The Death of the Mountains: An Examination of the Cruel History and Modern-Day Toxicity Embedded in Mountaineering Culture

Emma Wetsel

Sunday, May 11th, 1986, a group of 15 students, a mother, and a priest from Oregon Episcopal School left Portland with the goal of summiting Mount Hood, with the help of two professional guides. Over the course of 4 days, the trip became the second-deadliest alpine incident in North American history; seven out of the nine deaths were teenagers.

A culmination of increasingly unfortunate mistakes quickly turned the adventure into a deadly incident: a brutal storm, winds reaching 103 miles per hour (qualifying the storm as a level 2 hurricane), increasingly poor visibility, failure for the whole group to return to the base upon worsening conditions, pressure to continue from the trip leader Tom Goman, mistakes in navigation causing the group to traverse the mountain instead of decline, lost gear, and a snow cave built much too small and unmarked. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint where the trip turned fatal. However, what is clear are the devastating effects that were felt by the entire Portland community in the tragedies wake, and the devastating effects that still manage to haunt a small private school’s campus nearly thirty-four years later. The story stays alive in a chapel service recited each year, so familiar to each teacher and student that they can always anticipate what part comes next. I’ve heard it six times. The heartbreaking trip has made itself at home deep into the hearts of every OES student and faculty member to this day, including myself.

One mountain seems to repeatedly grace the front of every post card and sticker made of Oregon, its iconic shape rising behind hundreds of complex buildings and towers as if it were watching over the little city of bridges and roses at its base. The tallest peak in Oregon, Mount Hood, is one of the most visited mountains in the United States and draws ten thousand climbers per year from around the world. The mountain has quickly become a symbol of the wilderness prevalent in Oregon and has found a place in the hearts of nearly all locals. According to Mark Morford, spokesman for Portland Mountain Rescue, Mount Hood “just stands there and calls to you — and during clear weather… that mountain is there calling to anyone who’s ever thought about climbing it”. 

However, Mount Hood is also one of the most deadly mountains in the Northwest. More than 130 climbers have died trying to reach the top, and it has raked up seven times as many deaths over the past five years as the more daunting Mount Adams. Unlike most peaks in the West, permits specific to the mountain are not required to climb and there is no limit to how many can summit daily. Instead, only a self-issued wilderness permit is needed and filling out a climbers registration form is only recommended, meaning a group could be on the mountain without anyone knowing. Sergeant Brian Jensen, spokesman for the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department, points out the risks the lack of regulation can have for all novice climbers: “There’s a bunch of warning signs in here but if someone says, ‘Hey, I’m on vacation in Oregon and I’ve never climbed a mountain before and I want to climb Mount Hood,’ there’s nothing keeping them from doing it.” 

I grew up on that mountain. I have been in the outdoors, surrounded by miles of crystal white snow or towering rock surfaces, for as long as I can remember. How could I not be, when my parents moved us from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Oregon when I was two years old partially because they had fallen in love with the abundance of massive, leafy green trees Oregon is known for? I grew up swimming in ice cold rivers until my skin was red, running through forests of trees that seemed impossibly high with my sister, scaling boulders in local parks until my parents screamed at me to come down. I hit the slopes of Mount Hood right after I first learned how to walk, adorned in a flowery pink snowsuit and tethered to my father by a harness. My family then went on to buy a little cabin only 30 minutes away from the mountain in a town called Rhododendron, and over the course of 11 years, the little log cabin at the base of the mountain has become more than a second home.

I started rock climbing at the age of nine, and started competing in the sport a year later. At eleven, I climbed outside for the first time after driving with my teammates down to Bishop, California in a massive white van. The sun beat into my skin and the sand stuck between my toes as I worked my way up twenty-foot masses of granite before plopping to the ground on a pad I had carried up by myself. Sometime around then I climbed at Smith Rock for the first time, finding hand holds in huecos filled with leaves and bird droppings forty feet up. I was fourteen the first time I cleaned gear at the top of a climb, hauling rope and rearranging carabiners as I hung around 100 feet in the air, only clipped into a set of carabiners and two worn-down chains embedded in the volcanic rock. That same year I did my first multi-pitch, climbing 300 feet up. That was when I first learned how the air smelled different from that high up, almost as if it were more clean or crisp. Every sound around me—the laughter bubbling from the lips of my friend, the calls of hawks, the distant rushing of the turquoise river at our feet—was overpowered by the thrum of my own heart and the buzzing in my veins. 

