“During my three seasons at Mount Rainier I learned a lot about mountain climbing and rescues, about politics and camaraderie in the mountains, and about what being a woman climber means. Now I know in all certainty when to bring my toothbrush and when to leave it at home, and, all things considered, that kind of confidence is hard to come by. The greatest skill I ever had, though, was the one I started with: being able to suffer for long periods of time and not die. In exchange, I got to see some amazing things.”
Bree Loewen’s memoir, Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier, is a departure from my usual reviews here. You few “regulars” know that this blog is focused very much on the Pulitzer Prize winning novels (we’re currently in the late 1920s, but pushing onward) and, every Friday, on a little poetry from the year I’m “reading”. But I felt really compelled to review this modern non-fiction book about Bree’s work as a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier because A) I’ve known Bree for about 19 years, and she’s been a great friend to me, B) I think it’s worth remembering that non-fiction can do (and often does) all the things that a good novel can do, and C) I really loved her book, and I’m hoping this convinces you to read it.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I picked up Bree’s book yesterday — I’ve known Bree’s talent for writing since we were both kids, but that was mostly poetry, and I haven’t kept up with her career writing occasionally for magazines about mountaineering, etc. What I found was a really gripping account of the pains and perils (and fleeting joys) of her life as a climbing ranger in her early 20s. I couldn’t put it down.
I’ll admit, I have a bit of a penchant for non-fiction memoirs, and ever since my first harrowing read of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, I’ve had a minor fascination with the dangerous lives of mountain climbers. What I really loved about the book is the way that Bree pulls you into her life to feel the relentlessness of it, the strain of just wanting to get back to a semi-warm place to sleep after a night on the mountain, and the inevitable call an hour or two later that has her pulling wet boots back onto her injured feet, and getting herself back out onto the trail undersupplied, underequipped, and about ready to drop. The pain and the stress are keenly felt enough so that I, like her, could enjoy those brief moments when the sun came out, when there was an uninterrupted hour of sleep, when someone finally crested the ridge carrying the necessary supplies for the crisis at hand.
There is a brutal honesty to the book. Horrible injuries are described simply as the (apparently) commonplace occurrences they were. Bree doesn’t spare herself at all—though the whole story is from her perspective and seen through the veil of her experience, she doesn’t flinch away from relating moments I know she isn’t proud of. As the stories progress, a picture develops of the slightly crazy situation climbing rangers are in, or at least were in on Mount Rainier five years ago—how budget, public relations, and personality conflicts consistently endanger safety and common sense.
But this isn’t some Nader-esque “expose”—you won’t feel you’re reading a “60 Minutes” interview with a climbing ranger whistleblower. Bree tells the truth about what happened on the mountain, but the stories aren’t there to attack others. She’s exploring what it was like to be 24 and a climbing ranger—how her philosophies of life held up as she dealt with the daily work on the mountain, and who she found herself to be in the end. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that I wanted even more of that reflection, that self-awareness, to surface as I read her story. But I think one of the crucial things about her story is how physical her life had to become—she doesn’t talk as much about reflection because, when you have another 2,000 feet to climb and you can barely feel your toes or see straight, contemplation isn’t even an option. As someone who has probably never felt that kind of exhaustion, I really marveled at how much the book helped me feel it vicariously, until I could understand the seemingly trance-like state a climber has to enter in order to survive and find their way to the journey’s end.
There’s a lot more I could comment on—the memoir is also a look into the frank sexism of the ranger culture Bree encountered, a sometimes meditative encounter with a very harsh natural landscape, and for a time, a first-person account of what it is like to be, not a rescuer, but a climber in need of rescuing (and one who was probably very close to serious injury or even death from the cold). I am an undeniably biased reader here, but I’d happily stake my admittedly tiny reputation as a blogger and a reviewer of books on the fact that this is a book worth reading. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (what book is?), but I hope in describing it I’ve encouraged at least a few of you to track it down. Thanks for reading this little departure of mine!