From the bookshelf

Mountaineering history praises Alaska

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2005


  "Ways to the Sky: A Historical Guide to North American Mountaineering," by Andy Selters

"Ways to the Sky: A Historical Guide to North American Mountaineering," by Andy Selters

Ways to the Sky: A Historical Guide to North American Mountaineering

By Andy Selters

The American Alpine Club Press

$24.95 (softcover)

Alaska contains the largest mountains in North America, so it is no surprise that a comprehensive history of the continent's mountaineering has much to say about our state.

"Ways to the Sky" has a lot to say about just about everything connected with serious mountain climbing. A project of the American Alpine Club in partnership with the Alpine Club of Canada, this authoritative and comprehensive book traces mountaineering from prehistory to the third millennium.

It packs into its pages profiles of peaks and the often-eccentric people who climb them, descriptions of exhilarating and harrowing alpine adventures as well as thoughtful discussions of evolving technologies, skills, controversies and attitudes underlying mountaineering. Remarkable and numerous photos, many never before published, enhance the text. Each chapter ends with a sampler of routes for readers interested in following in the historic footsteps.

The book is part of The American Alpine Book Series. Two other volumes, "Stone Crusade," about rock climbing, and "Wild Snow," about backcountry skiing and snowboarding, have been well-received. This volume focuses on what author Andy Selters calls "original-style mountaineering" and it emphasizes pioneering routes traveled with minimal equipment.

"Among the continents, North America boasts mountains as diverse, as grand and nearly as extensive as even Asia's great cordilleras," he writes in his introduction.

"The legacy of ascent here is in many ways overwhelming, but one can still trace an evolution, a heredity that forks through generations and across cultures yet follows a centerline of respect, inspiration and motivation to climb mountain terrain. It's an unfolding story that, at its best, comprises one version of the quest to lift the human spirit."

Selters begins with a nod to the little-known ascents by Native Americans, whose religious quests sometimes led them to summits. He then discusses at length how the European tradition of modern alpinism began about 200 years ago and spread to the New World. Inspired by Romanticism and exploration, adventurers began toiling up North American mountains in the 19th century.

By 1900, expeditions and fashionable climbing clubs were topping peaks. These early mountaineers tended to come from society's upper crust, and they sought experiences conducive to scientific advancement, building moral character, enhancing health and admiring divine creation. During the 20th century, the climbing cadres of Ivy League professors, ministers and feisty ladies in bloomers gave way to individual mavericks, who spurned mainstream society and sought to both test and free themselves on the heights.

Selters has a knack for bringing climbers and their deeds to life on the page. He honors their exalted and spiritual experiences, yet also confronts touchy subjects such as deaths, dissent, ethics and questionable judgment.

"From its inception, mountaineering balanced along a narrow arte between the impractically foolish and the heroically grand," he says.

The general public seldom hears about mountaineering these days unless something goes horribly wrong. After the first ascents of the highest peaks, most climbers toiled in obscurity. This book corrects that skewed view. It shows readers breathtaking climbs on little-known peaks, the caution and training behind the best mountaineering, and the love of the sport that sometimes renders summiting anticlimactic.

"Ways to the Sky" talks about famous Alaska events, such as the debated first ascent of Denali, and such northern legends as Bob Marshall, Terris Moore and Bradford Washburn. It also includes breathtaking narratives about Mount Deborah, Devil's Thumb and Cathedral Spires, and stories about Alaskans outside the public limelight such as regional explorer Vin Hoeman, who led the first documented trek across the Kenai Peninsula's Harding Icefield, and Johnny Waterman, a tragic eccentric who completed an astonishing five-month solo traverse of Mount Hunter.

As Selters tells it, Alaska is in a league of its own, even among the continent's other soaring peaks. As a region, it is second only to the Himalayas in overall difficulty. Even with airplanes, just getting to the base of a mountain can be daunting. Snow, associated with cornices and avalanches, is a given. The high latitude adds arctic survival to the other challenges. Mountaineers defer to the "Alaska Factor."

"The Alaska Factor is a compounding of such factors as storms that require extra supplies, cold that necessitates extra clothing and slows every move of technical climbing, deep snow and extra-hard ice, and, above 14,000 feet, altitude that is more debilitating than most expect," he writes.

Ultimately, the wilderness associated with North American mountains — epitomized in Alaska — is what sets this continent's mountaineering apart from the pursuit in other parts of the world, he concludes.

For such a robust subject, the book has a curious shortcoming — a weak binding.

"Ways to the Sky" is well written, but it is not a beginners' book. If you don't know a prusik from a piton, you may find it steep going. The author has packed the text with an encyclopedic amount of detail, which can overwhelm the uninitiated.

But if you are a climber or are seriously thinking about becoming one, this book contains a wealth of background information. Selters deserves special credit for his insightful and thought-provoking comments. This book does justice to the heights, but it also has real depth.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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