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In Search of Lost Peaks

[This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 68 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Following in the footsteps of the famous Cascade Range guidebook author Harvey Manning. [Photo] Katie Ives

The overlook above Ross Lake in Washington’s Cascade Range, one of the areas that Harvey Manning described in his legendary guidebooks and conservation writings. [Photo] Katie Ives

IN AUGUST, on a pilgrimage of sorts, I set out in search of a trail that wasn’t on most of the ordinary maps I’d found. I paused at the signboard near the parking lot, where a picture of official paths displayed wriggling burgundy lines. The unmarked trail lay somewhere in the blank orange space marked “Wilderness Boundary.” I was hoping to follow it to a particular location within an alpine basin, concealed behind steep ridges: a place of vivid meadows and abundant flowers below a snowy peak. This was one of the favorite spots of Harvey Manning, a Cascades mountaineer, guidebook author and conservationist, who died in 2006. During the 1960s, he’d created a few infamous maps of imaginary mountains, which fooled magazine editors and climbers alike, and he’d conducted other practical jokes, both known and possibly unknown.

This basin, I was certain, was real. While researching Manning’s hoaxes, I’d been corresponding with some of his children and friends. I’d heard that he’d described the place as his “home,” and that his family had scattered his ashes there. His son, Paul, emailed me a map with a line that he’d added of the unmarked trail. One of his daughters, Claudia, sent me photos of their most recent visit. Later, I found descriptions in Manning’s writings. As with most seemingly hidden areas in the Internet age, scattered references to the place by other people appeared online. But the way there didn’t seem easy to find. Long before you reach the unmarked path, one blogger warned, the named trails branch in confusing ways, not always corresponding to lines on maps.

When I left the parking lot, the late summer sun filled the woods and fields with a dusty shimmer of gold. I’ve never gotten in the habit of using GPS. Instead, at each bewildering junction, I paused and stared at my crumpled stack of printed information and contradictory maps. Often, I simply guessed. And as I contoured a mountainside of dark evergreens, I kept looking for the unmarked trail, wondering at each dim imprint of footfalls amid the grass and rocks.

A backpacker appeared around a corner, and he told me that he was just returning from the place I sought. He and his friends had built a cairn to mark the way as they headed out. His expression turned radiant. The alpine basin had exceeded any expectations that he could have formed: it was, he believed, the most beautiful place in the world. I walked on, following his directions, to a narrow track that led up a steep hillside, around a rampart of cliffs, over a sudden pass and through the space between two giant evergreens that rose like an open doorway to another world.

A cairn marks the mostly secret path to Manning's final resting place. [Photo] Katie Ives

A recent cairn marks the unofficial path to Manning’s favorite place. [Photo] Katie Ives

AS THE BRITISH WRITER Hugh Thomson pointed out in Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary, images of a hidden alpine basin and a high peak appear in many cultures and eras, as the object of a quest, the emblem of an ideal or the experience of paradise itself. In an article about the Nanda Devi Sanctuary for the 1964 Himalayan Journal, the Indian mountaineer Hari Dang recounted a Hindu legend of a pilgrim who climbed a peak so tall that the ice of its slopes merged into the frost of the clouds. There, he learned that he’d entered the realm of the divine, and he could no longer return to earth.

In European traditions, Eden or the Earthly Paradise sometimes appeared as a verdant garden, surrounded by giant walls, near or atop an improbably high mountain. In Mapping Paradise, historian Alessandro Scafi described the quest to place it on an actual terrestrial map as both contradictory and obsessive:

To find paradise, after all, would be equivalent to answering the paradoxical question: where is nowhere?… Throughout history paradise has appeared everywhere in a variety of secular and religious guises, always thought of as ‘elsewhere’ and ‘out of time.’… Mapping the Garden of Eden presented the ultimate cartographical paradox: how to map a place that was on earth but not of earth.

Sixth-century Alexandrian mapmaker Cosmas Indicopleustes envisioned an immense mountain that rose past the utmost layer of clouds beyond the reach of human vision. During the late fifteenth-century, Christopher Columbus came to believe that the Earthly Paradise existed atop an elevation point so great that the planet itself was shaped like a pear. By the sixteenth century, few cartographers were inclined to take his claims of improbable heights seriously. Some theologians argued that no explorers could ever discover Eden because the original landscape had been destroyed in the Flood–all that could be found on earth, if anything, was the place where it had vanished. Others imagined the Earthly Paradise as an inner state that disappeared with a loss of innocence.

Twentieth-century fiction books, such as James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, perpetuated the idea of a utopian world in a concealed alpine valley, beyond an unnamed, luminous peak and outside of ordinary maps and time. Hilton’s descriptions of “Shangri La” echoed images of the Earthly Paradise, but also appropriated Buddhist legends of Shambhala and concepts of beyul, hidden paradises within giant peaks. Mountaineers around the world continued to perceive physical ranges as unearthly places, as if summits could provide a bridge to a hoped-for other reality, a means to spiritual transcendence, an entry point into landscapes of the unconscious mind–or else a rediscovery of a “lost landscape of early experience,” as the biographer Jim Perrin wrote of the British mountaineer Eric Shipton’s quest to reimmerse himself in childhood wonder.

Many of these adventures expressed a persistent longing for places that remained unmappable–“on the earth but not of the earth”–free from the constraints of ordinary reality, the depredations of industrial development, and the limitations of the known. By the twenty-first century, the idea of lost paradises became entwined with a nostalgia for a “lost art of getting lost,” as numerous writers called it–before GPS, satellite photos and other technologies removed some of the potential for wandering into unexpected places. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit explained:

In [the philosopher Walter] Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.

One summer in the Teton Range, a friend told me a story about a climber who became so disoriented by gaps between a terse guidebook description and the actual topography near a mountaintop that he thought, for a moment, he was making a first ascent. He was not actually lost; he only believed he was, and in that instant he’d experienced the illusion of climbing a new route on an unidentifiable peak. Soon after, when I followed that same established route, despite the warning I’d been given, I became nearly as baffled. In fragments of memory, I recall staggering into what seemed like it could only be a dream: across a deep-green sweep of meadow; over a spine of dark, crumbling rock; into a realm that existed, strangely unmentioned, in the silences between the words on the page. Had the effects of sleep deprivation, altitude and exhaustion–and the influence of my friend’s story–tinted my surroundings with an aura of enchantment? Or was it simply that I’d managed to become, for a moment, wholly lost in wonder at the real, known world?

IN HARVEY MANNING’S PAPERS, preserved in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Libraries, there’s a handwritten poem, likely from his teenage years, that evokes the desire to find–or to envision–an ideal alpine landscape. In this “peaceful, secret home,” a high peak would appear “forbidding, grand, with mystery.” There would be a gleaming snowfield and delicate wildflowers, a sense of “Utopian order” and a “fairyland of splendor.”

When I crossed the threshold of the pass and entered the Cascades basin, I imagined that I’d glimpsed the coalescence of many wanderers’ dreams: the green-gold slopes of grass that sparkled with flowers; the surreal appearance of a snowy dome that glowed beyond dark fins of rock; the spiny rim of other peaks that surrounded this inner world. I recalled Shipton’s legendary description of the Inner Sanctuary of Nanda Devi:

My most blissful dream as a child was to be in some such valley, free to wander where I liked…. Now the reality was no less wonderful than that half-forgotten dream; and of how many childish fancies can that be said, in this age of disillusionment?… Every few hundred yards, some new feature would reveal itself–here a side valley to look up…there some graceful ice-clad summit appearing from behind a buttress….

In the Cascades basin, there were small signs of human impact: dirt paths worn into lush meadows; charred logs from old campfires; vague indents of footsteps here and there. The wonder was undiminished. I tried to memorize the way the afternoon sun blazed on clusters of yellow petals; how the clear streams glimmered across polished, almost iridescent rocks; how the tree groves encircled meadows within meadows, worlds within worlds. At last, I realized I should hike back out, through the maze of branching paths, before dark. With each step, I felt the steady loss, in my own life, of this place. Even if I returned, I would never again see it this way: in this fleeting burst of late-summer light, in this startled awe of encountering it for the first time.

