Wild and Craggy, Just Like Thoreau

The view from the summit of "Mount Thoreau" looking south toward the Palisades and the Northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park.

John Muir Wilderness, Calif. — The locals call it Mount Thoreau.

A vast pyramid of talus and scree in the Sierra Nevada range, it sits between the aptly named Wonder Lakes Basin and Mount Emerson, a namesake of the great 19th-century author Ralph Waldo Emerson. It might seem only fitting that it should bear the name of Emerson’s close friend and fellow transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

But the mountain cannot be named for Thoreau or anyone else. Since 1964, the government has decreed that except in extraordinary circumstances, unnamed features in federal wilderness areas will remain that way.

Now a group of 11 writers, printmakers, poets, wilderness enthusiasts, Thoreau devotees and fellow travelers is trying to correct what they say is a historic oversight. On Sept. 26, they made the trek to the summit of the unnamed mountain for a minor act of civil disobedience: a ceremony to name it for Thoreau.

While a number of authors have mountains named in their honor, Thoreau has none. Given his love of wilderness and wild peaks, that seems like a surprising slight, say members of the group, which includes Gary Snyder, the Zen Buddhist poet, and Kim Stanley Robinson, the science fiction author.

It is unlikely that the name will stick, however, at least not on government maps. If Mount Thoreau ends up on Internet maps or climber’s guidebooks, it will need quotation marks.

Taking Thoreau to Mountain Tops

A group of writers, artists and photographers are trying to get a mountain named after Henry David Thoreau, but a decades-old government ban on new names in wilderness areas may present an insurmountable obstacle to the effort.

“I know there are some mountaineering groups that do start calling features certain names,” said Lou Yost, executive secretary of the Board on Geographic Names, part of the United States Geological Survey. “The board’s stand is that it doesn’t know anything about these.”

The tradition of informal naming reaches back to the earliest days of Sierra mountain climbing, also known as “peak bagging,” according to Robin Ingraham Jr., a photographer and climber who with his friend Mark Hoffman for many years maintained mountaineering registers — metal boxes that hold a small journal in which climbers can record their ascents.

“That practice of informally naming the mountains is great, and it’s just unfortunate that the Board on Geographic Names has taken that stance,” he said.

Seventeen of the peaks in the Sierra’s rugged Minaret Range have been given unofficial names, he noted. “Mount Morgenson” was named to honor Randy Morgenson, a veteran Kings Canyon National Park ranger who disappeared in 1996. And in the Evolution Range, also in the Sierra, “Mount Stephen Jay Gould” was added to a group of mountains that includes Darwin, Mendel and Lamarck.

The Thoreau naming project came about during a spring snowshoe trip in the Muir Wilderness that Mr. Robinson took with his friend Darryl Devinney. Mr. Robinson realized that Thoreau had written rapturously of climbing Mount Katahdin in Maine. He has a spring named after him on the shoulders of that peak, but Mr. Robinson thought he deserved a mountain of his own. In 1940, the name Mount George Davis was proposed for the Sierra peak in honor of the maker of the Geological Survey’s 1908 maps of the area. But “since Davis has the incredible Davis Lakes named after him,” Mr. Robinson said, “he doesn’t need it and Thoreau does.”

The idea germinated, and this fall, with the assistance of Laurie Glover, a poet and author, he organized an unofficial naming climb. The following evening the group held a small symposium on Thoreau and mountains at Valentine Camp, a University of California retreat center in Mammoth Lakes.

On the day of the climb, Mr. Robinson carried a small register and journal to the top of the 12,691-foot peak. It was signed first by Mr. Snyder, the 84-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who noted that he had merely accompanied the group to the North Lake trailhead, where he had spent the night.

Mr. Snyder, the model for the skilled Zen Buddhist mountain climber Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s novel “The Dharma Bums,” said that naming a mountain for Thoreau was “a very sensible idea.”

“We have lots of places named after trappers’ girlfriends and things,” he said, though he noted that Native Alaskans also avoid naming places for people, preferring events, as in “Lost My Wife Rapids.”

At the evening symposium that followed the climb, Mr. Robinson noted Thoreau’s significant influence on John Muir, the pioneering conservationist who founded the Sierra Club and for whom the wilderness itself was named. He showed images of Muir’s meticulously annotated copies of Thoreau’s journals.

Paul Park, a science fiction writer and lecturer at Williams College, said he was particularly struck by Thoreau’s descriptions of achieving a mountain summit.

“There’s a section that consists of precise observations of different kinds, and then gradually it’s as if he moves upward to a place where he completely loses it,” he said. “That’s often a place where you can see that the observations he’s made on the climb become the matrix for this expression of pure feeling, not even ideas.”

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