Pickets And Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier. Bree Loewen. Mountaineers Books, 2009. 189 pages. Paperback. $16.95.
After Bree Loewen graduated from college with a degree in philosophy at age 17, she spent four years as a climbing bum and ambulance jockey. We meet her at age 21, when she was rescued from a training climb of Mt. Rainier in a “highly televised extravaganza less than a month before [being] hired to rescue others.” Pickets and Dead Men is her first-person account of the three seasons she spent as a climbing ranger on the highest mountain in Washington State.
The book is arranged in rough chronological order, detailing her experiences as a female ranger in a male-dominated industry Her adventures are numerous and eclectic, and the bulk of the book is comprised of her stories. She describes participating in dangerous, high-profile rescues, cleaning the outhouses at Camp Muir in her “out-on-the-town” jacket, route finding in some of the world’s most extreme mountain weather, determining which breakfast burrito is most satisfying after a 24-hour shift, and accidentally climbing solo in whiteout conditions. Several themes become clear, including Loewen’s struggle to gain the respect of her male coworkers, her constant internal self-doubt, and a continual pondering of that never-ending question: Why am I here? She touches on both the macabre (excavating bodies from crevasses) and the whimsical (she hopes her last mortal thought will be about white chocolate macadamia cookies). Her engaging prose is often underscored with a reverence for the mountain on which she lived, worked, and played.
Loewen’s candor, utter lack of pretension, and matter-of-fact honesty make Pickets and Dead Men funny, poignant, and entertaining. But while her wry bluntness and self-deprecation in presenting her own quirky perspective endear her to readers immediately, there’s also a danger to her casual prose: she uses the same unfiltered language to describe multiple real-life situations, co-workers, and climbers, but with a less-than-humorous undertone. Of her fellow climbing rangers, for example, she says “the intolerance, egomania, and ‘lone wolf’ attitude… led to many awkward situations involving offensive language, uniform requirements, substance and beverage regulations, and sometimes a lack of human decency.” Names have been changed, but strong personalities and delicate situations are sometimes portrayed as more one-dimensional than we know them to be in real life.
Her trademark honesty does not waver in the Afterword, when Loewen offers her conclusion: “Neither of my twin philosophies, that shared hardship increases camaraderie nor the doctrine ‘that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ worked out for me. The mountain irrevocably broke me in many ways, but it also kept me focused on what I wanted in my life: good friends to grow old with…If this experience had been the sum of my life, then this book would have outlined a tragedy. Fortunately, it was only a summer job I had for three years in my early twenties.”
Readers—especially those well-versed in the challenges that come with choosing climbing as a lifestyle, rather than a hobby—may have mixed feelings about the ultimate conclusion of Pickets and Dead Men. But the real value of the text isn’t in the message; rather, it’s in the playfulness of the stories, and in the simple bravery it took for Loewen to tell her truth. Spending her summers on Mt. Rainier as a climbing ranger might not have ultimately been right for her, but luckily for us, that summer job left Loewen with some wonderful tales to tell.