My friend Don Vockeroth is a pioneer in Canadian mountain climbing and anyone who climbs in the Rockies is standing on Don’s shoulders. Don has an impressive list of first ascents, but always did it humbly and quietly, and always for the adventure, never for the glory. He also had a wicked sense of humour in his climbing, but I’ll get to that later.
In the early 1960s Don was instrumental in the first alpine helicopter rescue (this is the story behind the song “Fearless”). In those days helicopters weren’t really built for flying in the high alpine, and they had yet to replace skid-equipped fixed-wing aircraft in what later became heli-skiing in Canada. Don had gone from being a ski bum and mountain climbing bum to, at the request of legendary Swiss-born mountain guide Walter Perrin, assistant warden specializing in mountain rescue at Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park.
One night Don had 5 or 6 climbers visiting him and crashing in his cabin. After a feast of fish they caught in the lake and more than enough liquor, they got to bed late, only to be awoken at three in the morning when Walter knocked on his door.
Two climbers from New York had gotten in trouble during a climb in Glacier National Park, and one of them had broken his hip. Two wardens went to rescue them, but one of them broke his shoulder, and some very bad weather was setting in.
So they called Walter over in Banff. Walter told them to get a helicopter ready to go and he’d get there as soon as he could. He headed to Lake O’Hara, knocked on Don’s door, and they drove the rest of the night to get to Glacier.
By now a vicious summer storm has set in. The pilot tells them it’s going to be a little tricky because there’s nowhere to land, but he thinks he can just touch one skid against the steep ice-covered rock slope. Nowadays they suspend someone under the helicopter on a cable, but it had never been done before, so they’re improvising. Don, Walter, and Fred Schleiss climb into the helicopter and the pilot flies them up to the col. There’s a strong up-draught carrying them up, but ferocious storm winds blowing against them ... the helicopter is bucking as he tries to put them down, and the rotor clips a rock, so they have to head back down.
They bring in another helicopter and the next morning they try again. The storm is even worse, but the pilot gets one skid against the slope. Now Don has to get out of the helicopter ... he needs crampons to step on the ice but can’t put them on inside the helicopter. So Walter grabs the back of his belt and holds him back, while Don leans out and puts his crampons on. Now remember, the helicopter is under full power, shaking and buffeting, while Don is being assaulted by the full-power rotor wash ... and all this in the midst of a raging storm with tremendous winds and sleet. Anyway Don gets his crampons on, then Walter tells him he’s going to have to step off onto the slope. Don says : “ Wow ... seriously ? “ , But he does it, hammers some pitons into the rock, and secures a station. Walter and Fred exit the helicopter, which then takes off.
The three of them climb up to the warden and bring him down to a flat where they can load him into the helicopter. They then do the same with the American climber, who is in a stretcher.
The experience gained on that rescue was invaluable and became part of Walter Perrin’s years of spearheading Canada’s mountain rescue teams.
As a young rock climber Don trained with the Canadian gymnastic team and applied that to climbing.
Now as I said, Don climbed for the adventure, not the glory, and he had a wicked sense of humour regarding those who climbed for the glory. He and Lloyd MacKay used to make first ascents and not tell anybody. Lloyd loved the idea of making some first ascents without writing them up for the Alpine Journal, but putting them in a book and someone maybe claiming a first ascent later only to read the book at some point and recognizing the route predating their’s. On one particular expedition Lloyd intended to do just that. They couldn’t get one of Don’s pitons back out and had to leave it behind ... 20 years later another climber, thinking he was on a first ascent, found the piton and recognized it as Don’s.
On another climb, Don and Lloyd and Kenny Baker found a great route for a really challenging first ascent. It took them a day-and-a-half to summit. Don said they had better write that one up because it was a classic. But Lloyd said they couldn’t just yet because he heard there was a trio of Americans planning to do it and thought it would be really funny to let them claim it ... Americans usually did a lot of bragging about those things ... and then burst their bubble. So they hung on to it and waited. The Americans published it in the American Alpine Journal, and as expected, with a lot of long winded bragging about a group of America’s best climbers making the epic climb in 4 days. Then Don and Lloyd published theirs in the Canadian Alpine Journal. Lloyd thought their write-up was a little short so Don added a sentence stating that they considered it a really good one day climb. The next issue of the American Alpine Journal printed a retraction of the American first ascent claim.
Another time legendary American climber Fred Beckey called Don and asked him whether a tower near Mount Saskatchewan had been climbed. Now Don and Lloyd had climbed it and built a cairn at the top. Don, knowing full well that Beckey only went on first ascents, told him it hadn’t (Beckey did something like 500 first ascents, and climbed well into his 90s). So Beckey climbed it, found their cairn, and the next time he talked to Don, he complained bitterly that he found a cairn at the top. Don never told him it was his.
And on a final point, Don was also an avid hockey player. He played his last game at the age of 80 during the winter of 2017-2018, and then hung up his skates. He also took up guitar a few years ago and I’m still hoping to record a version of Fearless with Don playing along ... he’s working on it !
Listen to Fearless