Profile: Gillean Daffern – A Rocky Mountain Legend

Often ideas come when you least expect them.  It was in 1977 that Gillean Daffern and her husband Tony were driving home from a party, when she had an idea that would birth her legacy.  The government had recently announced Kananaskis Country as a provincial recreational area, and knowing the land quite well as a seasoned hiker and climber, she decided she would be the one to write the guidebooks.  Gillean’s first book, Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, will celebrate its 40th birthday next year.  Since that first publication, she has sold hundreds of thousands of books, founded the prominent publishing firm Rocky Mountain Books (RMB), and continues to be a tireless trails advocate for Alberta Parks.  The pioneer and award-winning author recently sat down with us to chat about it all.  While her books have shown us where to hike, talking with her has given us a new philosophy on how to hike.  Vertical gained, kilometers walked and objectives met isn’t necessarily the goal.  Observation, curiosity and taking the path less traveled can be equally as rewarding.

If we go back to when things started for you, we would love to know about your roots and how you got started down this path to becoming the adventurer you are known to be today in the Rocky Mountain community.

Up until the age of 8 my family lived in Leicester, England, not far from where my mother’s relatives lived in Charnwood Forest.  From a very early age my uncle Hubert would drag me out over the fields in the morning, we would come back to my grandmother’s house to eat lunch and then go right back out in the afternoon to Bradgate Park, where Lady Jane Grey grew up.  Charnwood Forest was very hilly with lots of granite crags I could never resist scrambling up.  But the day wasn’t finished yet.  After tea we’d go down to the allotment to work in the vegetable garden as during the war it was necessary to supplement food rationing.  From a really young age I was quite active.

At age 8 we moved to Sale quite close to the gritstone edges of the Peak District.  After I got a climbing rope for my birthday, I would go out with a friend from school or from the youth hostel group I joined and climb some of the easier routes.  I also enjoyed going for long distance hikes in the mist by myself.  Navigating in such conditions was always challenging and fun.  I had two very trusting parents I guess you can say because I used to go to Scotland, Wales and the Lake District by myself quite often, getting there by buses and trains, and then walking over the hills from one youth hostel to another.  We didn’t have much money, and sometimes the hostels were closed or they were full and I would just sleep outside.  I liked to be independent.  Eventually, I gravitated to a climbing club.  It was the natural progression.

You’ve won awards, founded a publishing firm, written books, and hiked many thousands of miles of trails.  To say the least, we find you inspiring.  Were there any women who inspired you along your journey? 

Shortly after I moved to Canada in 1966, I learned about Mary Schaffer (1861-1939) and Georgia Engelhard (1906-1986).  In fact I produced a book on Mary Schaffer called “No Ordinary Woman” written by Janice Sanford Beck.  Both were artists, Mary was into botany and Georgia, photography.  I wouldn’t say they inspired me though.  I’ve never had any idols in my life, though our whole family greatly admired Ernest Shackleton.  In Sale we lived opposite some Shackletons, but I doubt they were related!

I remember when I was a member of the climbing club back in Wales and we invited Gwen Moffatt to our annual dinner.  She was the latest thing: a woman guide!  All of the men in the club thought that this was very strange because she was so very sure of herself and confident.  This sort of role reversal wasn’t done back then.

What kind of barriers did you face as a woman exploring the Rockies in the 1970s?

As far as gender issues go, I’ve never had any.  I’ve never thought of men versus women.  I just did what I wanted to do.  I used to go out with men on long distance treks and I was the only woman.  It never once bothered me.  I never thought oh gosh I’m the only woman.  Having said that, I do like going out with my women friends.  Women are more sensitive to the needs of others aren’t they?  Here in the Rockies I see a lot more women on the trails nowadays and sometimes they’re by themselves or with other women.  It’s quite noticeable, actually, that the majority of people on the trails these days are, in fact, women.

I’ve never felt any barriers to being a woman.  I started Rocky Mountain Books, the publishing company, and Tony, a few years later dropped his very well paying job at SAIT to join me.  It was a very big decision for us as we didn’t know if we could survive.  We didn’t have any security but we went for it!  And you know what, that company is going to be 40 years old next year.

Is there an experience or an accomplishment that stands out for you?  What are you most proud of?

Starting Rocky Mountain Books and working with authors.  That brings me more satisfaction than anything.  Working with authors and seeing them evolve into authors who can earn a living from writing.

When I first started RMB there was a niche to fill.  I saw it immediately.  First of all guidebooks.  I believe we did the world’s first ice climbing guide.  But now as you know the whole world has ice climbing guides!  We did backcountry biking guides as well.  I saw a niche as well for biographies and autobiographies of mountain people – some still with us and some not.  It seemed very important that we get their stories out there.

Gillean Daffern Photo

We would love to know your favorite hike in Kananaskis!  Do you have one?

I do really like the Highwood area.  Less people—I think that’s the reason.  The trouble is I am the one probably to blame for more people on the trail!  I do try and keep away from the busy trails myself.  Thankfully it’s easy to get off the beaten track.  I like going to new places each time as well.  I’m curious like that.  I am not someone who has to keep going up Prairie Mountain for instance.  So what if you have been up 50 times!

There isn’t one particular trail that stands out as being the best or my favorite and I’m not always on trails necessarily.  I enjoy exploring unnamed ridges and summits and think they’re all great!  Just for a little while, when you’re alone up there, everything you see belongs to you and that is the best.

What do you think about the rising use of technologies such as GPS devices and cellphones in the backcountry?

Even though we use a GPS on occasion, I think technology takes a lot of the skill away.  People are not observing as they used to because they don’t have to. They’ve got this instrument that will take care of it all for them.  And when they get lost they just ring up mountain rescue on their cell phones, give them a GPS reading and wait to be rescued.  This is happening a lot in the UK apparently.  Generally, though, people nowadays are not so good at getting themselves out of a jam.  Sometimes it’s because they can’t read a map or can’t read the landscape, maybe because they are new to the game.

Simple observation is important.  Sometimes I draw rather than take photos.  I’m a graphic artist after all and have a Master’s Degree in Graphic Design.  If I see interesting shapes I’ll draw them.  When I walk around, even trails I’ve been on before, I draw as I go along so I know everything that there is to see on that specific occasion.  And I’ll add comments about my observations as well.  Luckily, I have a good photographic memory.

Do you have any advice for new people getting out onto the trails this fall?

Hiking is pretty basic and while you can go out and learn by yourself, it’s better to go with a more experienced friend.  This is particularly true if you are going scrambling.  There have so been so many fatal accidents involving inexperienced loners.

Don’t be fanatical about getting up a certain peak or route.  Another reason for fatalities.  If conditions aren’t right, wait until they are.

Make sure you have good footwear.  I see so many people out there on the trails now wearing runners and flip-flops.  Also, you see a lot of people who don’t carry a darn thing with them.  They don’t even have a water bottle, food or a rainproof jacket!  We certainly don’t take the kitchen sink, but these are a few essentials. And a map is one.

Everybody goes out to the mountains for different reasons.  Some just go for exercise.  But many of us find it relieves the stress of everyday living or whatever your job is.  Whether you’re biking, hiking or climbing, you’re in the moment because there is nothing else you can think about at the time.  You have to concentrate on what you are doing otherwise you’re going to fall or something.  It puts your troubles on the back burner for a while so it’s good for your brain and spirit.  The smells and the sights will heal you.

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