A spirited journey in the footsteps—or footholds—of the mountaineers who first explored the Sierra Nevada.
An experienced climber in the mountains of California, Arnold decided to trace his literary and alpinistic ancestry by examining “high and visually striking” mountains that inspired other adventurers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, profiling the men who undertook them in the process. Over several years, he divided his time between library and mountain wall. In order to recapture his ancestors’ spirits, he “had to climb the way they did,” which meant leaving behind safety ropes, carabineers and other “modern climbing paraphernalia.” His first stop was Mount Brewer, high in the Sierra, whose namesake had been climbing the range since 1860 from the Mexican border to Mount Shasta, but who had not visited the central, toughest wilderness of peaks behind Yosemite, “a dense parade of mountains, sharp summits, and narrow spires,” until 1864. A weird pyramid of broken boulders awaited him and his party, a mountain that captivated Brewer, who “had seen nothing so large and lonely in America, nor so desolate.” Similar experiences awaited Clarence King, John Muir, Norman Clyde and other legendary climbers, who exploits introduced lowlanders to such things as Kings Canyon and Mount Whitney. Arnold had plenty of exploits of his own, as when, on Mount Clarence King high in the middle Sierra, he stepped on a loose plate of rock and watched as it caromed down 500 feet, striking a cliff several times before exploding, “filling the air with thunder and a smell like shot gunpowder.” Yet, as he recounts, only five minutes later the mountains are quiet again, having absorbed the event and regaining their eternal composure.
This well-written combination of history, memoir and travelogue should find a welcome home in many climbing collections.