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The Great Sierra Nevada Unconformity

AE_LitDaniel Arnold’s ‘Early Days in the Range of Light’ goes back in time to discover, firsthand, the early mountaineers
The premise is simple, the execution grand. Take nearly a dozen or so early pioneers of California mountaineering and tread in the echoes of their bootsteps. Follow them up the peaks that defined them, separated only by time itself. Sounds easy, right?

Almost forgot to mention: No Gore-tex, GPS or nylon ropes allowed. If these early mountaineers went solo, so shall you. If they had to roll their meager possessions up into a blanket and tie it off with an old rope as Clarence King did, then you too will leave your backpack at home. Like John Muir, you will chase away hunger with bread crusts and tea. As for maps … what maps? You will bed atop a layer of dead pine needles, shivering under the stars and storms without a tent. With the invention of DEET still decades away, mosquitoes will sing you to sleep. And you will come to know the Sierra like you have never known it before.

This is, in part, Daniel Arnold’s “Early Days in the Range of Light: Encounters with Legendary Mountaineers” (Counterpoint, 432 pages, $28). High above timberline, Arnold deftly nudges the legends of the Sierra into the present, bringing forth their sepia-toned accounts into sharp, colorful focus. Here, in about the only place left in California to have resisted civilization’s broad reach, Arnold goes back in time, reenacting their first ascents in the same style, using the same equipment—or, in most cases, the lack of.

Beginning with William Brewer’s 1864 ascent of Mount Brewer in the Southern Sierra, Arnold weaves the narratives of Clarence King, John Muir, Bolton Brown, Joseph LeConte, James Hutchinson, Francis Farquhar, Charles Michael, Ernest Clayton Andrews, and Norman Clyde with his own accents of peaks that, as he writes, “… climbers would lose sleep over in the nights before an attempt and look back afterward with pride.”

AElit_EarlyDaysCVRArnold, 29, says the idea was sparked when he was 18, climbing the walls of Yosemite and the backcountry peaks of the Sierra. Soon after graduating from Stanford with a degree in philosophy, Arnold headed for the hills, living up to expectations of his major in a talus cave in Yosemite. “The general impulse for the project had been rattling around in my head for years,” he says. “I remember picking up little snippets of stories about Charles Michael and Bolton Brown when I first started climbing. Right away I wanted to know more. Who were these guys?  How come no one talked about them?  I couldn't believe that a whole generation of bold soloists—or maybe proto-soloists? —had been all but forgotten.”

While the Sierra was snowbound, Arnold hunkered down in various Bay Area libraries reading letters, journals and books.  “When I was in research-mode,” Arnold says, “I'd show up at the door of the Bancroft (Library at UC Berkeley) right when they opened and only leave when they threw me out at the end of the day.” Working on his master of fine arts degree in creative writing at San Jose State University, Arnold began the book in earnest. When the snow melted he headed back into the high country. He wandered as close to the narrative shadows of his lowland research as he could while stepping boldly into the Sierra light with his own story, told with tremendous heart. It was a balancing act that took nearly fours years and, in the process, one in which he was thoroughly humbled.

But mountains tend to humble an individual on a regular basis. Climbers know they must pass over the terrain with as much style and grace as they can muster. So too, with Arnold, which partly explains why he doesn’t so much bookend the early mountaineers with his own story, but strolls causally into his own book, deferring time and again to the pure audacity and immense talent of the early climbers.

“It's worth pointing out that uncertainty plays a huge role in a climber's impression of the difficulty of a climb,” Arnold says.  “I'm sure that if I went back to (Francis) Farquhar's route on Middle Palisade it would be easier the second time. But for the original climbers everything was uncertain. They had no idea what was above them in the mountains, and they really didn't even have a good measure of their own capacities.  On each new climb they made it up as they went along. It was the anti-SuperTopo era.”

Happily, Arnold has much to add to the early narratives. Through nimbly channeling these early mountaineering experiences with his own modern-day sensibilities, he retains an awareness of the 19th century sublime that seeps effortlessly into his own writing. This is not to say Arnold writes in a bushy prose style a la John Muir. Rather, the time spent digesting the legends in the lowlands and the years spent in the high country under their echoing care has clearly forged its way into his consciousness.

Taking off through the woods to follow John Muir’s path up Mount Ritter, Arnold takes only a tin cup and three small pieces of bread in a canvas shopping bag slung over his shoulder. Twelve miles in he encounters a couple of incredulous backpackers, huffing under 50-pound packs. They demand to know where he is going and Arnold doesn’t have the heart to tell them. He presses on. Nightfall finds Arnold spooning a whitebark pine in the vicinity of “chateau-Muir,” wilderness abodes that John ‘o the Mountains exuberantly described as “snug as squirrel-nests, well-ventilated, full of spicy odors, and with plenty of wind-played needles to sing one to sleep.”  Cold, alone, and wondering how Muir survived, let alone romanticized his adventures, Arnold settles in for the long night.

Muir, he muses in “Early Days in the Range of Light,” seemed incapable of finding fault, no matter how slight, with any aspect of the Sierra. “In theory I agree with him—it is the human being who inhabits the imperfect form and who should try to live up to the mountains—but in practice, on a breezy evening at eleven thousand feet with a cold night ahead, I could use less philosophy and more insulation.”

Despite the hardships he suffers to penetrate the world of the early mountaineers, Arnold is quick to point out that he had some advantages over the pioneers. “My hands,” he writes, “have the benefit of a century’s worth of experimentation passed down the line by one climber to the next.” Arnold is an accomplished rock climber and can easily solo (climbing without rope or hardware) moderate routes. With rope, climbing hardware, and sticky rubber shoes he can push into vertical territory the early climbers would no doubt have deemed out of the realm of possibility. “It's hard to know exactly what would happen if you gave Charles Michael or Jules Eichorn a modern rope and some climbing shoes,” he says. “My guess is they'd be leading 5.10, if not 5.11, in no time.”

Still, throughout the book, Arnold finds that the purity and simplicity of the legendary mountaineers suits him just fine. Long before “fast and light” was a buzzword of the backpacking and climbing set, these bold mountaineers were lighting out for days and weeks at a time with little to protect them from the elements, but also little to interfere with their experience. Arnold tells me that half the joy of mountaineering is the physical and mental act of climbing; the other half the stories that come from these climbs. Bringing too much technology into wilderness, he says, makes the climbing easier but also ruins the stories.

“Devices that remove uncertainty from a climb reduce a climber's reliance on his or her own brains and hands,” Arnold says, “and that makes the climber more passive and the story less interesting.  For the majority of us who aren't elite alpinists, all that really matters are the stories we have to tell.

And that, without putting too fine a point on it, is exactly what happens in his “Early Days in the Range of Light.”


Dan Arnold will read from his book on Monday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415.
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