Sunday, March 31, 2013

A book recommendation

I read “K2: The Savage Mountain” by Charles Houston and Robert Bates over break after Sarah and Andrew highly recommended it. The book is about a 1953 American expedition to K2 that undergoes some serious hardships on the mountain, including illness, horrific weather, and the death of a member of their party. It is also referenced in Tabor’s book as an example of a group that “coalesce[s] around their leaders so passionately that they would remember the trip fondly for the rest of their lives” (Tabor 71). I thought I would share a passage from the beginning of the book, as it addresses the question of why people climb mountains.

In the first chapter, entitled “The Call to Climb,” Houston writes: "In the year that has passed since our ordeal we have been asked that question many times and have answered it in many ways. No answer is complete or satisfactory. Perhaps there is no single answer; perhaps each climber must have his own reasons for such an effort. The answer cannot be simple; it is compounded of such elements as the great beauty of clear cold air, of colors beyond the ordinary, of the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience. The pleasure of physical fitness, the pride of conquering a steep and difficult rock pitch, the thrill of danger--but danger controlled by skill--are all also there. How can I phrase what seems to me the most important reason of all? It is the chance to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off nonessentials, to come down to the core of life itself. Food, shelter, friends--these are the essentials, these plus faith and purpose and a deep and unrelenting determination. On great mountains all purpose is concentrated on the single job at hand, yet the summit is but a token of success, and the attempt is worthy in itself. It is for these reasons that we climb, and in climbing find something greater than accomplishment” (Houston 1).

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book and thought I would pass along the recommendation.

Houston, Charles and Bates, Robert. K2: The Savage Mountain. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press. 2009. Print. 

Contrasting leadership styles

Throughout the semester we’ve read about expeditions in which the expedition leader seems to successfully navigate the complexities of group dynamics. While Herzog only briefly describes how he goes about interacting with the rest of his group, Blum recounts the difficulties she faced while learning to lead this particular group. Bancroft and Arensen also depicted their partnership as successful, able to work through the difficulties that arose while crossing Antarctica. After reading all of these accounts of expeditions that were, for the most part, successful in regards to the group dynamics component, I was surprised to read about the difficulties that this Denali expedition faced regarding this particular issue.

From the beginning of the text, the fact that this expedition was unable to come together as a team was apparent. When even mediocre tasks such as cooking dinner become an ordeal, (Walt Taylor is quoted as saying “No one even opens cans with gusto around here” (Tabor 73)), goals of reaching Denali’s summit seem even more out of reach. I found the sections regarding Joe Wilcox’s difficulty managing the group dynamics to be one of the most compelling aspects of the narrative. Wilcox seems rather inflexible, especially when dealing with managing group dynamics. In the group meetings that Tabor describes, Wilcox is depicted as maintaining a rather authoritative air, and does not seem to change how he approaches members of his expedition even when his tactics to instigate change were not effective.

When reading about the different perspectives of these group meetings, I was reminded of Blum’s descriptions about how she continued to learn about her role on her expedition and adapt to the needs and expectations of the group. In contrast, after reading Tabor’s account I did not have the impression that Wilcox was able to adapt to the needs of parts of his group, and that amplified his role in the group into what he describes as a “lonely position.” I think that description highlights a difference between Blum and Wilcox’s flexibility regarding their leadership styles. Eventually Blum created the sense of the expedition being a cohesive unit, while Wilcox’s expedition seems to remain two separate groups.  

On another note, one part of the narrative that bothered me was the way in which Tabor ended the chapters describing the build up to the tragedy. By including sweeping statements like “But even experts err, and appearances are most famous for their deceipt” (47), “Unfortunately, bubbles of ice, with their sharp edges and frozen cores, do not succumb easily”(75), and “As the men go higher, the rifts between them, like the crevasse fields they are about to enter, will only increase in number and hazard” (83), Tabor constantly reminds readers that this expedition does not end well. While this may be an effective way to maintain reader’s interest, I found myself rolling my eyes as I turned the page. I will say, however, that these types of sentences at the end of the chapters leading up to the accident did help create a sort of continuity in the narrative. I found the ending chapters of the book to be quite choppy – they did not seem to build off one another at all and seemed to instead just be a compilation of many different components of the aftermath of the incident. 

Tabor's antagonists

When Claire first asked if we felt Tabor attributed blame to any specific individuals, I responded that he instead pieced together a variety of contributing factors that together resulted in the 1967 McKinley disaster. After finishing the book, however, I now believe that Tabor not-so-subtly complied a list of supposed villains in the McKinley drama.