I joined Post 58, a student-run mountaineering and outdoors group of 200 other teenagers when I was fifteen. It was through Post 58 that I climbed my first mountain, Mount Ellinor, in the Oregon High Cascades. It was a pretty small mountain, but it felt a lot bigger back then when I was standing at the base looking up. Going up was awful, the only parts I enjoyed were our snack breaks and when a mountain goat climbed a section of the mountain next to us, but I understood it all when I reached the peak. I looked down at the miniature world at my feet: an orange-sized lake glinting in the sunlight, thousands of trees sprawled across the ground as far as I could see the size of grains of rice, the horizon line dotted with other mountains that seemed so close I could almost reach them. I wanted to bottle the view, and bottle the feeling that was rolling through my body like a forest fire—a sense of unmatched pride and utter joy. That feeling is what I chase up every mountain laid out in front of me to this day. 

Mountains have played a large role in the lives of humans for as long as we’ve been around. Although originally mountains offered another place for hunting, shelter, and survival, over time they have grown and shifted away from a natural resource to pick up a more symbolic value. Countless ancient cultures looked towards the mountain as the “‘Center of the World’, often [serving] as a cosmic axis linking heaven and earth and providing ‘order’ to the universe”. Today, mountains are considered a “universal symbol of the nearness of God, as it surpasses ordinary humanity and extends toward the sky and the heavens”. There is something about mountains that manages to evoke a sense of power and heavenly authority unlike any other symbol known to man. At its purest form, mountains are symbols of constancy, eternity, and permanence with a mountain’s peak signifying the state of absolute consciousness.,  

The origins of mountain climbing are relatively innocent in nature, as summiting a peak was not officially seen as a sport until the late 18th century. Instead, the purposes of climbing mountains often revolved around the religious symbolism of mountains mentioned previously or humanity’s intrinsic curiosity about their surroundings. Citizens would climb to the tops of mountains to place altars honoring gods, get an overview of the nearby lands, or to make observations of the world around them. However, as the industrial revolution introduced a whole new wave of gear and supplies, climbing mountains soon became a much more accessible and feasible feat. It did not take long for the idea of climbing mountains as a sport to spread across the nation and enthrall the minds of thousands. 

In a single day, one man planted an idea that would eventually cause the original symbolic and religious values of mountains to be overlooked, if not forgotten entirely. And it all started as a competition. In 1760 during a visit to Chamonix, the young Genovese scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure saw the tallest peak in Europe, Mont Blanc, and determined he would be the one responsible for its first summit. He offered prize money for the first ascension, although it was not for another 26 years that the climb was successfully completed. However, what was initially seen as a private challenge soon grew into a competition between countries to demonstrate strength by conquering the tallest peaks in the world. Following World War I, Britain took summiting Everest as a personal goal, while climbers around the world rushed to summit peaks across the Himalayas. In 1933, a team of Soviet climbers was dispatched to summit ‘Stalin Peak’, later renamed ‘Communism Peak’ and finally ‘Imeni Ismail Samani Peak’. The Germans successfully summited Siniolchu in 1936, and the English summited Nanda Devi the same year.

Mountaineering was born from competition, not an unyielding love for the outdoors. And  mountaineering was not for everyone. The first recorded summit of a mountain by a woman wasn’t until 1799, when Miss Parminter climbed Le Buet. However, this summit was largely ignored and Parminter’s efforts went unrecognized. The first women’s Alpinist club, the Ladies Alpine Club located in London, wasn’t started until 1907 and opened in response to Britain’s main Alpine Club having a strict males-only policy. Even worse than the lack of women in mountaineering is the total absence of people of color in the history of the sport. The first summit of Everest was by a white male—Edmund Hillary—in 1953, however, it took until 2006 for the first African American—Sophia Danenberg—to summit the same peak., Left out of climbing history almost entirely is the Thami sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who summited Everest alongside Hillary, but didn’t get credit for the climb until Hillary paid tribute to him in 1986, 33 years later. 

