THE MEASURE OF A MOUNTAIN: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier by Bruce Barcott
Kirkus Star

THE MEASURE OF A MOUNTAIN: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier

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A marvelous biography of Mt. Rainier--public symbol, sacred icon, towering Seattle presence, even when lost behind a vaporous haze--from Barcott, a staff writer for the Seattle Weekly and contributor to Harper's. At 14,410 feet, Rainier is the highest and most dangerous volcano in the US, its summit area mimicking frigid Himalayan weather conditions. Like many Seattlites, Barcott is caught in Rainier's clutches. He circumambulates it, nibbling at the flanks; ascends through alpine meadows, from one opaque cloud bank to the next, as if ""approaching the gates of heaven."" He gets down on his knees to scrutinize the snow flea and consider the harvestermen (a.k.a. daddy longlegs) that, astonishingly, live at 10,000 feet; takes to the mountain at night under a candent moon, the glaciers luminous. He listens to the radical silence, bathes in the spectacular eight-week run of wildflowers: avalanche lily, paintbrush, yellowdot saxifrage, salal (which, Barcott tells us, the poet Richard Hugo said was one of the few words he loved enough to own). At full spate, Barcott writes with elegance, both thoughtful and waggish, and he has a way of making the most mundane matters--seismological readouts, say, or the marmot's daily routine--utterly absorbing. There are moments when you will guffaw out loud; at other times you will gasp or spill a tear over stories of those who have died on the mountain. Last comes the author's summit push with his father, a hellacious experience, Barcott's ""legs trembling like sinners before God"": perhaps a test of courage, a bow to curiosity, but also ""the stupidest thing I've ever done."" ""We want to know mountains. . . . but they've got no story . . . We throw ourselves onto them and make the stories happen."" Barcott knows his mountain, and his story is enthralling, respectful, bitingly witty, and wise.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Sasquatch