Local Hero

Posted on: June 1, 2008

Barry Blanchard [Photo] Cory Richards

“THANKS BUBBA,” said a young Canadian alpinist recently as he raised his beer to Barry Blanchard, “for keeping it alive in the Rockies.”

With his long, silver hair, glinting eyes and dedication to mentoring others, Bubba is the Obi-Wan of Rockies climbing. At forty-eight, he stands with his six-month-old daughter Eowyn cradled in his left arm, his three-year-old Rosemary holding his right hand, and his wife Catherine’s arms wrapped around his barrel chest. His straight back and burly shoulders are strong from decades spent dedicated to alpinism. Now, that same strength supports some of the brightest young talents in North America.

Here Bubba praises one such protégé: Eamonn Walsh. With more than thirty-five major alpine stints in the last nine years, Eamonn is among the most motivated climbers in the range. His resume includes two new routes on Mt. Grosvenor in Alaska, ten days of storms on Mt. Foraker’s Infinite Spur, an attempt on the unclimbed 7400-meter Kunyang Chhish East in Pakistan, the first ascent of the West Face of Mt. Alberta and the first winter ascent of the same peak. Through it all he has retained the same quiet, humble demeanor that has earned him the moniker, “The Water Buffalo.”

LIFE IS NOT COMPLICATED for Eamonn Walsh. He lays stone with his brother; he climbs mountains with a small, trusted group of friends; he pursues the matters of his heart and lets all else fall into insignificance. This is what I admire most about him: the man listens to his passion. Mountain climbing creates his life and there is no compromise in that.

Eamonn moved to Canmore, Alberta—the Center of the Universe for ice climbers—in 1997. He was a year out of high school and the small north-central British Columbian farm of his childhood. He took up residence in his shag-carpeted van, showering at the rock gym once a week, retrieving wishing coins from a steam at Lake Louise to pay for coffee and food, and climbing more than 200 days that year with a tribe that came to be known as The House of Youth.

Over a decade later, the boys of The House of Youth still climb together. Scott Semple, one of the crew, says, “Eamonn’s the best partner out of all of us because he’s consistent. He has your back, period. What you see is what you get.”

Eamonn Walsh. Though virtually unknown outside the Canadian Rockies, the Man of Girth is a hero to many in his home of Canmore. [Photo] Cory Richards

Eamonn’s early childhood responsibilities for chickens, goats and horses left him with a preference for careful observation over speech. He is commonly read as shy. Affectionately called MOG (Man of Girth), at 6'1" and 210 pounds, he presents a lumbering, bear-like, “ah-shucks” persona; climbing with him has been likened to being hooked up to a chained 1964 Dodge Power Wagon in four-wheel low. Crescent moon lacerations scar both of his cheeks—one from an ice chunk that would have ended most folks’ day (but in Eamonn’s case could “wait ‘til we’re finished” for the seven stitches it needed), the other from a ski tip. He’s a legendary goof in front of the camera; Semple recently captioned a picture of him, “Eamonn Walsh, ruining yet another photo.” Raphael Slawinski, another close friend and climbing partner, cherishes his lone, unsmirking Eamonn portrait. He took it just after a rockslide thundered over them in the Karakoram. “I thought I was dead there,” were Eamonn’s sole and sober words upon reaching Raphael’s stance.

Although many in Canmore race to the crags after work, Eamonn prefers to be “up off the valley floor, up in the mountains.” He often heads alone to one of his scrambling circuits. For years his dog Cosban, a square-chested, black, spitz-breed alpha bitch with one white sock, roamed the mountains with him. She and Eamonn were inseparable. When Cosban skittered on ice and fell into the December water of the Kicking Horse River, Eamonn watched helplessly while she fought until the moment of death, never giving up. “I’ve learned the most about life from climbing mountains and from owning a dog,” Eamonn says.

It has been said, “Eamonn is alpinism.” And I believe the alpine is where the universe wants him to be. That may change some day; he recently told me, “I’m sure I’ll meet the right lady at some point, but I’m not in a rush.” For now, the mountains are his mistress.

The ardent heart that runs all dogs and all horses puts most humans to shame—not so with Eamonn Walsh.

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.