“Chasing Denali” by Jon Waterman — Review

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 23, 2018      

Sometimes, a book comes along that seems supernaturally appropriate for our themes here at WildSnow. (E.g, history; skiing; mountains; snow; personal retrospective; mountaineering; Denali.)

So, when my friend and prolific author Jonathan Waterman kicks out another Denali book, we notice. Jon’s new book, Chasing Denali, is a superb blend of history and personal narrative. The history should win a prize, while the personal content borders on memoir that’ll burn out headlamp batteries while invoking sleep deprivation.

Waterman during his Alaska days.

   Jon during his early Denali days.

What Jon does here is not easy. He grabs one of the most interesting historical events in mountaineering, writes deep, but blends his own “return to Denali as an old guy” with an overall historical theme. The early event in question is the famed and sometimes questioned 1910 “Sourdough First Ascent” of Denali’s North Summit.

If you’ve had half an ear to mountaineering history, you know about the Sourdoughs. They had zero climbing experience, but were no strangers to cold weather and hardship. Apparently they were strong as well, and innovative as to gear. (Example: actual home-made crampons that functioned for steep snow climbing and probably a modicum of ice ascension as well.) If what they did was real, it was indeed the “most unbelievable feat in mountaineering history,” as the book’s subtitle states.

Jon’s historical quest began just few years ago, inspired by a magazine article he was commissioned to write. During a coffee we had back then, he related that perhaps the old climb was somewhat a myth (and his article a “myth busting”), but that he’d dig into it with all modern tricks of historical research and see where it led. A few months later, coffee again, Jon saying something like: “I’ve been looking at the Sourdoughs…found out they had “creepers” that were nearly as effective as modern crampons. I’m thinking they might have done this thing just as the legends hold…but a few other items shed doubt. Check this photograph out, it is key, does it show the 14-foot spruce pole they erected near the summit…?”

Go ahead, if the word “fascinating” comes to mind you are not off the mark. Thus, 138 pages of tight prose, mixing Jon’s return to the mountain for his 60th birthday with an entire well-researched history (and truthing) of the Sourdough climb.

If there is any flaw in Chasing Denali, it’s that the prologue makes you want Waterman to write a full-on 150,000 word memoir covering his personal life as a “historical and environmental” adventurer. Granted, his Shadow of Denali book dabbles in retrospective, but it covers a brief time of his life. Likewise, his adventure writings are epic, personal, and could perhaps be called memoir: Jon’s boating the Colorado River from source to ocean comes to mind, as does his solo exploration of the Northwest passage. But now he’s in a final quartern of life, so how about something that covers the whole deal, behind the scenes?

Of course, perhaps Waterman’s entire body of work, numbering in the hundreds and thousands of words, could be anything one could ask of a memoirist. In that case, check out his listings at Amazon (click image to right).

It would be silly for me to close with a spoiler, as to Jon’s documented conclusion as to the Sourdough’s truth. So I’ll leave that for your discovery (read the book!). Meanwhile, I’m comfortable sharing that Jon’s return to his old stomping grounds has the makings of fine retrospective, or me-and-Joe climbing tale that would stand on its own. In either case, what you get is elevated by his quest for historicity.

Recommended? Five stars.

Chasing Denali — The sourdoughs, cheechakos, and frauds behind the most unbelievable feat in mountaineering
By Jon Waterman, Rowman & Littlefied Publishing, 2018


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9 Responses to ““Chasing Denali” by Jon Waterman — Review”

  1. OMR October 24th, 2018 10:46 am

    I’ve read other Waterman writings and I’ve never been disappointed. This one sounds great.
    Perhaps this is unnesscary for your enlightened readers Lou, but maybe it should be noted there are two Jon(h) Watermans known for Denali exploits. The other one disappeared on Denali several decades ago.

  2. Lou Dawson 2 October 24th, 2018 12:00 pm

    OMR, pretty old history now, but good to note. Jon (author) himself covers the other Jon in previous book, forgot which book exactly…

    Take my word for it, Chasing Denali is really good. I could perhaps making the NYT list if it’s written main-stream enough for a popular book in the adventure genre. Difficult with these sorts of books, as you have your guaranteed customer base of folks who enjoy mountaineering literature, then your greater public who likes interesting outdoorsy stuff, but who knows what the latest whim is…


  3. braerlach October 25th, 2018 4:44 pm

    Looks intriguing and hoping for a teachable moment: what exactly is an “environmental adventurer”?

  4. Lou2 October 25th, 2018 8:00 pm

    Just a phrase i coined, meaning a person who adventures with purpose to raise environmental awareness, along with other things and motivations. Lou

  5. Bard October 26th, 2018 12:56 pm

    I love his book “In the Shadow of Denali”, in which the story, “Lone Wolf (the other John Waterman)” appears. I eat this stuff up, and will surely read the new one. Thanks Lou and Jon!

  6. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2018 7:26 am

    Bard, indeed, Jon’s coverage of the “other” is a timeless addition to the canon of mountaineering history. It’s a fascinating, ultimately tragic story that for me brought home the fact that mountaineering can be transcendent, but sometimes has a dark side as well that we forget at our peril. Lou

  7. Bard October 28th, 2018 7:06 pm

    Lou, did you personally know the other Watermans, Guy, Laura, Johnny? Fascinating and heartbreaking story, almost a Greek tragedy.

  8. Lou Dawson 2 October 29th, 2018 8:24 am

    Didn’t know them Bard. Overall sad. Lou

  9. Mike Brown November 2nd, 2018 12:48 pm

    Jon was my first roommate when I moved to Aspen in 1989. I didn’t realize at the time just how hardcore he was in his outdoor pursuits, nor did I take advantage of getting to hear about them first hand nearly enough. I knew something was up though, as he would be gone for a month or so and then come home and sit at the kitchen table, grab the only thing he had in the fridge (Bicardi I believe) and hit the typewriter for two days. Then, poof – off on another adventure.

    Can’t wait to read your new book, Jon!

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