 Throughout the 20th century, thousands of white male climbers around the world threw themselves into the sport with a sole goal of “conquering” the mountain. Each towering mountain was seen as yet another thing to conquer, another path to fame, recognition, and power. Now, when looking at the (oftentimes western) characteristics that inevitably run through mountaineering—such as assertion, desire for dominance, and control—it’s impossible to ignore the overpowering privilege and male dominance that infuses the sport. Furthermore, these characteristics have grown to become “toxic”, as they falsely advertise a set of poisoned values of mountaineering both within the climbing community and to the greater public, further damaging the sports reputation. It is these characteristics, left in the wake of the sport’s emergence and evolution throughout the past 200 years, that not only highlight but encourage an unexplored, often ignored, modern-day combination of sexism and racism. 

Doug Ironside presents exactly as one would envision a middle-aged man who makes his living as a professional guide—dragging groups up mountains or across the country on backpacking adventures—to be. I first met Ironside a year earlier just down the hall in one of our Spanish classrooms, where I had gathered with a few other high schoolers to plan for an upcoming backpacking trip in Utah a few months down the road. Over the course of our few meet-ups prior to the trip and the one week I spent with him backpacking, I learned that he was pretty much exactly like I’d expected an outdoor guide to be; he started the mornings with a cup of instant coffee that seemed to linger on his breath for the duration of the day, knew just about every dip and turn in the canyon, had preconstructed names for many of the rock formations we stumbled by, and referred to cactuses as sacrosanct. In a state I’d hardly explored, traversing a landscape I’d had little experience with, Doug stood out as the seemingly all-knowing guide who could handle any problem the Escalante desert or our twelve person group threw at him. He’d tell us tales of his own mountain climbing adventures as we made our dinner, the smells of our instant bolognese mixing with the dry sage-tinged air. With the canyon stretching out around us in an infinite array of reds and oranges, he would tell us of Mt. Hood, how he’d climbed it 380 times, and how even he remembered the OES incident. 

When I met Ironside for our interview, he was waiting for me in the great hall of my school, sitting at a high table observing the students running back and forth with a laid-back gaze. He was dressed in a long sleeve black zip-up jacket with a navy blue shirt peeking out at the top, matched with charcoal grey hiking pants. His outfit, combined with his rough white beard and otherwise typical outdoorsman appearance made it look as if he was ready to be thrown into the desert at any given moment. When I caught his attention, he smiled and immediately dove into conversation. That familiar scent of coffee rolling off of his breath threw me back into memories of canyons and cliffs, sweat and sun and the desert. He was at school doing pack checks for the large group of high schoolers who’d signed up for a similar backpacking trip with him in the upcoming weeks. 

After pulling away into an empty classroom and sitting down, I asked Ironside to speak of his own experience in the outdoors. Ironside immediately launched into his connection with nature from a young age, his love for the lonely frontier, and how since the start of his professional guiding, his personal and professional views of climbing have molded into one. He seemed to relax just speaking about the outdoors, his body almost melting into his chair as his history with nature unfurled in the room around us. Mountaineering for Ironside is a “two-fold relationship”, as it is both personal and professional, which undoubtedly colors his relationship with the outdoors; he is constantly evaluating the spaces he visits to determine if they’re safe or reasonable to bring a group to. When he speaks of the outdoors, passion shines through his light brown eyes and his features soften. Every once and awhile, a small smile pulls against his face, causing his eyes to wrinkle slightly at the edges. 

