leading down a gully from the 10000-foot level in the bowl and had reached a ledge where he had put in a stopper. He was about to tie into it, when the second climber, who was about 300 feet above him, was hit by an avalanche which carried him down the gully. The rope hung up on a rock 150 feet above the first climber. When the rope tightened, the second climber’s tie into his harness failed and he was swept down to about the 7500-foot level, halfway down the fan.” 

For my great uncle, Dennis Smith, climbing was more than just a simple hobby- it was a way of life and especially- an addiction. The rush of adrenaline received from conquering the face of an extraordinary mountain or an especially hard route, is unlike any other. 

I had always known stories of my great uncle, Dennis, told to me by my mom. I was also aware of his death but knew nothing about his journey on Mt. Robson, until one night. My family and I were watching the new hit documentary, The Alpinist. The Alpinist featured free soloing climber, Marc-André Leclerc, and his significant ascents in the Patagonias and on The Emperor’s Face on Mt. Robson. I was in awe for a minute, watching him climb this technical route that Dennis had also climbed before. I wondered how someone could attempt something like that, something so nearly impossible and death-defying. 

Marc-Andre Leclerc stated in his recount of Mt. Robson, “I rested on my sleeping pad with these thoughts running through my mind. I was feeling very small and very alone. Then, evening descended, and a certain calmness overtook me. I realized that I was approaching the route with a healthy amount of respect, and that the King (Mt. Robson) also respected me and my ambitions in return. I was being drawn toward the mountain in a search for adventure, by a desire to explore my own limitations and to also be immersed in a world so deeply beautiful that it would forever be etched into my memory.” 

And I realized why they chose to pursue this mountain and I became comfortable with Dennis’ decision to climb on.