Villain 1: Brad Washburn
From the start, Tabor presented Brad as a self-righteous, abrasive asshole. His early correspondence with Wilcox (the perceived protagonist of the story) revealed not only his lack of support for the Wilcox expedition, but apparently his desire that the group falls “simultaneously into the same crevasse” (40). After disaster struck on the mountain, Washburn’s power and influence in the mountaineering world, Tabor implies, jeopardized rescue attempts and ultimately led to a deceitful effort on the part of…

Villain 2: Don Sheldon
A member of the Alaska rescue group, Sheldon was “hired” as a search and rescue pilot to survey the situation on the mountain and drop supplies to the stranded group and the MCA rescue team (the only apparent genuine effort made to aid Jerry Clark and his stranded teammates). Undeniably under the influence of Washburn, Sheldon failed to drop supplies at the requested altitudes and denied flights of certain heights, for his plane apparently could not achieve such altitudes. Tabor attributed Sheldon’s reluctance not to his actual flying abilities, but rather to Washburn’s pervasive influence and desire to jeopardize the rescue effort.

Villain 3: The NPS (excluding Wayne Merry)
Tabor similarly portrayed the McKinley National Park Personnel, including George Hall and Arthur Hays, as reluctant to launch a full-out rescue effort for the men stranded on the mountain. He compares the ’67 tragedy to the Winter Expedition rescue effort, involving “three helicopters, T-33 reconnaissance jets, C-103’s, rescue teams from Washington State and Anchorage, and more than fifty military personnel.” Tabor asserts, “the park service’s mismanagement of later events increased the likelihood that its last act would leave bodies scattered about the mountain” (302).

Villain 4: Howard Snyder
While Snyder’s involvement in the tragedy minimally contributed to the death toll on the mountain (beyond his reluctance to launch a rescue search with Wilcox), Tabor undeniably frames Snyder as a focal antagonist of the narrative. Tabor devotes significant portions of his text to defending Snyder’s judgments of Wilcox. Like Washburn, Snyder repeatedly claims that inadequate leadership was the root cause of the ’67 disaster. If a lack of team cohesion at all contributed to the tragedy on the mountain, then Snyder’s aggression, claims Tabor, aided in the group tension.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

You made the Hamilton news feed!

"No Armchair Adventurers Here"


Google Maps and Mount Everest

Hope you guys are all having a great break! I was just on Google Maps, trying to find the quickest way to Hoboken, and Google instead suggested that I hike to Everest Base Camp via street view.  It's actually kind of cool.

Here's the link! Enjoy!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Actually…Very Responsibly Written.

During the first bit of Forever on the Mountain, I was under the impression that Tabor was fabricating to a certain degree, using artistic license, small words and actions between the characters that were trapped high on the mountain. I made reference to quoted conversations that Tabor speculated, but on page 372 in the Author’s Note (last paragraph), Tabor briefly explains that any and all quoted conversations and statements within the book were based on hard evidence, and all speculated conversation was not quoted. I began to notice this by the last part of the book, but I was finally forced to definitively withdraw my gentle criticisms of before about fabricating conversations after reading that Author’s Note.

Thus I rescind said criticisms. Now I can rave a little about how much I LIKE the way Tabor treated quoted and unquoted conversations. I think that piece of the note should have been included at the beginning of the book though, to avoid my mistake. But now that I know for sure how Tabor treated his evidence, I have the utmost confidence in what this book presents. It would appear that Tabor did as much research as was possible for this book, that he had just enough experience to write it with understanding and compassion, and that his personal distance from the parties involved in the action allowed him as close to objectivity as is possible with humans.

I found Tabor’s retelling of the 1967 McKinley tragedy compelling, though it did read a little bit like an investigator’s report, as I believe it ought considering Tabor’s motives and objectives. I found nothing wanting by the last page in my knowledge of the disaster – Tabor included his own speculations of what happened to the seven men gently, without strong assertion, and he also included the opinions of the survivors. I never felt as though I were getting one side of the story only, or any side for that matter – this felt more like a sphere: no sides, all straight evidence and direct inference labeled as such. I kept wondering what Joe’s and Howard’s books might be like to read, but I don’t feel any real compulsion to read them after reading Tabor’s account. On the other hand, I still want to read Boukreev’s account of the 1996 Everest disaster because, despite his best journalistic intentions, I still think Krakauer was too close to the action to report it in a truly objective manner.

Moral: Tabor did an excellent job, in my opinion, of collecting evidence and presenting it in a professional, compelling, and unbiased manner. I think this was an important book to have on the reading list because it highlights the difference between an adventure narrative and a study of events, which I don’t feel is really an adventure narrative. I wasn’t drawn into the action in Tabor’s book as I have been in the previous reads. Instead I was fascinated by the theories and the facts. An interesting distinction… I didn’t feel like an armchair adventurer with this book. I felt like an armchair investigator. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Companionship and Adventuring

I thought that the two summit scenes in Forever on the Mountain tied perfectly into Clark's question from last class.  Joe Wilcox feels an emptiness at the summit--perhaps he is left unsatisfied by the sensation we see in Blum's text (stand on the mountain for moment, footsteps swept away, etc, etc) but perhaps it is more than that.  He summits with the Coloradans, three men he neither likes nor particularly trusts, and it is only then that he understands why Jerry Clark stayed behind.  Joe tried throughout the trip to bind the 12 men together as a team, and could not initially get why Jerry would waste a perfect weather day to wait to summit with his friends.

