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The High Sierra: A Love Story

de Kim Stanley Robinson

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13611201,957 (4.15)5
A "sublime" and "radically original" exploration of the Sierra Nevadas, the best mountains on Earth for hiking and camping, from New York Times bestselling novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (Bill McKibben, Gary Snyder). Kim Stanley Robinson first ventured into the Sierra Nevada mountains during the summer of 1973. He returned from that encounter a changed man, awed by a landscape that made him feel as if he were simultaneously strolling through an art museum and scrambling on a jungle gym like an energized child. He has returned to the mountains throughout his life--more than a hundred trips--and has gathered a vast store of knowledge about them. The High Sierra is his lavish celebration of this exceptional place and an exploration of what makes this span of mountains one of the most compelling places on Earth. Over the course of a vivid and dramatic narrative, Robinson describes the geological forces that shaped the Sierras and the history of its exploration, going back to the indigenous peoples who made it home and whose traces can still be found today. He celebrates the people whose ideas and actions protected the High Sierra for future generations. He describes uniquely beautiful hikes and the trails to be avoided. Robinson's own life-altering events, defining relationships, and unforgettable adventures form the narrative's spine. And he illuminates the human communion with the wild and with the sublime, including the personal growth that only seems to come from time spent outdoors. The High Sierra is a gorgeous, absorbing immersion in a place, born out of a desire to understand and share one of the greatest rapture-inducing experiences our planet offers. Packed with maps, gear advice, more than 100 breathtaking photos, and much more, it will inspire veteran hikers, casual walkers, and travel readers to prepare for a magnificent adventure.… (mais)
  1. 10
    Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit de Robert Macfarlane (adamhindman)
    adamhindman: Similar theme: a personal memoir exploring why we — humans — are fascinated by mountains and want to be near them.
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Having been reading Robinson's fiction for years, mostly with enjoyment, I was curious to find what a more personal voice of his would sound like. As is telegraphed by the title, there is little that Robinson loves more than hiking through the Sierra Nevada, as he started in his Twenties and continues to so to this day, with a now dwindling band of comrades. Apart from being a memoir (about 60% of the book), Robinson also unburdens himself about his opinions of the human history of the range, environmental matters, his dubiousness about the enterprise of mountain climbing, and, in one specific chapter, the impact of his avocation as a hiker on his fiction. If you find this book sprawls too much for your liking, Robinson has helpfully named this chapters on a thematic basis, so you can follow what interests you more specifically. ( )
  Shrike58 | Apr 5, 2024 |
I've only read two of KSR's other books. I've enjoyed them but I'm also not a superfan. And I've never hiked the High Sierra. So why did I decide to pick up this book? Because it is about wandering and about place.

Since childhood, I've been part of a tradition we call "extreme picnicing." Like backpacking, this tradition involves backpacks, wilderness areas, and hiking. Unlike backpacking, it omits trails, and peaks bagged or miles covered. Instead, it is full of orienteering, bushwhacking, traveling in streams, along ridges, and hearty meals cooked over a natural fire.

"The High Sierra" has much of this vibe to it. Although KSR started out as someone who traveled on trail, he quickly learned that off trail has a lot more to offer. One phenomenological experience I'm surprised that KSR has omitted regarding on-trail versus off-trail activity: when I'm on trail, it isn't that different than a commute in a vehicle. There's a single dimension of travel—out or back. There is a constant background binary optionality—to continue onwards, or to stop. Being off trail, the headspace is entirely different (especially if you're in new terrain). You're constantly doing your best to decipher and interpret the landscape. Is there going to be a cliff over there behind that boulder? How deep is that stream? Will that saddle bring you to the next valley or strand you on a plateau? There is a kind of hyper-focused attention or flow state that can come out of such an experience, entirely counter to the slog of on-trail, which can often result in zoning out and just putting in the miles (especially if you're already tired from hiking).

Before I was aware that KSR was writing this book, I somehow learned (maybe in an interview?) that he spends roughly a month each year out backpacking. I found this metric and lifestyle somewhat astounding. I'm lucky to get a week a year in the backcountry (although I spend smaller windows of time out in nature on a weekly basis), and I have a much more flexible schedule than most people I know. KSR has a family, a renown career as a sci-fi author, and has been a professor. How has he managed to spend so much time "away?" If you, the reader, takes nothing else away from this book, I hope that you get the sense that more time in wilderness is possible.

