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Thursday, September 25, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Exploring Mount Rainier -- Writer Provides An Entertaining Look Into This NW Symbol

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

----------------------------------------------------------------- BOOK REPORT

"The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier" Bruce Barcott will read from "The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. (free; 206-624-6600). Barcott also will read from his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Parkplace Book Co., 348 Parkplace Center, Kirkland (free; 425-828-6546). -----------------------------------------------------------------

Growing up in Snohomish County, Bruce Barcott was a lot like the rest of us: Though he saw Mount Rainier daily - at least in summer - he knew appallingly little about the 14,411-foot volcano we so casually embrace as our Northwest symbol.

Only after reaching adulthood did the scales suddenly fall from his eyes, and curiosity and awe flood in: "When it rises like a misshapen moon over downtown Seattle, the mountain entrances me, arrests my attention and rouses my imagination; it makes me weave on wet highways," Barcott writes at the start of his highly diverting history/science lesson/memoir, "The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier" (Sasquatch, $23.95).

This sudden enthusiasm by Barcott, who is literary editor of the Seattle Weekly, should surprise no one. Rainier isn't just a mountain - it's a heap of superlatives: More glaciers - 25 - coat its flanks than cover all the other volcanoes in the Cascades combined; the most snowfall ever recorded in the contiguous states - more than 93 feet - fell at Paradise, on the mountain's south side, in the winter of 1971-'72.

The mountain remains the site of North America's worst climbing accident - 11 perished in an avalanche in 1981 - and its crevasses hide more bodies - 50-plus and counting - than any mountain in North America. (Alaska's Denali claims 34.)

Pressed by a grandmother who didn't want to count him in that tally, Barcott promised he would never venture on the mountain alone - only to spend the next two years breaking his word. He raised blisters and contracted hypothermia walking the Wonderland Trail that circles the mountain's flanks. He laid sleepless in dripping tents listening for bears, and climbed high on Rainier's shoulders to meet folks like Roger Drake, a Park Service employee charged with emptying the solar-powered commode at Camp Muir, elevation 10,000 feet.

Higher and higher Barcott climbed, until he finally found himself making a summit bid - and a moving journey it turns out to be.

The narrative ranges as widely as his hiking boots - a meandering trail that would have been disastrous if climbed by a less nimble writer. Barcott deftly interrupts himself for entertaining spot lessons in geology; entomology (we learn that some 12 tons of bugs inhabit those 25 glaciers on a mid-June day); and altitude sickness - even the World War I-era brouhaha over whether to change the peak's name to Mount Tacoma.

True, most of this information can be found in greater detail elsewhere (Dee Molenaar's "The Challenge of Rainier," for example, remains the benchmark climbing history), but Barcott's goal isn't an exhaustive survey of ascents, deaths and fauna. Rather, he mixes personal anecdote, history and a palatable dose of philosophy to create a book that - better than any other writings - gets at what this mountain means.

But one wonders what audience Barcott hopes to reach. Serious Cascades lovers - those most likely to consume a book-length profile of a mountain - will find relatively little here they haven't picked up, in cruder form, elsewhere. Yet those to whom the book seems addressed - tideflats Sounders who have only visited Paradise once, and only then at the pleading of cousins from Houston who wanted to touch snow - may balk at reading an entire book about a mountain.

The result is that "The Measure of a Mountain" will probably not get the attention it deserves. Luckily, Barcott has written a long shelf-life into his book. It will take a noble spot next to Tim Egan's "The Good Rain" on the Northwest Shelf of area bookstores, where it will sell slowly but surely for a very long time.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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