The second summit gives the climbers an entirely different feeling.  Jerry and the other five who summit insist they all reached the top at the same time, implying that they waited for each other and linked arms to cross the finish line.   They sound elated on the summit, "A-OK!" and seem altogether more fulfilled (although as we see, wasting that precious day of good weather proves to be their downfall).

Was it simply that the team had become so fractured that only a summit achieved with friends and trusted climbers would appear satisfying?  This is possible, because we see Joe hold back some of his annoyances with Howard simply so as not to spoil his summit day.  Perhaps it is only in this unique case that companionship is so important in the adventure experience.  Joe's feeling of accomplishment is hollow, while Jerry's is elated.  This is to isolated and bizarre a case to extrapolate for all adventures, but does this help us get any closer to the initial question?

Fearless leader?

It is interesting to see how the two teams in Forever on the Mountain were unable to mesh well and I have been pondering why they were so incompatible.  Both are groups loved the mountains and were true climbing fanatics, which would lead one to believe that they could find common ground on which the could be friends.  However, this was clearly not the case.  Personally, I feel that this is mostly due to Wilcox and what I perceived as him being unsure of himself.  I noticed textbook signs of someone young and inexperienced feeling stressed and internally uncomfortable with the mantle of leadership that he has taken.  For one it was clear that he was extremely intimidated by the Colorodoans who were apparently larger, more rugged, and had more experience in climbing.  This led to Wilcox feeling emasculated and small, resulting in his less than friendly attitude towards the group, even upon their first meeting.  This continued even more as he was commonly heckled about his leadership choices, especially about rationing food and gear, as they moved up the mountains.  Wilcox felt that he had something to prove to the big guys so to speak and his terseness led to friktion, as the book would call it.  He did not even enjoy the top as he said that planning and organizing the expedition took all of the fun out of the experience.  In all I feel that Wilcox was a man who distinctly lacked confidence in himself and this was reflected in the way that he acted towards the Colorodoans who he perceived as a threat to his "alpha status".

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

For someone who doesn't believe in Truth, I sure worry about it a lot. (Sorry to start this again, guys).

     The lack of firsthand accounts leads to the promulgation of contradictory opinions on the fate of the doomed seven climbers.  Though Wilcox and Snyder each published books, neither was a part of the second summit group, and thus they are not totally equipped to report on the group’s final days.  Tabor is therefore forced to make value judgments about the beliefs of others.  The lack of diaries and examinable bodies forces Tabor to construct an entire narrative around what is essentially an empty center.  All he has to work with is narratives of those on the periphery and his own educated guesses.
            In the Author’s Note at the end of the text, Tabor explains his approach to writing Forever on the Mountain: “One tempting approach was to fictionalize those events, but my editor steered me elsewhere, asserting that to fictionalize even a small part of the narrative risked undermining its vastly greater factual parts” (371).  His contention that no part of the narrative is fictionalized seems odd in light of his choice to rely on guesswork (albeit informed) and invented dialogue to advance the plot.  By focusing on producing a book that differs from those of Wilcox and Snyder in that it lacks an overt agenda, Tabor ignores the fact that is an agenda in itself.  He acknowledges that “All perceptions, of course, depend on the position of the observer” (Tabor 363).  However, he does not go so far that the perspective of any one narrative or the piecing together of many, is akin to fictionalization.  Jacques Derrida in the Afterword to Limited, Inc. seems to discuss this problem:
what is ‘nonfiction standard discourse,’ […]?  This question is all the more indispensable since the rules, and even the statements of the rules governing the relations of ‘nonfiction standard discourse’ and its fictional ‘parasites,’ are not things found in nature, but laws, symbolic inventions, institutions that in their very normality as well as in their normativity, entail something of the fictional (133).
While I would never presume to fully understand anything Derrida writes, even two years after Lit Theory, it seems to me he is troubling the distinction between fiction and nonfiction that the writers we have read this semester hold so dear.  Thus, perhaps it is not that Tabor lacks direct access to the events he is investigating that problematizes his claims to “the truth.”  Rather, it is that he, like Snyder, Wilcox, Krakauer, and anyone else who constantly  has that first person narrator going in his or her head, assigns significance to things, thereby turning happenings into events in a larger story, a process which renders concerns such as “the truth” obsolete.  

High Ground

Here is a documentary film that I thought you might all find interesting...  another take on the "adventure narrative" through the Wounded Warriors project, and thus dealing more with a mountain's capacity to heal than what perhaps we have thus far been confronted with in our readings this semester.

