Final Battle of the Cairns

Living within sight of a famously tall mountain can engender a sense of local pride. So when someone questions the height of your mountain or raises the height of their mountain, sparks can fly. Or more practically and literally, cairns can go up. Such was the case in Colorado with Mount Massive and Mount Elbert. Elbert is officially taller, at 14,433, about twelve feet higher than Massive. Both are in the Sawatch Range.

For many years, however, fans of Mount Massive operated with the knowledge that their peak was actually the taller of the two. To make sure, they would go up on the summit and build a cairn, at least 13 feet high. Elbertophiles, who “knew” that their summit was higher, didn’t take to the Massive upstarts’ cairn-erections and they would hike up Massive and take down the cairn, which lead to the Massive people heading back for another cairn raising. And, so on and so on. Finally, at some point the feud fizzled.

But the height of Massive still troubled some locals. In the late 1930s, an official survey determined that Mount Massive was taller than Mount Rainier, pushing Rainier from down to the fourth highest peak in the lower 48. Washingtonians were apoplectic. Leo Weisfield, chair of the Washington State Progress Commission, was so incensed that he contacted the superintendent of Mount Rainier and asked if something couldn’t be done to return Rainier to its rightful place as the third highest peak. Weisfield proposed that the simplest way to deal with the issue was to erect a cairn on Rainier’s summit.

Even more irate was Col. Blethen, the publisher of the Seattle Times. In a front page editorial on August 25, 1939, he wrote “Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in the United States.” He rested his argument on the how much the mountain rose above its base, not its actual height. Those three mountains (Whitney in California and Elbert and Massive in Colorado) that were said to be taller than Rainier didn’t deserve their status since their bases were so far above sea level.

“For some reason the public has supinely accepted official measurements of mountains from theoretical sea level as indicating their actual height…This is sheer nonsense,” huffed Blethen. “It is perfectly true that Mount Whitney and probably the two hitherto unknown Colorado mountains are more than 14,000 feet “high” in the sense that their tops are that much above sea level, but there actually is no mountain in the United States that is 14,000 feet tall excepting the one which rises straight and clear from the sea level to peak and that is Mount Rainier.”

Despite Blethen’s logic and Weisfield’s plan, nothing changed. Then in 1948, four Seattleites, as part of a service club, proposed to build a cairn atop Rainier. It would be 24-foot-high cairn made of rock and snow. Again, the superintendent of Mount Rainier rejected the request. In response, citizens in Mount Vernon, a small town north of Seattle, countered that they would be happy for the four Seattle climbers to come and build a 10,501-foot-cairn on a hill near Mount Vernon, making it the third highest peak in the state.

As someone interested a wee bit in cairns, I have been delighted to track down these stories of cairns and how important they are to people. Sure they may say that what their doing is all about making their local peaks bigger but I think they all they really desired was to find ways to go out and build more cairns.


Cairns: I turn my book galleys in

Golly ned, I turned in the galleys of my new book yesterday. For those of you not familiar with galleys, this is the first round of seeing a book look like a book with titles page, table of contents, illustrations, etc. It is also the last chance I have to make major changes.

I am quite happy with the look of the new book. The title font, which is used throughout for chapter titles and the first few words of each chapter is rather handsome and somewhat old fashioned and dignified. My wife thinks it looks a bit like an old typewriter face. Another friend thought it looked like a font used on tombstones, elegant and permanent. I agree!

Fortunately, I didn’t have any major changes to make in the text. I did pick up a few extraneous words, a June/July dating issue, a misplaced epigraph, some places where there should have been italics and some places where there shouldn’t, and an extra footnote, which could have been ugly. The major changes had to do with a complicated section on carbon dating, where I had omitted a crucial fact, and a sentence on lichen thalli, which you can imagine can be a troubling enterprise to address. I like to think that I worked out a solution that will please even the most opinionated lichenologist.

Right now I feel pretty good about the writing. I don’t mean this to sound like bragging but it is easy to get tired one’s own work in these final stages. I cannot count the number of times I have read the entire book. I usually do this two times: silently with an eye and pencil for editing and out loud, usually without a pencil for editing. I have found that I need to do it this way to pick up words I use too many times and sentence structures that sound odd together.

It is also strange how much the book changes from screen to hard copy to galleys. Each edition reveals something new. I am very happy, too, that I had a diligent copyeditor and am also having a proofreader for I know that I see what isn’t there and don’t see what I should. Plus, I know that I am not very good at punctuation.

So now the publisher will work their magic and incorporate my changes and the ones from the proofreader. They will then send back my final page proofs, with I hope no mistakes. Publication date is mid September.