David Jones at Porcupine Peak
Credit: David P. Jones Collection

His name may not ring a bell, but if you've climbed in B.C., chances are you're following in his footsteps

63 ascents of previously unclimbed peaks, 126 summits in the last two years, 200 days a year in the mountains. First Canadian over 8,000 metres. For David Jones, 
it all adds up to 
adventurous life.

This was the most recent time I bumped into David Jones in the mountains: A few hours into a hike in the Rockies on a sharp blue morning last September, I stopped for a rest at a beautiful overlook. Jones suddenly materialized on the trail.

“Well, hello there!” he said with a warm laugh.

It took a second to register who this dripping apparition was—he’d apparently just dunked himself in a nearby creek—but the outfit was a sure giveaway: MEC Rad pants that had seen far too many years in the mountains, a ratty T-shirt, clunky old boots, oversized glasses that were a bit fogged up, and a soaking bandana tied old-school around a big, craggy head, with that bristle-brush of grey hair sticking straight up.

I asked him what he was doing, knowing the answer would be impressive.

“Oh, I was up looking at Foster,” he informed me, referring to Foster Peak, the 3,204-metre massif that towers over Floe Lake and begins the southern end of Kootenay National Park’s famous Rockwall. “I ran in this morning, and climbed up on a ridge across the valley.”

I started adding up some numbers in my head: Jones had already run 10 kilometres and gained 500 metres of vertical up to Floe Lake, then had climbed another 500 metres up the ridge to get the view he wanted. Then he’d popped back down to Floe, and had covered another 15 kilometres around to, and down, Tumbling Creek, and a good ways down to the spot where he’d found me. It was 10:30 a.m. Jones is 63.

Jones asked me if I knew much about the climbs on Foster. I admitted I didn’t, and he happily launched into a detailed mini-lecture about the mountain. He stared off into the trees behind me as he spoke, and every so often he’d shut his eyes and knot his brow, looking as though he was squeezing every last detail out of the thought he was having. He does that a lot. There are a lot of details to be squeezed out.

Jones began talking about a rumoured ascent of the face in the 1970s, and didn’t seem to notice when another member of my party came up the trail and stood beside us. Jones just kept on talking about Foster, until he suddenly announced that he had to be off, as he was heading down to meet his wife, so the two of them could start yet another hike in a few hours.

As Jones trotted away, my hiking partner turned to me and said, “He seems like an interesting guy.”

I shouldered my pack. “You have no idea…”

His name might not ring a bell—unless, perhaps, you’re thinking of the singer from The Monkees or the infamous locker—but if you’ve climbed just about anywhere in British Columbia, chances are pretty good you are following in David Jones’s footsteps. If you rock climb at Squamish, or Skaha or Spillimacheen, you’ve probably clipped his bolts. If you’ve climbed peaks in the Purcells, the Monashees, the Adamants and especially the Selkirks, you’re probably following lines first dreamt of and then climbed by Jones. If you’ve walked a trail to get to those climbs, it’s a safe bet that Jones cut it, and if you’ve been carrying a guidebook to help keep you on route, Jones probably wrote it.

And that’s just British Columbia. Jones has also done pioneering climbs in other parts of Canada, and indeed around the world. He has summitted Mount Logan four times—twice on new routes—and was the first Canadian to make a significant mark in the Himalaya. But despite his achievements, Jones is one of those “invisibles,” the small troupe of cutting-edge adventurers spread across the country who are out there all the time, but somehow zip along under the radar, only rarely writing up or talking about their trips. Jones has been climbing very well and very often for a long, long time, but you won’t hear that from him.

Which isn’t to say that Jones won’t talk about his climbs. In fact, once you get him going, he’s got great stories about his favourite routes, mountains and ranges, and he’s got an astonishing ability—almost savant-like—to recall details about them.

Jones loves the details of climbing: the numbers, the history, the geology. He obsesses about them, pursues them inexhaustibly, and for the last few decades, as the author of several climbing guidebooks to the interior ranges of B.C. (and soon the Rockies), has been formally curating them.
In fact, a lot of people think that if you want to know who climbed what, when and how in Canada, Jones is the oracle. But he’s also the person who actually made a lot of that climbing history himself.

