We Aspired: The Last Innocent Americans, Pete Sinclair. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah. 1993. 239 pages.
As a twenty-three-year-old climber in 1959, Pete Sinclair was quoted in Time magazine: “You can’t describe climbing to people. They don’t have anything to compare it with.” Nonetheless, his We Aspired; the Last Innocent Americans describes climbing about as well as can be done.
Sinclair’s memoir begins with his ascent of the south face of Denali in 1959, then recounts summers of rescue work in the Tetons during the sixties. But it would be an oversimplification to say that this is what the book is about. Sinclair is writing about his life during this time. As such, the book probably has more in common with a coming-of-age story like Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man than with Annapurna (which incidentally Sinclair cites as a “text of moral instruction”). Although every autobiographical narrative about climbing can be said to be about the writer during a period of time, Sinclair’s version is distinguished by the honesty and humility evident in his introspection, the generosity of his portraits and the discipline of his prose.
In most climbing books, the climbing is central; what it might mean, if anything, is often tacked on, hastily, it would seem. In other words, larger meanings seem to come as after-the-fact rationalizations. Sinclair doesn’t tell us what events mean, as in the formulaic “climbing leads to personal growth.” Instead, he shows us how for him this leap has been accomplished. One chapter opens: “We have precious times when we glimpse the trajectory of our lives, when we are free enough from the nudge of things done and the tug of things to do to have a gravity-free moment of lucidity about what we are up to.” This must describe the space from which Sinclair’s whole book arises, and also suggests the shortcomings of other works about climbing, which often feel as if their raison d’être is to “professionalize” climbing for the writer.
Sinclair recalls his and Gary Hemming’s long talks about what “I wanted and Hemming was going to demand” from life:
We weren’t going to go through life looking respectable and feeling lousy. We weren’t going to work hard and obey orders with no purpose other than becoming an American consumer. We weren’t going to be managed or managers.
He goes on to say that what they did want was “excitement, risk, and a big goal,” adding that “for the present that meant a tough route on a big mountain.” As much as this book is about Sinclair’s time in the mountains, it is also about his curious choice to leave them, so his insertion of the words “for the present” seems to denote that his climbing time was only a temporary means to the larger end of self-realization.
Sinclair’s moving story of Hemming’s death seems to provide the final incident to a darkening list of reasons that led Sinclair to leave the Park Service. Yet he seems to steer away from pushing too deeply at the roots of Hemming’s unhappiness, partly, it would seem, because they are roots he shares. Writing of his rescue work, the professional mountain guiding, and other park service work that he and his friends did to stay in the mountains, Sinclair notes that rescue work wasn’t real climbing. And yet it seems to afford him all the satisfaction of “real” climbing, including the opportunity to attain what he calls “self-possession” after a particularly complicated rescue, the first on the north face of the Grand Teton. Nonetheless he claims: “we were also a generation that aspired to be heroes but ended up in the hero business.” Although he attributes his choice to leave to a number of factors (including an apparently self-imposed choice between the world of scholarship and the Park Service), this sense of compromise looms largest among them. What he never quite says is that Hemming was a hero who never had to end up in the hero business.
Sinclair uses the word “sacred” only once, near the end of his story. In talking about Willi Unsoeld, Sinclair asks if Willi really had a choice-free will—and speculates that: “if he could not help but keep going back, it must have been because though he had learned the mountains were sacred, he was not yet certain how we are to hold them sacred.”
Sinclair also wonders about the process of rehabilitating juvenile delinquents by teaching them to climb. “Although I had a part in bringing this about, it still didn’t seem as if it was what the mountains are for.” This implies that he knows what the mountains are for, but if he does know he never voices it very explicitly. But what are they for? And how are we to hold them sacred? Sinclair never answers those hard questions except in the way that his whole book is such an answer; “I am talking about a quality of the experience which I believed could not be explained but which might emerge from the stories I knew.”
In the end, Sinclair leaves the Tetons and, as you might guess, from the subtitle, “The Last Innocent Americans,” there’s a sense of melancholy to the departure, brought on by the deaths of friends (and strangers), as well as the increasing bureaucratization of the National Park Service. Still, when he stakes a claim to being the “last innocent,” he’s marginalizing the experience of those who follow. In fact, they may not be following at all, only finding their own way as young adventurous souls must always do.
We Aspired appears twenty years after the last events it describes have taken place: events people, landscape, movement, and emotion percolating in memory for years, until Sinclair could find their essences in language. In this book the great days are recounted with a rare precision and grace commensurate to the task.