Continental Divide: A History of American Mountaineering

The Teton Range in Wyoming has been
drawing mountaineers since the late 1800s.

In 1642, Darby Field, a resident of what is now New Hampshire, climbed White Hill, known by local Indians as Agiocochook and by moderns as Mount Washington, the highest mountain in New England. Others in the Massachusetts Bay Colony thought Field daft for climbing a mountain. It just wasn’t something people did.

“Following his death in 1649, it was remarked that his was a life of ‘merriness marred by insanity,’” writes Maurice Isserman in Continental Divide: A History of American Mountaineering, a scholarly work that covers the exploits of mountain climbers from Field’s unusual adventure on Agiocochook to an American team’s ascent of Everest in 1963.

Many people still regard mountaineers as a bit nuts for risking their lives for reasons even climbers often have trouble articulating. But are the motivations of mountaineers all that different from those of hikers? Hikers are attracted to mountains to escape from civilization, to reconnect with nature, to challenge themselves physically, to renew themselves spiritually. Mountaineers are after the same things, although they ratchet up the challenge and the danger.

In earlier days, however, people climbed mountains mainly for practical reasons: they were explorers, surveyors, or scientists. The White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Catskills were among the first ranges to attract tourists. The Catskill Mountain House, a three-story hotel, opened in 1824. The Crawford Path, the first hiking trail up Mount Washington, was cut in the early 1800s.

The forbidding terrain of the Adirondacks discouraged exploration. “While tourists had been visiting the Catskills and the White Mountains for several decades, New York State’s highest mountains were still largely unknown and unvisited at the start of the 1830s,” Isserman writes.

The author mentions that Lewis Evans, a surveyor from Philadelphia, produced “A General Map of the British Middle Colonies in America” in 1755 that contained a blank spot in the Adirondack region. The map noted: “This Country by Reason of Mountain Swamps and drowned land is impassable and uninhabited.”

Isserman identifies the surveyor Charles Brodhead as the first European to venture into the High Peaks. In 1797, while establishing a survey line, Brodhead went over Giant Mountain and, over the next several days, came near the summits of six other 4,000-footers—“a formidable traverse even today, when established trails make the climbing easier.”

Apart from an occasional surveyor, the Adirondacks saw few visitors over the next forty years. The region’s highest peak was not climbed until August 5, 1837. Ebenezer Emmons, the scientist who led the expedition, named it Mount Marcy in honor of the sitting governor, William Learned Marcy.

Ebenezer Emmons

William C. Redfield, one of those in the party, wrote of that day: “The aspect of the morning was truly splendid and delightful, and the air on the mountain top was found to be cold and bracing. Around us lay scattered in irregular profusion, mountain masses of various magnitudes and elevations, like to a vast sea of broken and pointed billows.”

Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps, the famed guide from Keene Valley, cut the first trail up Marcy in 1861, “nearly four and a half decades after the Crawford Path was built to the summit of Mount Washington.”

Isserman, who is a history professor at Hamilton College, has little else to say about the Adirondacks, apart from a mention of the founding of the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1922. This is understandable as the big mountains, the ones that pose the greatest challenges, are out west and in Alaska and Canada.

Nevertheless, I wish the author had found a wee bit of space to recount the first ascent of Mount Colden.  In 1850, Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph reached the 4,714-foot summit by climbing the Trap Dike, a large gash in the northwest face. Climbing the Trap Dike is not that difficult (though a fall could be fatal), but the first ascent is notable in that Clarke’s description in a letter to his mother is one of the earliest written accounts of American mountaineering.

I also wish Isserman had mentioned John Case, an American businessman who learned mountaineering techniques, including rope work, in Europe and helped introduce them to the United States in the early 1900s. Case summered in Keene Valley, where he died in 1983, and climbed many of the region’s cliffs, often in the company of Jim Goodwin. Case was long credited with making the first ascent of Wallface, the highest cliff in the Adirondacks, in 1933, though recent evidence suggests there may have been an earlier ascent. He served as president of the American Alpine Club from 1944-1946.

But these are quibbles. As Isserman notes in his preface, he couldn’t include everything: “Inevitably, in weighing the contractual limits of the space available to me, the likely limits of readers’ patience, and the brevity of our allotted time on earth, I had some difficult choices to make about which climbs and climbers to include or—alas, all too often—to omit.”

If eastern mountains do not loom large in Isserman’s history, easterners do. The well-to-do from the Northeast, often from Ivy League schools, vacationed in Europe and brought back a passion for alpinism and a knowledge of its techniques. They went on to make significant ascents throughout the world.

One influential easterner was Robert L.M. Underhill, a philosophy instructor at Harvard who became the dean of American rock climbers. Underhill made several first ascents in the Tetons of Wyoming. In one remarkable week in 1931, he put up three new routes on Grand Teton, including the southeast ridge that now bears the name Underhill Ridge. Later that summer, he traveled to California to teach belaying and rappelling to the Sierra Club. While in California, Underhill and four of his pupils climbed the steep east face of Mount Whitney. It was the first technical route up the highest peak (at 14,505 feet) in the Lower Forty-Eight.

Although Isserman focuses on mountaineering, he also covers advances in rock climbing, especially on the big walls out west. He devotes a few pages to the Gunks, a popular climbing area in downstate New York. Fritz Wiessner, who “discovered” the Gunks, appears in the book for both his mountaineering and rock-climbing exploits. Wiessner put up a number of rock routes in the Adirondacks, though these are not mentioned in the book. Incidentally, one of Isserman’s sources is American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing by Don Mellor, a teacher at Northwood School in Lake Placid.

Eventually, American mountaineers took their skills to the world’s highest peaks in the Himalayas and elsewhere. Isserman recounts several famous expeditions, including three unsuccessful attempts to climb K2, a mountain more deadly than Everest. Isserman closes his last full chapter with a description of the American Mount Everest Expedition in 1963. Four members of the expedition summited but had to endure an open bivouac at over 28,000 feet.

Isserman credits the Everest expedition with fostering interest in mountaineering and launching a “rucksack revolution.” In an epilogue, he briefly touches on some changes since then. “The mountains will be with us forever,” he concludes. “What Americans choose to do on those mountains and to think of and hope for atop them in years to come is impossible to predict, except that it will surely involve a blending of tradition and innovation.”

Continental Divide is well written and thoroughly researched (with sixty-five pages of footnotes), but after putting it down I wondered why he ended the narrative in 1963. A veteran mountaineer writing for the New York Times had the same question, ending his review: “With all due respect, in 1964 American mountaineering was just getting started.”

Continental Divide:
A History of American
By Maurice Isserman
W.W. Norton, 2016
Hardcover, 436 pages, $28.95

NOTE: This article first appeared on Adirondack Almanack, the Explorer’s online news journal. In response, Tony Goodwin posted an article on the Almanack suggesting that Darby Field climbed Mount Washington while working for a fur-trading company and wanted to look for Lake Champlain.