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Imaginary Peaks: A Book Review

By Dave Butler

“To a large extent, a mountain is a mountain because of the part it plays in the popular imagination.”

American geographer Robert Peattie

When I was growing up, enchanted by all things outdoors, the name Harvey Manning was synonymous with Pacific Northwest guidebooks and what was then (and still is) a bible for many outdoor enthusiasts -- Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

However, until reading Katie Ives’ wonderful new book Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams, I was ignorant of the role that Manning played in a clever hoax perpetrated on the mountaineering community in June of 1962. In that month’s issue of Summit magazine, readers saw an unattributed article describing the adventures of three Austrian climbers. It was accompanied by a dramatic black-and-white image of peaks that were unlike any that North American climbers had ever seen. The photo caption described the “unclimbed summit of Mount Riensenstein (sic), approximately 8,100 feet, near Prince Rupert in British Columbia. It can be reached in two days by bushwhacking up the Klawatti River.”

The article left its readers with a single challenge, punctuated by a tantalizing question mark: “who will be the first to climb it?”

At its heart, Imaginary Peaks is a biography of three men known for their off-beat humour -- Harvey Manning, Ed LaChappelle and Austin Post – and an exploration into the reasons behind, and results of their hoax. While the world of mountaineering and climbing is full of tall tales and exaggerated exploits, the three men’s article describing the unclimbed peak in remote coastal British Columbia led some mountaineers to doubt that such a mountain existed, while it sent others off on wild summit chases that ended in disappointment and frustration.

For Manning in particular, the hoax was a natural result of his increasing concern about how the mountaineering community seemed to care more about bagging peaks and grabbing headlines than it did about the special, wild places where mountains exist. He was turning a mirror on that community, on its greed and longing, on its seemingly pretentious race to first ascents and glory and admiration, on its growing perception that summits were prizes to be won. It also reflected Manning’s own shift toward conservation, toward a deeper understanding that being in the mountains was more about camaraderie and honest delight in sharing the beauty of the natural world.

However, with incredible skill, impressive research, and lyrical writing that encourages readers to pause, appreciate and ponder, Ives – who has an MFA from the Iowa’s Writers Workshop and is editor-in-chief at Alpinist magazine -- blends history, geography and human psychology into a captivating story that goes well beyond biography.

Imaginary Peaks uses the Riesenstein article to illuminate how humans have viewed mountain landscapes and unknown spaces (terra incognita) through history, and how those often-frightening places played – and continue to play -- a role in our collective imagination.

Recognizing the critical move to reconciliation with First Nations (particularly in Canada), Ives also notes the tendency of stories and maps created by climbers and mountaineers to erase prior knowledge and world views of local and Indigenous peoples. She suggests that terra miscognita is a much better phrase to highlight the failures of explorers through history to acknowledge that others had been there for thousands of years and had developed their own names and trails and stories.

In Imaginary Peaks, Ives also speaks to humankind’s deep-seated love of maps, and the challenge we had – at least until the advent of GPS satellites and Google Maps and hand-held navigation devices – of accurately depicting a three-dimensional landscape in two dimensions. Ives digs deep into the notion that maps are as much about what is not there, and how we are losing the art of getting lost. However, given the changes in technology we’ve experienced over time, she also poses intriguing questions about whether the same kind of geographic hoax perpetrated by Manning and his colleagues would be possible today.

Toward the end of Imaginary Peaks, Ives honours her readers with her own ruminations:

“I think it is still possible to find places beyond the gridlines of longitude and latitude or the furrows of contour intervals and marked boundaries. Even the most sophisticated modern cartographers can’t capture all the infinite complexities of ice and stone. They can’t fully express the changes with time or the vagaries of our own emotions and perceptions. … Yet by comparing physical and imagined geographies, we can remember that there are other reasons for approaching mountains besides those of conquest, appropriation, and possession. And we can ask ourselves what it might mean to unmake the maps. To search for everything that escaped from them – and everything that only seemed to be lost.”

“Once you begin to look for imaginary peaks, you start to see them everywhere; each furrow of crag and hill has its own local myths; each square of map conceals forgotten phantom heights. Each human mind contains innumerable ranges, speaking like starlight and like snow.”

Imaginary Peaks is a marvelous book, an enchanting, delightful surprise on many levels. It begins with a single, well-crafted hoax but goes deeper, offering a thought-provoking treatise on mountains and myths in the human imagination. It is a wonderful story, well-told, a must-read for anyone who spends time in the mountains, or dreams of doing so.

Imaginary Peaks; The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams

By Katie Ives © 2021

Published by Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA

ISBN (hardcover) 978-1-68051-541-1

(*thanks to Mountaineers Books and Katie Ives for a copy of the book to support this review*)

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