Letters from Iceland

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

Recently I met a black bear along the High Divide in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. Late summer brought furry critters in search of food into the vicinity of popular campsites that even in September were as full as regulations permit. Habituated to human presence, what rangers euphemistically call “problem bears” lack the good manners that keep us and them comfortably apart. This resolute bear, unbudgeable, blocked the trail. In a favourite and topical poem, “Meeting a Bear,” David Wagoner offers wise counsel: “There’s no use singing / National anthems or battle hymns or alma maters / Or any other charming or beastly music.” Soft, plain speech is required. But I had scarcely a thought for puns or poetry as I scampered toward safer ground.

Like my bear, the iconic volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest are threatened by the visitors who revere them. In Exceptional Mountains, O. Alan Weltzien examines the troublesome popularity of the great peaks, Baker and Rainier, Hood and St. Helens, Lassen and Shasta, and others. “Mount Hood has been represented as a volcano for the masses since July 19, 1894,” he writes, “when a crowd gathered on its summit with the express purpose of founding the Mazamas,” a climbing club. A notorious photograph depicts the ascent: dressed in what today would pass as formal attire, “with a single rope and plenty of alpenstocks,” some two dozen men and women queue for the summit. Weltzien’s study is premised on the view that “[i]n the Pacific Northwest, the volcanoes form . . . one strand of regional identity”; they “distill the regional imaginary as no other feature except the Columbia River, the Northwest’s primary river”—perhaps the Fraser runs second—“and powerful symbol of its heritage.” Literary works by John Keeble, Denise Levertov, Jim Lynch, and Marianne Moore, the most celebrated of Rainier’s poets, attest to the volcanoes’ sway. Veneration, however, has a sinister edge: the mountains are essence and emblem of Pacific exceptionalism, “the notion that we’re something special, given our landscapes”—a perspective that obscures the indignities to which the landscapes themselves are subjected.

Weltzien surveys the many ways in which the volcanoes have been commodified by the “industrial tourism” allowed by highways and, in particular, by the “status tourism” of climbers and skiers. A perpetually growing number of volcano visitors corresponds to a broad demographic change in the Northwest—the “regional population has escalated sharply since the 1960s, Washington’s having more than doubled”—and to consequent cultural transformations. The region, he observes, “has tilted from wet (or dry) boondocks to mecca”; Starbucks and Amazon have permanently changed Seattle, a city that in the mid-twentieth century was perceived by more than one transplanted writer as an empty backwater. Now nothing escapes the grasp of commerce, not even the “career and aura” of Gary Snyder, the storied author who “marries alpinism with poetry and Zen Buddhism”: the erstwhile dharma bum was famously enlisted to appear in the catalogue of the apparel company Patagonia. “Green buying shadows green climbing,” Weltzien contends: “Environmentalism and environmental consumerism dance together like longtime partners, and the snowpeaks prove one sturdy setting for their dance.” At times polemical, he laments both the aesthetic consequences of overuse and the ecological repercussions. And he dwells on “the most personal, embarrassing trace of our passage” through the mountains: “Feces, like bodies, do not decompose in extreme cold or snow conditions, and increasing traffic leaves increasing deposits for subsequent traffic to encounter.” Leave no trace? The hiker’s creed is mere fantasy, and Weltzien’s sceptical investigation is imbued with sadness: “As beacons,” the volcanoes “forever lure and enhance visitors but while footprints fade away, leavings—trash—remains.”

