Washington, in what is now the state of New Hampshire. According to John Winthrop's journal, colonial settler Darby Field and his unnamed Abenaki guides canoed inland from the mouth of the Saco River. At an Abenaki village near the base of the peak, Field hired more guides. Around eight miles from the top, most of the party stopped, and Field and his original guides continued through a layer of dense clouds to a broad and stony summit. After gazing north into a seemingly fathomless chasm, Field cut pieces of glasslike mica to take back.
A month later, he made a second ascent. Not much more is known about Field, as Maurice Isserman points out in his book, Continental Divide ; historians have long debated Field's motivations. But Field is named, and he remains the protagonist of most published stories of the ascent.
Colonial accounts left no record of the names or desires of his Abenaki guides. Winthrop insisted that Abenaki people were reluctant to accompany Field because they were afraid. Rhonda Besaw, a modern Abenaki artist, explains a more complex view, "We believe that [the mountain] is where the spirits reside, quite a powerful place which should not be disturbed. Well into the nineteenth century, other Indigenous guides led explorers and recreational climbers over passes and occasionally summits in many North American ranges.
An unnamed "Indian of the Penobscots" appears in William Clark Larrabee's account of an geological expedition to Katahdin, reprinted in the Appalachia. The party had left behind the last shelter of the krummholz trees, scrambling over steep bare rocks, even as clouds swept up the mountain flanks and covered the summit in a dark mist.
From the top, as Larrabee began to descend into a whiteout, the Penobscot man called him back—Larrabee had been about to wander off a cliff.
Noting the coming blizzard and his clients' determination to ignore it , the guide had steadily placed cairns to mark the way back. In Maine Woods , during his own venture north, Massachusetts philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote of meeting one Penobscot man, Louis Neptune, who had taken several white visitors to the top of Katahdin, each time leaving an offering for Pamola, a spirit rendered angry by ascents. It was likely, Thoreau surmised, that Neptune had accompanied the geological expedition.
To him and to other Penobscot hunting and trekking guides Thoreau met, the land was not a desolate or sublime empty wasteland.
Crisscrossed with familiar pathways, the forests and waters teemed with old names and stories as abundant as the rocks, the stars and the leaves. So much of mountaineering literature deals with notions of priority. Climbers who make first recorded ascents often assert the right to name—or rename—a peak. Wanderers in search of struggle or communion with "the wild" frequently long for "pure" landscapes, free from signs of human passage, "a manuscript written by the hand of Nature alone," as John Muir liked to envision it.
In The Mountains of California , Muir recounted his restless dreams in a Sierra canyon as night currents of wind streamed between sharp summits, blending "strange tones" with the thunder of waterfalls. Earlier that day, he'd come across a group of Mono people on a rocky pass. Now, the memory of their presence felt to him discomfortingly close.
It was not, of course, in the real mountains that the Mono had no place; it was merely in a particular imaginary geography of wilderness that took shape in his and other mountaineering writers' minds, one that had no room for original inhabitants. Geography professor Carolyn Finney in Black Faces, White Spaces , describes how "the dominant environmental narrative in the United States is primarily constructed and informed by white, Western European, or Euro-American voices," often muting perspectives of different historical groups in the mountains, from black regiments of Buffalo Soldiers who once served in Yosemite, to Chinese workers who built the railways early climbers took to the West, to Indigenous people displaced from homelands and spiritual sites.
By recalling more diverse heritages of the American outdoors, she explains, we might better understand the variety of "motivations, perceptions, and challenges to environmental engagement in the present. In recent years, as growing numbers of outdoor writers and activists recount stories of underrepresented groups amid the peaks and canyons of the US, they are also highlighting and retracing some of the multitudinous contour lines—overlapping, contrasting or merging—of what a mountain country can mean to each person.
In her memoir , Harper's grandniece described the snow that sifted down the mountainsides on the late October night when Harper and his bride Frances Wells left the port of Skagway.
Thick flakes dissolved in the dark waters, while the north wind blew from icy summits far beyond. Soon after, they were lost in a shipwreck. Of Koyukon people, Harper-Haines wrote, "They knew when they died their spirits would return to the headwaters of the Yukon, as their ancestors had promised. Decades later, Harper's niece Yvonne Mozee composed a preface for the publication of his diary, "It's just a small, rather beat-up, once-blue notebook," she recounted, "perhaps intended for accounts, with vertical red lines like a mini-ledger.
The pages are bound with top stitching, and the cover's layers are peeling apart I wonder where it traveled on that climb. In Walter's hip pocket? But the lore of mountaineering is filled with countless other names muted in histories and maps, stories written in lost journals, passed down in oral tradition, preserved in only rare and out-of-print books.
A cartographer might indeed create numerous categories of silences, some chosen, some imposed. That quiet, however, is merely an illusion.
Behind it, there have always been so many heard and unheard voices—like the notes of birds resounding through the falling snow. With thanks to Colin G.
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