Plus, the film is currently available on netflix!

(Click on the image below for's write up)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

my thesis is bleeding into "Stickeen"

Nothing gets me in the zone like a canine in Alaska. That is to say, "Stickeen" shares a few key elements with my thesis, and I'm having a hard time not casting Stickeen the dog as a wolf. Muir wrote this story just a few years after Jack London, who cast a much darker, and less scientific, view of the wilds of the northwest. Muir's adventures lack the desire to civilize and conquer that London espoused, instead wandering for the sake of observation. Stickeen, his canine companion, did not need to civilized in the way that London's wolf-dogs were, but he was humanized. Animal companions in wilderness situations are important because they can be used to mirror the feelings and fears of the humans present. In "Stickeen," Stickeen serves as a foil for the relationships between the people on the trip, and his change after the danger on the glacier also reflects that changes we see in human characters after traumatic, bonding experiences.


Similar to Claire's post, I wanted to examine the anthropocentric point of view that our texts seem to take. Specifically, I think Muir's take on this topic might help us get to the bottom of that ever-present question of "why adventure?" Why create dangerous situations for ourselves to endure?

"That a man should welcome storms for their exhilarating music and motion, and go forth to see God making landscapes, is reasonable enough; but what fascination could there be in such tremendous weather for a dog? Surely nothing akin to human enthusiasm for scenery or geology," says Muir.

Unlike in some other texts where the mountain is a metaphor for a horizon to be conquered, Muir instead focuses on the aesthetic value of nature; in particular, I liked the exhilarating music and motion of the storm. However, he believes that dogs do not recognize or seek this type of aesthetic pleasure, and are instead driven by basic animal survival instincts--why then does Stickeen follow him into the storm?

While I tend to be wary of taking this anthropocentric view of humans as a higher species, it does seem that his reasoning at least has some solid foundation.  As they traverse across the incredibly dangerous landscape, "Stickeen seemed to care for none of these things, bright or dark, nor for the crevasses, wells, moulins, or swift flashing streams...His courage was so unwavering that it seemed to be due to dullness of perception, as if he were only blindly bold."

Perhaps it is precisely because we are not strictly bound to our biological necessities that we have the passion for adventuring--however, for this very reason it is instead the dog, the "mere animal" that seems to have the best intuitive chance for survival under the conditions, and might make the best "little adventurers." 


An adventure is often more a test of endurance, mental or physical,  than anything else.  It doesn't matter if you have the greatest planning, preparation, or anything else if you are not hard enough to endure whatever you are facing.  And I truly believe that this hardness and ability to endure is something that is mental.  The will to survive is exactly that, a will, an internal mental process.  If that inner fortitude is at all tarnished it can make something as simple as getting out of bed the greatest challenge of a lifetime.  However, simple things like a smile from a friend or child who looks up to you can also make you confident enough that climbing Everest or jumping over a massive crevasse is as easy as putting on your socks.  It is that little bit of motivation and support that means absolutely everything in the face of adversity.
 I did not feel that Stickeen was about Muir or the dog.  I felt that it was about how important you can be to another individual if you take the time and effort to help them through a tough moment.  Muir did not have to save the little pup, but he did and gained a great companion for it.  During an adventure or an expedition everybody needs someone to say that everything is going to be alright to help them across that narrow ice bridge.  This story shows just how mentally daunting a solo trip can be.

Stickeen, the "little adventurer"

This is unrelated to my post, but somebody just showed me this video.  Check it out:

As I read the scene when Stickeen is stuck on the other side of the glacier, I started to realize that Stickeen is the most sympathetic "character" that we've read about so far.  Stickeen's "moaning and wailing"actually made my stomach hurt with worry.  Perhaps this is because, even though Muir describes Stickeen as a capable "little adventurer," his still seems defenseless and child-like.  Unlike the men and women's of previous narratives, Stickeen's thoughts and motives cannot be relayed to us through dialogue.  In some ways, this makes Stickeen more like-able because it is difficult for the reader to find fault in him.  Though Stuir personifies Stickeen, writing of "His looks and tone of voice," he is not described in the same way that a man would be.  For instance, Stuir writes, "The pitiful wanderer just stood there in the wind, drenched and blinking, saying doggedly, 'Where though goest I will go.'"  Here Muir portrays Stickeen as exhibiting a child-like dependency and loyalty.  This causes the reader to think of Stickeen as totally innocent and to feel fond and protective of the dog.

