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A collection of letters

[These letters first appeared in Alpinist 59, Alpinist 61 and Alpinist 62–Ed.]

Alpinist 59

What Humans Do

It is always a pleasure to come across a reference to Dora Keen (my Great Aunt Dodie). I picked up my copy of Alpinist 58 to read the story about Royal Robbins (1935-2017), and memories flooded out. Aunt Dodie left a 100-year trust fund for her nieces and nephews, and their children (me) and my children. The trust was not a lot, but it was to be used for education, adventure and travel.

While budgets were tight, there was always a bit from Aunt Dodie to subsidize special activities, such as a trip into Baja with two adults and seven children on foot and mule in the 1970s to search for petroglyphs reputed to exist in a remote canyon area–or, for my sister, eight months of living in Europe to dance with the ballet. In 1994 we undertook an expedition to raft the Copper River in Alaska–a single oar boat with no guides, just siblings and our dad. My own son, Kean, was then safely growing in my womb, still five months from birth. A younger brother, Joran, became a cash-winning dog musher in Alaska, while another is a bush pilot.

Even when I was ten, I towered over Dodie. She must have been ninety years old at the time and less than five feet tall. She was on her way to Hong Kong (she said she would “die with her boots on,” and she certainly did that). We grew up as a clan with travel, wilderness, alpine regions, and climbing in our blood. My brother Luke left school in Berkeley, where we grew up, to live in Camp 4 and climb in Yosemite. Perhaps it was in our blood, but surely Aunt Dodie played her part.

There was, of course, comedy and tragedy along the way. Dodie and Handy were forced into a shotgun wedding because of the scandal that emerged in Philadelphia (her hometown) when it was learned that they had spent five nights in a snow cave together. If you see photos of the ascent up Blackburn, you see Dodie dressed in woolen skirts and other heavy apparel. I would guess that no clothing came off while they were waiting out the storm. Still, they were banished to a farm in remote Vermont. My own Uncle Keen (one of Dora’s nephews) died at age thirteen when he slipped on a rock filling his canteen and was swept off of Vernal Fall.

I was struck by the Ursula Le Guin quote in the article, “On the maps drawn by men there is an immense…terra incognita where most women live. That country is all yours to explore, to inhabit, to describe…. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” Dodie did not just inspire climbing. She inspired us to create dreams of our own, dare to make them real, and strive for the top, even given failure, tragedy, and hardship. I fought for an education as a chemical engineer before women did that, and I have a career making genetically engineered medicines.

Dora Keen and persons like her inspire men, women and all people to dream, to forge into the unknown. Because that’s what humans do. It’s where living is done.

–Abigail Freeman Karin, Dora Keen’s grandniece, California

Dora Keen. [Photo] Wikimedia Commons

Dora Keen. [Photo] Wikimedia Commons

Alpinist 61


The smoke coming from the Diamond Creek Fire was so thick that, even in the eighty-degree morning at an alpine elevation, I wore a buff to cover my nostrils and mouth. My footfalls were quick and precise, and although music matched the energy flowing through me, propelling my running body and backpack uphill, I was aware of my breath: under control and rhythmic. I arrived at the base earlier than I’d planned, and I was happy with how smooth the run felt, pleased the uphill was over. Fifteen minutes and six hundred vertical feet later, I was on the summit after easing my way up a route I’d done several times, weighted only by a light rope, harness and belay device. To the north, the jagged, snow-streaked walls of the Wine Spires, Silver Star and Vasiliki Ridge pierced through the haze. To the south loomed Glacier Peak, Torment, Forbidden and the heart of the Cascades. I breathed inner calm staring at this wildness, above and below, feeling that paradox in which you can experience everything and nothing at the same time. I took no photos of my own, only a summit pose of a party of three climbers who were just as thankful to be on top of the granite spire as I was.

Upon returning home, I sat on a couch for longer than I needed because of my propensity to look at various forms of social media. I was still riding a quiet joy from my alpine movement when I placed myself into a digital world inundated and saturated with photos of dramatic, high-exposure routes in the Valley, the Bugaboos, Alaska, Squamish, along with epiphanic quotes of inspiration found, potential realized, dreams acted upon. A question posed itself: What was the value of my solo alpine time? I did not have a photo of myself during the event nor did I have a quote that struck my heart enough to place with it. I ended my phone time with a loss of some of my contentment, and I regretted, somewhat, choosing to pull the phone out instead of filling the vacant minutes with meditation on the memories and breath of the day.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt–and he was right. We may find “stoke” and inspiration to do big routes or to overcome ourselves in social media posts but, for the vast majority of our time, we’ll be comparing our day, our climb, to that of a massive experience that belongs to someone else–with the emphasis on its beautiful curation.

Most posts show our individual achievements or suffering in a physical way: our ascending, shivering, pulling, pushing, dodging and trudging, but we choose not to include the intensely personal, emotional undercurrents that precede and envelope an alpine excursion–the failure, the doubt, the fear, the honesty with self. In writing this letter, I do not wish to take away the depth and meaning of these moments from their owners. Rather, I wish to call attention to the way we share and receive them: the instant mass reproduction and the resulting reception of accolades, the “like” button that makes the self-curation seem at times self-indulgent. Other media, such as print and film, appear to encourage more careful thought, weighing of themes and context; in these there is no instant whatsoever. The questions is: Would our sharing of experiences hold more value if we saved them for the short story we hope to write? Or reserved them for the small audience of the proverbial campfire? Would they hold more depth?

