Donald Worster is the Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas and the author of many books, most recently, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. A Passion for Nature is the most complete account of the great conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club ever written and is the first to be based on Muir’s private correspondence. In the excerpt below we learn about Muir’s love of mountaineering.
“I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer…Civilization and fever and all the morbidness that has been hooted at me has not dimmed my glacial eye, and I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness. My own special self is nothing. My feet have recovered their cunning. I feel myself again.”
Muir had been in California six years when he made that pronouncement to his friend and counselor Jeanne Carr. he had just returned to the Sierra from a long visit to her Oakland home, where he had felt trapped by straight-edged streets and china-clinking dinner parties, and by at least one nauseating experience of a room full of spiritualists trying to communicate with their dead relatives. Back in the mountains, he was relieved to find his head clearing and his feet as sure-footed as ever. But the contrast with the urban lowlands had clarified his life’s mission-to “entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.” More than ever, he saw that his method of opening others’ eyes must be through scientific exploration and scientific explanation. The beauty of the natural world would be revealed through an immersion in facts and mechanics. If he had a social purpose, it was to become a mountain naturalist-particularly adept in the history of glaciation-and to publish his findings to the public.
As part of that mission he went out to climb several of the highest peaks in the state until he almost forgot what it was like to live with level horizons. He acquired an ice axe, a felt hat, and hobnailed shoes, the standard equipment of the sport of mountaineering in those early days. Often climbing alone, he discovered a new way to feel self-confident around his fellow humans, who seldom could match his poise or skill in bounding from rock to rock on inching along a granite cliff with a cold, stiff wind in his face. But mountaineering for him was more than physical challenge; it was also a way of gathering knowledge about the history of the earth, a pathway to revelation and worship.
Knowing mountains became an all-consuming preoccupation after Muir left the Hutching saw mill, a career to be financed by his savings and whatever he could earn by his pen. To come to know mountains, he must read as well as walk and climb. He commenced to ready widely in science, mountaineering, art, philosophy, buying or borrowing books written by leading intellects of the day, some of whom showed up in Yosemite Valley; such visitors mixed among the other tourists and made the park an outdoor college unlike any in the world. But books could not substitute for real, lived experience. He must get to know the mountains as well as he knew himself, until they become one with his bone, flesh, and spirit.
Pushing himself harder and harder, pushing beyond the limits of prudence, became part of his quest for knowledge. He took risks that few others would take, risks that might have left him dead or maimed. In early April 1871, for example, on a night when the moon was turning Yosemite Falls into a ribbon of glowing silver, he climbed to Fern Ledge at the foot of the upper falls, intending to camp there with a blanket and chunk of bread-and then he rashly decided to edge behind the falls to see the moonlight through a gauzy curtain of spray. Suddenly the wind shifted, and a 1,430-foot column of water pounded down on his head and shoulders. “I crouched low, holding my breath,” he wrote to Jeanne only a few minutes later as he sat shivering under a blanket, “and anchored to some angular flakes of rock, took my baptism with moderately good faith.” No amount of faith could save him from a concussion or plunge over the cliff, but quick body reflexes and good luck came to his rescue, leaving him only soaked and bruised. Shaken by that “adventure,” he admitted to Sarah that it has “nearly cost all.” News of his mishap could hardly have been reassuring to friends or family, but he was by no means done with pushing himself to the very edge of disaster.
His first big feat of mountaineering was climbing to the top of Mt. Ritter, rising 13,156 feet above sea level on the eastern flank of the Sierra, a peak that no records said had ever been climbed. He set out in October 1872, a time of stunning fall colors in the high meadows, but of dangerous early ice and snowfall above the timberline. Two artists (one of whom was William Keith, a Scots immigrant and landscape painter who would become one of Muir’s closest friends) went along as far as the meadows to set up their easels; then Muir proceeded on alone, carrying no blanket and little food, to scale the summit. Crossing an ice field, he came to the base of a sheer cliff that he began to climb, until halfway up he panicked and a slip and a drop seemed certain. It was his most fearful moment ever in the mountains. As he clung by his fingers to the rough wall a “preternatural clearness” came over him-whether a guardian angel or an ancient intuition he could not say-and his “limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing to do at all.” Normal, conscious reason failed, but something beyond reason (perhaps the self-preserving instincts of the body) showed him the way forward, and he went on sure-footedly to the topmost crag, where he stood gazing joyfully at a pristine wilderness that reached all the way south to Mr. Whitney.