On another note, I was surprised by Muir's descriptions of nature.  I would expect Muir, as the founder of the Sierra Club, to focus more on the fragility of nature.  Instead, Muir, like the other authors we've read, describes nature as a powerful (and at times malevolent) force: "Nature, it seems, was at the bottom of the affair, and she gains her ends with dogs as well as with men, making us do as she likes, shoving and pulling us along her ways, however rough, all but killing us at times in getting her lessons driven hard home."  Muir seems to share a perspective similar to that of Jamling Norgay: Muir personifies nature just as Norgay personifies Mount Everest, and both men present these entities as characters in the texts.  These "characters" seem to act on their own volition, and they ultimately have a reason for their actions.  Muir writes that nature "all but kill[s] us at times in getting her lessons driven hard home."  So, was there a specific lesson learned that night?  Perhaps a lesson about camaraderie and co-dependency? The value of having a companion versus solo adventures?

Reconsidering Risks

Muir says that after the near accident, "Stickeen was a changed dog." However, Muir was also a changed man. Muir viewed Stickeen as "so perfectly human" and treated and interacted with him as if he were a boy. The two struggled with the near-perilous conditions together, and I found it interesting how much Muir was affected by Stickeen's boyish exhilaration after he made it past the crevasse. He was taken aback by the shift in Stickeen's demeanor from "so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy." I think in some ways Muir saw reflections of himself at a younger age in Stickeen's youthful glee at surviving, and was able to relate to the human-like and incredibly "passionate emotion" that Muir had surely experienced on previous expeditions and in other areas of life. Muir adopted the role of a parent in their relationship, and was the one who had to urge Stickeen on to put aside his joy and continue the journey. I think seeing some of himself in Stickeen put some of the risks Muir had taken (both in this adventure and others) into a bit of perspective--despite all of the risks that one takes in the backcountry, one is always capable of raw, boyish feelings. Muir says at the end that "through [Stickeen] as a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals." Involving another person in one's risks adds another element of reality, and Muir came face to face with the torturous emotions that this risk caused his new dog friend. As he said, "when [Stickeen] saw that I was certainly bent on crossing he cried aloud in despair. The danger was enough to haunt anybody." Muir realized that he can't put others in dangerous situations as freely as he puts himself in them because risk affects our innermost emotions and causes "big, wise fears" to surface. In other words, by seeing the emotional stress that Stickeen with through, Muir realized that he shouldn't so easily allow others to be involved in such risks. It's interesting that it took Muir thirty years to write this version of the story, and as the introduction points out, it was the "hardest thing he ever tried to write." I'm not exactly sure why, because this seems to be a fairly straightforward story, but my guess is that it has something to do with Muir's realizations that we are all human, after all, and have these innate, raw boyish emotions, so it caused him to reevaluate the freedom he used to employ in risk taking.

Monday, March 11, 2013


We've already seen the strength that hardship in the wilderness can endow to a partnership.  While some groups and expeditions fall apart following a harrowing event (ie. Forever on the Mountain and Into Thin Air), others become irrevocably closer and stronger, especially when they are partnerships.  Stickeen, like Touching the Void, describes a partnership that is tested and ultimately strengthened by the hardships imposed on them by Mother Nature.

At the beginning, Stickeen and Muir could hardly be described as friends.  Although Muir recognizes Stickeen to be an extraordinary dog - "However great his troubles he never asked help or made any complaint, as if, like a philosopher, he had learned that without hard work and suffering there could be no pleasure worth having" - and attempts to make his acquaintance, he also acknowledges and puzzles over Stickeen's independence: "Like children, most small dogs beg to be loved and allowed to love; but Stickeen seemed a very Diogenes, asking only to be left alone."  Stickeen does appear to demonstrate, even at this point, a preference for Muir's company; he follows Muir whenever he leaves to explore the landscape and even endures considerable pain at one point to follow Muir across a glacier.  Nevertheless, Stickeen maintains his distance from his partner: "No matter what advances you might make, scare a glance or a tail-wag would you get for your pains."  Thus, although they establish a partnership early in their journey, it remains tenuous.

The nature of the partnership between Muir and Stickeen changes completely following their trial at Glacier Bay.  Stickeen, whom Muir describes as completely fearless and able to treat glaciers as if they were "playgrounds," must trust Muir to get him safely across an extremely hazardous bridge across a crevasse.  Stickeen immediately recognizes the danger posed by the bridge and, according to Muir, frantically runs back and forth "in vain search for a way of escape," only to return to "the brink of the crevasse above the bridge, moaning and wailing as if in bitterness of death."  While Muir knows that Stickeen is a dog, he comes to view him as a "little boy" and his partner.  Consequently, he cannot bring himself to abandon his partner.  After successfully crossing the bridge, Muir actively encourages Stickeen to cross it and watches anxiously when he finally makes the attempt.  Muir even contemplates making a cord out of his clothing to drag Stickeen to safety, and he is clearly ecstatic when Stickeen makes it safely across the bridge.

Muir clearly sees the crevasse incident as a defining moment only for Stickeen, describing him as "a changed dog."  Their partnership, however, mutually changes both of them.  Following their time on the crevasse bridge, Stickeen, "instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine."  Muir also changes as a result of their partnership on the glacier: "Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals."  Thus, the Muir-Stickeen partnership should be considered one of mountaineerings greats next to that of Simpson and Yates and Ann and Liv.

