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An Interview with Alpinist Contributor Forest McBrian

Since Issue 1, Alpinist‘s Mountain Profiles have given the definitive histories–sometimes exceeding 50 pages as a two-part series–of iconic peaks, cliffs or ranges, as told by historians and climbers who have been among the area’s most essential protagonists. For the editorial staff, creating a Mountain Profile takes months of meticulous photo research, thorough back-and-forth editing, precise page layout and careful fact-checking. But from the writer, a quasi-Herculean effort is required.

Fresh off deadline, the author of our latest Mountain Profile—the North Cascades’ Picket Range—Forest McBrian sits down to debrief and explain why, among other nuggets of wisdom, “climbing is like mapping is like writing.”

[Photo] Fredrik Marmsater, courtesy Forest McBrian

What interested you about the Mountain Profile format, and how did you go about framing the Pickets’ climbing history within that context?

The format invites you into the human and natural history of a mountain, and offers the possibility of glimpsing the role mountains play in the broader history of our world. In writing about the Pickets I saw an opportunity to explore some of the questions that have come to preoccupy me over 10 years working in the North Cascades–questions it turned out I could answer with a bit of work.

I suppose it’s obvious to say that in writing history you already know the ending–in this case the ending was my teenage infatuation with the Picket Range. That blending of histories–personal, natural, societal–is endemic to the ecosystem of the Mountain Profile. But it was tough to put myself into the story, since I am at best a very minor character in that story, and could easily be omitted for clarity.

What did you know about the process of writing an Mountain Profile for Alpinist before you started working on this one? Had you heard about the experience from past MP writers?

I briefly chatted with Renny Jackson in Talkeetna in the spring of 2013. He was climbing with his daughter in the Alaska Range, and I was going doing a volunteer ranger patrol with the Park Service. I believe his Grand Teton profile had just come out [That back issue is available HERE.–Ed.], and I asked him a few questions. I don’t recall that I was already thinking about writing something along those lines, but I can’t say. His eyes got a little wide talking about the writing and editing process–he made it clear that it was a big undertaking.

Can you talk about the quantity and quality of research you did for this big undertaking? What were some of the most useful written materials you referenced?

Research is intimidating to me. But last spring I ran into Jon Krakauer, and he said he loved research and that writing was the hard part for him. Somehow meeting a writer with the opposite polarity to mine shook something loose in me, and I dove into the Pickets research headlong. As with any big project, I had lots of help. [Editor-in-Chief] Katie Ives is as supportive, imaginative and energetic an editor as I can imagine, and she did a lot of excellent research for the piece; [Editorial Intern] Brad Rassler and [Managing Editor] Gwen Cameron did incredible fact-checking. I also had a lot of guidance from Lowell Skoog, a very talented historian and careful researcher (also a prolific explorer of the North Cascades). He is more familiar with the historical resources on skiing and climbing in the Northwest than anyone, and he was generous with advice and direction.

I read all sorts of stuff for this project, including a lot of obscure documents: I found William Degenhardt’s certificate of completion for The Mountaineers’ climbing course from, I think, the late 1930s–signed by Lloyd Anderson. But Fred Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guide really gets the award for ‘most useful.’ It served as a foundation. The scope of his research is overwhelming, and his guidebook offers its own history of the Picket Range. On Lowell’s advice, I began with a spreadsheet and entered all of the names and dates from the Red CAG. I added to this as I did research, building a timeline that helped me stay oriented. Fred’s work is truly exceptional, and the story of his research is probably as interesting as the story of his climbing career.

I had a short first draft done after about six weeks. After that, writing and research overlapped a great deal–I was figuring out the story, and as the story emerged it directed further research.

How long did it actually take to research and write your first draft?

For about five months I worked an average of 20 hours a week on the piece. At the same time I was guiding a fair amount: off-piste weeks here in Chamonix, ski traverses in Italy and Switzerland, and so on. I brought books and notes to the huts with me sometimes. It was tough to be away from libraries and local resources in Seattle, but I did my best to be creative about getting what I needed.

How many interviews (phone, in-person and email) did you do for this project? What was the most interesting conversation you had involving this Pickets project?

I did somewhere around 20 interviews; some were informal, and others were two-hour extravaganzas. I spoke with climbers, geologists and park rangers. There were many highlights, but speaking with Kelly Bush was wonderful. She’s been with the Park service in the North Cascades for about 34 years (the park is only 46 years old), and has had a big hand in forming the wilderness management program there. And Carla Firey just mesmerized me; she has some incredible stories to tell. [Firey tells some of those as part of the Mountain Profile in a short essay called ‘Firey Adventure Tours.’–Ed.] I had many, many unforgettable conversations–I feel almost spoiled.

The opening spread of Issue 47’s Picket Range Mountain Profile. The 28-page article includes short essays by Ed Cooper on climbing the North Face of Mt. Terror in 1961; Carla Firey on her families’ many “adventure tours” into the range; Wayne Wallace on the first enchainments in the Northern and Southern Pickets; and Jens Holsten, who recalls one memorable Pickets climb with the late Chad Kellogg.

Threaded in and out of each Mountain Profiles’ chronological discussion of that peak/cliff/area’s major ascents are one or more universal themes. The Eiger Mountain Profile [Issues 40/41] traced the making of mountaineering mythology (among other narratives); the El Capitan Profile [Issue 25] was all about reinventing ourselves and the way we climb; and the Needles [Issue 15] examined some of North America’s most scrupulous ethics. In this issue, you discussed the meaning of wildness. What interested you about this idea? When you set out to write about the Pickets, was “wildness” something you always intended to explore in the piece?

Everything about wildness interests me: where the idea comes from, how we experience it, how cultural it can be.

The Wilderness Act turns 50 this year, and I wanted to write something that would provoke thought about that law but also about the ideas that underlie the law. Our ideas about “wildness” and “wilderness” are not of simply historical interest. They can play a part in really big decisions: where we will or will not drill for oil, what forest fires we will fight and which we will let burn, what roads we will close or rebuild. More pressingly, societal views of people who live in wild nature–including many traditional cultures across the world–may influence their future as development presses closer from all sides. A bolting controversy is, by comparison, a fairly benign manifestation of warring ideas on nature and the wild. The climbing history of one range seemed like a good scale at which to discuss some difficult material.

What connections do you see between the processes of writing and climbing? What makes those two disciplines such a complementary pair?

Climbing is in large part a practice in observation–scrutinizing the physical world: How is this ridge shaped? How many air bubbles does the ice contain? What is the temperature? How is this crack shaped? You effectively map a physical space and find your way through it. Writing has to do with observation also. You begin with a stack of observations or facts–this happened in this year, this person did this, and so on. You are trying to map the shape of a story, and you have to discern the details that will best convey that story–the same way a map uses a few elevations and contour lines to approximate a mountain range. I’m mixing metaphors intentionally: climbing is like mapping is like writing.

What did you learn about yourself as a writer through this process? Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?

I’ve learned that structure and research don’t need to constitute a repressive regime bent on crushing all poetic and imaginative thought. That’s pretty hokey sounding, I guess, but it’s helpful to me. I’d like to write more about history, and write more history into my fiction. I’m interested in wilderness, the National Parks, in the comparative study of land use internationally, the history of mountain guiding. It’s not a short list by any means, so it will take some sorting before I pick out my next project.

For a taste for McBrian’s writing before you delve into the Pickets Mountain Profile, read his short story, “Contagious Magic,” about sharing his spiritual reconnection to the Pickets with his late stepmother.