Friday, January 14, 2011

Joseph E. Taylor's "Pilgrims of the Vertical"

Joseph E. Taylor III is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, and reported the following:
This is an interesting exercise. Like previous authors, the idea of scanning an arbitrarily-picked page to assess my entire book is daunting and anxiety inducing, but, as it turns out, I pass the page 99 test. Pilgrims of the Vertical was inspired by a collision of avocation and vocation. Like most recreationalists I had long cultivated the notion that outdoor play was an escape from society for intimate encounters with nature, yet my background as an academic historian told me this was folly. It was while rereading some old climbing texts that I spied a historical question in this tension, both in terms of when, exactly my attitude first emerged because the articles I was reading showed that people did not always think my way, and in how recreationalists have negotiated that cognitive disjuncture. On further research I discovered an older mode in which climbers, skiers, and surfers viewed nature as an extension of much more social forms of play.

Following Yosemite’s climbing community, I learned that earlier generations of technical climbers—people who used ropes and special gear to scale sheer cliffs—usually climbed as part of large outings, and the value of their ascents derived from that social context. This recreational culture continues, but it was eclipsed in the climbing literature after 1955 by the Beat generation climbers. The tensions between communitarian and individualistic forms of play began much earlier, however, and part of that story emerges on page 99.

The chapter, titled “Soldiers,” traces events during World War II, and David Brower, later the Sierra Club’s first executive director and a global force in environmentalism, plays a central role. Like many club climbers and skiers, Brower joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, and at first his goal was to keep clueless officers from killing him and fellow recreationalists:
Early months were marred by near disasters. Two regiments from the South and Plains had few soldiers with mountain experience, and officers did not realize they should adjust packs and marches to avoid exhaustion at high elevations. A two-week maneuver in -25°F temperatures and heavy snowfall inflicted frostbite and pneumonia
Pre-existing relationships enabled the enlisted to leverage favors from higher ranking members. Figures in the Quartermaster Office got the original officer corps reassigned and then had junior officers from the club ranks promoted to positions of authority at key camps.
By mid-1943 the skiing and climbing schools were directed by members of the National Ski Patrol, American Alpine Club, Sierra Club, Colorado Mountain Club, and Mountaineers. Put another way, the enlisted were running the show.
Brower’s experiences in the Army revealed the extent and power of this communitarian culture:
By the time Brower enlisted in October 1942, many climbers were in position to protect his file from the bureaucracy. At the Quartermaster General’s Office, [Richard] Leonard attached a telegram from the Adjutant General so Brower went to Camp Carson for basic training with the mountain troops, then to Fort Benning for Infantry School, and finally to Camp Hale. At Carson, Capt. John Woodward, friend to some “skiing associates,” assigned Brower to work on a mountain training manual. Then at Brower’s entrance exam for Officer Candidate School, Major Paul Lafferty, who first met Brower while snow camping, intervened to ensure the poorly prepared Brower passed. Lafferty then sent Brower and other RCS members to the Assault Climbing School at the West Virginia Maneuver Area at Seneca Rocks. When the Army disbanded the school and scattered the instructors, Brower and others phoned Leonard, [Bestor] Robinson, and [Minot] Dole to get their orders countermanded. Within hours they were reassigned to Camp Swift in Texas, where Lafferty saved Brower again from duties he could not perform by making him an intelligence officer.
Page 99 reveals the significance of this older form of recreation, but there is more. Once climbers went overseas—Brower to a brutal campaign in Italy, Leonard to be a fashion spy in Burma—they encountered spectacular mountains deeply etched with evidence of human history. Many recoiled at what they saw as defacement. Brower and Leonard vowed to save the Sierra Nevada from this fate. In the early 1950s they rewrote the club charter to deemphasize mountain accessibility in favor of wilderness preservation. Brower then turned the Sierra Club Bulletin, long a mountaineering publication, into a journal exclusively dedicated to environmentalism. In the process, however, he unintentionally forced ambitious climbers to write for more commercial magazines. This further divorced top climbers from the club context and, in the long run, helped solidify a culture of individualistic adventure. Elite climbers began to advertise their feats to a wider audience, and a growing hoard of consuming enthusiasts like myself helped entrepreneurial climbers to professionalize by buying their gear, books, and expertise. Our pilgrimages to nature were never quite the escapes we imagined. We always carried our contexts with us, but then humans always have. That is the tension that Pilgrims of the Vertical explores.
Learn more about Pilgrims of the Vertical at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue