Mountain of my Fear, David Roberts
On Sunday I finished Dave Roberts' The Mountain of My Fear. Dave gives a reflective account of a four-man expedition he organized with members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club to make a first ascent of the West Face of Mt. Huntington in the Alaska Range. Roberts gives vivid descriptions of the challenges posed by this technical route, but the real reason his account is a staple of mountaineering literature is for the interwoven reflections on his motivations for climbing and the relationship between the mountaineer and the mountain. I am particularly interested in how Roberts' assessment of risk and the interplay between self reliance and reliance on his gear and partners evolved over his life, and in the next few months I'm planning to read some of Roberts' other works, which include Deborah and most recently Alone on the Wall with Alex Honnold, both of which can be found in Millikan Library (only the latter is actually part of the CAC collection though—for the rest you might need to go to the basement!).
"But what sort of relationship is possible between a man and a mountain? If any, an obviously one-sided one; and if the mountain only mirrors the man, if the route he chooses is not made out of rock, snow, and ice so much as out of some tortured translation of his ego, then that clean love he can feel toward his objective would become a barren narcissism. ‘Have we vanquished an enemy?' Mallory said. ‘None but ourselves.' Put that way, it sounds noble, it rings with aphoristic authority. But what would happen, I wonder, if the self could be vanquished? What would be left of life but to live it out in smug lethargy? Could any man who had languished himself ever want to climb another mountain? I would like to believe that Mallory himself could never have relaxed into complacency; that when he climbed into the clouds on Everest never to be seen again, he died, like Terray, still full of dream of other summits. I need to believe, if only to explain climbing, that the dissatisfactions of life ultimately become its joys, that to resolve may be only to die, not to answer. Therefore for me the mountain must be there, real; it must, as much as anything I will ever have contact or combat with, exist, outside myself. The mind may be wonderful, and even self-sufficient, but for the mountaineer it is not large enough by itself. It and the heart and the body, all that make up man, require response, not only love and co-operation but hindrance and hate, not only friends but enemies. If a mountain, Huntington for instance, was not an enemy we could impute any malice to, did that make it a less formidable one? What can be more appalling than the sovereign power of nature directed by no mind, spirited by no will, indifferent, dwarfing? What vision of malignity can equal the darkness of that of a universe that is running down, of a cosmos that neither orders nor obeys man's yearnings, but blindly collapses toward a final motionlessness? Death, our only glimpse of that entropic end, has its seductive fascination. Hence, the risks of climbing stir and motivate us, just as other risks may someday stir some cosmic voyager."
Deborah, David Roberts
Less reflective and somber Mountain of My Fear, David Robert's Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative alternates between fast-paced and vivid descriptions of an inspired or mad assault on the East face of Mt. Deborah, in the Alaska range and an account of the prolonged hunger, damp, boredom, and ultimately pain of the expedition during one of the Alaska's heaviest snow seasons on record. Somehow Roberts can tell about an experience that at almost every turn he seemed to perceive as unpleasant, and yet make you want to immediately venture out to test the still-unclimbed face.
I've returned Deborah to the Caltech Library, so check it out next time you are looking for a classic adventure!
'Next, I saw the face of the mountain beyond. The crumbly brown rock towered, flat and crackles, a few degrees less than vertical. A thin, splotchy coating of ice overlay most of the rock. Where the rock overhung, great icicles grew. A few vertical columns of plastered snow, like frozen snakes, stuck to the coating of ice. And above, blocking out half the sky, was the terrible black cliff, the six-hundred-foot wall that we had once blithely, back in Cambridge, allowed three days to climb. At its upper rim, nearly a thousand feet above me, hovered monstrous chunks of ice, like aimed cannons at the top of a castle wall. As I watched, one broke off, fell most of the six hundred feet without touching anything, then smashed violently on a ledge to my left and bounced out of sight down the precipice. I had never seen a mountain sight so numbing, so haunted with impossibility and danger.' -David Roberts, Deborah
Early Days in the Range of Light, Daniel Arnold
Last week I picked up Early Days in the Range of Light and I have had a hard time putting it down. The author, Daniel Arnold, follows in the footsteps of some of the early explorers of the Sierra, profiling the people and some of their notable climbs and expeditions. To really experience the type of wilderness they saw, Arnold repeats each journey as closely as he can—eschewing maps in favor of the written accounts left by the first party, carrying only a bundle wrapped in a blanket, sleeping on pine boughs, and eating only the starvation diet John Muir provided himself.
When I read about the ethos of the book, I immediately knew this is a kind of mountaineering I'm interested in exploring myself. If anyone is similarly inspired or gets a chance to read the book, let me know and we can plan one of these adventures to repeat or a new objective entirely!
Not only that, the writing is beautiful and gripping. Arnold switches between telling his subject's story, pulled from their own accounts with some added context and historiography, and telling his own. I wanted to share a few excerpts that resonated with me. The first is on how William Brewer faces thunderstorms:
'The men had no tents or even sleeping mats. At night they rolled themselves into blankets atop piles of pine needles. Trees offered some protection from weather, but when it stormed or snowed they simply got wet. Brewer described the sensation: ‘You cannot imagine how cheerless and uncomfortable it is to lie out in the rain—how one looks up at the black sky, lets the rain patter on his face, saturate his hair and beard, as he thinks of home and its cheerful fireside and luxurious comforts.'
I just thought ‘this is how I want to be.' Another dealt with the transition from hiking with a partner, who did the approach, to hiking alone for the rest of the journey:
'The sounds changed. Between two people there is always the opportunity for conversation and banter. Even in silent lulls, the potential for talk hangs in the air. Alone, the air felt thicker in my throat and lighter in my ears. The creek burbled and hummed, small black-hooded birds repeated their private notes, the hiss and sway of the breeze in the pine needles surged back and forth along the lakeshore. None had anything new to say, but now they all seemed louder and more stereophonic, as if before I had been listening through a plywood wall.'
It reminded me of times I've hiked alone after hiking with a partner for a long time, and the sense of freedom to follow one's whims, as well as a similar feeling that I could notice parts of the forest I hadn't before. I like hiking with a partner, but I'm looking forward to doing a solo through hike… though I guess I'm looking forward to doing a through hike with a partner too. This book is making it difficult to stay indoors.
Peace, love, and olive oil, Aaron