Man's Best Friend

     John Muir's Stickeen tells the story of a man and his dog who bond over the hardships they endure on an Alaskan adventure.  Stickeen and John are not originally close.  John sees the dog as an "Other" (for lack of a better term), who he cannot relate to because he doesn't display fear.  It is not until Stickeen shows fear that John begins to feel close to him: "His looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy, and in trying to calm his fears perhaps in some measure moderated my own. "
     Muir's anthropocentric worldview is common to many of the narratives we have encountered so far.  The climbers, like John, relate to the mountains and other surroundings only through their narrowly constricted human-centered lens.  It is this lack of a broader vision that often gets them into trouble, as was the case with Rob Hall, who "took more from the mountain than he gave".

Natural Links

When I finished reading Stickeen, I started thinking about the pet culture. Granted, Muir does not keep Stickeen as a pet the way that many modern people keep pets, but the elements are the same. Animal domestication is an interesting aspect of our culture. We take little animals and bring them into our home, feeding them and sometimes treating them like our children.
All dogs, little Stickeen included, originated from wolves. Over the course of time, humans bred the desirable, somewhat more docile traits from wolves to create different breeds of dogs that exist today. Some dogs were bred with specific hunting or guarding traits, and some were specialized for herding.This is a great example of humans effectively taking something from nature and changing it to suit their growing needs.

I see dogs, Stickeen as a particular example, as being links between raw nature and the civilized human world. Many of the stories we have read present expeditions into nature as being something that allows an escape from reality. Many adventures seek out time in nature to rejuvenate, or to get in touch with their natural roots. It is possible that one reason why so many people like to have pets around is because they can be a constant bit of nature and the natural world that can fit into daily life.

In Muir's Stickeen, he even specifically says that "through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals." When Stickeen accompany's Muir and shares in his adventure, the ultimate outcome is that Muir has a deeper insight into the world, both in nature and in the strict human world. Stickeen seemed to somewhat link Muir even more effectively to his natural surroundings. As human as Stickeen could be, he also was very at home in the wilderness. He bridged the gap between humans and nature and helped Muir to do the same.

Fundamentally, I think this is one of the reasons why we bring cats and dogs and bunnies and lizards into our homes. On some level we can use them as a reminder of the great diversity of organisms that share the world as our home. A lot of them are cuddly too, which helps.

Mother Nature's Son

I really enjoyed this piece by Muir for two reasons: first of all it was short, sweet, and to the point; second, it was beautifully articulated. It put me in mind of early travel journals by explorers, with an extra sort of wisdom attached. I especially liked how Muir seemed particularly in touch with Nature, more so than any other adventurer we've read so far (with the possible exception of Norgay, though his connection is more to the spiritual side of Nature while Muir's is more to the physical). In the pivotal scene of the story, where Stickeen follows Muir out into the storm, Muir makes numerous reference to Nature's ability to be at once "beautiful an awful", and to "make us do anything she likes". He eventually accepts Stickeen accompanying him  because he recognizes that Stickeen too is under Nature's control, and that Nature must intend to teach them both a lesson.
Not only does Muir understand Nature's power and ability to control, but he also respects it. One of the footnotes to this story references another work by Muir (which Anna also references in a preceding post) in which he climbs to the top of a tree in the middle of a violent storm in order to "[study] the habits of the trees under such conditions"(footnotes). Muir also cautions within "Stickeen" that if travelers are "careful to keep in right relations with [storms], we may go safely abroad with them, rejoicing in the grandeur and beauty of their works and ways" (Muir). Thus, it is not Muir's intent to conquer Nature by surviving her storms, but to be educated by them. I feel like some of the other adventurers we've read could learn a lot from Muir, particularly those who are entirely focused on summiting (and equate this with conquering) the mountains without appreciating their treacherous beauty.

