The Sharp End

Posted on: October 19, 2011

LIGHT PASSED THROUGH RED and purple windows, transforming the belfry of Cookham, England, into an aerial castle of shifting colors. During the late nineteenth century, a boy gazed, each day, at its stained-glass tower. After Geoffrey Winthrop Young became a climber, the same hues seem to glow across high summits like the reflections of a secret realm. There was a connection, he felt, between that memory and the mystery he sensed in the mountains. "With the effort to shape it into words, its meaning escapes us," he recounted in On High Hills: "Some ideal, which it is even better that [the peaks] should continue to hold up before us unattained."

By then, the Golden Age of Alpine Climbing had faded. Western scientific and imperial expeditions strove to survey, catalogue and occupy the last empty spaces on their Central Asian maps. Telegraph cables, tourism and mass media spread to formerly isolated regions. It was the beginnings of an information age that prefigured our own. Much has been written—then and since—about the drive to conquer the unknown. Yet some adventurers of Young's era already felt ambivalent. As Robert Macfarlane explains in Mountains of the Mind, there were calls "to economize the regions of dream." While the Victorian mountaineer Leslie Stephen popularized the Alps as "The Playground of Europe," he half-regretted the disappearance of legends that surrounded their once-inaccessible heights: "How much will go with [the dragons]? And how far will the same process applied in other directions destroy the beauty and romance of our daily lives?"

The Western veneration of mountain landscapes had arisen, in part, from a Romantic tradition that depicted craggy pinnacles like the fragments of some primeval and enchanted land, just beyond the borders of expression. As the frontiers of imagination appeared to withdraw farther, European fantasies placed them on higher and more remote peaks, culminating (as Peter Bishop argues), in Shangri-La, the fictional Himalayan paradise of James Hilton's 1933 novel, detached from any physical geography. Certain myths have a way of persisting in the dreams of a culture, refracting through the decades. The longing for blanks on the map remained pervasive throughout the written history of modern alpinism, preoccupied (as it still is) with first ascents. In the early 1960s, as American climbers started to think of heading northward and abroad for untouched rock walls, it was perhaps inevitable that another tale of secret mountains, an alpinist's Shangri-La, would resurface, now filled with whimsy and irony—as a sublime practical joke.


Seattle, Washington, 1961: Photos blanketed a living-room floor with dark gray and silver icefields. Austin Post had flown over the interior ranges of Alaska, collecting pictures for a research project. Edward LaChapelle and Harvey Manning looked through images of summits no mountaineers had likely seen. Otherworldly rock spires rose up from the snows, "the only remnants of a long-vanished upland" (Glacier Ice). They drew potential routes on the pictures, and then someone said, in a tone of quiet, mock reverence, "Ah! The Riesenstein.'"

LaChapelle and Manning composed a fictitious story about a trio of Austrians—Machler, Bisserlich and Kronhofer—who hiked for two days along the Klawatti River to attempt the "Riesenstein Peaks of British Columbia." An edited version appeared in Summit (June 1962), accompanied by a photo annotated with routes and a handsketched map with UNEXPLORED scrawled across the top. The names contained clues to unravel the hoax. Kronhoffer was a kind of climbing shoe. Klawatti is a glacier in the North Cascades. Riesenstein means simply "giant stone" in German.

Fred Beckey had wandered the northern latitudes since the 1940s, jotting down secret objectives in his black book. He suspected the real peaks were somewhere in Alaska. Other climbers wrote to map offices for more information, only to learn that the Riesenstein didn't exist—at least not in Canada. "Like any good joke," historian Andy Selters says, "timing was critical. Because Half Dome and El Cap had been climbed, [the Riesenstein] could then seem a logical, but mythical step, a Yosemite in a faraway pristine land with unlimited potential for challenge and expansion."

The possibility proved too powerful to forget. "There were the pictures; palpable mountains," Alvin DeMaria and Peter Geiser wrote in the 1966 American Alpine Journal, "But where? Chamonix? Africa? Asia? The moon?... The 'Riesenstein' appeared doomed to join the ranks of other mythical and fabulous regions like Shangri-La and the Seven Cities of Cibola." At last Brownell Bergen came across similar photos with a verifiable location. "Their exact position," DeMaria and Geiser recounted, "as the Cathedral Spires or Kichatna Peaks of the Alaska Range, is given on USGS topographic Photo: Austin Post collection ALP36_3-13_FIN.indd 11 9/26/11 3:29 PM 12 map Talkeetna B-6, Alaska." Joseph Herron had glimpsed three of the spires from Rainy Pass in 1899, calling them "Gurney, Augustin and Lewis." Most of the summits lacked any official name. All were unclimbed. DeMaria had stumbled upon what seemed to be "a totally unexplored range of rugged beauty," seventy miles southwest of Denali and eightyfive miles from the closest road.

In June 1965, he and five friends piled into a microbus, drove twenty-four hours a day from New York City to Talkeetna and rode a bush plane to the base of the range. "And then on," Claude Suhl recounts, "wonderfulness forever—no map indication and no visual or auditory indication of anything—any habitude to either side of the forever road— just vast expanse—a gametophobic induction of an idea that we can and will live forever— by the stretch of cosmos sucking us laterally and forward in the what we want to know.... This treasure hunt was real."

