John Baldwin is arguably one of the greatest pure North American explorers. He has chosen to do most of his travels on skis and has authored several books and maps so others can experience the great Canadian wilderness with a bit of guidance.
Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of skiing and hiking with John Baldwin and Linda Bily, John’s wife, on several occasions and we always had plenty of fun.
John and Linda are probably best described by their own quote from their book Soul of Wilderness:
Ours are not heart-stopping tales of conquest and hardship…. The purpose of our trips is simply to see as many of these special places as we can.
Note: All images are copyrighted by John Baldwin and Linda Bily, and were used with their permission.
John Baldwin’s Guidebooks and Maps
John has authored several books, including ski guide books and maps, that focus on his beloved Coast Mountains and western British Columbia.
People’s most popular publication of his has been the Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis that is a superb guide to ski mountaineering in the Coast Mountains of western British Columbia from the Washington border to the Alaska panhandle.
For a full list of John’s books, maps and online purchase visit his website JohnBaldwin.ca.
Interview with John Baldwin
Q: Whether it is a multi-week ski traverse or just a day trip, what is most important to have a remarkable mountain experience?
There is a term called forest bathing that has become more popular recently. I think this is a big component of ski touring – you might call it mountain bathing or snow bathing.
I think moving through the mountains on skis is a great way to connect with nature and the outdoors. I feel that a sense of wonder and gratitude for the mountains are part of this.
Q: I remember when we met for the first time… both of us skiing solo in the mountains above Vancouver. I was new to Canada but already studying your ski guidebook. You quickly became my inspiration for exploring. Who were the people that inspired you and in which ways?
There are many levels to answer that question…
There were the people that helped me to learn how to go into the mountains – my leaders in Scouts, my high school French Teacher Hans Fenz.
Then there are people who inspired me by their mountain activities – Don and Phyllis Munday, Dick Culbert and Glenn Woodsworth, John Clarke, Chic Scott, Galen Rowell. All of these people had an idea that grabbed them and they followed that idea with passion.
It’s good to be curious about life – that is something I learned from my father and it’s good to appreciate the beauty in life – that is something I learned from my mother.
The most important lesson is to follow your heart.
Q: You have created and published your books and maps with little outside help. You self-thought most of the skills you needed. Is this an obvious extension of your wilderness adventures? Do you like to be self-reliant in all aspects of life?
That is partly true, I like a hands on approach when I do things. I enjoy the learning and exposure to all kinds of things that comes from that. At the same time, I did rely on others with some of the technical aspects of publishing and using complicated mapping and graphic design software.
Also, when you are doing something for the first time – either in the mountains or writing for example – you have to follow your own vision because there is no else to follow.
Q: You have dedicated your life to exploring Canadian Coast Mountains which line the west coast of British Columbia for hundreds if kilometres. What lured you specifically to them for so long?
The simple answer is that I grew up in Vancouver staring at the southern end of the Coast Mountains and became curious about what lay up there.
I fell in love with the magnificent land that lay hidden in the clouds. And it has taken most of my life to just get to some of their most amazing places.
I didn’t consciously ignore other places or activities, I just did what I wanted to do most at each step of the way.
Q: During all your long remote expeditions, your groups have never had a major accident. How did you manage that? You survived a massive fall in your twenties, was that an early wake-up call?
Many of my trips were before satellite phones, and Spot or InReach devices. It was essential to plan each trip carefully.
The mountains are very powerful. It is important to be respectful and appreciate that when you are in them. Yes, I suppose in a way, falling off the mountain helped me appreciate that. One wrong step and you can fall 500m!
You don’t need to be afraid and fearful when you are in the mountains but you do need to be aware of what you are doing and where you are.
Q: You have an incredible sense for reading terrain and interpreting a map. Is this something you have always had, or it has naturally developed within you over the years?
I am an engineer and I have always been good at map reading and visualizing things in three dimensions. Staring at maps and using them to constantly navigate through new terrain has also helped immensely.
I think we also have an innate sense of terrain in all of us. We have been travelling over the earth for millions of years and we are meant to do that.
Q: Do you use Google Earth or other modern applications?
I use it a lot for inspiration and researching new ideas. Once outside, I prefer to read terrain and look at a paper map or phone map occasionally, mostly without compass or GPS. You could say, I am trying to be romantic about it…
Absolutely, Google Earth is amazing! To be able to see the landscape in such detail is incredible… But there are limitations – it often doesn’t show crevasses very well and like a map you still need experience to really be able to read the terrain well.
I strictly use Google Earth for planning and it’s fun to look at for new areas. It has also been invaluable for making my ski touring maps. I also use caltopo.com and hillmap.com, which are really useful online mapping tools that can translate from a map to a satellite image.
Q: Do you think that those who rely a lot on modern navigational tools – phone apps with GPS, or simply following a downloaded GPS track – are robing themselves of a more profound experience? Aren’t these modern tools making us a bit dumber perhaps?
There are no rules, use whatever works for you. I do agree with you that overusing modern navigational tools will not help you learn how to interpret terrain.
My advice is to always try and estimate where you are before you use a GPS and see how well you did. That way you will learn.
When GPS devices first came out I used to race a friend and his GPS to see who could estimate our location faster. I often would win (and back then when the GPS signals were weaker, I was often more accurate).
Ski routes are not hiking trails and their GPS tracks cannot be followed like a video game. You need to be constantly looking around and assessing avalanche conditions, crevasses, changing micro terrain, rocks etc.
With practice you should be able to look at a map in the morning and know where you are for most of the day and only need to refer to the map when there are very specific spots that you need to navigate through.
Q: I know that you prepare most of your expedition food at home. Do you use any sports bars or store freeze-dry food?
I sometimes use nutrition bars on day trips but I don’t like most of them.
For longer trips, I usually make up my own snacks. For meals, I will use some freeze dried ingredients but never freeze dried meals in a bag.
Q: How much food in weight do you bring per person on a week-long ski traverse? What is most important to you about the food you bring?
The old rule was about 900g (2lbs) per person per day.
It’s important to bring healthy nutritious food that you like. You can make your own simple meals that cook relatively quickly. I have never lost weight on any three week trip.
Q: You have managed to organize your life to have plenty of time for adventuring. Despite living close to Vancouver’s downtown, you live simply. Have you ever thought about living in a small town?
First off, I grew up in Vancouver, so that is my home and that is a big part of why I live here. I also love living near the ocean – I feel it is like the base for the Coast Mountains.
I have thought about living in a small town but I was never able to find work there so it never happened. I also find that when I am in the city that I only live in a small part of it, and can ride my bike and do most errands locally so that it feels a lot like a small town.
Q: When you are stuck on a big glacier in a storm, how do you spend the time? Do you read books?
People pay big money to go on meditation retreats. Just think of a storm day as a free retreat 🙂
It’s good for you to have time to just daydream and rest.
I often bring a book for storm days. I enjoy books about the true stories about people and parts of BC. I would trade books with others in the tent too.
Q: What projects are currently occupying you? Any new trips or books in the plans?
In the summer, I was busy going through all my old photos for Chic Scott who wrote a biography about me for the Alpine Club of Canada Summit Series. The pdf is available free online or you can order a printed copy.
Now, I am reprinting some maps right now with some small updates. I am also doing another printing of my guidebook.
Then I am always planning trips and looking at maps and Google Earth. And I have been sewing a new ski touring day pack as I love making things.
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