In 1992, Diny Harrison became Canada’s first female mountain guide. Over the years she’s guided on four continents, dealt with guests who didn’t want her as a guide, had brushes with death, and battled cancer. Throughout that, she’s maintained a lively sense of humour.
Words by Claire Paradis, photos contributed by Diny Harrison
When the legendary Canadian mountain guide Chic Scott told Diny Harrison she was about to become Canada’s first female guide – a girl guide – she ran with it.
She showed up for her last interview dressed in a Girl Guide outfit and brought cookies.
“When you’re in the process of becoming a guide, all you’re thinking about is becoming a guide,” she said. “You’re out there climbing and skiing and getting as much experience as you can. It never crossed my mind that I would be the first woman or that I’d be inspiration for any woman. I was just doing what I liked.”
Harrison became an internationally certified mountain guide in 1992. Over the years she has guided with CMH and was assistant manager of CMH Revelstoke; she’s taught courses and was president of the CAA and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. She has guided throughout western Canada, Europe, South America and Africa.
Diny (rhymes with tiny) has never let challenges stop her from cutting her own path. Born sick, she was small, but she was always able to keep up with the boys. It’s no surprise that Mighty Mouse was her favourite superhero.
Raised in Ontario, Harrison’s mother took her skiing in Collingwood. They had a cottage where she would run around naked in the woods.
When she was older, her aunt sent her a brochure for High Horizons, a skiing and climbing camp in Kananaskis Country in Alberta. She signed up right away. One day, when it was too warm to ski, the kids went climbing instead, and that became a magic moment for Harrison. She fell in love with the sport.
Small, but still a handful, Harrison recounted that one summer at camp she and some other climbers had decided they didn’t like their leader, Charlie Locke, so they decided to take off. Choosing their route down a chimney on Mount Smuts, the teens high-tailed it back to camp. A frustrated Locke returned at the end of the day, railing and saying, “I quit, I hate teenagers,” Diny recalled.
A decade later, Harrison ran into Locke again when she was working as ski patrol at Lake Louise. At a maintenance shed party for staff to meet the new owner, she realized she was about to shake hands with the man she’d left on top of Mount Smuts years earlier.
“I didn’t think he’d remember me,” she said. “All he said was ‘How could I forget you, Diny?’”
PHOTO: Diny Harrison in her Girl Guide outfit she wore to her final guide’s interview.
It wasn’t a desire to be memorable that made Harrison the first Canadian woman to receive the international ski guide certification, it was her desire to be first down the hill.
It all started when she was working in the Lake Louise ski shop and doing a lot of ski touring with her boyfriend. She started thinking, what would happen if somebody got hurt out there? What would she do?
“At that time there were only professional-level courses available,” Harrison remembered. She took a level one avalanche course and an 80-hour first aid course.
During that winter, because she had those courses, she was asked to join ski patrol, “for a whopping $3.28 an hour – that was 1981 or whatever it was,” she recalled. And that was the beginning of her professional ski career.
Around that time a couple friends – guys – suggested she should become a guide. At first she wasn’t convinced, until she heard about the perks.
“Why would I want to be a guide?” she remembered asking. Her friends replied, “You always get to go first.”
That was another magic moment.
“Oh!? I always go first?” she’d said. “I think that was the big thing. Because, you know, you’re skiing with the guys. It’s not your line until you’re on it. If you can’t get your skins off fast enough, it’s not yours. And that kind of got me going.”
At the time, there weren’t very many women who were mountaineering or guiding. Harrison recalled there were a few, like Sharon Wood, but not many.
“It’s not that you were unusual, it was that you were a novelty,” mused Harrison. “And at least here in Canada the guides were very open-minded. I think in Europe it was much different, initially… Nowadays there are so many great women skiing and climbing. Great, great athletes.”
For her part, she didn’t think about being a novelty while she was pursing certification.
