Written and submitted by William Wright
Remembering Don & Sylvia Apps
Don and Sylvia Apps, together, spent over 30 years exploring the backcountry of Vancouver Island and beyond. They were a modest unassuming couple who would have retreated from the undertaking of an article such as this.
Mt. Apps, in the Beaufort Range south of the Vancouver Island village of Cumberland, is named for George Apps, Don’s father. George made a significant contribution to the Comox Valley community of Cumberland in education and as a town alderman. While many think that the mountain is named for Don, who was the mountain man of the family, maybe some day, much like Mt. Allan Brooks (renamed for both father and son), this too will come to pass. If this debate had been going on in the presence of Don, he would have been the first to let it be known of his father’s contributions and deserved honour without ever once acknowledging what he (and Sylvia) have meant to Vancouver Island’s mountaineering family.
Don and Sylvia remind me a little bit of other great outdoor couples such as Don and Phyllis Munday or Miles and Beryl Smeeton, all quietly going about that which they loved and never fully realizing how amazing the lives were that they were living. Although Don and Sylvia never rose to the great heights of those other couples nor were they as widely recognized, this does not lessen the impact that they had as pathfinders and trail blazers in the backcountry of Vancouver Island.
Syd Watts, who became a legend in Vancouver Island mountaineering circles, would eventually become dissatisfied with all the off-Island trips being led by the Vancouver Island section of the Alpine Club of Canada and in 1958 organized the Island Mountain Ramblers. Soon after, he would be joined on many of his Island trips by a young Don Apps. They were not only kindred mountain souls but also, coincidentally, kindred mechanics.
Following on the heels of this friendship, Don would meet Otto Winnig in 1962 which led to a lifelong camaraderie amongst these mountain men. Syd, Don and Otto were part of a 1965 party that would not only record the third ascent of Victoria Peak, Vancouver Island’s third highest peak, but also be noted as the first recorded ascent with women participating. Interestingly, Frank Stapley, who recorded the first ascent, was related to Don by marriage.
Although Don already had a best friend, Pride, his giant St. Bernard dog, who would often be found on Don’s mountain outings, Otto would also be given a spot in their backcountry quarters.
In 1964, Don and Otto decided it a most excellent idea to go north – not in July, but in December! Don had a small Bronco II into which they loaded a full-size Bombardier Skidoo, with it’s skis draped over the back end and then, a small rented travel trailer coupled to the rear hitch – completely on the edge if you can picture the 2 young lads ready to embark! So, off they went, making it as far as Alaska and having a grand adventure along the way.
Around this time, Don and Otto tackled Elkhorn Mt., the Islands’s second highest pinnacle and although a snowstorm forced the party to abandon their summit bid, it was on this trip that Don’s character was exemplified. Temperatures dropped while they were high on the mountain and with only a thin plastic sheet to lie on, Otto became hypothermic. Don realized his buddy was in trouble and immediately turned his foam pad sideways to help Otto retain body heat. The generous act allowed for a safe homeward journey and for future climbs on another day.
Don and Otto loved the Beaufort Range and it is fitting that Mt. Apps lies here. Don, on one such memorable excursion to Mt Joan, at the southern end of the range and near Mt. Apps, was driving a beast of a backcountry access vehicle, a cross between a Jeep and a “Road Warrior.” When the vehicle’s fuel pump would sputter, Don, demonstrating his mechanical aptitude, would signal the navigator, ball-peen hammer in hand, to give the pump a whack and on they would go.
In the late 1960′s a star crossed series of events would occur. Firstly, a young lass, Sylvia Doer, was on a trek to the Cape Scott lighthouse on the northern end of Vancouver Island (Sylvia had grown up at a lighthouse which her family had operated). Secondly, it just so happened that Don was on this trip as well and Sylvia did not escape his attention! Thirdly, Otto realized shortly thereafter that his role as best friend had reached maturity and he would now be relegated to that of best man.
Not only did Don and Sylvia become lifelong partners as husband and wife but they would also maintain a never- ending bond with the outdoors, even after the arrival of their 3 sons in the 1970’s.
Sylvia, by now an Apps in 1971, would be Don’s protege at the IMR climbing camp on the bluffs above Pipers Lagoon, located north of Departure Bay in Nanaimo. Sylvia became a trip leader with the IMR and later that year would lead an outing to Marble Meadows which would become a favourite destination for the growing Apps family.
During this period, Don and Sylvia were living in Victoria, but because they were spending so much time in Strathcona Park they both gave up excellent careers to move to the Comox Valley and follow their dreams. <span clas