Seek More than Summits: Imaginary Peaks by Katie Ives Reviewed

Imaginary Peaks by Katie Ives (2021)

I have a reoccurring dream that starts by arriving at what seems like an amusement park’s parking lot with big, bold signs and lots of cars with lots of people in a natural rock amphitheater. The attraction is through a turnstile entrance in the bottom of a rock wall and everyone, including me, files through. On the other side, everyone is gathering backpacks and water bottles in dusty and trampled woods. I put on my old favorite Jansport pack, which has been long-gone in real life and I start to walk slightly uphill.

In some of the dreams I am with my wife, sometimes the kids are with us, in another version I am there with my sister, and sometimes I am going solo. In all of them there is a way station and a camp a little further up from there. I remember peculiar details about the station, like quality of the wood, the knots in the step, and the pattern of the pine and leafy deciduous trees behind its lichen covered roof. In some of the dreams, I went much farther.

From the camp, the steepness increases and the trees fade into fog and the fog into snowy terrain, as if going through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe, and coming to a precipice. The cliff, in the dream, is just a viewpoint of the next leg of the journey. From there I see snowy peaks, most of them resembling K2, the Matterhorn, and peaks I once took in during my pilgrimage to Alaska. The biggest mountain, and it was a mountain not merely a peak, dwarfed them all, and was still far away. It was both intimidating and welcoming me.

I like to think of my imaginary mountain as a make believe interpretation of Denali, capping off or crowning a continent. I have the dream periodically, but have gone years between reaching the precipice to take in the great mountain. And I considered my dream frequently as I read Katie Ives’ first book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams published in 2021 by The Mountaineers Books. Ives shares a reoccurring dream of her own and stories from fact, fiction, a mix of the two, sometimes spiritual objectives, and a hoax intended to shake up the new direction mountain climbing was taking among the outdoors community after World War II.

THE CRUX HOAX

In the 1962 issue of Summit, the climbing magazine of the day, there was an anonymous contribution with an enticing photo of multiple alpine big walls broken up with hanging glaciers with several routes marked. The accompanying story told of attempts, but no first ascents. The caption read: “[T]he unclimbed summit of ‘Riensenstein [sic],’ approximately 8,100 feet, near Prince Rupert in British Columbia.” These big walls were tantalizing and different from the walls of Gunks and Yosemite. They were exotic and waiting to be climbed. It was in a specific place and had a story that convinced most readers. Some went to British Columbia seeking these walls, only to be confused by the story and the landscape.

Did these mountains exist? If not, why would someone tease the readers so? Did the editors know and were they in on the prank? The mysterious Riesenstein in Summit was proven years later, by Al DeMaria and Pete Geiser’s article in the 1966 American Alpine Journal, was in fact an overlooked part of the Alaska Range called the Kichatna Spires. Even Bradford Washburn, who photographed most the range and knew of them, discouraged young alpinists from visiting there later because the precipitation clearly funneled to the spires’ valley.

Katie Ives digs deep in her book into the story behind the hoax as well as the deep seeded reasons we want to believe, seek, and even conjure imaginary mountains. It’s an entrancing journey into a world where humans create ideas and places to believe in, and even stories for the real places in our lives to give them more meaning. Ives takes you on a tour of the Seven Cities of Cibola, Mount Hooker and Mount Brown, Diamond Mountain, Shangri-La, Minya Konka, Amye Machen, Nanda Devi, and even Narnia. Some are fictional, some are real, but the stories are sometimes both at the same time.

Mount Riesenstein, British Columbia (All rights reserved)

The hoax was created by Harvey Manning, Ed LaChapelle, and Austin Post coming together. While each had a significant contribution from their special backgrounds and skills, Ives reveals that Manning was the instigator. Manning was best known for being a coauthor of Freedom of the Hills, the classic mountaineering instruction guide. He had successfully tried other hoaxes before, but this was his greatest; Manning hadn’t fooled people into believing in a new technology that didn’t exist this time (because he had,) no, for his greatest act, Manning would move a whole mountain! As his reward, readers looked on in wonder, climbers went searching on expeditions, and both dreamers and fools were made.

Ives reveals that Manning was a dreamer himself and sought to recreate an innocent mystical experience in nature, an experience had in the hills and that could only be duplicated there. Manning had found some secrets of the outdoors and that most people, even the new outdoor enthusiasts of his day, were missing it. New gear from sleeping bags, backpacks, and camp stoves, to name a few, were all being developed from the military industry birthed in World War II and now promoted to improve the outdoor experience for everyone, just at higher prices. Manning felt it was unnecessary and greedy. At the same time, a new kind of climber was coming onto the scene; they needed untrodden peaks where “no one” had been, or no one had recorded going, to fill new entries of alpine journals with their name on it. Manning thought it was “a pretentious bullshit thing,” according to someone who knew Manning and listened to him laugh about the climbers declaring they would be the first to ascend the Riesenstein. Reading this made me consider how even I preferred my simple Jansport backpack and Timberland boots when I started hiking to the new, “technical” gear from Eastern Mountain Sports with specific brand names I started acquiring when I began earning a pay check. Did I need it for the most wonderful experiences in nature?

