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Reviews > Books > General > Missing in the Minarets > Owner Review by Richard Lyon

Missing in the Minarets by William Alsup
Owner Review by Richard Lyon
May 24, 2011

PERSONAL DETAILS AND BACKPACKING BACKGROUND

Male, 64 years old
6' 4" (1.91 m), 205 lb (93 kg)
Email address: montana DOT angler AT gmail DOT com
Home: Dallas, Texas USA

I've been backpacking for almost half a century, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986.  I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m).  I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too.  Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker and I usually choose a bit of extra weight over foregoing camp conveniences I've come to expect.

Full disclosure up front – the author is a good friend and occasional backpacking pal of this reviewer.

DETAILS

CoverTitle: Missing in the Minarets: The Search for Waller A. Starr, Jr.
Author: William Alsup
Published by: Yosemite Conservancy (formerly The Yosemite Association), www.yosemiteconservancy.org
MSRP: $14.95 US for paperback [I purchased my copy immediately after its initial printing in 2001. This first edition was, I believe, hardback only.]

Second edition, listed at 214 pages; first edition is 174 pages of narrative and 40 pages of footnotes.  Illustrated with many photographs taken by the story’s participants, including Peter Starr, supplemented by several contemporary photographs taken by the author.  [Note: Bill Alsup is an accomplished photographer who often includes his 4 x 5 camera equipment in a backpack he designed for that purpose.  I recommend another of his books, Such a Landscape!, to any photographer or history buff.  It’s an annotation of the journal of William Brewer, first assistant on the 1864 California Geographical Survey, as he traveled through what is now known as King’s Canyon.  Bill’s photographs alone are worth the price of this book, which though out of print is generally available on the secondary market.]

THE STORY

In August 1933 Walter A. Starr Jr., known as Peter, was thirty years old and recognized as one of the finest mountain climbers in the United States.  In addition to his career as a lawyer and his climbing, he hoped to complete a project he’d been working at for several years: a guidebook for hikers on the newly opened John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park.  Peter Starr set out on a solo backpacking trip, scheduled to meet his father at a lodge ten days later.  He failed to keep that rendezvous, and a week later failed to return as scheduled to his job at a San Francisco law firm. 

Peter’s father, Walter Starr Sr., commenced a search for his son.  The Starrs were socially prominent and well connected, and the president of the Sierra Club, a family friend, took the lead, telegraphing several other noted mountaineers to request their assistance.  Peter’s law firm arranged to borrow its largest client’s private plane for the task, probably the first time aircraft was used in the Sierras for search and rescue.  This book is a summary of Peter Starr’s life as a climber and a detailed report on the search for him in the Minarets section of the High Sierra. 

REVIEW

The first noteworthy aspect of this book is the detective work of the search party as they organized a hunt for Peter that August.  Among the mountaineers called upon by Walter Starr Sr. were two young men, Glen Dawson and Jules Eichorn, who later became prominent climbers in their own right, and another, older climber who in 1933 was already a Sierra legend – Norman Clyde, a former schoolteacher who had roamed the mountains for decades.  Indeed in August 1933 one of the Minarets had already been named after him.  From talking to others in the area the searchers were able to locate Peter’s last camp, and other clues pointed to the Minarets, a natural destination for a climber.  I won’t spoil the suspense for prospective readers, but Clyde’s instincts and on-site analysis, much of it undertaken after the official search had been called off, made this book enjoyable reading for me.  Not every question about the circumstances of Peter Starr’s death is answered in this book, and the author states that some have never been answered.

Missing in the Minarets has further excellent detective work, that of its author, who consulted extensively the archived letters, contemporary diaries, and other original sources available, and had the good fortune to interview a few of the searchers still alive when this book was prepared and written, including Dawson (who contributed a brief Forward to the first edition) and Eichorn.  A longtime backpacker in the Sierra, Alsup supplemented this with his own extensive knowledge and a study of the Minarets region.  This isn’t a long and detailed book, and (thankfully for me at least) it doesn’t include a description of technical climbing techniques.  But it’s not short on essential facts, and it’s an easy and compelling read.  This reader came away with a feeling that he’d accompanied Clyde in the last days of his search. 

This book also paints an excellent portrait of the mountaineering community in the Bay Area in the 1930s – a community much different from today’s backpackers.  For one thing, in the 1930s the group was far smaller and accordingly more closely knit than the hordes who now enjoy the beauty of the Sierras at first hand.  And more elite –after all, it was a fair drive from San Francisco to Starr’s starting point, and a car was a luxury in those days.  Few people had the means or the leisure time for even a few days in the back woods.  Times were different too.  Peter Starr planned a two-week vacation from his law practice for his last adventure; that’s not common in our busy, Blackberry-studded world.  This glimpse into another day and age of backpacking, much enhanced by the many photographs from the Starr family, was perhaps my favorite takeaway from the book.  The Sierras, the Range of Light, remain beautiful today, but can you imagine hiking and camping there when visitors numbered in the hundreds rather than the millions?

Bill Alsup’s love of the mountains, the Sierras in particular, comes through brightly in this narrative.  This was clearly a labor of love for him, though his prose style is matter-of-fact rather than florid.  Here is one of the final passages in the book:

    "On our left, we [the author and his son] heard the cascade roaring from behind us and running down and down to Ediza, sparkling blue within an oval of green.  The whole 1933 stage was spread about us.  The Minarets raced upward on our right.  Ritter loomed behind us.  Volcanic Ridge and Minaret Pass imposed themselves a mile away, dead ahead. At timberline, we gazed over the sea of ancient mountain hemlocks.  The afternoon light was pleasant.  This camp was our reward for a tough cross-country hike via the ridge from Garnet Lake on a day that started farther north."

That alone makes me lonely for the high country.

One final note: Peter Starr’s Guide To The John Muir Trail And The High Sierra Region, most recently updated in 2007, is still in print and still a popular guidebook for this wonderful hiking area.


Read more gear reviews by Richard Lyon

Reviews > Books > General > Missing in the Minarets > Owner Review by Richard Lyon



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