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Range of Glaciers: The Exploration and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range

Range of Glaciers: The Exploration and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range. Fred Beckey. Portland and Seattle: Oregon Historical Society and University of Washington Press, 2003. 568 PAGES. $40.00.

Fred Beckey, world-renowned climber and historian, has written yet another definitive guide to the Cascade Mountains of the Northwestern United States. But this one is not a climbing guide.

Range of Glaciers takes the reader on a journey through time and space that chronicles the economic, sociological, and recreational history of these mountains and the activities of the men who explored them. Beginning with the first settlers, Beckey leads us through the early surveys and mapping projects that exposed the challenges the Cascades posed to cross-range railroads and year-round travel. Accounts of the two Northwest Boundary Surveys paint a detailed picture of the politics endemic to surveying such an “unnatural boundary,” as well as the problems of early mountain travel in the North Cascades. We next come to the building of the railroads across the passes, and the excitement of a minor mining boom. Later, attention is turned to the development and evolution of tourism, and mountaineering on the volcanoes.

The search for a mountain pass useable year-round is a particularly interesting story from a modern perspective. Today’s highways, lazily crossing the Cascade passes, were once the scene of formidable railroad challenges. Beckey draws attention to the hardships of finding and building these passages, as well as how decisions made during the building of the railroads have had a permanent impact on our experience of the wilderness today. Tying past to present in this way makes the history particularly relevant to anyone who enjoys the wild spaces of the Cascades, and it is used effectively throughout the book.

Beckey also gives an interesting chronology of the early events and circumstances in the birth of Cascade mountaineering, including detailed narratives of early ascents in the range and the particular logistics needed to obtain them. Peppered throughout the history are specific (and often amusing) tactics used by the early mountaineers, such as the crevasse-crossing methods employed on the first ascent of Mt. Rainier. The logistical problems of gaining access to the mountains, and interactions with the Native American guides, are discussed in detail.

The writing in this book has a level of detail approaching that of a reference, which sometimes makes for dry reading. However, Beckey periodically relieves the monotony by including humorous anecdotes, such as Lt. Kautz’s descriptions of the crumbling volcanic moraines along the Nisqually glacier of Mt Rainier as walls of “white granite”; and the whistling marmots he encountered as “mountain sheep.” Also, each chapter ends with a fine selection of historical maps, drawings, and photographs, which give one a visual sense of what was known and how it felt to be there at the time.

Range of Glaciers is a meticulously researched and thoroughly detailed book that will appeal to anyone with a love for history or for the Cascade Mountains.

David Burdick