I believe that those who knew Peter would be hard-pressed to identify another friend who has had a bigger impact on their lives. Peter was absolutely authentic, dependable, selfless, modest, compassionate and generous with his time. He was globally minded and locally active. Peter was always a teacher … both as a professor at the University of Manitoba and in his personal life. He always wanted to share what he knew with others. It didn’t matter whether you were a ‘hard man’ or a complete beginner, Peter would be happy to go on a trip with anyone just so he could share his knowledge of the things he loved, to enable others to explore the world for themselves. It was this passion for teaching that lead him to organize numerous trips for Manitoba’s burgeoning climbers to “Experience the Mountains” in the Rockies. He was an outstanding mentor, and had a gentle yet forceful way of encouraging team members to achieve their best, whether it was a child learning to climb or an experienced climber on a desperate pitch.
Peter was the original ‘hard man’ and the most fearless of leaders. I remember the outrageously steep knife edge ridge near the top of Mount Manitoba in 2002. Peter had led the previous pitch through bottomless snow and had belayed Bob France and me to the ridge, where we had dug in. The wind was howling, sending spindrifts off the ridge and it looked grim. Peter casually looked at Bob and me and said “Why don’t you two set up a belay and lead up the ridge?” We looked at the exceptionally steep, razor sharp ridge and elected to stay put. In the end, Peter led up the ridge without a moment’s hesitation, much to the admiration of Bob and me. Bob made some comment about “balls of steel” (but not so polite). Peter was the kind of guy that just did what needed to be done. He relished the challenge; the more desperate things were the better Peter was. Peter used his dry British sense of humour to lighten sometimes stressful situations. Those who know him will remember him often saying “it’s not brilliant”, referring to the foul weather, his memory of the route, rotten rock, or whatever the current challenge was.
Peter started climbing at an early age. He climbed in England, Colorado and in Australia before coming to Canada and settling in Winnipeg in 1969. In the 1970’s Peter resurrected the then-defunct Manitoba Section of the Alpine Club of Canada and almost singlehandedly developed the rock climbing routes in Manitoba and NW Ontario rock climbing. He got other Winnipeggers interested in climbing with him. So, in an area of the country where climbing seemed an impossibly silly idea, Peter found a way to make it happen.
Peter had many accomplishments in his climbing career. He served the Alpine Club of Canada – Manitoba Section as President and Vice-President for many years. Peter recently celebrated his 40th year of membership and support for the Alpine Club of Canada. In 1989 he received the Alpine Club of Canada’s Silver Rope Award for Leadership. In 1992, Peter received the Order of the Buffalo Hunt – Manitoba’s highest honour, in recognition of the first ascent of Mount Manitoba in the Yukon. Peter appreciated these accolades, but for him it was the people-filled encounters along the way that were most important.
It was on the annual “Experience the Mountains” trip this past August that Peter had his last climb. He had returned to Mount Victoria for the 5th time when, in a tragic turn of events, Peter was struck by a falling rock and fell to his death. At 71 years old he was still strong and vigorous. Two days earlier Peter had climbed 12 pitches to the top of Wiwaxy peak, and was still feeling strong at the end of the day. In the end, Peter died living a life he truly loved. He was in the mountains, with friends, and lending his knowledge to enhance the experience of others. While Peter’s death was a tragic loss for those of us he left behind, I know that if Peter could have picked how he would leave this earth, this would have been pretty close.
In thinking about Peter, it occurs to me that he had such strong qualities that he could have pursued anything. He could have been famous, been President of the University, built a successful business, or pursued wealth. He had the capacity to succeed at any of those things, but they weren’t important to him. Instead, he chose to spend his life pursuing his passions, spending time with his family, building a strong community, mentoring and teaching others … and, in doing those things, he left the our world richer.
I do not know how fast I’m walking
Here among the trees
For in this great land of mine
I tread the path with ease
The stress of life has slipped away
Light shines through the summer leaves
The flowers, oh so fair
My love for nature cannot be matched
For the outdoors is my home
As long as I do walk this earth
Forever I will roam
The joy I feel on the summit
Truly makes me want to stay
For the view of which I gaze upon
Takes my breath away
By Ryan Aitchison
This poem was written in June 2013 as a school assignment on love. Peter would be so proud that his grandson views the outdoors the same way he did.
This video tribute was viewed during the Memorial for Peter Aitchison, St. John’s College, Winnipeg, September 7, 2013.
Climb on Peter!