SOMETIME during the 1980s, in one of the many pocket notebooks that he kept, Manning jotted down fragments of a vision of the modern wild as a “suspension of disbelief.” In an age of air transport and mass tourism, he asserted, “Increasingly we move into the era of make-believe wilderness…. Everest, now, is make-believe compared to when Mallory was there. That’s the bad. The good is, the same make-believe can be used everywhere.” Children know how to use their imagination to transform or create vast untrammeled lands out of small patches of weeds or fringes of woods. Accessible green spaces should be conserved near cities, Manning believed, to prevent people of all ages from losing that opportunity to wander and dream. In page after page, he scrawled down ways to connect with inner and outer wildness: “to be at home,” “to be afraid,” “to be alone,” “to be friends,” “to look out,” “to look within,” “a reaching out,” “a soaking in.” Since “the experience requires vulnerability,” he wrote, hikers and climbers could find it more easily by using a tarp for shelter rather than a tent, and they should consider “going without guidebook or even map on purpose.”

In one definition, Manning declared, “a wilderness is a place where it is possible to get lost.” This state could be attained, he believed, even on the fringes of Seattle, amid the hills near his house in Issaquah. During his efforts to protect these gentle, wooded summits, Manning renamed them “the Issaquah Alps”–a ploy to make them seem more Romantic and alluring. By enticing visitors to the lowlands, as his friend Dave Fluharty remembers, Manning hoped to decrease some of the crowding in fragile alpine regions. With an imaginative approach and an altered perspective, small hills might appear as sublime to hikers and climbers as high, snowy peaks.

The day before my trip to the Cascades basin, I’d driven to Issaquah to walk the Harvey Manning Trail (thus named after his death). On the way there, as the first branches arched above the asphalt road, I gasped: the subdivisions blinked out in an instant. It was as though the city had never existed: the forest ahead was hardly the wild in a grandiose sense of the term; yet its groves appeared haunting, all consuming. Soon, even the recollection of houses, pavements and yards vanished amid the green darkness of tall trees, their trunks thick with soft moss, their shadows falling on masses of giant ferns. Dusk drifted through the cool violet air, and I saw no one else as I continued beyond the junction with the Shangri La Trail to Cougar Pass. In growing dark, the woods seemed to multiply. The last light flared and then turned ashen as it faded between countless leaves.

Manning had a penchant for inventing peak names–whether the “Issaquah Alps,” which now bear that designation on common maps, or the “No Name Peak” and the “Riesenstein Peaks” that he used for the fake cartographies of his most well-known hoaxes. He also advocated for some genuine names. In a May 1988 Mountaineer article, Manning urged readers to write to the Washington State Board of Geographic Names and demand a restoration of the Indigenous Lushootseed term Whulj to at least part of the area around Puget Sound. In many geographic regions, fantasies of terra incognita can obscure an awareness of the presence and traditions of local inhabitants. A converse to the imagining of ideal, unmappable places is the realization that what is truly real and important has never been on colonialist maps at all.

DRIVING THROUGH the North Cascades on the way back from a climbing trip, I paused at an outlook above Ross Lake. Beyond the slow bends in the waters and the dark ridges of evergreens, a rocky tower bent into view, sharp and silver, in the bluish haze of distance: Mt. Hozomeen. To the Beat writer Jack Kerouac, this peak was a kind of numinous “Void,” an immense, dark silhouette against the night sky, its facets glittering, ice-bright, under the aurora borealis. In 100 Classic Hikes in Washington, first published in 1998, Manning declared that this mountain had inspired some of Jack Kerouac’s best prose.

Somewhere “out beyond” Hozomeen, Canadian mountaineer Dick Culbert, dreamed up another unearthly peak. In a poem titled “The Ballad of the Border Survey,” he described it as “misty and waiting…. Across the dark moat of the dim, deathless Skagit, A tall twisted country, alive and aloof. / A great phantom network of mist-tangled ridges, / A chaos of mountains just bustin’ with ice.”

