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Among the Eternal Snows, by Phil Carson

Review by Ed Quillen

Local History – October 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Among the Eternal Snows – The First Recorded Ascent of Pike’s Peak: July 13-15, 1820
by Phil Carson
Published in 1995 by First Ascent Press
2012 W. Kiowa, Colorado Springs CO 80904

Pike’s Peak may not carry much esteem in mountain-climbing circles — it even has a railroad to its summit, as well as an annual auto race — but it was the first 14,000-foot peak in America to be climbed by anyone who left a record.

That ascent was not made by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike in 1806. It came in 1820 on an expedition headed by Major Stephen H. Long — whose name went on Long’s Peak, which he didn’t climb.

To extend this perverse pattern of naming mountains after people who didn’t climb them, the first climber of Pike’s Peak was Edwin James, and his name went on a Front Range peak above the Moffat Tunnel — a mountain he never climbed.

Now that the peculiarities of nomenclature have been noted, we can join Phil Carson (an occasional contributor to Colorado Central) in exploring the story behind the names.

Pike came out to explore the limits of the Louisiana Purchase. He fell into Spanish hands, and his notes were confiscated. A few years later, the U.S. War Department dispatched another expedition to find the headwaters and to collect scientific data.

Long had plans for a big trip, perhaps to the Pacific. But he settled for “an excursion, by land, to the source of the river Platte, and thence by way of the Arkansas and Red rivers to the Mississippi.”

Carson makes a convincing case that Long saw this as an encumbrance to his career, and thus went through the motions as quickly as possible. Long didn’t venture into the mountains to find “the source of the river Platte,” and his expedition is best known as for the phrase “Great American Desert,” where Long spent all his time on the 1820 trip.

This refusal to explore beyond trails already known disappointed the expedition’s botanist, Edwin James, who wanted to search the mountains for new plants.

Carson demonstrates that there was considerable tension between James and Long — between military establishment and scientific inquiry — and James was fortunate to get Long to stop for three days along Fountain Creek so that James and two other men could try Pike’s Peak.

They made the summit (and started a forest fire because they left their campfire burning) and thus left the first account of a climb of a 14er. As a botanist, James also put our state flower, the blue columbine, into the reference books.

Carson’s research is thorough, even to the extent of attempting to follow James’s route up the mountain. He also brings an old dispute between personalities to life, making us aware that the explorers of yore were flesh-and-blood people with passions and tempers. Long and James clashed, but Long did afterward propose that the mountain be named James Peak.

The writing is a bit academic, though never hard to follow for an attentive reader, and the book is attractive. The only problem I saw is the price — $7.95 for about 50 pages seems steep.

— Ed Quillen