By PHIL BROWN
When Laura and Guy Waterman began researching and writing a history of hiking in the Northeast in 1979, they figured the project would take three years. Ten years later, the Appalachian Mountain Club released “Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains.”
The Watermans’ magnum opus ran to 926 pages, including the prefatory matter and 171 pages of notes—a testament to their dogged scholarship. Not only were they working in the pre-digital age, the Watermans lived off the grid in a small cabin in Vermont. They conducted their research largely by visiting libraries and archives and interviewing subjects in person or through the mail.
What’s more, they had enough material left over for a second book: “Yankee Rock and Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States,” released by Stackpole Books in 1993.
Happily, both books have been reissued. If you’re interested in either topic, these are the volumes to own. I know of no other books that cover the history of Northeast hiking and climbing so thoroughly, and I doubt they will be superseded anytime soon.
The State University of New York Press published a 30th-anniversary edition of “Forest and Crag” this year. It’s largely the same as the original book, but it contains more illustrations and some new introductory material, including a preface by Tony Goodwin, the longtime editor of the High Peaks guidebook published by the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Stackpole Books released a second edition of “Yankee Rock and Ice” last fall, with a new foreword by Sarah Garlick and four new chapters by Michael Wejchert. The new chapters cover climbing developments in the Northeast since the 1990s. Garlick and Wejchert are climbers who live in New Hampshire.
Both books have much to say about the Adirondacks. “Forest and Crag,” however, limits its focus to the High Peaks region. This left me wondering about the early history of hiking near Lake George, which was an early tourist draw. (Thomas Jefferson visited the lake in 1791.) In any event, we learn in “Forest and Crag” that hiking in the High Peaks lagged far behind the Catskills and New England. New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England, was climbed in 1642 by Darby Field. Mount Marcy, New York’s highest peak, was not climbed until 1837, almost two centuries later, by a team led by the scientist Ebenezer Emmons.
One chapter is devoted to the growth of Adirondack tourism following the publication in 1869 of “Adventures in the Wilderness, or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks,” written by the Rev. William Henry Harrison Murray. The visitors inspired by the book’s (sometimes fanciful) tales were known as Murray’s Fools.
“Adirondack tourism, so long delayed, now ran rampant,” the Watermans write. “Between 1869 and 1875, the number of hotels and boardinghouses reportedly rose from about fifty to more than two hundred. By the 1880s the region was almost as much a center for tourists as the White Mountains or the Catskills.”
Other chapters recount the exploits of Verplanck Colvin, the surveyor who mapped and measured the High Peaks; the building of trail networks in the late 1800s; early winter ascents of Mount Marcy; backcountry-ski pioneers; the creation of the Adirondack Mountain Club; the fascination with peak bagging and marathon hikes; the backpacking boom of the 1960s; and the rise of environmental concerns. These are just a few of the topics covered in this compendious and valuable book.
In his four-page foreword, Tony Goodwin touches on developments since “Forest and Crag’s” initial publication in 1989, based in part on his own observations as a longtime hiker, trail builder and guidebook author. He writes that the technological revolution that birthed smart phones, GPS devices and social media has altered our experience of wild places.
“Digital photography allows images of our adventures to be quickly shared (sometimes right from the summit) with our ‘friends’ on Facebook or other social media, introducing an aura of virtual reality to backcountry adventures,” Goodwin writes. “The perceptual firewall between wilderness and civilization seems on the verge of collapse.”
“Yankee Rock and Ice” makes clear that the Adirondacks also lagged behind New England in technical climbing. One exception was the ascent of Mount Colden via the Trap Dike in 1850 by Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph. Clarke’s description of that climb, in a letter to his mother, is regarded as one of the first accounts of a technical climb in the United States. Some might quibble with the adjective technical, as the Trap Dike is usually climbed without ropes or other specialized gear.
Two of the earliest rock climbers in the Adirondacks were John Case and Fritz Wiessner, both of whom learned the craft in Europe. Case scaled Indian Head overlooking Lower Ausable Lake as early as 1916. He also put up routes on Wallface and Chapel Pond Slab. Wiessner, who was younger, established his own routes at all three locales as well as many other cliffs in the Adirondacks. His last route in the Adirondacks was on Big Slide in 1953. Another giant of the sport was John Turner, an Englishman who put up the first routes on Poke-O-Moonshine in the late 1950s. Poke-O is now one of the premier climbing areas in the Northeast, with more than 170 routes.
Case, Wiessner and Turner were among the finest climbers of their day, but thanks to improvements in gear, including sticky-soled shoes, modern climbers can get up much harder routes. In recent years, Pete Kamitses has pioneered routes on Moss Cliff that are as hard as just about any in the country and would have been unthinkable in the old days.
The same goes with ice climbing. Jim Goodwin (Tony’s father) was one of the region’s first practitioners, with winter ascents of the Trap Dike and Chapel Pond Slab back in the day when climbers laboriously chopped steps in the ice. With improved crampons and ice axes, modern climbers can scale vertical and even overhanging ice. Two of the best ice climbers in the Park today are Matt Horner and Ian Osteyee.
I have heard from a few climbers (mostly in New Hampshire) who contend that “Yankee Rock and Ice” omits some accomplishments and overemphasizes others. I don’t know enough to have an opinion, and given my limited space, I cannot delve into the merits of these complaints. However, we owe the Watermans our gratitude for unearthing the early history of climbing and interviewing many old-timers before they passed on.
Whatever flaws either book has must be forgiven. The Watermans’ passion for the subject matter of both volumes is evident from their impressive research, their good, clear writing and their frequent flashes of humor.