I'd like to articulate a thesis of the dogma of ultralite. Ultralite is the philosophy that you should minimize the weight of your gear. Serious practitioners measure total weight in grams, and shave each gram possible. I'll articulate this thesis through a number of lenses: the fallacy of ephemeralization in juxtaposition to craft and local materials, aesthetics and somatics, slack (as in, room for something to go wrong), libertarianism versus communalism, risk, on meaning and purpose in life and death, and longevity (the Silicon Valley immortality cult).

As an extreme picnicer I revel in the curiosity of exploring a wild landscape, and creating a cozy camp when it is time. A trip might be centered around a night in a snow storm, or a dip in a frigid stream, as opposed to a specific peak or a specific route. Weight isn't inconsequential, but is also not a primary focus to be minimized.

Before I get into this thesis, I'll say—you can't really blame KSR for getting swept up in the ultralite craze—he is a self-described "jock," athlete, sci-fi writer, and is well within the gravity of Silicon Valley, and his hiking mentor would craft his own ultralite gear. Is there anyone less likely to get sucked down the rabbit hole? No. Now onto the thesis.

The "ultralite" ethos falls into a long tradition of the fallacy of ephemeralization. You might say Icarus was one of the first victims of this cult—someone obsessed with going higher than anyone ever before, with new ultralite tech—sounds awfully like many backpackers in the High Sierra.... Anyways, ephemeralization was popularized by Buckminster Fuller (an oracle of Silicon Valley)—known for the geodesic dome. The converse thinker was Bill Coperthwaite—known for the modern wooden yurt. Both believed that we could move to a more humane world that was less resource-intensive. Fuller thought this would be brought about by an embrace of aircraft manufacturing technology (expanded to architecture). Coperthwaite thought this would be brought about by an embrace of good schematics, the prowess to learn some carpentry, and local building materials.

Now let's take this analogy on the trail. Let's look at those aluminum or carbon fiber hiking poles Fuller would love, in contrast with Caperthwaite's hand-hewn walking staff. Although the hiking poles are lighter than the staff, the former is the product of a long supply chain with massive hidden costs (mining the miners, processing the minerals, disposing of byproducts, distribution, marketing, etc.). The latter is the result of a little foraging (finding a sapling) and a little craft. The staff might not be as light as the poles, but it can last a lifetime, and tell the story not only of a place (through the wood it is crafted from), but also the story of the artisan who crafted it.

We might call the former an "iceberg," in that the vast majority of the costs and impact of the poles are not immediately apparent when you hold them in your hand. We might call the latter a "hot air balloon," in that you can immediately see the entirety of the impact of a walking staff, and the mass of it is really quite light.

Let's take a look at a Patagonia shell, versus a waxed cotton jacket from Filson. The Patagonia shell is a gaudy color, at odds with any natural landscape. It is crafted from petrochemicals, and smells, well, like petrochemicals. When the wind blows, or if you move, the piece from Patagonia makes a relentless rustling noise. The Patagonia shell is rife with PFOAs, which are spread throughout the brittle alpine environment every time you go out (which are harmful to both you and the landscape in the parts per trillion). After a few seasons, the Patagonia piece looks tattered, has lost its waterproofness, and needs to be replaced. In contrast, the Filson jacket is a natural hue, and fades into the background in a variety of landscapes. It is crafted of natural materials and smells like a horse barn. When you move, the jacket is quiet. After a few seasons, the jacket weathers into a gorgeous patina, ultimately maturing into a heirloom to be passed on to future generations (I've been the lucky inheritor of a few such cherished articles of clothing from Pendleton and Eddie Bauer).

Now, of course, this is an idealized oversimplification—for example, some of KSR's favorite gear was crafted by his friend Terry (although Terry did not manufacture the synthetic fabrics he utilized), so there is a lineage of craft here.

To dig in a little deeper here, we might look at David Fleming's concept of "slack." A system with "slack" is able to deal with the unexpected; there is room for error. I'll go into a few examples here.

I once was staying at a friend's place in the Rockies in winter. A truck came with the place, and one of the first things my friend showed me was that there chains behind the seat that could be used to pull someone out, if needed. Sure enough, a few days later I was driving home and saw a neighbor, stuck in a snow bank. I hooked up the chains, and less than ten minutes later, they were on their way again.

