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!

Rating: Four-and-a-half burritos out of five.

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Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time II

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Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved)

I’ve been surprised by the amount of feedback that I’ve received from my question of who are the best climbers of all time. The comments have come from personal friends, regular readers and those of you that follow TSM on Facebook and Twitter.

I also reached out to several people asking for their list, but two of them gave me something more valuable than their opinion: I got guidance.

However, there was a down side. In giving guidance, the sense that I was assuming a daunting project only swelled after I received their thoughts.

Katie Ives and Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn were my sources for help. Katie is the Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist and a former juror — no, not at the Piolet d’Or, thankfully — rather the Banff Mountain Book Competition. Her work and her team at Alpinist scrutinizes the accomplishments in climbing based on their place in history, style and philosophy.

In an email, Katie shared the questions that ought to considered in order to produce a credible list:

It’s hard to make lists of top ten greatest climbers–do you take into account the quality of routes vs. the quantity? Difficulty vs. style vs. remoteness? Do you look at climbers from all nations? Do you look at their routes in and of themselves or at the historical impact? Do you consider the philosophy that drove them? Or, as Alex Lowe would say, do you consider the climber having the most fun? There are obvious names of legendary mountaineers who have appeared many times in print. But what about the great climbers who haven’t made it into history books?

Okay, so there’s nothing to it.

My friend Bob is a mountaineering historian that specializes in K2 but has a broad breadth of mountaineering knowledge and natural skills suited for such research, including an excellent memory for details. Bob took some time to reply and when he did I received a memo, four pages long, single spaced and plenty of names. Before he got to his list of names, he shared his rationale for weighing true mountain climbing and alpine climbing more heavily over other styles of climbing.

For anyone that has worked on their own list (and I encourage you to write one up before my next post), you better read what Bob had to say too:

First off, and this applies to both categories, what are the criteria?  What makes a good climber or mountaineer an outstanding one?  With regards to rock climbers I would suggest it’s all about the grades they manage to successfully master, the style they apply, and the philosophy they bring into the game.  I am full of respect and stand in awe of their stunning achievements, but what appeals more to me is the versatility and the wide[r] scope that can be found in mountaineering.  In that discipline one needs more than just agility, athleticism, pure strength, or bold courage.  IMHO mountaineering is more of a craft then what we encounter in [rock]-climbing [or bouldering, let’s include that one as well here].  My preference to mountaineering has got to do with that bigger scope where it is important that a participant is gaining a degree of experience in all fields of the game; rock, ice, mixed alpine, maybe even the greater ranges like the Himalaya.  On top of that, it’s more of an overall adventure, as you need knowledge about weather, and more diverse dangers awaiting you, about the effects of altitude, about cultures, languages and people.

Feel free to fill me in when you think I’m missing certain aspects, but the steady progress from a novice, to becoming an experienced one, to an exceptionally outstanding mountaineer, lies in the quality of the skills the managed to build, the length of their career, and the big leaps forward they manage to make in alpinism.  That last item is more a thing that has to do with philosophy, I think; the way they form a new view on how things can be done differently.  In my humble opinion that may very well be the most important aspect, the one defining characteristic that separates the [“merely”] good ones from the extraordinary climbers and mountaineers.

So, please forgive for making this distinction, but else I wouldn’t be in the position to answer your question as you may have expected.  As much as I respect and have big admiration for the big names in the history of [rock]-climbing, to me it’s not the same type of appreciation as I experience for great names in mountaineering.  Don’t get me wrong; the likes of Paul Preuss, John Gill, Royal Robbins, John Bachar, Jim Bridwell, Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert, Alex Honnold and the brothers Iker and Eneko Pou would probably tick most or all of the boxes listed above, but with their qualities and agility, their vision and fantastic skills I consider them to be “superbly athletic rock artists”.  As such they operate in only a narrowed playing field and don’t make use of many skills and qualifications that are needed for big mountains, mixed terrain, unknown territories or geographic “blanks on the map”, nor do they need to.  Their “unknowns” are the next couple of meters of rock that they have to scale, the “unknowns” of new techniques, new methods to improve their physical and mental strength and maybe the scariest of all; courage.  Well, at least I suggested a couple of names there :-)

Mountaineering to me is [so much] more than “climbing”, so I hope the preceding didn’t come across like talking out of the back of my neck.  [No need to answer; that was a rhetorical question I just reflected on to see where I was going…].  The main reason why I did this was because I didn’t want to send you a tsunami of names; I had hoped to limit my list to three or at five persons at max, or else we’d be better off writing a new encyclopaedia about the “who’s who” of mountaineering history.

Bob’s point about the hierarchy of approaches to climbing and the objectives has to be taken into consideration, and I think that will bother some of you. I’ve got my prejudices, and you’ll probably see them in my next post on this question, where I’ll lay out a rubric for determining the best climbers of all time. After I do that, I’ll share my original list, which might be amusing to those of you playing at home.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook.

Click on this link to read Part III of this series on The Suburban Mountaineer.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

Armchair Mountaineer News

The other morning, after getting Wunderkind out from her crib and setting her down to play, I took my copy of High Alaska off the shelf to take a look at the Sourdough ascent later. Well, I got distracted, set the book on her changing mat, and I played with Wunderkind a little bit before leaving for work. Edelweiss found High Alaska where I left it and she wondered if I was leaving climbing propaganda, like a religious zealot, for Wunderkind to find.

The zealot part wasn’t too far off, but the attempt at proselytizing was — er, ah — an unintended result of too many things on my mind.

Despite the hectic ways of life here in Peaklessburg this week, there are a couple of interesting pieces of news that have trickled my way recently:

  1. Steve House is writing a new book. He recently asked through social media for a list of all of the technical new routes on the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks climbed alpine style. He explained that he had his list but was checking his research for what would be a reference in a new book he was writing. Beyond the Mountain, his first book,was a very interesting narrative because of House’s intense perspective on climbing and his writing style. Whether the new book will be a narrative, a history, or something instructional, I’m sure his special perspective will make it worth picking up.
  2. Katie Ives was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist. This is great news. Ives has been helping push the publication’s contributing writers to another level. Writing is a difficult thing and the quality and insight from the stories in Alpinist deserve thanks to Ives.

As for the Sourdough ascent on Denali… Well, it’s not just about them. But that’s for next week.

Thanks for dropping by again and have a great weekend! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!