High Trail By Vivian Breck

Her father lay helpless, his leg broken. No other campers for miles around. How would she get help in time?

This is a reader-request from so long ago I can’t find who requested it or in what context, but I am glad to have finally found a copy to oblige them!

This book was originally published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1948, but the Scholastic reissue from 1966 is the one pictured above… and it (at least initially) fits into the publisher’s format of the era, in which the reader suspects authors were paid by the word

The Plot:  The first couple of chapters are kind of a slog, as Chloe Cassidy uses way too many words inside her head to ruminate upon how happy she is to finally be able to join her father on his annual camping trip into the Sierra Nevadas. Chloe has been waiting since she was four years old for the opportunity, when her 10 year old brother was allowed to accompany their father (who has the extremely annoying nickname of The Old Sourdough, which he is prone to referring to himself in the third person) (SIGH, SCHOLASTIC); while Chloe had been promised that when she turned 10 she would be allowed to attend as well, childhood diseases and World War II intervened, so Chloe is only just now making her first trip at the age of…. well, we don’t know, exactly. Chloe’s age becomes a central mystery of the story and (spoilers) one that doesn’t get resolved! We learn that her brother has graduated from college, so I was initially thinking she was about 16, but by end I was starting to suspect that she was actually in her early 20s.

As the book opens, she and her father (I REFUSE TO CALL HIM BY HIS NICKNAME) are on week 3 of the four-week trek to Mount Whitney, and a very competitive Chloe is trying to best her father in bagging her limit of Golden Trout in the mountain stream (includes extremely detailed description of fly fishing).

But within pages, her father has slipped off a rock, breaking his leg, and it quickly becomes clear that, being late September, Chloe is going to be on her own to bring help. The description doesn’t skimp on the details, as Chloe drags him out of the river and splints his leg with branches and bandanas, and the 3 hours it takes for him to crawl back to their encampment.

Chloe initially races the five miles to the nearest ranger’s station, but finds the cabin locked up tight for the off-season, and the emergency telephone out of order. With only the experience of summers at a girls’ camp, she realizes that she is going to have to make the journey back to civilization to bring help herself.

Her father is insistent that she return the way they came, two days to the town of Independence; Chloe stealthily studies the topographic maps of the area and concludes that if she heads over the high trail on Mount Whitney she can reach Lone Pine in a single day. After a second check at the ranger’s station the following morning, Chloe recalls a girlhood incident when she stayed out past dark with a friend and her father was very forgiving of the matter:

“I know,” the rich deep voice went on, dark blue eyes still holding Chloe’s own, “but once in a great big while- not often, of course – but once in a big blue moon, maybe it’s better to break a promise than to keep it. I’m sure Chlo won’t do it again.”

She never had. Not knowingly. But Dad’s words came back to her now. The very intonation, the lilt of them, the other comfort of them. “Maybe things happen that make it better to break a promise than to keep it.”

And so she sets off in the opposite direction, headed over the mountain pass.

With the stakes established, we then cut away to David Starling (called Star) and Arthur Beresford Pye, Jr, better known as Puddin (SIGH), two young World War II vets who served in Italy together, happily reunited after settling on opposite coasts after The War.

When they had come across the Cassidy camp several days earlier (while Chloe and her father were away hiking), they both made much of Chloe’s underwear hanging on the clothesline (ooo-la-la!)… but honestly, these guys seem way more into each other:

It was rare for these two to indulge in compliments. Their affection was much more likely to express itself in verbal pot shots. But today they felt truly jubilant over their successful ascent of the east face of Whitney.

and

“I knew we’d find our Shangri-La sometime,” Star said, gazing around with love in his eyes. “This place has everything.”

“Your face looks as if you were making love to a woman,” Puddin teased.

“Wish I knew a woman half as satisfactory as this place,” Star answered with an odd half-smile.

and

“David.” The name plopped into the still like a rock into a quiet pool. Long ripples of meaning rolled away from it. When Puddin called his friend David he was feeling very earnest indeed.

Star answered without taking his eyes from the fire. “Yes- Arthur.”