Glenn Woodsworth, Culbert’s friend and publisher, recounts the tale:

Many decades ago, Dick said he found the name Matsaac on an old map, but I have not found any such (nor had Fred Beckey, when I asked him about it….) When I quizzed Dick about the name late in life, he couldn’t remember it and said he might have just made it up…. The area was poorly mapped in the early 1960s, when the poem was written…. Dick added to the mystery in his 1965 guidebook by applying the name “Matsaac Peak,” to a prominent, unnamed peak (now Mt. Custer) near the International Border west of the Skagit River.

In my own memory, that brief vision of Hozomeen blurs into surreal images of wild, blue-tinted walls above tree-shadowed valleys. At night, I’ve long felt haunted by dreams of summits that are impossible to find in the waking world. For me, those landscapes seemed connected to a persistent fantasy that there was some journey I was supposed to go on, some glimmer of possibility beyond the last light of the horizon–a destination that was, perhaps, still attainable, but seemed to recede ever farther away with time.

ON A TYPEWRITTEN SCRAP of paper, attached to the pile of Manning’s scrawled notes about wilderness and getting lost, appeared the words:

I had learned, by then, that a peak doesn’t have to be remote to be wild–very wild. There is wildness next to our railroads, our highways, our lowland homes. I had relearned, as I’d known for some time, that at the far boundary of wilderness is…death.

There are numerous ways to interpret those lines. Perhaps Manning sensed that the common European idea of wilderness at its extreme edge becomes a dangerous void–an imaginary place devoid of human history and inimical to life. But Manning also loved to plant literary allusions in his writing. And “Death,” as Hamlet famously pronounced in Shakespeare’s play, is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”

Manning admitted his fear of mortality in his 1986 book, Walking the Beach to Bellingham: “Walking lads, walking’s the trick, / For fellows whom it scares to tick.” In a note to an editor, Don Graydon (found in The Mountaineers Archives), Manning explained that this tick represented the sound of a clock. In addition, perhaps, the word recalled the beat of a human pulse; Manning had suffered from a heart condition since youth. By moving at the deliberate pace of footfalls, he could prolong his immersion in a wild area, and he could lose himself, however briefly, in an experience of expanded space and decelerated time. “To make your world larger,” he advised readers of 100 Classic Hikes in Washington, “go slower.”

On my way out from the Cascades basin, after hours of continual walking, my own body felt nearly weightless, as ephemeral and transparent as the dust that hung, suspended, in the twilit air. The final rays of sun lingered on the hillsides above me, illuminating boughs of evergreens with a beauty that seemed almost unbearably gentle and fleeting. Nearby, crisp shadows outlined countless blades of grass, petals and leaves. I thought of Manning’s trips here and of the hike that he might have guessed would be his last. I thought of what it means to move through a landscape that someone else has deeply loved, whether something of that person remains in it. I imagined how he might have known each tree and branch, each gentle curve and jagged line of peak and ridge; how he might have recognized the way the small, bright faces of flowers still turned toward the fading light as the soft gold of evening lit the pines. It was hard to believe that all of that kind of love, for any place or anything, could ever be wholly lost.

Following in the footsteps of the famous Cascade Range guidebook author Harvey Manning. [Photo] Katie Ives

The Harvey Manning Trail, near Issaquah. [Photo] Katie Ives

[Like “A Brief Atlas of Phantom Peaks” in Alpinist 67, this article is part of a book project on Harvey Manning and imaginary mountains. Paul and Claudia Manning, John Scurlock, Ruth Fremson, Charlie Lieu, Jim Hopkins, Dianne and Geoff Childs, Emily White, Kate Rogers, Glenn Woodsworth, Anders Ourom, Phil Fenner, Dave Fluharty, Rick McGuire, Lowell Skoog, David Kappler and Doug McClelland all provided help with maps, directions, advice and/or research. “Sources include the Harvey Manning Papers, Acc. 2097-008 and 2097-010, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, and The Mountaineers Archive.”?This Sharp End originally appeared in Alpinist 68 (Winter 2019-20).–Ed.]