Forbidden Peak

A Lesson in Using Guidebooks
By B.C. Hartwig
The East Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The East Ridge of Forbidden Peak

The question sounded innocent enough. To a bystander it would have seemed like a friendly exchange between climbers. But Russ and I knew better; we knew it wasn't a question at all. It was a demand for justice.

"Did you guys read the guide book?"

It was a challenge with an edge, a sense of purpose. It had been put to us by Lance, an Australian with a growing skepticism of Americans and their sense of fun.

The three of us were in the last stage of retreat off the East Ridge of Forbidden Peak, an imposing mountain that rises above Boston Basin in Washington's North Cascades National Park. Every detail of the East Ridge's eeriness and beauty were sharp in our minds as we silently wound down the steep switchbacks of the Boston Basin trail, a three-mile climber's trail that connects Cascade River Road with the high country. The parking lot was close—with civilization and hot coffee less than an hour away—but the question still hung in the air and Lance wanted an answer.

"Yeah, we read it," Russ responded as we dropped our packs in the dirt of the parking lot.

It wasn't a complete lie. We had scanned the pages of the guidebook and learned that the East Ridge was rated a grade II, 5.8 climb. There was to be some glacier travel but the route was mostly a low, fifth-class rock climb along the exposed ridge. Truth be told, though, our usefulness with the guidebook ended with the first paragraph: "Forbidden Peak is impressive, standing high above Boston Basin, its three perfect ridges radiating outward from its jagged summit. Climbers frequently rate the routes on Forbidden Peak among the best they have done..."

If we had read the book a little more carefully, we may have picked up on the understated diction of the text. Subtle warnings were buried in phrases such as, "the somewhat unappealing northeast face," and there was a whisper of fear in "the descent can be stressful." Chances are good that we would have taken the advice of one vital sentence that we had missed entirely: "Bypass the towers on either side."

Now, I'm not a fan of hyperbole, but gritty truth has its place in climbing. I appreciate it when guidebook authors include a skull and crossbones—big and dark—at the end of their route descriptions: One skull with crossbones gets your attention, three make you think hard before leaving the ground to challenge gravity. The word unappealing seems better suited to describing a bad club sandwich than imparting dread.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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