Book: The Measure of a Mountain

Last Spring, while preparing for my attempt on the Rainier Infinity Loop, I bought two books on Mt Rainier... and failed to read either of them. My invite to that adventure had come out of nowhere; I knew nothing about the park, the area, the mountain or its history, and it felt important to develop some sense of the mountain I planned on running over and around.

So I bought The Challenge of Rainier, a collection of trip reports by Dee Molenaar, and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, by Bruce Barcott, an environmental journalist from Washington. They lived on my desk for months, untouched. I contemplated bailing on the trip - I wasn't prepared! I was only running a few times a week! Actually reading the books represented a commitment I wasn't sure I wanted to make.

With two week's notice I decided to go, had a hell of a time and generated this trip report. A year later, here in July of 2019, I finally read The Measure of a Mountain, and wish I'd done so before my trip to Rainier.

The book comes in two parts, interleaved; the first, the book's center, is a series of essays about the mountain's natural and human history, its geology, its incredible allure and danger. I loved each of these, and I'll summarize and talk more about each. The second part is a memoir of Barcott's experiences living near the mountain and building up his courage to go attempt to hike around it, and, eventually, to make a (guided) attempt at the summit. I'll cover these in order.

Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier

The essays start with the history of the mountain's name, and the battle to restore its original title. Why Rainier? What about the original "Tahoma", or "Tachoma"? Rainier seems to have won in a way that "McKinley" hasn't in Alaska over the beautiful "Mt Denali".

Next, "Aerial Plankton" covers the incredible number of bugs that blow onto the mountain's shoulders from the farmland below, feeding a huge number of birds and mammals that live in the rocks of the upper mountain and sustaining life far higher than you might expect.

Edwards once calculated that on a given summer day - mid-June is usually the peak - a standing twelve-ton crop of desiccating insects sits on the mountain's permanent snow. (p. 54)

"Grind the Mountain's Shattered Bones" is about the glaciers that cover Rainier. The melting ice is constantly raining rocks down on climbers and filling the rivers with milky rock dust. Why do we use the phrase "glacially pure" about the clearest water? Glaciers are full of dead insects, rock, decaying plants, filthy dust and dirt packed between layers of ice. It makes no sense!

Then "Volcano", about what might happen if Rainier explodes, and a startling account of the thousand foot thick mud flows to the ocean that the last big explosion wrought on Washington. The mountain might have been as high as 16,000 feet, almost 1,600 feet higher than its current elevation of 14,411 feet above sea level. The top blew off just under 6,000 years ago and buried forests under a massive mudslide on its way to the ocean.

Barcott is building up his nerve to climb the mountain himself, or think about climbing it, as he moves into the chapters about his fall and spring hikes on the Wonderland trail ("Mountain Dreams"), and about the death of Scott Fischer, a climbing guide he met while researching the book. Scott died on Everest. During their one meeting, Scott waxed eloquent to Barcott about his "theory of choices", the idea that people die in the mountains exclusively because of preventable human error. Now he's dead.

I could relate to Barcott's fear and confusion about the whole mountain thing, here. I love to go run around the mountains, but the idea of going into the high alpine for weeks at a time just seems insane and risky. What is there to find up there?

"Cliffhangers" is about that question, about adventure memoirs, about the shifting focus of adventure stories over the years as the obvious frontiers disappeared and all the mountains were "conquered". Note the curious lack of self-awareness; Barcott doesn't see himself in this category, I don't think, or doesn't realize that the open disdain he heaps on this style of writing applies to his own book's endcaps.

"Camp Muir" is about the scene at the halfway point of the mountain, about Barcott's trips up and his thoughts about maybe climbing the mountain, someday, with his father; then "That Hell-Tainted Air" about what happens to the body up high, and the human history of various cultures trying to figure out why people get sick in the mountains. Spirits? Poison in the air itself?

"Meadow Stomping" is a wonderful chapter about the conservation efforts going on in the various meadows around Rainier. These are unbelievable, gorgeous meadows full of the most colorful shocks of flowers you can imagine. It only looks like this now because of the heroic conservations efforts of the staff that work the greenhouse at Paradise are taking to grow seedlings over the course of years and then carefully transplant them back to the exact environment they came from. The meadows need this help because of the decades of stomping and smashing of tourists that destroyed everything beautiful within any reasonable distance of a road or campground.