I'm a mountain biker, and I regularly ride with some old-timers. One of these guys not only carries tools and supplies with him, but knows how to use them. For the sake of argument, let's say that a bike breaks one out of ten rides. It would also be reasonable to estimate that my friend is able to fix nine out of ten problems. Now, in the situation where you're unprepared, this means out of every hundred rides, ten are a bust. But when my friend comes along, the failed rides drop down to one out of a hundred. Although there are other factors involved, the principle here is quite palpable, and I've learned to become a more prepared and adept bike mechanic in the process, which means I much more rarely need to walk home.

Now let's bring this back to the trail. If your pack weighs only eighteen pounds, you're living on a razor-thin margin. Get stuck out an extra day? No food. Run into someone on the trail that needs help? Not much you can do for them. Unexpected weather? Again, out of luck.

Like any principle, there are optima here; you can overdo it with slack. That said, when I'm out with my friend, if we encounter an unusual or unpredicted situation, chances are we'll have the gear and the skillset to rise to the occasion. If we followed the dictum of ultralite, this wouldn't be the case.

I could spend more time waxing on here about the ways that ultralite, libertarianism, and Silicon Valley, all have a lot in common. At one point, KSR mention he once ran into a group of hikers that shared pack space and slept in the same tent, and was baffled, although encountering an alien species. I most often hike with a friend, and I can't think of a time when we didn't split gear, share food, and sleep in the same tent; to us, it is just common sense. The wilderness can sometimes be a challenging environment; why wouldn't you have a spirit of communalism, at least with your comrades?

There is no need to be dogmatic about ultralite. I have an ultralite dog leash. When I take my dog on runs, I use the leash to get my dog from the car to the trailhead, or when we encounter another person or dog. Other than that, it can fit in my pocket, when a traditional leash would be overly burdensome. My fatbike is similarly, very lightweight, and I enjoy it (although my full-suspension bike is not, and I ride that bike most of the year). I may even go through my extreme picnicing gear inventory, and see if there's anything I can swap out or leave home next time I go. But I don't think an eighteen-pound pack is in my future.

So if not ultralite, then what?

I spent a week hiking in the Gros Ventre at the end of last summer. We were out for five days, but only encountered two other humans—one hiking, and one on horseback. The latter was traveling with three hourses—one to ride and two for the gears. In much of the Western United States, there is a tradition employed both by Native Americans and settlers of traveling on horseback. Actually much of the early writing about the High Sierra comes from trips spent with pack animals.

With a pack animal, there is no need for ultralite. You can bring along some cookware, a canvas tent, and whatever else you might need to turn your ramble into something cozy and enjoyable. I haven't yet gone on such trips myself, but intend to explore this modality in coming years.

I'll come back again to the risks of ultralite. There is more than a little irony in KSR's judgmental rebuke of "reckless climbers." In KSR's packing list, he notably omits such essentials as a first aid kit, wool clothing for days of cold rain, the way in which he travels without a bear canister, more than a few hours of water, or a water filter (although it sounds like some of this is down to differences pertaining to the High Sierra). As a teenager, I suffered hypothermia, followed by pneumonia and lung scarring, and I can't recommend "packing light" in a wilderness context. If you go out enough, inevitably you'll have an accident, and whether or not you're able to last a night in the cold rain or the dry heat might mean the difference between whether or not you make it out alive.

KSR does partially redeem himself in this regard; later in the book he comes to the realization that climbing is a "way of life," that KSR thinks of as a "congenital disease" of sorts, as opposed to a choice. I wouldn't be so harsh. It is good to remember that there is no "best way" to live a life.

To make a point, I'll take a more controversial example. As a teenager, I didn't understand why anyone would smoke cigarettes—they're bad for you! In my early twenties, I realized that for some people, they have a sacred relationship with tobacco, and it is a highlight of their life. If they die a painful and "early" death, who is to judge it wasn't worth it? Now I don't mean to defend the tobacco industry, and the banalization and appropriation of what is, to Native Americans, a cosmic being. But the point remains—sometimes an earlier death doesn't mean someone didn't live their life to the fullest.

