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.

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