Its resistance to the pastoral, ecotopian myth of the Northwest allows Exceptional Mountains to be compared to works as different from each other as Carsten Lien’s Olympic Battleground (1991)—a denunciation of the inept National Park Service, the all-powerful logging industry, and its unfailing ally, the US Forest Service—and Bruce Braun’s The Intemperate Rainforest (2002), a political analysis of western Canadian forests. Weltzien is sensitive to the displacement and exclusion of Indigenous peoples caused by the creation of legally protected wildernesses; the mountains’ familiar names reflect an imperial history. Yet Exceptional Mountains also celebrates (cautiously) the luminous mountains that for decades have captured the author’s attention and shaped his imagination. A mountaineer himself, Weltzien writes with an intimate knowledge of steeps and stacks alike, and despite his often sombre conclusions it is a pleasure to ramble with a trustworthy companion. An exemplary work of environmental criticism, Exceptional Mountains illustrates how private passions can open to readers new worlds of insight and appreciation: perceptive and far-reaching analyses arise from personal and even esoteric enthusiasms. It could share a shelf with such regional classics as Fred Beckey’s Challenge of the North Cascades (1969)—“The exaltation one can get in the presence of mountains can be a memorable lesson in humility and an aid to self-realization”—and such regional inquiries as Laurie Ricou’s The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest (2002). Ricou, who crouches down to observe salal and yellow sand-verbena, and Weltzien, who peers up at bergschrund and serac, are complementary guides to a region of enormous geographical and cultural diversity. Readers of Canadian Literature will appreciate Weltzien’s sustained attention to local matters—but note that his Northwest ends at the forty-ninth parallel. (He does admit that Mount Baker graces the skyline from vantage points in British Columbia.) His American volcanoes, it should be added, have worthy counterparts north of the international line—Garibaldi, Meager, Cayley, Silverthrone—that await the boots and pens of critics drawn to lift their eyes unto the hills. As a reader of the Pacific Northwest, I am grateful for Weltzien’s fine account of the region; as a Canadianist, I look forward to studies of the exceptional mountains on this side of the border.

The Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire is, by modern mountaineering standards, a straightforward undertaking—it is the preferred avenue of descent for those who tackle more complex and dangerous lines up the granite monolith. Yet climbers today will understand how testing the first ascent must have been for Conrad Kain, who in 1916 set out for the summit without guidebook, Gore-Tex, or glimmer of hope that he would be rescued if things went south. In the summer of 1910 he had spied the Bugaboos, a range of the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia: “The view was marvellous: a beautiful glacier and very fine spires, which would not be easy to ascend.” He was not wrong.

Commemorated in poetry by Earle Birney, Kain is a major figure in the history of Canada’s Alpine West. His name endures alongside those of later adventurers in the Bugaboos; the Beckey-Chouinard Route on South Howser Tower pays tribute to illustrious inheritors. (As the co-founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard figures briefly in Exceptional Mountains.) Kain was born in Nasswald, Austria, in 1883 and died in Cranbrook in 1934. His exploits are familiar to lovers of the Rockies: Mount Robson, Mount Louis, North Twin. He was, Zac Robinson writes in Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide, “perhaps the singular, most superlative figure of climbing’s earliest age in Canada.”

Robinson’s edition consists of newly unearthed letters from Kain to Amelie Malek, whom he guided in the Austrian Alps in 1906, 1907, and 1912. The social gulf that separated Kain from the well-to-do Malek may have inhibited a deeper affection between the friends; in any event, Kain married Hetta Ferrara in 1917. Malek’s letters have not survived, but Kain’s correspondence is effervescent, as in this retrospective passage from September 1910:

More I need not write, because you know yourself how beautiful the day was, the time on top of the mountains, the view, and how you felt the first time in your life being on the rope. I can only assure you that I will think of this beautiful day all my life and thank fate that I experienced such a day as it was.

The letters register his remarkable zest and on occasion his prejudices. They evoke a bygone time of hemp ropes but also depict aspects of life in a new country. As Robinson notes,

[h]undreds of thousands of immigrants came to western Canada from around the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The unprecedented influx was sparked, in part, by a changing global economy and deteriorating working conditions throughout Europe and Asia. Changing realities within Canada, too, played a role.

Kain’s letters thus bear upon historical concerns that extend beyond the lore of the mountains.

Letters from a Wandering Mountain Guide supplements Kain’s posthumous autobiography, Where the Clouds Can Go (1935), edited and sanitized by the American alpinist J. Monroe Thorington. Devotees of the high country will enjoy the letters’ adventure and charm; literary critics will delight in certain details. In 1933, Kain mentioned to Malek “a wire from a party (English people).” The visitors, Robinson explains, were distinguished: “This was Kain’s last climbing trip. Fittingly, it was to the Bugaboos, a place Kain knew better than any other mountain guide. His clients were Ivor Armstrong Richards . . . and his wife, Dorothy Pilley Richards.” Whether the party discussed Principles of Literary Criticism on Pigeon Spire the textual record does not divulge.

This review “Letters from Iceland” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 162-164.

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