When the mountains were feared, not beloved

Written by Jayson Jacoby November 29, 2013 09:40 am

Like most towns Baker City lies in a valley, but this place, it seems to me, is defined by its mountains.

I use the possessive form here because cities tend to have a palpable pride of ownership in the peaks visible from their streets.

When you are blessed with mountains, and in particular with a truly imposing range such as the Elkhorns, you might as well flaunt them. And so we do, on T-shirts and postcards and coffee mugs among quite a lot of other items.

Nor is this trait peculiar to places of modest size.

Portland bills itself as the Rose City, but there can be no quarrel that its true icon is Mount Hood.

Hood’s volcanic sibling to the north, Mount Rainier, fulfills an equally symbolic role for Seattle.

Baker City’s affections are not so singular.

Our mountains more resemble the Rockies than the Cascades, which is to say there are long ridges from which an occasional peak juts, as opposed to the Cascades’ solitary, but spectacular, fire mountains.

We harbor perhaps a special love for the Elkhorns because they are so near to the west, forming a sedimentary wall that casts its shadow clear across the valley.

But we lay claim as well to the more distant, but indisputably magnificent, Wallowas, which sprawl over the whole of the northeastern horizon.

I have been thinking recently of mountains, and the way we feel about them, after reading Robert Macfarlane’s book “Mountains of the Mind.”

Macfarlane, a British travel writer and mountain climber, wrote the book a decade ago. I managed somehow to avoid the volume for all those years although I relish travelogues of all sorts, and in particular ones dealing with mountains and people who climb them.

(I would like nothing more than to be a travel writer but am afflicted by the insurmountable handicaps of never really going anywhere, or doing anything interesting when I get there.)

The gist of Macfarlane’s book is that modern society’s veneration of mountains, their purple majesty and all that, is, well, modern.

Until around the start of the 19th century many people at least feared, and in many cases acutely loathed, some of the world’s greatest mountain ranges.

Macfarlane, being a European, devotes much of his book to the Alps.

He writes of 17th century travelers whose descriptions of crossing Alpine passes bear a decidedly Tolkien flavor. These accounts, largely taken from contemporary diaries or journals, lament the frightful precipices, the awful blizzards, the utter absence of civilization.

You have a sense that these writers, if they actually believed such creatures as dragons exist, would not have been altogether surprised to come across one in the icy wastelands of Mont Blanc.

Macfarlane explains how science, and especially the budding field of geology, contributed to a wholesale reversal in our opinions about mountains.

Pioneering geologists such as the Scotsman James Hutton, and Charles Lyell, a Briton, came to recognize that by studying mountains and glaciers they could understand how the Earth’s surface had been formed — and moreover, reformed — over the eons.

Their writings encouraged people, most of whom were not scientists, to have a look for themselves.

When they left the sanctity of the valleys and they saw for the first time such awe-inspiring sights as the Mer de Glace or the Italian Dolomites, these visitors stopped worrying about ogres and started thinking about building chalets and cog railroads.

By the middle of the 19th century the Alps were, to the British aristocracy, what Vail and Sun Valley are to modern America’s upper class.

Writers and poets waxed rhapsodic about the sublime spectacles among the peaks.

Doctors touted the pure air as the ideal antidote for Londoners’ soot-stained lungs.

Alpinists, most of them Englishmen, breached summits long thought impregnable. In July 1865 Edward Whymper of London led a party to the top of the most famous peak of all, the Matterhorn.

(Although four of the seven climbers plunged to their deaths on the descent. Whymper and two others were saved when the rope connecting all the climbers snapped.)

Macfarlane’s book intrigued me because I can’t imagine standing in my yard, watching a snow squall sweep across the face of Elkhorn Peak, and feeling anything but ebullient at my good fortune to have such beauty so accessible.

That I might dread the mountains is a concept so foreign as to be beyond my ken.

Yet there was much in “Mountains of the Mind” that seemed familiar.

In particular I felt a kinship with those of Macfarlane’s subjects whose love of the mountains is broad and complex, who are equally entranced by sunlight exploding off a glacier’s surface and by the immensity of time represented in a band of layered stone.

Sometimes when I look at the Elkhorns I see them as objects to ogle. Science seems a minor matter in that moment when the alpenglow slides its pink brush across the slopes, at dawn of a January day when the temperature has plummeted below zero.

At other glances I am overwhelmed by the colossal scale, both in size and in time, that the mountains represent.

I ponder the forces required to move slabs of tropical seafloor thousands of miles — the great upheavals that elevated them and the ice that sculpted the great slabs into pinnacles from which, on a fair day, you can see parts of three states.

Mountains, to borrow Macfarlane’s title, are indeed often on my mind.

And, I hope, they will never be far from my eyes.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.