Sometimes I mistake clouds for mountains. After several years of absorbing the Northwest landscape, where peaks frame the horizon like reliable fixtures, my subconscious now imprints sharp topography where there is none, especially in flatter parts of the world. Most recently, I recall standing on my grandparents’ balcony in Virginia with a view of the Chesapeake Bay, wondering for a brief moment when a massive, snowcapped range popped up on the Delmarva Peninsula. (Highest point: Stillpond Neck, 102 feet above sea level.)

Katie Ives, editor-in-chief at Alpinist magazine, is no stranger to this phenomenon. “I’ve had these recurring dreams since childhood of a nonexistent giant peak in my own backyard,” Ives said via phone from her home in Vermont.

More

Ives elaborates on that dream in her new book “Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams,” (Mountaineers Books, $26.95) which she will discuss in conversation with Seattle Met’s Allison Williams at Town Hall on Nov. 10. 

“Physical summits also seep into the geographies of our unconscious, where their contours elicit longings we might not otherwise have felt. Some regions of my own dream peak are patchworks of places I’ve been: a shiver of grassland from eastern Mongolia, a murk of hemlocks from behind my childhood home, a cloud-slashed upper ice world in the North Cascades,” she writes. “For many climbers, at times both unexpected and ecstatic, boundaries between outer and inner worlds seem to dissolve.”

In an outdoors scene seemingly saturated with high-tech athleticism like pursuits of fastest known time (FKT) records, Ives’ embrace of the mystical and mythopoetic nature of mountains reads like an antidote to FKT culture. An accomplished climber herself who still relies on paper maps, eschews GPS and certainly does not have a Strava account, Ives found a kindred spirit in a beloved if cantankerous Northwest figure: author and conservationist Harvey Manning.

Specifically, Ives found herself entranced by the Riesenstein Hoax. In 1962, Manning along with co-conspirators Austin Post and Ed LaChapelle, both seminal figures in Northwestern mountaineering history, posed as a trio of Austrian climbers and wrote a fictitious submission to the editors of Summit magazine describing a fantastical mountain range in British Columbia. Replete with photos, their account of climbing amid awe-inspiring granite spires ended with a failure to reach the summit. The editors, seemingly hoodwinked by the ruse (though Ives later speculates they may have been in on the joke), ran the piece with a provocative caption: “Who will be the first to climb it?”

Advertising

In an era of voracious peakbagging to claim first ascents, the alpinists of the 1960s salivated over the prospects of putting up a new route in the heretofore unknown Riesenstein Range. Doubt quickly spread, however, and the climbing community eventually ferreted out that the photos were in fact real, but their geography had been faked. The granite walls in question were the Kichatna Spires of Alaska, which famed climber Royal Robbins described as “Yosemite meets the North Pole.”

Ives first came across the Riesenstein Hoax in 2011 in Ways to the Sky: A Historical Guide to North American Mountaineering.” Author Andy Selters moves on after a few paragraphs, but the story stuck with Ives. She corresponded with the only hoaxer still living — Post, a Vashon Island resident — and wrote an essay for Alpinist. (In a later essay she covered another Manning hoax, that of imaginary No Name Peak in the North Cascades.)

“I continued to be haunted by the story and wanted to know more about why it was that these imaginary mountains were so appealing,” Ives said. “Not only to the people caught up in the hoax, but in general to people across cultures.”

Indeed, Ives’ book reads like two. The first half is an extended soliloquy on the role of imagined and imaginary mountains from the ancient world to the present. Everyone, it seems, has this premonition in common: early Chinese writers, Greek philosophers, medieval European cartographers, Persian geographers, Tibetan monks. The second half is a more straightforward account of the various expeditions that sought to climb the enigmatic Kichatnas, though that story comes with its own set of characters whose experiences border on the supernatural realm.

Woven throughout is an oblique biography of Manning, Seattle-born and largely Bainbridge Island-raised, who first fell in love with the mountains as a Boy Scout at Marmot Pass in the 1930s and who dedicated his life to a sometimes contradictory mission of both encouraging outdoor recreation and protecting wild places.

Manning, who died in 2006, has yet to be the subject of a formal biography, though his “Walking the Beach to Bellingham” is an elliptical autobiography of sorts. “He writes it so that no one can follow his path,” Ives said. “I compare him to writers of pilgrimage narratives. Not trying to guide people from point A to B, but rather to guide people to a particular point of mind.”

Advertising

Ives, who studied literature at Harvard and earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, shares Manning’s penchant for nonlinear storytelling. “Imaginary Peaks” conjures the same dreamlike head space of literary moments like Hans Castorp wandering in a whiteout in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” or Col. Allen Forrester crossing a mountain pass in Eowyn Ivey’s “To the Bright Edge of the World.”

While Manning edited several editions of The Mountaineers’ seminal mountaineering textbook “The Freedom of the Hills” and authored a raft of guidebooks for walks and hikes around the Northwest, Ives situates the University of Washington graduate in a literary legacy that stretches back to early-Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch, whose 1350 account of ascending Mont Ventoux is widely considered the first modern piece of writing about recreational climbing.

“Harvey himself read voraciously, and when you read through his published and unpublished work, you see a lot of allusions to past literature,” said Ives, who sifted through the 126 boxes of Manning papers preserved at the University of Washington. “His writing was an odd mixture of the very lyrical and the very satirical. He was definitely influenced by this larger history and strange topography of nonexistent and fabulous ranges that helped influence his imagination.” 

The snippets of Manning’s advocacy that shine through “Imaginary Peaks” foretell a thinker ahead of his time. Manning preached the use of public transportation to reach hiking destinations in the 1980s, decades before King County finally got on board and launched Trailhead Direct. Like a climate change Cassandra, he foresaw the impact of a warming planet on the state’s glaciers that so captivated him in his youth long before Greta Thunberg went on a school strike.

“You can see [Manning’s] legacy in the extraordinary amount of green space preserved near Seattle,” said Ives, pointing to his role alongside fellow conservationists in lobbying for North Cascades National Park (see “The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland”) or coining the term Issaquah Alps, which prompted large swaths of Cougar, Squak and Tiger mountains to be preserved as the havens of forested trail they remain today. “Harvey’s contribution to those bigger efforts was a literary one: He was trying to create a constituency of conservationists and politicians through compelling writing,” Ives said.

While Manning appears in many stages of life in “Imaginary Peaks,” Ives returns frequently to the image of Manning tapping furiously at his typewriter — he would never own a computer and one can only imagine his reaction to the impact of social media on wild places — in his Cougar Mountain home. Yet for all his prodigious wordsmithing, one simple mantra emerges that perhaps accounts for how Manning could encapsulate both an encyclopedic knowledge of the Puget Sound and the Cascades alongside a vivid imagination crafting new worlds out of maps and photos: “To make your world larger, go slower.”

Author Event

Katie Ives with Allison Williams

Ives will speak about her new book with Seattle Met’s Allison Williams at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 10, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; tickets $5; 206-652-4255, townhallseattle.org

More