She recognized early that she would need really good technique to make up for her lack of size and strength. Other guides, men around the same size, showed her how to be efficient as a small person. “They never ostracized me. I had really good support.”
Although she wasn’t given a hard time, she did feel the instructors and examiners watched her more closely, scrutinizing her every move, making sure she would be a capable guide.
One examiner told her she would have a hard time with guests because she was a woman, that she would have to prove herself. Except for one or two European guests who asked if there were any other guides, and being ignored by the Italians when she was the first woman to represent the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides internationally, it’s been smooth sailing, she said.
PHOTO: Diny Harrison guiding with CMH.
Early in Harrison’s career as a guide, Harrison remembers getting caught in a small avalanche. It was just a brief moment, but as it rolled along she could see masses of broken tree tops down just below the ridge she was on.
“Fortunately the crust was weak enough and I could punch through and walk across,” she said. “Just for a second I could feel my pelvis breaking… I just had that impact feeling, you know?”
As a guide, Harrison has had death around her, right next to her, and she accepts it as part of the life.
“If you’re going be a mountain guide or a ski guide or an alpine guide, you better be prepared to deal with fatalities. And it might be your own,” she mused. “It might not be your own, but it could well happen around you.”
And at one crucial point six years ago, it was time to stop guiding, to do something else.
Another avalanche came into Harrison’s life, this time hitting a neighbouring ski group. She went out to assist; it was a turning point.
“You’re doing CPR on someone who’s obviously dead,” she said. “You look at them and you say, ‘You know I might take a break from this.’ Life is so short, things can change. At that point in my career, I’d had friends who’d died and other things that had happened, and you realize the value of life and the value of opportunities. When you have opportunities, you should take them, you can’t save them for later. I think that last fatality when I dug that guy out, it struck me.”
Harrison was done, burnt out after a season of big commitments, conflict, loss and divorce on top of difficult guiding conditions.
“I just reached the point that I needed a break.”
She travelled to New Zealand to guide for the summer, and then she discovered kite surfing. It was another magic moment – she was in love again. Renting her house in Revelstoke, she spent the winters in Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, Italy, and Cape Verde kite surfing.
Asked if she’d ever teach kite surfing, the answer is an unequivocal no. “You gotta leave something sacred,” she said. Skiing and rock climbing turned into work, and she’s leaving one passion for just herself.
PHOTO: Diny Harrison’s latest passion is kite surfing.
The most recent small avalanche Harrison faced was the news that she had breast cancer 1.5 years ago. Less than thrilled by the conventional options of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, she again followed her own lead.
“Come on, since 1950 nothing’s changed?” she asked, incredulous. “I know you guys have billions of dollars, what have you done with it?”
Instead, she went to see a homeopathic doctor a friend recommended. Treatments involving apricot kernel extract and high-dose vitamin C shrank the tumour that she lovingly named ‘Tina tumour and the Timbits.’ The tumour has been inactive for more than a year.
The diagnosis and treatment meant huge changes: no alcohol, sugar, carbohydrates, wheat, dairy, red meat or inflammatory foods. Yes to eating organic, water and going to bed early.
“I’ve become a boring guide,” Harrison quipped. “I’m not up all night drinking and partying with the guests, but therefore I’m on top every day.
“I’m going to be 58 this year. Since the whole cancer thing and the whole diet change and lifestyle change, I feel better than I ever did. I feel amazing.”
A scuttled trip to the Canary Islands and the end of a relationship spelled a shift back to ski guiding, this time with Mustang Powder in the Monashees near Revelstoke.
And although where exactly home is – she’s got stashes of clothes in Baja California and in Germany – is unclear, she loves her house and life in Revelstoke.
There have been plenty of close calls and Diny feels she’s been really lucky. For her, it’s the nature of the beast, and acceptance is key.
“Everybody dies. You don’t get out of this alive. Accept hazards, accept things go wrong, learn what to do when things go wrong.”