When I ask him if he’s had or witnessed any near-death experiences in the mountains that easy-going demeanor changes, the joy fading from his eyes ever so slightly as he is pulled back into old memories. When he speaks, his face is thoughtful and the tone of his voice drops slightly, “Yes, and uh… on Mount Hood accidents do happen, and almost all of them happen to somebody else, but I was nearby so it also affected me, but I wasn’t directly participating… in mountaineering in general I’ve been a part of two fatalities, and those were both more difficult climbs, they were both within the Canadian Rockies.” Ironside pauses for a moment, as if considering the details, before starting back up, “One was an actual climbing accident, a fall, and the other was an avalanche.” When prompted if these experiences changed his relationship with the mountains, Ironside went on to clarify, “well, I think in a way it didn’t, it confirmed that it was that dangerous, it didn’t stop me from going back. Of course there would be a period of adjustment, you could say.” 

Although some people, according to Ironside, who might’ve started mountaineering at a later age could have been completely off put by a fatality, the outdoors had been a part of Ironside’s life for so long that he couldn’t be torn away from it, despite the mountain’s cruelty. No, the incident was not normal for Ironside or even expected, but it did confirm for him that “sometimes you could just have really bad luck… but you placed yourself there by choice. It’s a big and dangerous place and there isn’t room for mistakes, and you know that, and you don’t want confirmation by somebody not surviving, but… I think that confirmation is important… that you can mess up or that nature is tougher than you on that day.” Ironside went on to further clarify the danger of the sport, claiming that “Mountaineering has a really vast lure, thousands of books, autobiographies on climbers, book contracts by people who are going off to climb a big peak, so reading that lure, in a way, prepares you… because that lure is usually at the extreme-er end of mountaineering… reading that you do realize how big of a part of [mountaineering danger] is”. 

When asked if he believed mountain climbers were selfish, Ironside hardly paused before launching into an explanation. “I do think climbers are selfish, I don’t think it’s all bad, I think the only bad part of that is pretending it’s not true.” Ironside further explained his thoughts, claiming those who go routinely into dangerous areas such as the Himalayas despite the statistical risks (Mount Everest is only the 10th most deadly mountain in the Himalayas, with Annapurna I and K2 having the highest fatality rates of 32% and 29%), especially those with families at home, are acting completely selfishly; “I’m pretty confident that the people in those situations have a pretty clear understanding [of the risks] at least with their partner or spouse and probably with other members of their family. Their kids do not [have that understanding], clearly…” Regardless of whether or not the climber has a family or partner, there are undoubtedly individuals who are affected by their death; when one dies on the mountains, especially famous or well-renowned climbers, it is felt by the whole climbing community. The act of attempting to obtain an extreme experience is inherently, at least partially, selfish. 

As we slowly began running out of time, I shifted the conversation away from accidents and towards the culture of mountaineering in general. Ironside sees mountaineering as a tradition, and one that is clearly European; “Think about Nepal, for example. There wasn’t a “summiting tradition” of mountaineering amongst sherpa, but they learned it from their European people they were guiding. I think that the value of doing this is kinda tied up in western values of nature. Climbing itself as a tradition evolved during romantic periods of European cultural history, where exciting, intense outdoor experiences were sought out.” Although Ironside doesn’t believe there is a standard human reason for going mountaineering, or one goal that each mountain climber seeks to achieve, he does believe “that there are a lot of powerful western impulses that we who live in the West, who grew up in the West, think of as normal.” These include first and foremost seeking out an intense experience. “I know some deeply religious people who climb [following their] own feelings of being close to God… I think other people have substituted natural experiences for religious intensity, there’s also a goal-oriented aspect of mountaineering that’s unavoidable. Not everyone just wants to walk across a glacier, more people who are intrigued by it want to hit the top, they wanna say they got to the top.” I chime in, asking if it was almost more about summiting, and therefore conquering a peak. “Yes, right, exactly, there is that. If people don’t climb very much or have just read about it they probably think that’s really all it is.” Although the traditional lure of mountaineering is all very Western, moving across landscapes is historical—the human desire to know what is over the horizon.

