Imaginary Peaks is a rich and diverse work that quickly draws the reader into a labyrinth of ideas about myth and reality in mountaineering, and in exploration and mapping in general. Early chapters explore such legends as Meru, Prester John, a magnetic peak at the North Pole, and the imagined 16,000-foot heights oWWWf Mounts Hooker and Brown in the Canadian Rockies, a myth that persisted well into the 20th Century. Later chapters look at Cook and Peary’s imaginative ‘conquests’ in the north.
The book is built around a famous hoax perpetrated by three well-respected individuals in the U.S. northwest. The deception concerned a fake climbing expedition by three Austrians to a mysterious, unclimbed range allegedly near Prince Rupert in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. In reality, the fictitious story was based on photographs of a then largely unknown and unclimbed range in Alaska, whose obscurity made it difficult to pin down or refute. After its initial overview of mountaineering and exploration dreams, Imaginary Peaks turns to actual attempts to climb the real Alaskan range once its identity is uncovered.
The book includes biographical accounts of the three co-conspirators, especially of the main protagonist, Harvey Manning, who will be familiar to many as the author of ‘Backpacking: One Step at a Time’ and editor of ‘Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.’ A legendary conservationist in the U.S. Northwest, Manning was also known among his friends to be a practical jokester. His aim with the Riesenstein Hoax seems to have been to change attitudes by poking fun at the hubris then surrounding much of human exploration, especially in the mountains. Katie Ives also uses the hoax as a pivot to explore human nature and the desire to seek new places, riches, and even a utopia through the exploration and discovery of new frontiers and unknown lands.
The Riesenstein Hoax story appeared in the June 1962 issue of Summit magazine, and there is a hint in the spelling of ‘Riesenstein’ and in later interviews with Summit’s founders (who, like Ives, were women editors of a climbing magazine) that they either knew or suspected that it was a hoax, and played along out of sympathy and/or with an eye on subscriptions. Could such a hoax happen today? Possibly, Ives decides, although it would be much more challenging with technological innovations in mapping, navigation, communications and Google Earth.
The underlying theme of the book also runs headlong into other technological changes, notably the social media and fake news phenomena of recent years. As such, readers may find themselves undergoing a range of emotions from anger (many people have died chasing false accounts of discovery) to some level of understanding.
Imaginary Peaks includes extensive end notes and bibliographical sections, but unfortunately lacks an index, a significant omission for a work of this type. Overall, though, this is a worthy read that takes the reader on a stimulating ride through the history and ideas of mountaineering and exploration. Added spice for me were many well-known characters that I knew of, or had actually met in person; and I recall tense moments at several Banff Mountain Book Festivals when decades-old emotions, still alive and well, apparently, spilled into the public arena. Longer term FMCBC members may even recognise a past Executive Director quoted near the end of the book.
Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams by Katie Ives; Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 2021; ISBN: 978-1-68051-541-1; 304 pages, 6X9, Hardcover.