Here again we can see the Silicon Valley attitude seeping in—in this instance, from the "longevity" camp. Longevity researchers and practitioners believe that death is a disease that can and should be cured. A longer life is a better life. KSR chastises climbers for dying young. But many of these climbers themselves will tell you: they'd rather die young doing what they love, than die old in a nursing home. For that matter, the societal cost of "old" deaths, life lived too long, millions of dollars of medical expenses, and countless years spent in senility—wouldn't it be better if more people died doing what they love? I won't push too hard here, as KSR does note that some of his friends have had "good" deaths, not staying beyond their time.

To conclude my fulmination—the ultralite philosophy elevates high tech while denigrating craft and the environment, ultralite offends the senses and the landscape, ultralite maximizes risk and minimizes the possibility of being prepared for the unexpected, socially, ultralite elevates the individual and denigrates camaraderie, and lastly, ultralite is tarnished by its association with longevity advocates.

It is interesting to note that, after writing an entire book about the High Sierra, KSR mentions that his very favorite place on earth is Mount Desert Island. Apparently I have a new spot to check out.

I wish the book was a little more deeply animist. KSR does have some beautiful sections on the wildlife he encounters, as well as the "actor network" led by the High Sierra themselves. That said, he could have gone much deeper here.

I commend KSR's choice to begin by centering the Native history of the High Sierra. Like almost everywhere on earth, the High Sierra have a rich past of inhabitation going back at least ten thousand years. We would do well to remember the indigenous histories of the wildernesses we spend time in.

KSR has coined the term "psychogeology," to refer to the ways in which a specific landscape can affect our state of mind. I wish he spent more time exploring this topic, as it is one I've spent a lot of time musing over (before I was exposed to KSR's coinage). David Abram would say that mind is an attribute of place, as opposed to something internal, personal, or mental. It seems that KSR hasn't gone so far with the theory, but still, he has added to the literature with this concept.

If you're looking for a Sierra guide book, there are some better options (which KSR lists within). But if you're looking for a scrapbook documenting a lifetime of inquiry and adventure in a mountain wilderness, you'll love this text! ( )
  willszal | Mar 12, 2024 |
I love the High Sierra and I love Kim Stanley Robinson, but (strangely) I found this book sort of boring. ( )
  GwenRino | Oct 19, 2023 |
Wonderful. Worth it for the annotated bibliography alone. ( )
  k6gst | Oct 5, 2023 |
Having hiked, scrambled and fished through much of the High Sierra that Robinson loves, I was captivated by this book. In many ways, I regret books like these, because I want to keep all those special places somewhat secret. But hey, in this time of GoogleEarth, blogs, social media and other digital communications -- not much is secret anymore. To the younger generations -- enjoy and protect these wild areas. ( )
  exfed | Mar 24, 2023 |
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A "sublime" and "radically original" exploration of the Sierra Nevadas, the best mountains on Earth for hiking and camping, from New York Times bestselling novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (Bill McKibben, Gary Snyder). Kim Stanley Robinson first ventured into the Sierra Nevada mountains during the summer of 1973. He returned from that encounter a changed man, awed by a landscape that made him feel as if he were simultaneously strolling through an art museum and scrambling on a jungle gym like an energized child. He has returned to the mountains throughout his life--more than a hundred trips--and has gathered a vast store of knowledge about them. The High Sierra is his lavish celebration of this exceptional place and an exploration of what makes this span of mountains one of the most compelling places on Earth. Over the course of a vivid and dramatic narrative, Robinson describes the geological forces that shaped the Sierras and the history of its exploration, going back to the indigenous peoples who made it home and whose traces can still be found today. He celebrates the people whose ideas and actions protected the High Sierra for future generations. He describes uniquely beautiful hikes and the trails to be avoided. Robinson's own life-altering events, defining relationships, and unforgettable adventures form the narrative's spine. And he illuminates the human communion with the wild and with the sublime, including the personal growth that only seems to come from time spent outdoors. The High Sierra is a gorgeous, absorbing immersion in a place, born out of a desire to understand and share one of the greatest rapture-inducing experiences our planet offers. Packed with maps, gear advice, more than 100 breathtaking photos, and much more, it will inspire veteran hikers, casual walkers, and travel readers to prepare for a magnificent adventure.

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