The noise of kids opening doors, chatting amongst themselves, and rushing along the corridors quickly reminds me that class has ended and I have Calculus coming up in just a few minutes. I wrap up with one last question: do you see mountaineering as a diverse sport in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and gender? Ironside replies within seconds of the question slipping out of my mouth, hardly stopping at all to think: “That’s a huge question, and no.” When splitting the question up, Ironside explains that gender diversity in mountaineering is classic and historic, and from the point of view of a guide, the majority is easily male. However, as bad as gender diversity may seem, ethnic diversity is almost nonexistent in Western climbing. Ironside credits this largely due to “the freight of the Western legacy of mountaineering. Original exploratory climbers went to other countries and had to hire local people to carry their stuff, or to guide them to a base of a mountain, but they’re fired and [then] the heroes get to do their work. It was clearly ethnocentric at the very least and racist at the very worst tendencies in a lot of 19th century and early 20th century mountaineering in parts of the world that had big mountains but not climbing culture.” Although the sport is more diverse than it has ever been, there is still a long way to go in terms of racial and gender equality. Ironside, as he feels strongly that mountaineering is a “Western set of circumstances”, believes the first change in mountaineering must be women in climbing. 

Feminist theories are based in the belief that gender, or the socially constructed images and notions of what a man and woman should be, colors society. Although most feminists believe there are no real differences between men and women other than biological differences, the power inequality that has been established over time instead stems from what society has determined a man and woman to be. According to author Keith L. Shimko, “These socially constructed definitions infuse all aspects of social, political, and economic life, and result in a myriad of gendered practices and institutions that effectively perpetuate male dominance.” And the sport of mountaineering isn’t any different; extreme mountain climbing embraces masculine characteristics that can oftentimes be overpowering or harmful such as the romanization of risk, aggression, and desire for control. These characteristics, when reflected back to the rest of the climbing community and the public, poison the reputation of mountaineering to such an extent that the presence of the characteristics in the sport only grows. 

When speaking with Peter Green, the head of the youth mountaineering group Post 58, I asked him his thoughts on the perpetuation of male characteristics in mountaineering. He was quick to respond that yes, he did see this dominance, “And I will say, that is true, and one of the saddest things I’ve seen is women coming into mountaineering embracing those characteristics instead of… embracing characteristics that are more intrinsic to females [such as empathy or kindness] and bringing those to the mountains. That makes me sad.” 

These main  toxic characteristics are not simply limited to gender, but instead include a historical trend of racism and white dominance in the sport, as noticeable when the demographics of the outdoors are carefully examined. Despite not having detailed data on mountaineering demographics, when observing participation rates according to race in the United States, it is clear that the great majority of individuals in the outdoors are white. According to figure 1, the graph Visitors to Public Lands and US Population by Ethnic/Racial Group, non-hispanic white visitors make up between 88 and 95 percent of those visiting public lands. Although this graphic does not include the statistics of race in mountaineering, it is evident regardless that the outdoors—including the mountains—are heavily dominated by white individuals. 

Mountaineering is commonly accepted to be a primarily white sport, and nearly every mountain climber would agree. It is also worth mentioning that both of my interviews were conducted with white, middle-class, middle-aged men. As one of those interviewees—Doug Ironside—mentioned, not only is the sport male dominated and heavily white, but also oftentimes reliant on native sherpas to aid with mountaineer’s journeys. The tradition of sherpas carrying gear for Europeans visiting their local regions to summit mountains only further reflects the control and power dynamics infused in the sport. Furthermore, this power dynamic comes from the birth of the sport itself; as Green mentioned in our interview, “if you were to read the history of mountaineering, back in the 1800’s it started as an upper class thing. The men that were doing it, they didn’t have jobs, they were just the idle wealthy.” When examining the origins of mountaineering, it is blatantly obvious that the sport was never meant to be inclusive, but instead a pastime for a very select few. 

Although each climber has different reasons to embark on a mountaineering trip, the theme of climbing mountains simply to conquer them is overwhelming. Many climbers become obsessed with the dangers associated with mountaineering, putting their own lives in peril and risking it all simply to get to the top of a mountain. According to author and researcher Francis Sanzaro, “a common refrain, inside and outside the climbing community, is that the higher the risk, the higher the reward. In terms of an ego boost, this might be accurate, but the formula is trite and elitist, and it obscures the true motivations for doing dangerous climbs.” At the end of the day, there is a fascination with danger, and even death, that pulls so many climbers into the mountains every year. Even worse, there is a common belief that death won’t reach them. 