A Child's Adventure Dream

            I have to say, my first reaction at the end of Stickeen was relief because for some odd reason I was convinced that Stickeen was going to die, or get in some traumatic accident. I’m not sure if that simply stemmed from the title being “Stickeen” as, as commemorated a long lost friend. But I guess, at its essense, that’s exactly what Muir’s narrative does. We have talked a lot in class about how to define ‘adventure’. (actually we haven’t really discussed it much but we have talked about how we are going to talk about it quite a few times) Stickeen seemed to me almost more like an ideal adventure TV show for outdoorsy children.  But looking at the text objectively, there is no reason why this is not just as much an adventure as all the other texts we have read. Muir, solo aside from the beloved dog, gets in a near-death predicament, where one misstep could easily have led to his death and Stickeen’s either death or abandonment. So I tried to figure out why this text struck a different chord for me.
 I came to the conclusion that it was simply because of the truthful fantasy of a dog as “man’s best friend” since I was a little child. At least for me, books with animals are just more appealing. I guess it’s because we hope to read literature in order to understand or be transported to somewhere we would not otherwise be. The idea of obtaining the unattainable becomes very real in literature. Now here is a story with a relationship, unspoken yet very clear, between man and dog that is, in effect, true. Yes, we have discussed how we cannot take each of the writers’ words literally, because for all we know they could have made the whole thing up. But still, it’s a lot more truthful that Clifford.
At the end of the narrative, Muir states, “His (Stickeen’s) fate is wrapped in mystery. Doubtless he has left this world—crossed the last crevasse—and gone to another. But he will not be forgotten. To me Stickeen is immortal.” (Muir, 7) By writing this essay, Stickeen becomes immortal to readers too. But the interesting part is that Stickeen himself, not Muir nor the Glacier, becomes the legend. He is the equivalent of the Myolangsangma In Touching My Father’s Soul, except he is tangible; readers can compare him to their own dogs. All in all, to me, this was still an adventure narrative, but it changed my view on how I would describe adventure narratives. More than any other text we have read, this seemed not to matter where it took place, in fact I had to look back to see that it was in Alaska. Overall, this just made me miss my dogs. Every time I walk in the glen I think how they would be in paradise then. I wonder, though, how would my huge German Shepherd and little Golden Retriever do on a glacier?

Changing group dynamics and "Adventure as Art"

This is the second time I read “Stickeen” and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. Most of what I have read by Muir takes place in Yosemite, so it’s nice to read his perspective about a different location. When I’ve read his descriptions of the Sierras and of Yosemite, I am always struck by the profound connection to the particular landscape he describes, and how he goes about experiencing his surroundings. I remember one essay in which he describes climbing a sequoia tree in the middle of a thunderstorm so he could better experience the storm.  Muir describes a similar excursion in “Stickeen”: “When I heard the storm and looked out I made haste to join it; for many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms, and if careful to keep in right relations with them, we may go safely abroad with them, rejoicing in the grandeur and beauty of their works and ways.” In both stories I felt a bit surprised to read about going out and about in the midst of a storm. To be honest, I kind of prefer being in my tent or under a tarp when it’s raining, toasty warm and dry and listening to the pitter patter of the rain fall on the fly as I fall asleep. That is not to say that on occasion I don’t love running about in the rain and stomping in puddles every once in a while. But this latter scenario usually only occurs in the front country, when I know that should I get cold I can quickly dry off and change clothes. In the backcountry, however, there’s a question of how long the rain is going to last, and how long until your clothes are going to dry.

I enjoyed reading about the development of the relationship between Stickeen and Muir. After they both make their way across the crevasse, and Stickeen transitions from “the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy,” the two become inseperable. Muir writes, “Stickeen was a changed dog…instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine…And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, “Wasn’t that an awful time we had together on the glacier?” I was reminded of times leading trips when a particular difficulty, such as a hard section of trail, horrendous weather, spilling dinner, or an insane number of beaver dams creates a sense of solidarity within a group. It doesn’t always happen – sometimes temperatures run high and everyone becomes cranky and miserable, but occasionally the group community grows stronger because of such an event. Muir’s descriptions of Stickeen are quite different before and after their excursion out into the storm. At first he does not want the dog to join the expedition, and describes him as “a queer character.” In contrast, after their experience on the glacier, he writes, “I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen.” The change in how Muir writes about Stickeen reminds me of the changes that a group of people sometimes undergo when spending significant amounts of time together in the backcountry.

On a completely unrelated note, I saw a link on Facebook the other day that linked to a blog post that reminded me of our discussions regarding the definition of adventure so I thought I would pass it along. I have never heard of the author before, but exploring the idea of adventure as a type of art form was a concept that caught my attention. It’s an interesting idea, especially since both adventure and art can mean such different things to individual people. I didn’t particularly like the way it was written (some parts seem a bit over the top and cheesy), but I would be interested to hear what you all think about this particular perspective on the idea of adventure. 
Here’s the link: "Adventure as Art"

Man's Best Friend

The relationship between Stickeen and Muir couldn't help but remind me of the relationship between Simpson and Yates. In Muir's pairing, the nonverbal connection the two share is more overstated because one is a man and one is a dog. It was interesting to see the close bond these two shared despite the species barrier. Muir thought fondly of Stickeen and projected quite human characteristics onto him, comparing him to a little boy. Muir seems eerily akin to Simpson in the manner in which he guesses what his partner was thinking. "I can't carry you all day or feed you, and this storm will kill you." Much like Simpson in Touching the Void, Muir never shies away from the brutal facets of their adventure. He knows that there are times that may arises where one partner must forsake the other in order to survive. This connection they share is more than just friendship. It is two halves of the same conscious, that check each other when one is about to do something dangerous. "Surely, you are not going into that awful place," Stickeen says plaintively as he looks into the crevasse. Muir muses, "The danger was enough to haunt anybody, but it seems wonderful that he should have been able to weight and appreciate it so justly." He marvels at the skill of his partner, much like Simpson did with Yates.

