Even though it’s August, and supposedly summer, I can’t see Mount Rainier today because of the clouds. Still, it’s worth remembering the mountain today because of two anniversaries—today and a week from today—in the history of Rainier: the first known successful climb and the first known climb by a woman.
115 years ago today, at 4:30 in the afternoon, Fay Fuller became the first woman to reach Columbia Crest, the summit of Mount Rainier. (Here’s a short account of her climb, kept by the Tacoma Public Library, that makes a great read.) Unfortunately for Fuller, not only did she live in an era before gender equality, she climbed in a time before the invention of synthetic fabrics, sunscreen, and the flashy ultra-light gear that is the hallmark of modern mountaineering.
According to the story:
Fay blackened her face with charcoal and wore goggles to modify the sun’s glare. Her climbing outfit included heavy flannel underwear, a thick blue flannel bloomer suit, woolen hose, heavy calfskin boy’s shoes with caulks, and a small straw hat. She later commented that her costume was assembled “at the time when bloomers were unknown and it was considered quite immodest.”
A member of the group said that Fay refused assistance at some difficult spots. She is quoted as saying if she could not achieve the goal without their help she would not deserve to reach it.
Fuller’s party reached the summit so late in the day that they were forced to spend the night on the summit in a cave hollowed out by sulphrous steam vents. Partly as a result of the prolonged exposure, they suffered terrible sun- and wind-burn and, in fact, spent five days recovering once they were back at Paradise.
According to Fay’s account, despite the use of charcoal blackening “our lips, noses and almost all our faces were swollen out of proportion…for several days the pain was intense.”
Rainier had first been climbed 20 years earlier (135 years ago on August 17) by Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump, and the men fared no better than Fuller.
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(Here’s a short account by the Stevens-Van Trump climb by National Park Service.) There’s actually some debate about whether Stevens and Van Trump were the first to summit Rainier. In Mountain Fever, Aubrey Haines claims that the first ascent happened as early as 1852. But Van Trump and Stevens have the first recorded summit and my understanding is that most knowledgeable people believe that they were the first to the top.
Stevens and Van Trump were guided by a local Yakama Indian named Sluiskin, who tried to prevent them from climbing the mountain because he believed it was suicidal.
According to another account, Sluiskin warned them:
“Your plan to climb Takhoma is all foolishness. At first the way is easy…[but] if you reach the great snowy dome, then a bitterly cold and furious tempest will sweep you off into space like a withered leaf.”
Sluiskin was nearly right. Stevens and Van Trump were stranded on the summit toward evening with an approaching storm. Exhausted and unable to move, they huddled in a steam vent for the night, probably saving them from death by exposure. The next day while returning to their camp near the top of the Paradise glacier Van Trump apparently suffered a “serious” injury (though I’ve never been able to figure out what it was). Nevertheless, both men survived the climb and became local celebrities as a result.
Sluiskin’s fear of the mountain may have been based partly on an old Indian legend. In an 1866 book, The Canoe and the Saddle, (strangely, sometimes called Saddle and Canoe) early Northwest visitor Theodore Winthrop recounts a legend told to him by Nisqually Indians. According to the story, local Indians believed that the summit of Rainier was home to a treasure trove of wealth. Driven by avarice and bravery, so the legend goes, one Indian managed to reach the summit, where he discovered riches beyond his imagination. But on the descent, the mountain unleashed a fury of storms so severe that he was eventually forced to abandon his treasure in order to save his life. He returned home a chastened man.
Unfortunately for enterprising mountaineers today, there is no treasure on the summit of Rainier. But then again, climbers today don’t have to work nearly as hard to get there. Though the most popular route, from Paradise via Camp Muir, still demands 9,000 feet of elevation gain, glacier travel, and potentially dangerous weather, the climb can now be accomplished in a long weekend from the city.
In recent years, park service stats show that roughly 10,000 climbers attempt to reach the top, with about half making it. Despite the comparative luxury that climbers enjoy today—stoves, down sleeping bags, waterproof clothing, satellite-navigation systems, and emergency rescue—deaths and injuries are not uncommon. I suspect that the whiff of danger, together with the physical demands of the climb, are part of the allure that draws people to the Northwest’s tallest mountain.
The view from the top is outstanding too. Or so I’ve heard. When I reached the summit in August, it was a day much like today, and all I saw were clouds blanketing the Northwest in every direction.