American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaska Ascents

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1997

Alaska Ascents. Edited by Bill Sherwonit. Alaska Northwest Books, Seattle, 1996. 295 pages. $16.95.

For those interested in Alaska in particular and mountaineering history in general, Alaska Ascents, a compilation of 17 stories written by climbers who could serve as a Who’s Who of Alaska mountaineering (Washburn, Beckey, Cassin, Krakauer, Roberts, Kennedy, Waterman, and Robbins, to name a few) is a “must buy.” All of Alaska’s great mountain ranges are captured, and Sherwonit has done an excellent job in selecting accounts of some of the most significant climb. He has also culled excerpts from original publications. Some of the most noteworthy climbs done in the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, the Coast Range, the Chugach Range, the Alaska Range, and the Brooks Range are included. Reading it, one can’t help but come away with a real appreciation of the kind of mountaineering adventure Alaska has to offer. No wonder the book won the Banff Mountain Book Festival 1996 Jury Award.

Having been a climber and a student of mountaineering literature for almost 30 years, I discovered that I had read many of these articles before (most a long time ago), but the quality in the writing and the spirit of adventure contained in each chapter made reading them again as much fun as the first time. For me, though, reading accounts of the less well-known climbs, and by authors not often encountered in the current stream of literature, gave the most pleasure.

The book begins with a masterpiece in mountaineering literature, Filippo de Filippi’s colorful, spellbinding 1900 account of the Duke of the Abruzzi’s first ascent of Mt. St. Elias. The selected chapters reveal the excitement of climbing what was then believed to be North America’s highest peak. This account is followed by the story of Dora Keen’s first ascent of 16,523-foot Blackburn, remarkable not only for Keen’s vision and tenacity, but for the fact that she was a woman from Pennsylvania pursuing an interest dominated by men. She chose to attempt Blackburn, she recounts, because “I had the need for courage and inspiration, and on the high mountains I find them as nowhere else.” Isn’t this one of the reasons we all climb?

For the student of Alaska climbing, many of the accounts will be familiar, either from earlier appearances in the AAJ or from the original books and articles themselves. Ricardo Cassin’s story of the first ascent of Denali’s south face and Art Davidson’s depiction of the epic first winter ascent of the mountain are classics. Reading these accounts makes you feel that you are right there.

David Roberts’ story of the 1965 ascent of the Harvard Route on Mt. Huntington ranks as one of the all-time great stories of Alaskan mountaineering. Royal Robbins’ piece on his foray into the Kichatna Spires, Jim Bridwell’s account of the climb up the east face of the Moose’s Tooth, and Mike Kennedy’s article on his new routes on Hunter and Foraker with George Lowe inspired many at the time of their printing. Frankly, they still inspire today. These people, both as climbers and writers, have set the standards for mountaineering in Alaska.

The award for endurance, patience, and questionable commitment goes to Johnny Waterman for his 144-day solo ascent of the southeast spur of Mt. Hunter in 1978. No one, except the few climbers who have climbed (or tried) Denali solo, and in winter, have come close to experiencing the loneliness and intensity Waterman experienced on his epic climb. Jon Waterman’s excellent biographical sketch of Johnny helps us to understand, in a small way, what motivated such a person. After reading the article I came away with more respect for Johnny Waterman. At the same time I felt grateful my mountaineering career has followed a different path.

At $16.95, Alaska Ascents is a deal compared to what one typically spends nowadays to buy a good climbing “read.” When you consider that most of these accounts are excerpts from rare and out-of-print books, the value is immeasurable.

Steve Davis

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