Parks Canada and U of A offering free mountain studies course this fall


Rugged, alluring, majestic, powerful, unforgiving—mountains can be described in a million ways, and people’s relationship with them is complex, making them an excellent subject to study.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about these natural wonders, you’re in luck. In partnership with Parks Canada and the Alpine Club of Canada, the University of Alberta will be offering Mountains 101, a free online course that’s open to anyone with an internet connection. It will be the third in a series of massive open online courses offered by the university. The first two were based on video games and dinosaurs, and were hugely popular, having up to 50,000 students enrolled in one year.

But these courses don’t involve writing papers or taking exams—Mountains 101 has actually been described as something like “Netflix for mountain lovers.” And just like Netflix, starting this fall, you can either binge on all 12 lessons or take your time with them.

“They’re very different beasts,” Zac Robinson, an assistant professor at U of A and one of three content producers for the course, told the Calgary Herald. “It’s all high-end documentary style, scripted and filmed with a narrator in front of green screens and a bunch of on-site shooting.” There are also interactive activities built in every few minutes.

Along with Robinson, who’s an alpine historian and vice president of mountain culture for the Alpine Club of Canada, the course will be led by David Hik, a recent recipient of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s  Martin Bergman Medal for Excellence in Arctic Leadership and Science; Martin Sharp, a glaciologist and professor of earth and atmosphere science; and Craig Steinback, an exercise physiologist with an interest in environmental physiology.

It will cover everything from the geological origins of mountains—how they’re built up and worn down over time—to their cultural significance in societies around the world. The lessons will be delivered from a variety of environments as well, including bottoms of valleys, alpine huts high on mountainsides, and the museums and labs found in between.

“We try to integrate all that because people are interested in the whole aspect of a mountain, not just one little part,” Hik told CBC News. “When people go to the mountains, they’re excited about everything, not just one little part…They want to know what’s that plant? What’s that bird? Who came here first? Who climbed that mountain? Why is that an avalanche slope?”

The goal is to not only answer these questions, but also for researchers to better understand the challenges of changing mountain environments, and how that affects all of us.

“You don’t have to see a mountain [every day] to be connected to it,” Hik said.

“People always talk about what is happening in the Arctic, but things are changing just as quickly in other cold places like mountains.”

Although peaks from around the world will be featured in the course, there will be a definite Canadian connection. Pat Thomsen, Parks Canada’s executive director of mountain parks, told the Calgary Herald that they’ll be working with the university to develop the content and provide experts, and The Alpine Club of Canada will be offering film crews access to its remote backcountry huts. Sites from Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, and Glacier national parks will all be making appearances.

For more information about the course and the professors that will be teaching it, head to the University of Alberta’s website.