Maurice Isserman’s Continental Divide: A History of American Mountaineering is a scholarly work that covers the exploits of mountaineers in the United States and Canada from colonial days to 1963, the year that an American team reached the top of Everest.
Everest is a world away from the northeastern United States, the starting point of Isserman’s book. In 1642, Darby Field, a resident of what is now New Hampshire, climbed White Hill, known by local Indians as Agiocochook and by moderns as Mount Washington, the highest mountain in New England.
Others in the Massachusetts Bay Colony thought Field daft for climbing a mountain. It just wasn’t something people did. Isserman writes: “Following his death in 1649, it was remarked that his was a life of ‘merriness marred by insanity.’”
Many people continue to regard mountaineers as a bit nuts for risking their lives for reasons even climbers often have trouble articulating. The French alpinist Lionel Terray titled his memoir (in English translation) Conquistadors of the Useless. Four years later, he died while rock climbing.
But are those of us who hike the Adirondack High Peaks all that different in outlook from mountaineers? We are attracted to the mountains to escape from civilization, to reconnect with nature, to challenge ourselves physically, to renew ourselves spiritually. Mountaineers are after the same things, although they ratchet up the challenge and the danger.
The Adirondacks play only a small part in Isserman’s history. He mentions that Lewis Evans, a surveyor, produced “A General Map of the British Middle Colonies in America” in 1755 that contained a blank spot in the Adirondack region. The map noted: “This Country by Reason of Mountain Swamps and drowned land is impassable and uninhabited.”
The forbidding terrain of the Adirondacks discouraged exploration by Europeans. “While tourists had been visiting the Catskills and the White Mountains for several decades, New York State’s highest mountains were still largely unknown and unvisited at the start of the 1830s,” Isserman says.
He identifies the surveyor Charles Brodhead as the first European to venture into the High Peaks. In 1797, Brodhead went over Giant Mountain and ascended, partially at least, six other 4,000-footers—“a formidable traverse even today, when established trails make the climbing easier.”
Apart from an occasional surveyor, the Adirondacks saw few visitors over the next forty years. The region’s highest peak was not climbed until August 5, 1837. Ebenezer Emmons, the scientist who led the expedition, named it Mount Marcy in honor of the sitting governor, William Learned Marcy.
William C. Redfield, one of those in the party, wrote of that day: “The aspect of the morning was truly splendid and delightful, and the air on the mountain top was found to be cold and bracing. Around us lay scattered in irregular profusion, mountain masses of various magnitudes and elevations, like to a vast sea of broken and pointed billows.”
The Keene Valley guide Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps cut the first trail up Marcy in 1861, “nearly four and a half decades after the Crawford Path was built to the summit of Mount Washington.”
Apart from a mention of the founding of the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1922, that’s it for the Adirondacks in Isserman’s book. This is understandable as the big mountains, the ones that pose the greatest challenges, are in the western United States, Alaska, and Canada.
Nevertheless, I wish Isserman, who is a professor at Hamilton College, had found a wee bit of space to recount the first ascent of Mount Colden. In 1850, Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph reached the 4,714-foot summit by climbing the Trap Dike, a large gash in the northwest face. Climbing the Trap Dike is not that difficult (though a fall could be fatal), but the first ascent is notable in that Clarke’s description in a letter to his mother is one of the earliest written accounts of American mountaineering.
I also wish Isserman had mentioned John Case, an American businessman who learned alpine techniques, including rope work, in Europe and helped introduce them to the United States in the early 1900s. Case summered in Keene Valley, where he died in 1983, and climbed many of the region’s cliffs, often in the company of Jim Goodwin. Case was long credited with making the first ascent of Wallface, the highest cliff in the Adirondacks, in 1933, though recent evidence suggests there may have been an earlier ascent. He served as president of the American Alpine Club from 1944-1946.
But these are quibbles. As Isserman notes in his preface, he couldn’t include everything: “Inevitably, in weighing the contractual limits of the space available to me, the likely limits of readers’ patience, and the brevity of our allotted time on earth, I had some difficult choices to make about which climbs and climbers to include or—alas, all too often—to omit.”
If eastern mountains do not loom large in Isserman’s history, easterners do. The well-to-do from the Northeast, many from Ivy League schools, vacationed in Europe and brought back a passion for alpinism and a knowledge of its techniques.
One influential easterner was Robert L.M. Underhill, a philosophy instructor at Harvard who became the dean of American rock climbers. Underhill made several first ascents in the Tetons of Wyoming. In one remarkable week in 1931, he put up three new routes on Grand Teton, including the southeast ridge that now bears the name Underhill Ridge. Later that summer, he traveled to California to teach belaying and rappelling to the Sierra Club. While in California, Underhill and four of his pupils climbed the steep east face of Mount Whitney. It was the first technical route up the highest peak in the Lower Forty-Eight.
Underhill’s wife, Miriam, also was an accomplished mountaineer who climbed in Europe. One of the most popular rock-climbing routes in Italy’s Dolomites is Via Miriam on Torre Grande, which she did in 1927 with a guide. She also championed “manless climbing.” Later in their careers, the Underhills climbed numerous mountains in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, making a number of first ascents together.
Meantime, residents of the western states were taking to the hills on their own, exploring the Rockies, Sierras, and Cascades as well as ranges in Canada and Alaska. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, is well known to the public at large for his writings about the mountains. Just as famous to mountaineers is Fred Beckey, who grew up in Seattle and bagged more first ascents of peaks than any other American. Beckey, who is now in his 90s, came to epitomize the dirtbag lifestyle, eschewing materialism for the mountains. (He visited Northwood School in Lake Placid a few years ago to sign copies of his book Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs.)
Although Isserman focuses on mountaineering, he also covers advances in rock climbing, especially on the big walls out west. He devotes a few pages to the Gunks, a popular climbing area in downstate New York. Fritz Wiessner, who “discovered” the Gunks, appears in the book for both his mountaineering and rock-climbing exploits. Wiessner put up a number of rock routes in the Adirondacks, though these are not mentioned in the book. Incidentally, one of Isserman’s sources is American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing by Don Mellor, a teacher at the Northwood School in Lake Placid.
Eventually, American mountaineers took their skills to peaks in the Himalaya and Karakoram. Isserman recounts several famous expeditions, including three unsuccessful attempts to climb K2, the world’s second-highest summit, a mountain far more deadly than Everest. Isserman closes his last full chapter with a description of the American Mount Everest Expedition in 1963. Four members of the expedition summited but had to endure an open bivouac at over 28,000 feet.
Isserman credits the publicity of the Everest expedition with fostering interest in mountaineering and launching a “rucksack revolution.” In an epilogue, he briefly touches on some changes since then. “The mountains will be with us forever,” he concludes. “What Americans choose to do on those mountains and to think of and hope for atop them in years to come is impossible to predict, except that it will surely involve a blending of tradition and innovation.”
Isserman’s history is well written and thoroughly documented (with 65 pages of footnotes), but when I finished it, I wondered why it stopped in 1963. Surely, much has been accomplished since then. To give a contemporary example, what about Alex Honnold’s astounding solos of the classic rock-climbing routes in Yosemite? And last winter’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson? And the ascents of big mountains by climbers who travel fast and light, in contrast to the expeditions of the past?
A climber writing for the New York Times faulted Isserman on this point, ending his review: “With all due respect, in 1964 American mountaineering was just getting started.”
Top photo: John Muir circa 1902. Bottom photo: Robert Underhill (second from right) and his three partners after the Mount Whitney climb in 1931. Both photos from Wikipedia.