When the plane vanished into the sky, the climbers stood beneath a wall bigger than El Cap. Leaning spires and spiny ridges twisted like the ruins of a lost city. A few square miles encompassed dozens of summits between 7,000 and 9,000 feet. Amber and ash-colored granite faces swept into the air, amid long arcs of cracks and couloirs, strange nooks of chasms and caves. Storm winds groaned. Icefields emanated in rays of white, separated by nearly impassable cols. From the top of three peaks, the men stared at a landscape that looked like "the ultimate expression" of their aspirations: countless challenging big walls in a landscape that seemed so "uninhabited, untouched by humans" that Suhl still remembers the metallic red of their soda cooler against the snow.

Stories of a hidden wonderland lured others. Soon the Kichatnas no longer seemed like "the epitome of inaccessibility" (AAJ 1966). In 1968 Summit published David Roberts' guide "to shortcut...the problems of a Spires expedition by chronicling what is known about the place." Twelve years later, Mike Graber described the area as a "crowded Klettergarten" (Ascent 1980). In 1976 he and his partners established Illusory Ridge, the original line that LaChapelle and Manning had inked on the Riesenstein photo. It was as if the topo had emerged, at last, out of the imaginary and into the attainable, the measurable and the true.

Layers of illusion remained beneath its surface. An older cartography existed, mainly invisible to non-Native Alaskans—traced by trails that vanished across the winter snows, and by memories of people who had traveled across the Alaska Range for thousands of years, accumulating an intimate geographic knowledge. Legends of spiritual presences filled spaces that seemed vacant to visiting climbers. Anthropologist Richard Nelson argues that the notion of Alaskan "wilderness" represents an inability by Westerners "to conceive of occupying and utilizing an environment without fundamentally altering its natural state." Instead of monuments and ruins, the Native people left something perhaps "greater and more significant.... The vast land itself, enduring and essentially unchanged" (Make Prayers to the Raven).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Native organizations interviewed elders to prove "continual use and occupancy" of remote, undeveloped regions. Alaska professor Paul Ongtooguk describes how their lists of "significant rocks, creek bends, outcrops...names and locations for collecting kinds of rocks, fish, plants, driftwood, shelter areas, slide-danger places, overflow locations, traditional trade routes and meeting places" proved too vast and detailed for any previously published maps.

Today, the Kichatnas are mostly solitary again. Storms blow through quiet corridors of yet-unattempted routes. Air taxi fees have risen. Not many climbers have the time or inclination for such remote, committing adventures. Of the hoaxers, only Post remains alive. The anecdote is mostly forgotten: a few paragraphs in old journals and books. But I can't help feeling that the mystery of the Riesenstein hasn't been fully solved, that the story is ongoing, and that there are more questions to unfold.

There was a fairytale aspect to the Riesenstein quest: the chance to climb the Kichatnas had to be earned. A similar joke couldn't last that long anymore. Beckey complains, "You can study Google Maps and figure out the best route and access without getting off your duff." Each year, as Selters points out, new photos of the last obscure peaks are mass reproduced in catalogues and climbing media; thus, to many, the terrain appears almost familiar, even before it's seen up close. With the acceleration of discovery, the time for wonder diminishes.

Yet the images of what we call the known are still imaginary maps. Projected fantasies overlay our cultural concepts of the wild. Blanks remain in the peripheries of route lines, so often left empty, as if the ascent took place in a historical and geographic void. Only a small fraction of the multiple human visions of a place ever get recorded. "Maps chart the experiential interrelation of the self with its cultural context and its physical world," Sherrill Grace writes in Canada and the Idea of the North. "We map what matters most to us." Too many topos now resemble those earlier Victorian maps, concerned with fixing official names, borders and landmarks to facilitate travel, commerce and colonialization of the vertical landscape.

There are other ways to conceive of cartography, more qualitative, dispossessed and fluid, reflecting quieter dreams, voices and values. In 1974, Lito Tejada-Flores, then-editor of Ascent, proposed that climbers should preserve some regions uncharted, leaving "not only the cracks, but the sense of discovery intact." Early Kichatnas climber Joe Fitschen recalls, "Wittgenstein talked about getting to know a region, whether on the ground or in the mind, by just wandering around, eschewing maps and other guides, coming at the territory from different angles until you feel at home. I call it the peripatetic theory of knowledge."

Perhaps, amid the scores of practical guides, we need a few more maps for wandering, formed of hints and riddles, of stories and images that expand, rather than shrink, our vision of the wild. During the most focused moments of any climb, all prior knowledge vanishes. We re-create a world for ourselves, at once ephemeral and eternal. Its cartography might be like those patterns of light through antique glass—the incomplete, ungraspable, shifting and radiant map of the real.

[With additional research assistance from Roger Strong, Roger Robinson, Alan Kearney, Royal Robbins, Alvin DeMaria, Elizabeth James, Sherrill Grace, Andy Selters, John Scurlock, Austin and Roberta Post, Fred Beckey and the Henry S. Hall, Jr. American Alpine Club Library —Ed.]

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