One slushy December morning, I arrive at Jones’s new house in Golden, B.C.—where he retired two years ago after two decades in the patent office at the University of British Columbia—to take a look at the archive of data he’s collected over half a century of climbing. With little fanfare—he sometimes doesn’t bother too much with social graces—Jones takes me down to his office, which provides a beautiful vista down the Columbia Valley, but an even better view into Jones himself. It’s a meticulously ordered catalogue of an adventurous life.

Jones shows me his cartographer’s table, with its many drawers of maps of southeastern B.C., most of them heavily annotated with corrections and additions. It’s a treasure chest of possibilities, Jones says, and then shakes his head. “It’s amazing more people aren’t getting out around here. There’s so, so much to be done.”

Then Jones walks across the room to a long shelf of small, nicely bound books, signifying another one of his passions. These, he explains, are the journals in which he’s been keeping the records of what he’s done for, well, forever.

Jones pulls out the volume at the left-hand end and passes it to me. The first entry on the first page records Jones’s first climb—an ascent of Mount Begbie, the peak that hovers high above Revelstoke, B.C., which he’d done with his childhood friend Bruce Haggerstone. It’s dated Easter, 1964, when Jones was just 16. Jones says the rest of the books list every single climb that he’s done since, often with pitch-by-pitch descriptions. What is noticeably absent from all those records is anything but the facts of the climbs. No joys, no terrors, no aesthetics, few comments about partners; just the numbers.

A little while later, I ask Jones about the numbers that climbers most often tend to talk about—in particular, his list of first ascents. He shrugs at that—he likes the numbers of climbing, but really doesn’t like to talk about his own numbers—but then he shuts his eyes, knots up his brow and squeezes his brain again: “Sixty-three first ascents of unclimbed peaks; 159 new routes on mountains; 230 new routes on rock.”

Those numbers put Jones in a very special class of climbers, especially given how many of his ascents have been hard climbs in remote areas, not just insignificant scrambles ticking off odd unclimbed peaks. Jones’s record puts him on a par with the early exploratory climbers—and they had a sea of virgin peaks to choose from. Jones has had to be far more creative and dogged with his ascents.

There’s another side to his list that’s equally telling and impressive: Jones did some fantastic climbing in his twenties and thirties, but his fifties and now sixties seem to have been his most productive period. He’s still climbing hard long routes in the alpine and putting up serious sport routes, and he climbed 126 peaks during the past two years alone.

Jones says that since he’s retired, he’s now getting out into the mountains 200 days a year, instead of just 100. And these, I know, are 200 Jones days—not just half days of sport climbing or 10-kilometre hikes, but big days: 30 kilometres out and back, with 2,500-metre elevation gains, obscene bushwhacking, river crossings, trail-cutting and traverses along endless crumbly ridges. When Jones goes  “hiking,” he’s exploring, thrashing his way far into the backcountry to find some little-known peak that he can put into one of the guidebooks he’s always writing. If he’s “climbing,” he is probably forging some tricky new line everybody else has missed, or summitting a mountain everyone else has forgotten.

In Jones’s kitchen later that day, I ask him where he thinks his climbing drive originally came from. As he gives that some thought, Jones’s wife, Joie Seagram, enters the room, and gives her own version of the answer. “Rage,” she says. “I think that’s where it started from, to tell you the truth.”

I’m caught a bit off-guard, because Jones has always seemed to me so positive, so enthusiastic about what he’s been up to, so energized by his plans and projects. But at the same time, Joie’s comment isn’t exactly a shock. I’ve heard enough stories from serious climbers to know that if you turn the tapestry of their achievements over, there are often messes of ugly knots and loose strings on the other side.

Jones acknowledges, if a little reluctantly, that he did have hard early years. He was born into rough times in Britain, the eldest of five children, and was brought to Canada when he was eight. He spent his first years in this country in a series of tiny hamlets along the Columbia River that were progressively flooded by the Arrow Lake hydro project.

Jones says that his father was the kind of man who “didn’t think too hard about cuffing me on the head,” but he also admits that he wasn’t the easiest child. “I always just had all this energy,” he says, as his feet tap wildly. He remembers, for example, that he’d once tried to dig his way out of the backyard with a spoon, and that his parents had to keep him tied with a rope “so I wouldn’t escape.”