Death is an unavoidable topic in the mountains. How could it not be, when there are features called “death blocks”, sections named “death pitches”, and camps titled “death bivouacs”? . Sanzaro speaks to this awareness of death, claiming that “Often, you ponder what could happen if you kept going up in a storm, but never about yourself dying. Dying happens to someone else, until it doesn’t.” Sanzaro claims it’s this belief that you won’t die that encourages climbers to continue taking risks: “Slowly, over time, you take more risk without knowing it… Your confidence builds. When you succeed time and time again in do-or-die situations, it’s like repeatedly getting heads after 20 coin flips; you think you’ll just get heads again. And when you’ve traveled around the world, spent thousands of dollars to get there and are only 300 very dangerous feet from the top, you push on.”

However, although these characteristics of control and a dismissal of risk infuse the sport, it would be incorrect to assume every mountaineer has these characteristics in mind when they head out to climb. When asked about the biggest flaw within the sport, Peter Green claimed “I think the bigger flaw is… [mountaineering] can attract people for, I don’t want to say the wrong reasons, but different reasons, which is about their personal victory over the mountain. If they’re doing it well they’re in concert with the mountain… they didn’t really conquer the mountain.” According to writers George Alan Smith and Carol D. Kiesinger, “Climbing mountains embodies the thrills produced by testing one’s courage, resourcefulness, cunning, strength, ability, and stamina to the utmost in a situation of inherent risk.” Although the risk in typical mountaineering is relatively controlled, the public is constantly fed these heroic stories of near-death experiences in the mountains that hit home the original romanticization of the danger associated with the sport in mountaineering from its birth in the 19th century. No, mountaineering is not just about risking one’s life to conquer some “holy” peak or proving to oneself you are stronger than the natural world, but to any outsider, this would be a reasonable and expected conclusion to make. By risking it all to conquer the natural world, professional mountaineers only further demonstrate the value our society places upon these stereotypical male characteristics. 

As Doug Ironside touched on during our interview, there are many reasons for people to get outdoors, including a genuine passion for the wilderness and a desire to be outside. However, based off of the media and coverage dangerous climbs get, this more common reasoning for summiting peaks is hidden behind the male toxicity and dominating characteristics associated with conquering mountains as a sport. There is a reason nearly every article in Rock and Ice is about a death in the mountains or the fastest summit of a deadly peak. There is a reason why documentaries on climbing Everest or free-soloing El-Capitan pull thousands of viewers into movie theatres. And none of it has to do with a shared love for the outdoors. Risk is attractive, romantic, and at the end of the day much more interesting, so risk is what sells. But this risk has also taken over the public’s opinion on what mountaineering as a sport means. It is this focus on the extremes which leads people to ask me if I free solo nearly every time I mention I climb, or if I have plans to summit Everest when I bring up my own mountaineering adventures. Although the answer to both is no, it is these crazy death-filled experiences that the public now associates with climbing that makes them crave hearing the answer “yes”.  

Mount Hood and the novice climbers it attracts are perfect examples of the embodiment of western ideology in modern-day climbing. By embracing these western characteristics such as power and control to the extent that we have within the sport, the public’s opinion on mountaineering has been entirely clouded over by false and dangerous assumptions that only push along the theme of historical gender and racial discrimination in the sport itself. It is also this focus and encouragement of the toxicity present in climbing that has led to the deadly misinterpretations picked up by the public about what the sport truly means, and what has pushed waves of inexperienced climbers to attempt to summit Hood or fly across the world to take their shot against Everest. It is what led a school to repetitively allow a hardly trained group of kids to climb a dangerous peak year after year, and the reason why one of those groups of kids did not return whole. It is this public assumption on what mountaineering really means that has normalized death in the sport, and what continues to perpetuate racism and gender segregation in mountaineering as well. 

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