The Challenge of Rainier, by Dee Molenaar. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1971. 332 pages, profusely illustrated with photographs and pencil sketches. $12.95.
Just as “Mount Rainier in Washington State is many things to many people,” so will this superb mountain biography be to a diverse group of readers. For those with an historical bent there are tales of “Tahoma” reaching back to its origins during the Pleistocene Epoch, quotes from Captain George Vancouver’s diary of 1792 telling how the mountain received its English name, and details of early explorations and summit attempts.
For the active climber the largest section of the book is devoted to detailed historical and technical accounts of over 35 different routes by which the mountain has been ascended since the turn of the century. These accounts are enlivened by frequent sections quoted from diaries or other direct communications sent the author by the many Rainier climbers with whom he has corresponded. Routes are clearly illustrated either on sketches or photos.
For the mountain rescue buff (or the simple morbid) there is an entire section on the better-known accidents and rescues which have checkered the history of the mountain. Collapsing snow bridges, rock fall, exhaustion, pulmonary edema, solo ordeals, and mass catastrophes — they are all here.
Finally there is a warmly written concluding section on the guides of Rainier. Many of these men the author knew personally during the years he served as a summit guide himself. He has collected personal statements (from older guides) describing their early experiences and practices. And what astounding descriptions some of them are when compared with our present-day emphasis on safety, equipment, and expertise! Today it is hard to imagine a guided party of 30 climbers stumbling along behind the guide’s kerosene lantern; clutching their alpenstocks in one hand, the hemp safety line in the other; their caulked boots biting the frozen surface; and their frozen box lunches bouncing round their waists on strings. Today it’s even hard to imagine a female guide, since the last one to be reported seems to have served in the early 1920’s.
One outstanding feature of this book is the pencil sketches by the author. Ranging from tiny details, such as an individual edgetricouni, to full mountain panoramas and from route diagrams to illustrated ice techniques, these frequent gems (nearly 100 of them) lend great clarity and feeling to the text.
If there is a flaw in this unique volume, it would seem to be the sustained local focus of the text. Unless one is a true Northwester and hence already dedicated to the Mountain, the lengthy litany of glaciers, cleavers, and routes described might produce extensive dry spells. However, if one is planning a closer acquaintance with this unchallenged Monarch of the Cascades, or even if one is simply interested in the significant role Rainier has played in the development of American mountaineering, then this book offers an unparalleled introduction.