Sometimes, a book comes along that seems supernaturally appropriate for our themes here at WildSnow. (E.g, history; skiing; mountains; snow; personal retrospective; mountaineering; Denali.)
So, when my friend and prolific author Jonathan Waterman kicks out another Denali book, we notice. Jon’s new book, Chasing Denali, is a superb blend of history and personal narrative. The history should win a prize, while the personal content borders on memoir that’ll burn out headlamp batteries while invoking sleep deprivation.What Jon does here is not easy. He grabs one of the most interesting historical events in mountaineering, writes deep, but blends his own “return to Denali as an old guy” with an overall historical theme. The early event in question is the famed and sometimes questioned 1910 “Sourdough First Ascent” of Denali’s North Summit.
If you’ve had half an ear to mountaineering history, you know about the Sourdoughs. They had zero climbing experience, but were no strangers to cold weather and hardship. Apparently they were strong as well, and innovative as to gear. (Example: actual home-made crampons that functioned for steep snow climbing and probably a modicum of ice ascension as well.) If what they did was real, it was indeed the “most unbelievable feat in mountaineering history,” as the book’s subtitle states.
Jon’s historical quest began just few years ago, inspired by a magazine article he was commissioned to write. During a coffee we had back then, he related that perhaps the old climb was somewhat a myth (and his article a “myth busting”), but that he’d dig into it with all modern tricks of historical research and see where it led. A few months later, coffee again, Jon saying something like: “I’ve been looking at the Sourdoughs…found out they had “creepers” that were nearly as effective as modern crampons. I’m thinking they might have done this thing just as the legends hold…but a few other items shed doubt. Check this photograph out, it is key, does it show the 14-foot spruce pole they erected near the summit…?”
Go ahead, if the word “fascinating” comes to mind you are not off the mark. Thus, 138 pages of tight prose, mixing Jon’s return to the mountain for his 60th birthday with an entire well-researched history (and truthing) of the Sourdough climb.
If there is any flaw in Chasing Denali, it’s that the prologue makes you want Waterman to write a full-on 150,000 word memoir covering his personal life as a “historical and environmental” adventurer. Granted, his Shadow of Denali book dabbles in retrospective, but it covers a brief time of his life. Likewise, his adventure writings are epic, personal, and could perhaps be called memoir: Jon’s boating the Colorado River from source to ocean comes to mind, as does his solo exploration of the Northwest passage. But now he’s in a final quartern of life, so how about something that covers the whole deal, behind the scenes?
Of course, perhaps Waterman’s entire body of work, numbering in the hundreds and thousands of words, could be anything one could ask of a memoirist. In that case, check out his listings at Amazon (click image to right).
It would be silly for me to close with a spoiler, as to Jon’s documented conclusion as to the Sourdough’s truth. So I’ll leave that for your discovery (read the book!). Meanwhile, I’m comfortable sharing that Jon’s return to his old stomping grounds has the makings of fine retrospective, or me-and-Joe climbing tale that would stand on its own. In either case, what you get is elevated by his quest for historicity.
Recommended? Five stars.
Chasing Denali — The sourdoughs, cheechakos, and frauds behind the most unbelievable feat in mountaineering
By Jon Waterman, Rowman & Littlefied Publishing, 2018
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.