And yet it was Jones’s father who helped launch his son’s adventure career, albeit unintentionally. “When I was 13,” Jones says, “I really wanted to go to the Seattle World’s Fair, and I kept bugging my father. He got fed up and finally said, ‘Well, why don’t you goddamn walk?’” So Jones took that as permission to go. He couldn’t find anyone to walk with him, but a friend agreed to bike, and they rode their little three-speed Touring Archer bikes all the way from Revelstoke to Seattle, camping along the route. “There were certainly a lot of people in Revelstoke who thought my parents were nuts, but I just thought I was really fortunate.”

The next year, Jones headed out on his bike again, this time riding with a friend from Revelstoke to Edmonton, then down to the Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta before turning home again. Despite being ridiculed as one of the least athletic kids at school, Jones excelled at these endurance fests. “Give me a bike, or just let me out to run, and I could go all day. It was nothing for us to get on our bikes and ride 70 kilometres up to Rogers Pass and back that night.”

And then Jones found climbing. Like a lot of climbers at the time, he and his friend Bruce Haggerstone taught themselves, going out with nothing more than an instruction book and some dubious gear, somehow surviving—but never, Jones insists, by the skin of their teeth. From the beginning, Jones has had a knack for the technical problem-solving side of climbing, being quickly able to read terrain, sort out gear, and keep a cool head. According to a long-time friend and partner, the very talented West Coast climber Greg Foweraker, Jones has always been “a master of research, and of understatement,” two stabilizing forces that balance the kind of dark drives that have proven perilous in other climbers who come from difficult backgrounds. “I know Dave has some scar tissue,” says Foweraker, “but it just doesn’t show up the way it does in some other people. He’s not at all crazy. Instead, you’ll never find anyone who’s safer and more stable in the mountains.”

Jones’s office has a number of climbing photos hanging on the walls. One of the most dramatic shows a mountaineer delicately balanced on a razor’s edge of snow, with exposure dropping off into thousands of metres of shadows. When I ask Jones about it, he chuckles. “Oh yeah,” he says, “I look at that now, and I can’t believe we actually did that. That was waaay out there.”

The picture was taken partway up the Warbler Ridge on Mount Logan’s mammoth South Face. Jones and four friends completed the first, and only, ascent of the long and difficult line in 27 days in 1977. Frank Baumann, a member of the Warbler team, wrote that the conditions on the ridge were so bad that they could reduce a climber to “an exhausted blithering idiot after six metres of progress.” But not Jones. Fred Thiessen, a member of that team, said that although it was terrifying up there, he never once saw Jones get rattled. “He got us all up the mountain.”

The Warbler was a huge accomplishment, but Jones already had a much more impressive item on his resumé when he went to Logan. In the 1970s, Canadians had done virtually nothing in the Himalaya, and there were few climbers with the skill, or inclination, to change that record—until Jones was asked to go to Makalu, the fifth-highest peak in the world, with an international team in 1974.

The plan wasn’t just to climb Makalu, but to attempt the hardest line ever tried on the mountain—the enormous South Face. The only climb of comparable difficulty that had been done in the Himalaya at the time was the enormous South Face of Annapurna, and Makalu was harder, higher and steeper. Jones laughs again: “I was awfully, awfully naive.”
Jones’s team ultimately failed, but not by much. Jones and a partner made it to within just a few hundred metres of the summit, and on that push Jones became the first Canadian to have climbed above 8,000 metres.

That near-success propelled Jones to the Himalaya two more times. The second of those Himalayan trips—in 1981—saw Jones become the first Canadian to set foot high on Mount Everest. Because Jones is Jones, few people knew about the trip, but he came very close to being the first Canadian to climb the peak. He was well above the South Col, on the ridge to the summit, when conditions killed the attempt.

As I sit at the dining room table in Jones’s beautiful house, I look out at a few peaks just starting to materialize out of the winter fog that sits so often over the Purcells, mountains that are probably more familiar to Jones than they’ve been to anyone in history. To the left of the window there is a striking photograph of Makalu at sunset, a picture taken during Jones’s summit attempt on Everest.

I ask Jones about his future, and the future of climbing. He is doggedly optimistic about both. He says he has ambitious plans to last him at least until 70, and he says “there’s enough out there to keep people exploring long after I’m gone if they just go looking for it.”

Jones’s friends have told me that he has a particular talent for divining the next great motherlode of climbing. So I ask him: Where exactly are the next treasure climbs that he has in his files?

Jones simply smiles. There’s no way he’s giving that list out. Not yet. After all, he’s only 63.

This profile is part of our top adventurers feature, The Elite, from our Spring 2012 issue.