“Are you happy?”

Still, I’m probably way too quick to yell sublimated! about any platonic affection between red-blooded American men…

“According to tradition, a good mountaineer picks only two pieces of polemonium. One for his hat- to prove to the world he really got there. And one for his girl to wear in her hair.”

“One piece will do you nicely, then.”

Star sighed through a sardonic grin. “You’re so right!”

Ok, that’s settled, then.

Back to Chloe, who has made a surprising amount of progress up Mount Whitney, but she hadn’t reckoned with the perils of altitude sickness, which, with rain approaching, she finally succumbs to, curling up inside a crevasse. This is where Star and Puddin find her.

And you know what? This is where the book gets good! Dirty and with her hair pulled back in pigtails, the men assume she is about 14 years old, but after reviving her and hearing about the situation with her father, they take her seriously and treat her as an equal despite her inexperience as a mountain climber.

The perils continue through the night, as they climb to a primitive shelter at the mountain’s summit to spend the night, which then then have to abandon during an electrical storm- during the escape one of Chloe’s hiking boots is badly damaged, forcing them to make a jerry-rigged fix with adhesive tape.

The next morning an avalanche cuts off the trail for their descent. The only way down is a series of sheer granite cliffs. No prob for Star and Puddin, experienced rock climbers, but they initially put up some resistance to Chloe’s insistence upon accompanying them:

“I may not be a rock climber now. But I’m going to be.”

“That’s nice,” Puddin said, not without irony.

“I’m going to be a rock climber today.”

“My dear child—“

The elder-brother tone set off a whole chain of firecrackers inside Chloe. She reacted exactly as she would have to Alan’s “Gosh, you can’t do that. You’re not old enough.” All her life that phrase had incensed her.

“Some girls climb,” she sputtered. “If some can, I can. So you’d better start teaching me.”

The furrows between Star’s eyes deepened and he looked at her as if he were measuring her drop by drop. The length of her legs, the grip of her slender fingers, the grip of her spirit

With some difficulty and much encouragement from Star and Puddin, she rappels down the first cliff and finds that the next one is somewhat easier. She is (obvs) growing more and more attached to Star and Puddin, who, despite their stupid nicknames, are pretty great after all. They share many thoughts about how important the wilderness of the Sierras is, and anti-government ideas about how Washington is starting to open up protected lands to cattle ranchers for grazing. Chloe also admits that it is her birthday, but is still evasive when questioned about how old she is.

They finally arrive in Lone Pine, where Star’s car is parked and they race into town to make the necessary phone calls. Now back in civilization, Chloe lets Star run the show- he not only makes the calls to the park service, but takes the initiative to have the best orthopedic surgeon in the state summoned to the local hospital. When they collect Chloe’s car in Independence, he does all the driving!

At the local hotel, the guys have promised Chloe a real birthday dinner, and she has decided that it is her duty to be an attractive young lady:

So far, they’ve done everything for me. Now- I’ll be really gay. Dad would expect it of me!

(STOP LAUGHING!)

Puddin, in a very gentlemanly gesture, excuses himself after dinner to take Star’s car back to San Francisco to catch his plane back to New York City, where he works in advertising (!!!) Oh well, you’ll always have Italy, guys.

The coda is unexpectedly lengthy, as it details Chloe’s father’s rescue and return to the hospital, where he is first baffled, then furious when he hears that the rescuers came from Lone Pine and not Independence. Chloe, ever-concerned with her mother’s delicate constitution finally phones her mother and lets her know what’s up. Chloe is devastated for all of a few pages, having to finally say good-bye to Star… but he pretty much immediately calls her at home and asks her out on a proper date for the following week.

Discussion question: how old is Chloe supposed to be?

Sign It Was Written In 1948 Department: There is still a post-war meat shortage on

“You mean she turned up her nose at lamb chops? That must have been a long time ago when meat was something you could afford to feed the cat.”

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2 Responses to High Trail By Vivian Breck

  1. Roxanne Gill says:

    This was my absolute favorite book when I was a teen. I can’t tell you how many times I read it !

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