Summiting Special Collections
By Kamiah Koch
In the highest room of the tallest tower, also known as the sixth floor of Wilson Library, the Special Collections hosts its newest exhibit, “To the Mountaintop: A Social History of Mountaineering.”
The exhibit features historical materials provoking viewers to think about the influence that gender, race and class has had on mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest.
“There are a lot of people that live here and go to Western to climb and mountaineer,” said Garrett Shively, a fifth year environmental science major working at the Outdoor Center. “It is a huge part of living in the Cascades.”
The exhibit is free and open to the public from Sept. 26 through March 22. Michael Taylor, Special Collections librarian, said it is one of their longer exhibits, lasting through spring quarter.
To the Mountaintop features “rare books, historical photographs and manuscript materials from Western Libraries’ division of Heritage Resources,” according to the Western Libraries webpage. The entire collection was brought together through a collaboration with Special Collections, which is providing the written works, and the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, which is providing the images, Taylor said.
The collection uses a “historical trifecta” framework, according to Taylor, focusing on the achievements and social issues mountaineering has in correlation with race, gender and class. Taylor said choosing this angle for the exhibit makes the collection more meaningful in an educational setting.
“We wanted to think about how the collection supports education rather than entertainment,” Taylor said.
At the entrance of the Special Collections gallery are several large images of female mountaineers summiting mountains in the region. One of the most recognizable photos is of a woman summiting Mount Baker in 1941, which can also be seen on posters for the exhibition around campus.
As a guide with the Outdoor Center leading Mount Baker summits, Western junior Vivien McNett said the Outdoor Center is trying to break down the gender barriers that still exist with mountaineering.
“Mountaineering has been a very traditional boys club sport, and pretty white-male-dominated,” McNett said. “A lot of outdoor rec is [male-dominated] but I feel like mountaineering and climbing weighs heavily on that.”
The Outdoor Center challenges that gender gap by providing an inclusive women-identifying summit of Mount Baker, McNett said.
Taylor said the display in the center of the exhibit holds several books open to pages which highlight race in association with mountaineering, specifically representing Native American and African-American mountaineering achievements.
“Mountaineering is considered more of a ‘white’ hobby but there are African-American mountaineers,” Taylor said. “Charles Crenchaw was the first black man to summit Mount Denali in 1964, which is appropriate as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used mountain symbolism in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech a year earlier. “
The exhibit highlights the accomplishments mountaineering has made with inclusivity in regards to race and gender, but Taylor said it’s important not to forget about the problematic history of mountaineering.
Within the same center display, there are works that suggest controversial ethics seen with race and mountaineering showcased with an exposé of Sherpa porters. Written works expose the issues involved with Sherpa porters, workers whose job is to carry predominantly white mountaineers’ gear up the mountains, as having one of the highest workplace mortality rates in the world.
In regards to social status, Taylor said he chose books that contain information about the “conservation refugees,” people from non-majority socioeconomic groups who were forced to relocate because of governments wanting to convert lands into public parks and developments.
Taylor hopes this section of the collection will encourage viewers to question if the recreational needs of people living in cities takes priority over indigenous rights and vulnerable residents of undeveloped lands.
“Instead of just thinking ‘oh, that’s a mountain,’ know there is a lot of history and conflict behind it,” Taylor said.
In connection to the Special Collections exhibit, the Heritage Resources Distinguished Speakers Series will be hosting the author of Altitude Journals: A Seven-Year Journey from the Lowest Point in My Life to the Highest Point on Earth, David Mauro on Nov. 6. Time and location to be announced.