[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 76, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 76 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
AUGUST 2021: An alpine start from Seattle feels like a waking dream: flashes of streetlights and street signs; headlights rushing beyond the orange glow of the city toward the fathomless dark of woods and hills. Outside car windows, the air fills with the icy promise of sharp peaks and glacial lakes. Night shapes of mountains block the stars. By headlamp, soon, a forest exists only as root and branch, path and shadow. The trail keeps rising until the air brightens over talus fields. Outlines of peaks ripple, deep blue, against a yellowing sky. A lake, already below, is a glint of silver. An alpine basin opens like a hidden wonderland.
I traveled from Vermont to Washington State in search of wonder, or more specifically, the wonder that another climber once felt, seventy-four summers ago–to find out whether someone else’s dreams can leave a trace, invisible as long-vanished fingerprints on andesite. For about a decade, I’ve been pursuing stories of fictitious peaks that the writer Harvey Manning and his friends passed off as real in 1960s issues of Summit magazine. But I’m also curious to experience some of the actual places he’d climbed, fragments of the real that might have influenced the topographies of his dreams.
My destination for this day, the South Face of The Tooth, was one of Harvey’s first alpine rock routes. In August 1947, as he scrambled toward the start of the face, he was a twenty-two-year-old warehouse worker, newly married to one of his first climbing partners: a fellow University of Washington English major, Betty Lorraine Williams. The couple shared an alpine mentor, Monie Long, Betty’s former Seattle roommate. Like many literary-minded adventurers, Harvey sought answers to existential questions–though in his case, the problem of mortality had a particularly urgent resonance. During World War II, he’d been disqualified for military service because of a heart problem. Believing that he might die at any moment, he felt haunted by the rhythmic sounds of rain- drops, clocks and heartbeats, “always waiting,” as he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, “for the ‘tick’ with no answering ‘tock.'”
In the Cascades and the Olympics, he sensed ways to expand his existence, however short or long it might be. He felt he “lived 10 times more intensely” in the mountains. Or else, he concluded, “I made each year into 10.” Singular moments–the dark silhouettes of peaks against a dusk-lit sky, a rain- and snow-swept retreat from a remote pass–stood out more sharply in his memory than hazy months of city life. During another excursion, he’d fallen down a snowfield. As he clawed at the slope with bared fingers and nailed boots, for an instant, time seemed to stop, and he felt poised, suspended, with no sound except the music of running water, before he hurtled on into a flash of light.
The recollection of that near-death experience remained intoxicating, unsettling. There was a “deeper mystery” he wanted to explore, yet he fretted about the hazards of climbing, as well as the risk that fear itself could provoke a heart attack. The South Face, Monie promised, would be a stress-free route: “a staircase of buckets and doorknobs” with “bombproof ” anchors. Still, a sense of unease lingered in Harvey’s mind, at once unnerving and exhilarating, like the tingling feeling of an icy glacial pool.
ON THE WAY TO OUR CLIMB, I look behind me and feel suddenly unmoored. In the distance, so far above the wooded valleys and blue ridgelines that it seems impossible, rises Mt. Rainier, the peak that members of the Puyallup Tribe call Takobed. “Not of Earth,” Harvey described it in his memoirs, it “belongs to the Moon, the stars, the infinite sky.”
On this August morning, a band of smoky haze seems, indeed, to detach Takobed from the earth, as if the upper snows are floating in the air, pale and translucent, like a vision of another planet. Before us, more immediately attainable, the South Face of The Tooth is a slant of broken grey.
To Harvey, when he arrived with Monie and Betty, the rock face appeared nightmarish, a “giddy cliff rocketing upward, upward into spinning blue.” And as Monie led the first pitch, a manila rope tied around her waist, she, too, seemed to be floating, “nothing beneath her tennis shoes but air.” From the belay, she joked to him and Betty: “Like the man said after he fell down the elevator shaft, watch out for the first step, it’s a long one!”
Harvey, next up, felt the rope tug at his waist. He began shuffling along a rising ledge, though his legs trembled. When he glanced down, the immense trees of the valley looked like mere “shrubs.” His sweaty hands greased around on the rock. Everything turned into a grey fog, and he imagined his heart about to stop. “Relax. We’ve got all day,” Monie said to reassure him. “You couldn’t pull me off the mountain if you tried. You couldn’t go anyplace if you fainted.”
Believing her at last, Harvey saw the promised “staircase” crystallize out of the haze. As the three of them continued higher, he began to revel in the vastness of the air. “The rope and Monie were security against flying off, off, and forever away in the sky above,” he exulted in his memoirs, “the sky below, the sky all around. An inch from death (call it 7/16 of an inch) yet gloriously, victoriously alive!” A scant two hours on the Tooth gained him an even greater intensity of living than an entire summer of hiking. “Whereas hiking stretches out time,” he concluded after other, bigger ascents, “climbing shatters the temporal prison altogether. Climbing is nothing less than the secret of eternal life! Or it is until it kills you.”
IN AN ESSAY TITLED “My Epiphanies” in 100 Classic Hikes in Washington–a guidebook he later coauthored with Ira Spring–Harvey recalled “the infinity of empty air” surrounding him on The Tooth. For him, he continued, the climb was “the start of years of stimulating terror.” And for a while, he’d go on to pursue the same paradox that many alpinists have: risking his life to feel more alive.
