Kim Stanley Robinson first ventured into the Sierra Nevada mountains during the summer of 1973. He returned from that encounter a changed man, awed by a landscape that made him feel as if he were simultaneously strolling through an art museum and scrambling on a jungle gym like an energized child. He has returned to the mountains throughout his life—more than a hundred trips—and has gathered a vast store of knowledge about them. The High Sierra is his lavish celebration of this exceptional place and an exploration of what makes this span of mountains one of the most compelling places on Earth.
... wants to be a hybrid: a personal memoir and a hiking journal, a geology lesson and a history lesson about one of the truly epic nature spots in the world. The book’s structure attempts to create order from Robinson’s sheer exuberance and enthusiasm, but only half-delivers on that promise ... I was curious as to how the landscape felt different under the influence, but Robinson for a time shies away from lived-in experience. Instead, he has a brief discussion with himself of which word — surreal, mystical or metaphysical — describes that day best and then veers into a nostalgia-laden account of his life in California at the time ... Throughout these chapters, it felt as if Robison had recorded freewheeling riffs on his life in mountains and that I was reading a transcript ... Sometimes these moments reach an ecstatic crescendo similar to the effect of Walt Whitman’s poetry, but sometimes Robinson cannot quite show us what he’s telling us, despite detailed accounts of his various hikes ... The overall effect is of someone showing slides to a neighbor, with a definite homespun charm ... It sometimes feels as if readers have been given the raw materials from which they might choose to write their own book ... Yet the book also has passion galore and glorious moments when science and poetry meet ... 'The map is not the territory,' Robinson writes, but neither is a territory always useful without the anchor of a good map — a strong argument for dipping into The High Sierra, rather than journeying through it end-to-end.
... gives Robinson the room to write at great length about a wilderness he cherishes, and he brings an idiosyncratic perspective in describing its wonders, large and small, in this unique memoir and guidebook ... Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, he gets the details right ... brims with useful information, containing maps, photos, and nature poems as well as practical advice on what to pack, where to hike and how to stay alive and comfortable through the night. With an annotated bibliography providing a generous selection of further resources, the book invites both intense study and casual browsing ... Robinson writes insightfully about his own thoughts and motivations, and captures the changes that came to hiking friendships over years. His thumbnail sketches of other 'Sierra People' are concise and well-crafted ... Robinson is able to spot what distinguishes an item – a geological specimen, a fellow traveler on the trail, a marmot sunning itself – and convey how it fits into the grander scheme of life in the Sierra. He communicates his observations without any kind of overblown mysticism, but with a deep sense of gratitude, an appropriate sense of wonder, and a welcome sense of humor ... Sometimes it feels as if the density of The High Sierra might be too much of a good thing, as Robinson describes routes he took while backpacking on barely memorable trails. But then there are some truly harrowing maneuvers. When hair-raising events occur, the author describes the action lucidly and grippingly ... makes good on the promise of its subtitle. On every page, Robinson celebrates the mountain range, conveying in his intimate and distinctive fashion his abiding love of the place. Anyone who opens their heart to the mountains – veteran trekker, casual explorer, or complete neophyte – will be well rewarded by this singular book.
The Robinson fluency is here: the compact, mobile sentences; the narrative ease; the technical detail. Prosy perhaps—he’s talking right at you—but only literally pedestrian ... exoteric—attentive to the general reader, instructive, open in character. But it’s also highly esoteric, best read with constant reference to a good set of topographic maps (or an app like CalTopo). Unless you know the Sierra as well as Robinson does—and not many people do—you’ll find yourself lost geographically ... et, somehow, being lost doesn’t matter. Will The High Sierra mean more to readers who have seen the Tehipite Dome from below or camped on 'the crab-claw peninsula sticking into Cirque Lake'? Of course, though it will also mean more to those who have read Emerson and Thoreau than to those who haven’t ... I would call it fractally encyclopedic ... Robinson is constantly shifting scale too—shifting scale, subject, angle of attention, even genre. One moment the book is memoir. The next it’s trail guide. Then it’s bibliography, history, ecological meditation, and a discourse on renaming peaks and passes that have culturally unacceptable names. Robinson lets his thoughts scatter and then tracks them down wherever they’ve settled, much like a Sierra sheepherder and his flock in the late 19th century. The High Sierra might be subtitled: A Miscellany—even though it’s a word we don’t use much any more. Robinson registers that the human mind is miscellaneous and invites us to accept that fact ... That loose-limbed quality is what makes The High Sierra so appealing. But it’s also something more. Robinson clearly accepts the limits of what nature writing can do, in his hands at least ... The point of The High Sierra isn’t to show us the author’s moments of transcendence. It’s to remind us that we can find our own transcendence just the way Robinson did ... what Robinson also contributes is a spirit of engagement with the natural world that’s generous and freeing.