Ives sprinkles her book with many little stories of other climbs and points of mountaineering history that even I hadn’t come across. And, having known quite a bit about the real history of the Kichatna already, I was very pleased that she relayed their whole story from their first obervation by Westerners in 1898 to the real first attempts. (After reading Ives’ book, I feel that Manning’s hoax story was practically prophetic in nature about how the first attempt would go.)

Most of all, I appreciate how Ives isolated the notion of what we seek when we go into nature looking for adventure through examining Manning’s life. It’s intensely personal and sometimes it’s fundentally about the imagined story and narrative we tell ourselves.

RIESENSTEIN  AND BRIDGING GENERATIONS

Coincidentally, my first issue of Alpinist Magazine was issue 36 in autumn 2011. That was when Ives first wrote about the Riesenstein Hoax. I started conversing and later working with Ives on a couple of projects of my own or Alpinist around the same time. Then I thought I was just catching up about the Riensenstein and that this story was lasting and legendary in the mind of romantic climbers, like me (though I am much more romantic about climbing than I am a climber.)

Ives’ Map Remnant (All right reserved)

Actually, it was relatively new to Ives too. She re-discovered the Riesenstein Hoax from Andy Selters through his 2004 book Ways to the Sky. (I haven’t read Ways to the Sky yet, but I can tell you that it was a Banff Mountain Literature Competition winner in the history category, which is a gold-star level recommendation to me.) Thank you, Mr. Selters for reintroducing it. It might not have caught Katie Ives’ eye until much later, if at all.

Digging into the whole story of the Riesenstein Hoax also reintroduced us to the magazine, Summit, and its publishers Jean Crenshaw and Helen Kilness. However, in the early days they used pseudonyms and and published letters to the editor addressed “Dear Sir,” because when the magazine started in 1955, Crenshaw and Kilness were concerned their magazine wouldn’t be taken seriously if readers knew it was being run by women. Later, it wasn’t the case after the magazine ran for a few years.

Katie Ives is celebrated today for her writing and leadership of Alpinist Magazine. She started almost from its inception, and watched it go out of business and be resurrected with the help of Michael Kennedy. But Ives gentle and influential editorial touch (which I experienced as a contributor) gave it a unique place among climbing periodicals; you didn’t have to be a world-class climber to contribute, art was welcome, and many diversified viewpoints were encouraged and sought. In Alpinist and in her book, she makes a point to use indigenous names of destinations and mountains in parenthesis in a persistent effort to overcome the, as Ives wrote in the book, “[A]ttemped suppressions of the heritages of Indigenous people–first with colonialist myths and imagined blanks projected onto maps, then new boundaries drawn across conquered lands and new names imposed on ancient rivers, valleys, and peaks.” There have been other female publishers and editors in climbing — several I still read and admire like Alison Osius (check out her biography of Hugh Herr) — and having this connection between Ives and Crenshaw and Kilness through the Riesenstein and this book brings me joy!

(For a brief read, before you buy her book, please read about Ives’ visit to Crenshaw and Kilness in 2014 in Alpinist 49: “A House of Stone and Snow.”)

YOUR IMAGINARY MOUNTAINS

My reoccurring mountain dream may be organic, just as I dream about my wife and baseball too, but many of us are seeking mountains in our day dreams. We watch Reel Rock, YouTube videos, buy climbing magazines, and read books. We want something from these mountain experiences. And Katie’s exploration of Manning’s hoax has me wondering about whether I really want, or ever wanted, the first ascent and a fresh entry in an American Alpine Journal. Manning didn’t and thought it was an unjustified ambitious desire when we didn’t have to feed ego to take joy from the mountains and wilderness. Perhaps Summit‘s companionable and accessible approach to the mountains is enough.

I recently read Grace Lin’s novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. In it, there is a peak named Never Ending Mountain on which you can reach our nearest celestial neighbor. At the top, the protagonist doesn’t solve her problem or her riddle, but takes a giant leap in learning how. I like to climb, and hike, and spend time in the outdoors, and search for answers, peace, and joy that I can put in my backpack for later. Manning shows us a different way, and Katie introduces us to all kinds of wonderful new paths to look.

If you are looking for magic places, whether it’s your real summit, a mountain pass, Middle Earth, Narnia, or the transformative power of a walk in the woods without a map, I highly recommend you read Katie Ives’ Imaginary Peaks. No, you have to read Katie Ives’ Imaginary Peaks. When you’re done, leave her a good review in stars, and maybe shoot me an email and let me know your thoughts too. I’ll pass them on to her publisher so she can go write the next one!

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