During our own, much-less-dramatic climb, my partners and I amble over mottled grey stone, dazzled by the joy of easy movement and brightness of alpine light. On the final pitch, I go last. I watch Trevor, and then Catherine, pause, almost birdlike, on edge after edge of an airy ramp, before they vanish around a corner toward the blue of the sky. Once I join them on the summit, we stare at an immensity of forests and peaks that seem to unfold without end. It’s easy to imagine how Harvey thought he could glimpse a vision of eternity in such places.
When Harvey was still a boy, he’d watched the 1937 movie Lost Horizon, based on James Hilton’s novel about a secret alpine valley, Shangri-La (partly an appropriation of Buddhist stories of beyul and the legendary kingdom of Shambhala). There, somewhere near the borders of China and Tibet, concealed behind giant peaks, inhabitants had found a way to live much longer than ordinary human life spans. Throughout his own writings, Harvey used the term Shangri-La to refer to places in the Cascades. Others applied the words to the setting of his 1962 Riesenstein Hoax: a cluster of wild summits, with walls thousands of feet high, in a part of British Columbia that allegedly evaded mapmakers. (In reality, Harvey and his fellow conspirators used a photo of the real Kichatna Spires of Alaska to illustrate their fake tale.)
By then, Harvey himself had drifted away from technical mountaineering. He’d grown disillusioned after several friends died. He’d become disgruntled by would-be peak conquerors and eager self-promoters, and he’d created his imaginary mountains partly to lure them on wild-goose chases. It wasn’t just the rhythm of his heart that seemed off: society itself appeared to be moving too fast, with superhighways and airplanes uprooting people from a feeling of place. As he aged, he found he could expand his sense of time and space by hiking less quickly–a practice encouraged by the dense forests below Cascades peaks. “To make your world larger,” he often wrote, “go slower.”
ON THE SUMMIT OF THE TOOTH, we stand perched along the modern boundary of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness: the scene of another kind of adventure in Harvey’s life. By the mid-1950s, he’d become distraught by fears of how much more the timber industry might clear-cut swaths of old-growth forests and the mining companies might rip up alpine meadows and pollute high lakes. While the parts of the Cascades that only climbers could reach–the crevassed glaciers and the steep rock–appeared mostly safe from development, many valleys where he loved to hike seemed to be at risk, including those visible from the Tooth.
After Harvey edited The Alpine Lakes, written by Brock Evans and published in 1971 by The Mountaineers, Washington State governor Dan Evans brought the book to the Oval Office. Its words and images helped inspire President Ford to endorse a bill to designate the 394,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness–one of the largest wild areas, as Evans pointed out, that’s only a short drive from a major city. “Places like this must be permitted to live,” urged Brock Evans, with words that Harvey must have approved, “to remind us of our own touch with eternity, our own link with all the life that has come before, and all that will flow after us.”
Despite his own fears of an early death, Harvey lived to age eighty-one before passing away on November 12, 2006, not from the heart attack he’d feared, but from complications of colon cancer. In his last book, Wilderness Alps, Harvey imagined gazing into a crystal ball and seeing many of his beloved forests and mountains conserved forever, only to be devastated by forces he couldn’t have imagined half a century prior. He saw the snows of future winters turn more and more to rain; rising summer temperatures scorch the land; proliferating wildfires destroy trees that had stood for centuries; and ancient glaciers disappear into thin air, leaving only outlines of their former glory like the invisible contours of his imaginary peaks.
In “The Geography of Absence,” Alpinist writer Astra Lincoln notes, “I read once that the climate crisis presents a crisis of narrative. There are also stories on the far side of every change. There are forefields in the wake of all great meltings.” As Korean climbing photographer Rhea Kang reminds us, the struggle for a full existence is shared by all living creatures; powerful narratives of the future might derive not only from climbers clinging to cliff faces, but also from the wind-borne seeds that manage to sprout in tiny stone cracks. While I trace more of Harvey’s hikes, I also think of what it means to write about beloved and imperiled things: to cross the arched back of a glacier and feel how much it is both living and dying, its meltwater murmuring in hundreds of voices between the blue walls of crevasses. To walk through the green shadows of giant moss-strung trees that, one hot summer day, might burst into flame.
A few hundred miles from The Tooth, the village of Lytton, in British Columbia, has nearly been “burned from the map,” as an Economist journalist wrote. My partners and I watched the air-quality reports as we looked for places in the Cascades smoke-free enough to climb. Still, a haze often drifts through the air, dissolving the outlines of peaks as if melting the contours of the land. During our ascent of the Tooth, my first glimpse of Takobed was the only clear one we’d have. Over the course of the day, the ashen haze thickened and rose until the distant peak became, at last, only a faint sliver of white, like a wisp of cloud, against the paling sky–a fragment of a fading, yet still eternal, dream.
[Part of this essay is adapted from Katie Ives’ book, Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams, published in the autumn of 2021. A signed copy can be purchased in our online store here. This story originally appeared in Alpinist 76, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store here.–Ed.]