The bond between the two is intensified because Stickeen defies Muir's initial expectations. At the beginning of the story, Muir describes him as a "little helpless creature". After assurance by his master, Muir relents and brings him along. From the onset of the journey, Muir seems critical of Stickeen, calling him a "queer character". Muir has to admit that despite the dog's idleness, he was always ready and willing to explore. He does hold doubt over the purpose of Stickeen's involvement on the trip. How much use could a little dog be? It seems that Muir thought he would be a liability and a burden. Muir was wrong. Stickeen proves himself to be poised and reliable on his exploits, being an admirable and contemplative companion that warns Muir of danger. Muir grows more fondly of Stickeen, exclaiming, "But poor Stickeen, the wee, hairy, sleekit beastie, think of him!" Muir becomes emotionally attached an empathetic toward this nonhuman character. By the end of the story he admits, "I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion, but none do I owe so much as to Stickeen." This relationship between Muir and Stickeen could be the result of their tumultuous journey through the hardships of nature. Nature is cold, unforgiving and overwhelming. Despite being of different species, Man and dog fought alongside each other to survive and adventure.

Mountains Foster…

Muir’s Stickeen shows that the glacier nightmare the narrator endured with the dog, Stickeen, fostered a bond between the two that later made them inseparable. Muir described sharing glances with Stickeen that spoke of a private understanding of what they had gone through, indicating a unique and unbreakable bond. On the other hand, Tabor’s Forever on the Mountain gave an account of mighty dissension in the ranks of the twelve expeditioners before they even arrived at the base of McKinley. I’ve only reached the beginning of Part 2, where Steve has fallen ill just before the approach, but Muir writes “‘This would be a good opportunity to melt the icy bubble that seemed to surround the Colorado group.’ / Unfortunately, bubbles of ice, with their sharp edges and frozen cores, do not succumb easily.” (pg 75) I’m curious to see a further account of the group dynamics on McKinley as the story goes on, but from my own personal experience, being in a close-quarters, extreme situation tends to bring people closer and build trust, as Muir experienced with the dog. I was surprised at reading the opposite in Tabor’s book (despite several minutes of searching, I was unable to locate the quote, but it’s before page 75 somewhere) in which it was asserted that the high-altitude, no-escape situation the men were in tended to bring out the worst in them and foster anger, resentment, and mistrust instead. I admit confusion on this point, and I’m not convinced yet. Although, the way the expedition started out was not promising and I tend to think that Joe Wilcox shouldn’t have allowed it to go forward with so little social meshing. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dog or boy?

While I do appreciate all animals, I do not consider myself a “dog person”. I have no desire to own a dog in the future and struggle to comprehend some people’s bizarre obsessions with their own animals. For these reasons, among others, I found Muir’s “Stickeen” generally enjoyable to read but his descriptions of the dog a bit humorous.

My first grade Sunday school teacher once told me that animals do not have souls. I woefully thought of my dog and cat back home and their apparent lack of both cognitive abilities and personalities. I highly doubted the assertion at age 7 and today still believe that animals possess a more complex level of mental processes than they are often attributed.  That being said, I still find the attribution of strictly human-like traits and abilities to animals slightly absurd.

Throughout Muir’s “Stickeen”, Muir openly describes his affinity and admiration for his canine companion. He writes, “The little adventurer was only about two years old, yet nothing seemed to novel him. Nothing daunted him. He showed neither caution nor curiosity, wonder nor fear, but bravely trotted on as if glaciers were playgrounds.” Later in the text, however, Muir’s tendency to speak to the dog slightly annoyed me. He admits, “For we had been close companions on so many wilderness trips that I had formed the habit of talking to him as if he were a boy and understood every word.”

Not only does Muir attribute to Stickeen the capacity of comprehending the human language, but he also assigns the dog words of his own. While evaluating the safety of a dangerous ice bridge, Muir tells how Stickeen “began to mutter and whine; saying as plainly as if speaking with words, ‘Surely, you are not going into that awful place’.” Muir responds, “His looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy, and in trying to calm his fears perhaps in some measure moderated my own. ‘Hush your fears, my boy,’ I said, ‘we will get across safe’”. He goes on to recount the dog’s vast emotional transformation, beginning with cries of despair and ending in grateful trembling and sobbing at his survival.

I don’t mean to demean Muir’s meaningful relationship with Stickeen during such transformative times in his life. I certainly grant animals the capacity for such emotions as bravery, despair, and elation, but I found Muir’s eventual characterization of Stickeen as a young boy slightly irritating. If anything, this tendency reveals the significance of companionship during expedition and adventure.