‘Longs Peak’ full of high-end storytelling
July 28, 2005
As the title so candidly proclaims, this book is about Longs Peak: its geology, fauna, human history (and of course its climbing). But this book isn’t the kind of thing you’ll find slotted among natural history books at the corner bookstore; nor will it be found tucked between a rock-climbing guide to Rocky Mountain National Park and a history of Colorado mountaineering. And for that, we may be grateful.Books that fit neatly into the incredibly mundane categories found at most bookstores, online or otherwise, tend to be the ones you want to ignore (“Gee, honey. Think we should we get ‘Boulder County Historical Ditch Markers 189095’ or ‘Late-Nineteenth Century Ditch Markers of the Boulder Area?’ “). “Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener,” by Dougald MacDonald, is part natural history, part human history, part flora and fauna guide, part climbing history, part climbing guide, part cheeky commentary, and part modern reference – not to mention part lavish coffee-table book (There are color photographs on nearly every page) – and it thankfully defies categorization.
The roughly 240-page tome begins with a description of a straightforward hike up Longs Keyhole Route, and from there branches out to cover the early exploration of the West and the discovery and naming of the peak, the first attempts to climb it, Powell and Byers’s successful 1868 ascent, and the fairly rapid establishment of the peak as an objective for properly guided tourists. (MacDonald’s research into and examination of the first white ascent of the peak is a fascinating story in its own right.) The activities of Enos Mills – perhaps the man who, when all is said and done, will be most associated with Longs – are carefully recounted, from Mills’ establishment of a hotel and guide service to his political activities that ultimately resulted in the establishment of “the Park” in 1913.MacDonald does an excellent job telling the stories of the various parties vying for the east face of Longs, from Professor Alexander’s 1922 ascent of his eponymous chimney and a route later named Kiener’s, to the 1960 first ascent of the Diamond by Rearick and Camps, to the 2003 linkup of five Diamond routes in a day by Caldwell and Donahue. But his accounts aren’t just about headline-makers like Caldwell, Donahue, Briggs and Kor, and he weaves in the stories of climbers like Chip Salaun, who spent a summer studying flowers on the Diamond, and the hilarious (and impressive) exploits of Hull Cook and his fellow 1930s-era guides.He also brings to life the various research activitie on Longs and in the park in general, with his firsthand reporting on butterfly researcher Rich Bray’s efforts to document all the species in the park and geologist Jon Achuff’s efforts to understand the possibility of Longs’ famed Boulder Field sitting atop a slowly moving ice field.
MacDonald’s style is straightforward but engaging. His unembellished recounting of information is occasionally punctuated with his own brief asides, short comments about what might’ve been and how quickly ideas and ideas change. And he does all this with an incredible amount of humility, mentioning, where appropriate, his own failures on Longs.Perhaps most of all, though, MacDonald’s magnifying glass on this one peak makes the reader – especially the climber who can read – comprehend one thing very clearly: Climbers are more actively engaged with the natural world than many other subspecies of human. Indeed, reading this book made me feel more part of some highly evolved super-species rather than the beanbag mountaineer I strive to be.Just like an ascent of Longs itself, MacDonald is a writer at the top of his game; the rest of us are still huddled under around Mills Glacier wondering where to go next. I can’t wait to read his next book, whatever it is.Cameron M. Burns is a Basalt-based writer.