"We Go to the Mountain" is a blow-by-blow report of how two young men, inexperienced, died trying to set up a bivy for a climber with a broken ankle on the Emmons glacier. The errors are always so clear in retrospect, but the difficulty of communicating and moving around on the mountain makes it so hard to tell when an emergency is developing. At the end of this chapter, all I could think was, "fuck the mountains." I'm so glad I don't have an obsession with steep, icy peaks, like so many of my friends here in Boulder.

A chapter on "The Constant Presence of God" on spirituality in the mountains seemed like a throwaway for the author; closer to home, for him and for me, was the chapter on quitting, on bailing, "Naught Without Prudence", on how when things don't feel right you need to buck cultural programming and get the hell out of the mountains if you're lucky enough to be in a situation where you still can.

Suffer Porn

Now, my summary of, and reaction to, the adventure memoir portions of the book.

Barcott gets his ass kicked by the Wonderland trail. He goes out to backpack the 93 mile loop in rain and fog and the beginnings of snow, suffering from soaked boots and soaked pack, and gives up after four days. I loved the descriptions of various points on the trail that I recognized, but I was uncomfortable, as I am more and more, with the suffer-porn feel of the trip report. To be fair, the weather sounds miserable:

At Mowich Lake, four days into the journey, I quit the mountain. The inexorable moist had crept into the cells of my sleeping bag. I could have filled a bath with the water from my wrung-out socks. My boots were terminally damp. I no longer bothered to hang my wet underwear in the tent, because the cotton absorbed more dew than it shed... I retired for the winter, beaten. (p. 33)

But then, after a year of preparation and training for the summit attempt Barcott knows he's going to have to make and include in the book, he seems to revel in how brutal his final two-day push feels.

We smiled for the camera but not for ourselves. I found myself caring about nothing except the rudiments of survival: warmth, water, and food. My mind had entered a latitude of apathy and despair. Hiking to the register seemed a ridiculous waste of energy. I was here; would my signature prove anything more? (p. 245)

Stressing the misery of his first trip to Rainier, to Wonderland, is fine. But by the time he takes on the summit, Barcott's been to Camp Muir (halfway up Rainier, above 10,000 feet) many times and is visiting Rainier constantly, so much so that, according to the book, he's jeopardized a new relationship with his obsession.

Camp Muir to the top is about the same distance and elevation as Paradise (the trailhead) to Camp Muir. Why not go to Camp Muir and back a few days in a row? And if you don't complete the training that is so obviously required, why write a trip report that celebrates how miserable and hard the hike was, without acknowledging that maybe you'd have enjoyed the view a bit more if you'd romanticized the experience less and prepared?

In the middle of the book Barcott comes down hard on a particular style of adventure writing:

The climbing memoir seems particularly well suited to egobiography, that self-help tale wherein the hero, through luck, pluck and a good therapist, finds happiness in self-acceptance. (p. 129)

The suffer porn of the final chapter feels like a parallel genre, where the author fails to prepare, and instead of noting that there are lots of other people that did prepare, and, surprise, had an easier time - externalizes all the difficulty onto the landscape and goes on about how hostile and horrible the experience had to be.

How can I enjoy reading about pride in a total lack of preparation?

I'm not proud of my reaction to stories of sufferfests that just don't have to be that hard. But, wait... in this case, could these feelings be linked to my annoyance at my own lack of preparation on Rainier, which led to my own experience quitting on the second ascent of the mountain during the Infinity Loop attempt? Well, let's not look too deeply into that!

Still, I can't resist saying that I wouldn't recommend reading this book as an adventure memoir. There are plenty of people who are very comfortable hiking long distances in all weather on the Wonderland trail. Let yourself be seduced by Barcott's descriptions of the trail, its meadows, it's ethereal views of Rainier, the objective danger that its remote feel and weather offer. But go! Go to the mountain! Experience it for yourself. And train a little before you go.


As I noted above, I wish I'd read this book before attempting the Infinity Loop. We go to the mountains to generate stories, and I think it's important to frame those stories in the larger history of the place where they're occurring, if not within the history of all of the other trip reports of those who tried similar adventures before. Why is this mountain covered in glaciers? Who's been here before? Who built this incredible trail, and what did it take to get it built?

Grab a copy of The Measure of a Mountain and book yourself a trip to the Cascades.


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