Snow & Spire: Flights to Winter in the North Cascade Range, Mountain

Publication Year: 2012.

Snow & Spire: Flights to Winter in the North Cascade Range. John Scurlock. Silt, CO: Wolverine Publishing. Many color photographs. 192 pages. Hardcover. $59.95.

Mountain. Sandy Hill. New York: Rizzoli. 2011. 352 pages. Many color and B&W photographs. Hardcover. $85.00.

Climbers are dreamers, as well as doers, and coffee table books are dreams. The concept of the modern coffee table book is sometimes credited to none other than David Brower, who believed in “a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance.” The books reviewed here are two of the best, squarely embodying Brower’s criteria.

John Scurlock’s Snow & Spire: Flights to Winter in the North Cascade Range is a showcase for a sampling of the thousands of photos the author made from his home-built aircraft, a Van’s Aircraft RV-6. “The most common question I’m asked is ‘who flies the plane for you?’ The answer is that all these photographs were obtained while I was piloting the plane.” The photographs are gorgeous and, from a climber’s perspective, simultaneously intimidating and inviting. The medium of thick, glossy paper in a large format matches the grandeur of its subjects. And though not central, the texts are always interesting: for instance, an interview with Jim Nelson on the first winter ascent of Slesse’s Northeast Buttress in 1986 and Lowell Skoog’s short history of winter climbing in the Cascades. Skoog added as an appendix a list of winter first ascents. Only one of Scurlock’s photos features human beings; he hasn’t seen many of us on his excursions. This book is a treat for any Cascades aficionado or anyone who has prematurely concluded there are no more alpine challenges in the Lower 48. Scurlock lays out for us many little-known alpine wilderness challenges, much as Washburn did in the 1960s with his photographic challenges in the Alaska and St. Elias Ranges. Or you can just sit back and marvel over the images as art.

In Mountain Sandy Hill has assembled the images of more than 160 photographers and artists. For every familiar iconic image—Washburn’s “After the Storm, Climbers on the East Ridge” [of the Doldenhorn], Vittorio Sellas “K2 in the Evening from Southern Ridge of Staircase Peak,” John B. Noel’s hand-colored group photo of the 1924 Everest team, or the photo that faces it, Tom Frost’s summit shot from the first ascent of the North America Wall— there are three or four others that are fresh, surprising, and sublime.

Others take iconic mountains and give us new angles or light: Devils Tower through George Grant’s lens in 1933 or Katarina Stefanovi’s “A New Day’ revealing an unexpected Matterhorn.

Will Wissman’s shot of Reggie Crist carving a line in the Takhinsha Range is my favorite ski photograph of all time. Everado Rivera captures three “climbers” on Popocateptl adorning a crucifix with flowers. I find a new favorite every time I open the book.

The endnote is by Ed Cooper, whose eye is frequently evident here and whom Hill acknowledges appropriately. I never tire of his shot of the East Face of Bugaboo Spire and was glad to see it (and others of his) included. Cooper advises us, when we see a photo we like, to not take its making for granted. “Instead,” he advises, “look up the name or photographer of any mountain or photographer named here and follow the threads of information that interest you most.” To this end, the acknowledgments and index are excellent.

Short essays, not by the usual suspects, separate the images. These, like the photographs, invite us to think about mountains in a way we may not have otherwise. For example, there is Robert Macfarlane: “What we call a mountain is thus a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans—a mountain of the mind.”

Finally, there is a generosity of spirit to Sandy Hill’s introductory essay that I found utterly sincere. She discovered a way to produce a book, a kind of manifesto, about her love for mountains without personal ego.

In my little universe, mountains and books are sacred objects—of the latter, none more so than this book. I wash my hands and dry them carefully before I turn its pages.

(Disclosure: Sandy Hill is donating her personal profits from this book to the AAC Library; this fact did not affect my review in these pages.)

David Stevenson