I recently watched a short video online by Cheyne Lempe called Haywire, in which he deals with questions of severe doubt in relation to his passion and to the immediate, exposed and overwhelming nature of the place he finds himself. It was one of the small numbers of digital media pieces that presented balance between moments of beauty, self-actualization and overcoming, and those of doubt, terror and depression. Our social media inundation possesses little of this nuance. As a result, a contented day in the alpine, emotionally well balanced, smooth and beautiful, yet devoid of unending streams of inspiration and stoke, risks becoming simply mediocre in comparison to what we see from our digital forms of connection.

Our day-to-day is mundane, lacking constant inspiration or deep, heartfelt meaning–the latter two qualities are special because of their rarity of occurrence–yet we still move under these circumstances, we still choose to ascend. When we are in the mountains we must not rob ourselves of our regular footfalls, our one-star alpine routes, our complicated moments of dread, contentment, depression and bliss, because combined, this is in truth what alpinism is. In the opening of his Alpinist 58 article “Breathe Deep,” Jeff Shapiro quotes Marcus Aurelius: “You can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have.” Social media exists in the realm, the exaltation, of the past; our imagination possesses the future, and the present belongs to us by a varying degree of our choosing. Let us remember this by relishing in our day’s doing long enough to solidify it as our own before we share it, before we compare it, to the rest of the world’s.

–Mike McCartan, Winthrop, Washington

[Cartoon] Tami Knight

[Cartoon] Tami Knight

Alpinist 62

Contemplative Mountaineering

Wolfy, my pure black German Shepherd, and me climb the forgotten mountains of Washington State. The mountains that are unnamed and a black dot with an elevation on the map. Just like the Cascade Mountains or Yosemite were difficult to reach for Harvey Manning and John Muir in their time so are the unnamed mountains. You can spend hours researching the old logging roads to take and driving the old logging roads to access these mountains. Because these mountains are so difficult to access, you will have the same solitude they had climbing mountains. There will be no people. You will have complete peace and quiet and can become one with the mountains and God’s creation like they did. Just like they did, you will also have the challenge of figuring out how to climb the mountains and you will come to appreciate what freedom of the hills is all about.

Like them, I love to study the geology of the mountains. One snow climb on an unnamed volcanic desert mountain, I used my ice axe to cut steps in the ice so that I could descend into the volcanic vent. Also like them, I have come to consider the plants, animals, and flowers fellow mountaineers. There is no more beautiful sight than a rocky summit abloom with wildflowers. The animals have even made me a better climber, and their example has kept me safe. Wolfy and I were on a snow climb and following cougar tracks along the summit ridge, which had a cornice. I was staying fifteen feet back from the edge of the ridge till I noticed the cougar was staying thirty feet back from the edge.

Lastly, the spiritual aspect of the mountains continues to grow for me. John Muir considered the mountains God’s Temple. He considered the source of streams as God’s fountains and loved to follow them to their source. Not surprisingly Harvey Manning in his final years stopped summiting and would follow streams to God’s fountains. They were true contemplatives–the mountains taught them to live with no barriers between them and God. All mountains are the temple of God whose purpose is to remove sin. John Muir and Harvey Manning–the two greatest mountaineers who ever lived. The author is now trying to get the true summit of Cougar Mountain, where Harvey Manning lived, changed to Harvey Manning Peak. It is now titled million-dollar view, which I believe Harvey Manning named.

–Bill Schweizer and Wolfy, Unnamed Mountains, Washington State

The letter writer Bill Schweizer imagines that John Muir would have said: I love this beautiful picture of your fellow mountaineer Wolfy sitting on this beautiful summit with his fellow mountaineer the beautiful ponderposa pine and that Harvey Manning would have said: I love this picture of Wolfy sitting on this magical mountaintop hidden behind north central Washington's Stewart Range. To the staff, Schweizer adds, What my caption said for John Muir should end with a reference to his classic My First Summer In the Sierra and my caption for Harvey Manning should end with a  reference to your classic article about Harvey Manning, 'The World As It Is Not,' by Katie Ives.

The letter writer Bill Schweizer imagines that John Muir would have said: “I love this beautiful picture of your fellow mountaineer Wolfy sitting on this beautiful summit with his fellow mountaineer the beautiful ponderposa pine” and that Harvey Manning would have said: “I love this picture of Wolfy sitting on this magical mountaintop hidden behind north central Washington’s Stewart Range.” To the staff, Schweizer adds, “What my caption said for John Muir should end with a reference to his classic My First Summer In the Sierra and my caption for Harvey Manning should end with a reference to your classic article about Harvey Manning, ‘The World As It Is Not,’ by Katie Ives.”

[This is the rough draft of a letter that Bill and Wolfy published in Alpinist 62. The authors wished the rough draft to appear online. The letter was written partly in response to an article on Harvey Manning in Alpinist 59. For a discussion of the role of mountains within Native American religious traditions, see Joe Whittle’s article in Alpinist 62.–Ed]