Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainierby Bruce Barcott
In The Measure of a Mountain, Seattle writer Bruce Barcott sets out to know Rainier. His method is exploratory, meandering, personal. He begins by encircling it, first by car then on foot. He finds that the mountain is a complex of moss-bearded hemlocks and old-growth firs, high meadows that blossom according to a precise natural timeclock, sheets of crumbling pumice, fractured glaciers, and unsteady magma. Its snow fields bristle with bug life, and its marmots chew rocks to keep their teeth from overgrowing. Rainier rumbles with seismic twitches and jerks—some one-hundred-thirty earthquakes annually. The nightmare among geologists is the unstoppable wall of mud that will come rolling down its slopes when a hunk of mountain falls off, as it does every half century (and we’re fifty years overdue). Rainier is both an obsession and a temple that attracts its own passionate acolytes: scientists, priests, rangers, and mountain guides. Rainier is also a monument to death: every year someone manages just to disappear on its flanks; imperiled climbers and their rescuers perish on glaciers; a planeload of Marines remains lodged in ice since they crashed into the mountain in 1946. Referred to by locals as simply "the mountain," it is the single largest feature of the Pacific Northwest landscape—provided it isn’t hidden in clouds. Visible or not, though, it’s presence is undeniable.
A marvelous biography of Mt. Rainierpublic symbol, sacred icon, towering Seattle presence, even when lost behind a vaporous hazefrom 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 mattersseismological readouts, say, or the marmot's daily routineutterly 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.
- Sasquatch Books
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Meet the Author
Bruce Barcott contributes major articles on environmental and adventure topics to Outside magazine. He is a former staff writer at the Seattle Weekly and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, Harper’s, and Slate, among other publ
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