Sharing a deep love of mountains worldwide

Associate professor Zac Robinson recognized by Royal Canadian Geographical Society for mountain studies contributions

Nicole Graham - 23 November 2018

Zac Robinson's infectious enthusiasm and respect for mountains is matched by his passion to educate Canadians on these geographical beacons that play such an important role nationally and globally. His list of accomplishments in the area of education and awareness reads as one of a seasoned veteran, not a young associate professor still in the early stages of his career.

Through his teaching and research in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, his involvement with the University of Alberta's massive open online course Mountains 101, the Alpine Club of Canada, the triennial Thinking Mountains Interdisciplinary Summit, and, most recently, Canada's new State of the Mountains Report, Robinson has effectively helped increase mountain-knowledge on both a national and international scale.

It's no surprise that, on November 1st, Robinson was elected into the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's College of Fellows-a prestigious honour given to those who support the Society's mandate of making Canada better known to Canadians and the world. The College of Fellows acts as the Society's voting body and comprises some of Canada's most distinguished geographers, scientists and artists, anthropologists, business leaders, historians and educators of all kinds, from school teachers to university presidents. Robinson joins a long line of individuals who share his passion of educating the world about Canada.

"The RCGS is one of Canada's oldest and largest not-for-profit, educational organizations. It has a long history of connecting Canadians to the landscape, its history and cultures. It's humbling to be recognized by the Society, and a big honour for me to be able to serve its College."

Evolution of interests

Growing up in rural, central Ontario, Robinson spent much of his youth on the beautiful Ontario lakes, instilling a deep love for the outdoors. He spent two seasons of tree-planting in northern Ontario as an undergraduate student, and it was this activity that first brought him to western Canada.

"Planting trees brought me to the mountains. All of my peers were suddenly climbers and skiers, and so my participation in those activities naturally progressed. Tree-planting didn't last more than five or six seasons, but I was hooked on 'mountains'. Any self-propelled way to explore them became a big part of my life. I haven't ever really looked back."

Robinson has since climbed mountains all over the world; his climbing mentors and partners comprise the 'who's-who' of the mountaineering world. Graduate studies and the pursuit of a PhD in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation landed him at the University of Alberta, and he has been here ever since.

Robinson's love for mountain history and recreation has been the premise for his research. His PhD work looked at the role of climbing journals and literature in the development of mountaineering in the Rockies. The research translated into a half-dozen peer-reviewed scholarly articles, and lay the groundwork for his SSHRC-funded postdoctoral work: a book project on a set of long-lost letters written by Conrad Kain, one of Canada's most accomplished early mountain guides. Conrad Kain: Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, 1906-1933 was published by the University of Alberta Press in 2014.

Robinson has since teamed up with fellow University of Alberta professor Stephen Slemon from the Department of English and Film Studies, and the duo have written widely for such venues as Canadian Rockies Annual and Alpinist Magazine. Their essays have been the seed research for a soon-to-be-completed book on early climbing in the Rockies.

"There's been a lot written on climbing's earliest age in Canada, but Stephen and I are trying to tell a slightly different story, one that leans heavily on archival research, discourse analysis, and also local Indigenous oral histories. The story of early mountaineering, its origins in the Rockies, is much more complicated than many of the more celebratory histories let on-and so, to the extent that we can, we're trying to tell this other story. It's been an exciting project, and especially fun for me to collaborate with a literary scholar."

More than a mountain historian

While mountain history is the focus on Robinson's research, he embraces the multi-disciplinary efforts that characterize the emergent field of "Mountain Studies". Through his role as the Vice President for Mountain Culture of the Alpine Club of Canada, and through various academic networks, Robinson has played a leading role in bringing Mountains Studies to the attention of many Canadians.

In early 2017, the Faculties of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation and Science launched Mountains 101-a 12-lesson massive open online course (MOOC) teaching a comprehensive overview of mountains studies. Mountains 101 was taught by Robinson and colleague David Hik, an alpine ecologist from Simon Fraser University. Both Robinson and Hik co-wrote much of the content. The MOOC was a hit, with now over 28,000 registrants from around the world - a number that continues to grow. Mountains 101 is ranked as the #1 Science MOOC in the world, and a "Top-50 MOOC of All Time," according to, a registry of hundreds of MOOCs worldwide. It recently won an Ember Award (Digital Alberta) as the Best MOOC of 2017.

As a member of the University of Alberta's Mountain Studies Unit Teaching Team - an interdisciplinary team that comprises scholars from both science and humanities - Robinson is the lead instructor of one of the most popular courses at the University of Alberta, INT D 280 - The Mountain World: Introduction to Interdisciplinary Mountain Studies. He also teaches the University of Alberta's Mountain Backcountry Field Skills (INT D 282) summer course, where students learn valuable leadership skills used in backcountry field operations for scientific research, outdoor recreation, tourism or educational purposes. Lessons are taught by Robinson and a number of mountain researchers from various Canadian institutions. The course is held in conjunction with the ACC's annual General Mountaineering Camp, where students have the chance to learn alongside attendees of Canada's longest-running mountaineering camp, an annual ACC tradition since 1906.

The work of Robinson and his Mountains Studies Teaching Unit colleagues recently earned them the 2018 University of Alberta Teaching Unit Award.

Bringing mountain studies to the forefront

If Robinson's life's work has taught him anything, it is that understanding and respecting all aspects of mountains is as important now as it ever has been. He and his Mountains 101 collaborator David Hik have teamed up with Lael Parrott, a professor of sustainability at UBC Okanagan, to launch The Alpine Club of Canada's new State of the Mountains Report-an annual, public report that highlights change in Canada's alpine regions. The Report is the first of its kind and has already attracted national and international attention.

"The State of the Mountains Report synthesizes current research findings from various experts working across the country in a publically-assessable format. Of course, we're don't profess to share it all, or know it all, but once we start getting into it year after year, we're hoping to build up a good archive of what's happening out there with the main purpose to educate the wider public. We also hope to give policy makers something tangible that can be used to affect change. We're really pleased by the response it's already received."

Robinson and team are currently working on the Report's Volume 2 to be released next May. The planned feature essay is about climate change, fire regimes, and forest dynamics in Canada's western mountains, a timely topic in the wake of B.C.'s devastating 2018 summer wildfires. Robinson notes that there are critical lessons here for everyone.

"Mountains respond rapidly and intensely to climatic and environmental variation, and so they have come to be recognized by both human and natural scientists as 'sentinels for change.' They give us an important glimpse into the future; they can show us what's coming. And documenting that change, understanding that change, is really important. With a little lead time, you can prepare and adapt to change."

Further to the Report, Robinson, along with historian Liza Piper and others from the Faculty of Arts, has been the acting co-chair of the Thinking Mountains Interdisciplinary Summit. The conference has been held three times since its 2012 inception, and brings together mountain scholars, researchers and community members from across the disciplines and around the globe to share research findings.

But, to ask Robinson about these and other contributions, he's quick to avoid the spotlight. He'd rather talk about the issues themselves, or the praise the work of his many collaborators.

"I have been fortunate to work with some exceptional scholars, who all do exceptional work in their own right. It's one of the things I love most about interdisciplinary projects: you're forced outside of your own disciplinary wheelhouse, and you get to tackle problems with people who come at things differently, who bring different investigative tools to the task. Needless to say, it's a great way to grow as a scholar. But collectively, we can do more together than we ever could as individuals."