Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier

Overview

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. ...

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Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With distinctive wit and uncommon intelligence, Bruce Barcott has penned a . . . provocative, highly original appreciation of a great mountain. He is a hell of a writer." –Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air "Utterly absorbing . . . A marvelous bio
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
High above the domiciles and roadways of Seattle looms Mt. Rainier, a beautiful but forbidding shape that dominates the landscape and draws people of the region to discuss, view, climb and possibly to die in their attempts to understand and tame the volcano. A mixture of first-person narrative and natural history, this book from Seattle Weekly columnist Barcott chronicles the past, present and possible future encounters with this impressive monolith of the Northwest. Barcott is not a cavalier outdoorsman. He describes his attempts to understand the ecology and history of Mt. Rainier with a genuine fear of the harshness and severity of high-altitude climbing, and with wonder at the ecosystems he finds above. A chapter called "Aerial Plankton" details the activities of winter insects living on the snowy slopes of the mountain. "Volcano" describes a scenario in which the mountain does not erupt but collapses, sending millions of cubic meters of mud, water and ice into the surrounding populated areas. Many of these musings take place on the trail, and we share in Barcott's deep happiness and gratitude for a warm shower and dry bed after days on the mountainside. Providing clear information on the heritage, history and fascination this mountain creates, Barcott captures the glowing spirit that surrounds Mt. Rainier and, at times, those who are drawn to it.
Library Journal
A Seattle journalist sets out to write a natural history of Mt. Rainier in Washington State but finds that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man interested in mountains must want to climb to the top. While researching the mountain, Barcott happened to interview Scott Fischer, a climbing guide who shortly afterward perished in a sensationalized accident on Mt. Everest (see Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, LJ 4/1/97). Trying to make sense of Fischer's death turns the story from a standard natural history into a distinctly anti-macho example of mountaineering literature, as a bookish, gregarious man without any natural daredevil impulses contemplates climbing (or possibly not climbing) the 14,410'. peak. A darkly humorous review of mountaineering memoirs notes that "once an author is on the mountain, there's no limit to what he'll suffer for his reader," but that "unlike any other sport, mountaineering demands that its players die." Although the anecdotes about Mt. Rainier will be of regional interest, this appealing adventure story about a reluctant adventurer will please many readers.Amy Brunvand, Univ. of Utah Lib., Salt Lake City
Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781570615214
  • Publisher: Sasquatch Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 797,934
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A must read for those who love the mountains...

    When I bought this book I thought it was going to be all about those that have climbed Mt. Rainier. It was far more that. Bruce gave us a great insight to what mountains mean to us and why we are drawn to them. Yes, I learned a lot about that great mountain in the Northwest but I learned far more from his insights on mountains themselves. This is a great read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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