High Rocks and Ice (Bob & Ira Spring)

A while back I expressed to you my wish — my ache — to be up hiking the high country trails at Mt Rainier. I shared a few mountain photography books with you at the time, but I’d be remiss to talk about such things in this region without mentioning Bob & Ira Spring, twin brothers who set the bar for the genre. No one captured “real” mountaineering in the Northwest like they did. You have surely seen some of their photos although you might not have known who they were.

I was given High Rocks and Ice: The Classic Mountain Photographs of Bob and Ira Spring as a gift a couple years ago. In my recent “homesick for the mountains” condition, I pulled it off the shelf intending to look through it. I ended up re-reading it. (How often has that happened to you?) You can certainly page through it just for the pictures, but I love reading the “story behind the scenes” stuff.

Bob and Ira received free Box Brownies from Eastman Kodak when they were 12 (part of a national promotion the company was doing for its 50th anniversary) and merged their new toys with their love of camping. Careers in photography followed, coinciding perfectly with a golden age of Northwest mountaineering. They hiked the back country of the Cascades before the roads were built, and they worked with the legendary climbers that thrived up here. Their dramatic photos capture much of it.

ANY photo involving the Whittakers (Jim and Lou, twins themselves) is striking, whether it’s Jim jumping the crevasse* on the cover or Lou nonchalantly perched on a steep ice wall. Then there’s Fred Beckey, who scouted the routes and was the first to climb half the peaks in the Cascades. The Springs captured him spread eagle beneath a precarious chockstone in the Alpine Wilderness. If there was ever a real photo of Peter Pan — confident, adventurous, and as light as a feather — that’s the one. And Carol Marsten, one of the Springs’ energetic teen models for national publications, is shown with ice axe in motion — one of the most dramatic female mountaineering photos I’ve seen.

The text, offered up in very small bites to accompany each photograph, is just as delicious as the images. The story of the Unsoeld family was touching. And if Spring’s telling of his cold week snowed in at Camp Muir doesn’t make you shiver, look at the modest photo alongside the words. He doesn’t draw your attention to it, but allow me: the icicles on the sign have frozen sideways, blown horizontal by the winds. Brrr.

My favorite photo in the bunch: the beautiful stillness of White Rocks Lake at the base of a glacier rolling down Dome Peak. It reminded me of a lake a friend hiked me to in the Sierras a decade ago. There was no glacier in the Sierras, but that tranquil mountain-top lake instantly came to mind when I saw the photo of White Rock Lake.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Bob and Ira Spring’s photography. They are legends themselves. Forty years ago they started the popular “100 Hikes in…” series that are still updated, published, and gobbled up by backpackers. And if you want ALL the “stories behind the scenes” from mountaineering’s golden age in the Northwest, pick up Ira’s An Ice Axe, a Camera, and a Jar of Peanut Butter : A Photographer’s Autobiography. He wrote it a few years ago when he was in his 80s, and I read it while it was still warm from the presses. In his wonderfully homespun manner, Spring relates all the difficulties, surprises, and rewards of getting to these beautiful alpine places, scouting for shots, meeting spirited achievers, and capturing the essence on film.

* That’s Jim in the photo included here. Last September I was fortunate to meet both Jim and Lou. They very kindly signed their photos in my copy of this book. 🙂

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