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  • Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes by O. Alan Weltzien
  • Jeff L. Smoot
O. Alan Weltzien, Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2016. 246 pp. Cloth, $40.

The volcanoes of the Cascade Range rise like exclamation points above the landscape and psyche of the Pacific Northwest. While some people are content to gaze on them from afar, others seek to experience them more intimately. Like so many Pacific North-westerners, O. Alan Weltzien was drawn to the summits of the snowpeaks, a pilgrimage made by thousands of seekers annually. In Exceptional Mountains he explores their cultural history, the conflicting ideals of outdoor recreation, preservation, and consumerism, and the environmental impacts that have resulted from accelerating development and visitation.

Weltzien, a professor of English at University of Montana–Western, opens with a poem, "The Snowpeaks," quoting a line [End Page 369] from "The Climb" by Zen poet Gary Snyder: "West Coast snowpeaks are too much!" This brings to mind another Snyder poem, "At Tower Peak":

Every tan rolling meadow will turn into housingFreeways are clogged all dayAcademies packed with scholars writing papers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .It's just one world, this spine of rock and streamsAnd snow, and the wash of gravels, siltsSands, bunchgrasses, saltbrush, bee-fields,Twenty million human people, downstream, here below.

(No Nature, 1992)

Snyder's poem seems to anticipate Weltzien's argument: Our most exceptional mountains are, like Snyder's freeways, now clogged all day, their meadows paved over by parking lots and visitor centers; the twenty million human people have not stayed downstream; resource managers and users—especially climbers—need to do something about it.

Each of the book's chapters explores, in text and historical photos, the attraction of humans to the volcanoes through a different lens—historical, literary, spiritual, commercial, and environmental—offering an insightful study of why we are drawn to the snowpeaks. We've been lured there by the rhapsodic writing of the likes of John Muir and Snyder, the "language of religious transformation" promising the renewal, even rebirth, of climbers (25). Climbing volcanoes is cool; being near them, but especially on their summits, elevates our perceived status, makes us feel special. This sense of "alpine cool" has been commodified by the outdoor industry, further increasing traffic. Still others come in the name of preservation, on a mission to save the snowpeaks. Under all of these influences, mountaineering has morphed into a mass sport; more than two million people visit Mount Rainier National Park each year, and more than ten thousand annually try to climb "the Mountain." Increased use and accessibility have resulted in overcrowding, traffic jams, litter, and unsanitary waste disposal, which [End Page 370] inhibit or destroy the transformative experience sought by those who come in droves to find it there.

In a scene familiar to many volcano climbers, Weltzien recalls how the presence of a dog on Mount Baker's summit transformed his wilderness experience into "a commonplace urban scene" (1), exemplifying our increasing "tendency to treat these notable peaks as extensions of urban space" (58) and, as the old cliché goes, loving our mountains to death in the process.

If we want to preserve the volcanoes as both recreational mecca and spiritual retreat, Weltzien argues, we must change our habits when visiting or climbing, and management policy must be revised to provide "urban solutions to what is primarily and ironically an urban dilemma" (70). That is, of course, a big "if." The newest generation of volcano seekers tends to be status oriented, hyperconnected, highly social, and may not be seeking the same sense of solitude and spiritual regeneration as their predecessors were. The new generation may even expect or desire a more urban, connected experience than old climbers like Weltzien and I might seek. Because of this, Weltzien concedes that "viable alternatives are hard to imagine, let alone implement" (71). Perhaps not unexpectedly, then, his suggested solutions—"maybe" we need quotas, amendment of wilderness principles, and so on—seem to fall short. The permit system in place on Mount St. Helens since 1987 seems to be achieving the results Weltzien argues for...


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pp. 369-372
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