The Adventure Craze


In July 1857 a group led by a U.S. Army officer, Lt. August V. Kautz, made the first serious attempt to reach the summit. His party gradually peeled off, one by one, on the approaches. Kautz himself got to within some 400 feet of the top, then was forced to turn back. The sun was setting, he had no food and no blanket, and the water in his canteen was freezing up. If he had gone on, he would have had to spend the night on Mount Rainier alone and unprotected.

The two men who in 1870 did finally reach the summit, however, took no instruments and made the climb for the sheer pleasure of it. One was the aptly named Hazard Stevens, who was already something of a hero. His father had been governor of Washington territory, and the two, father and son, had rallied to the Union cause in 1861. The younger Stevens had been badly wounded charging the Confederate lines at the Battle of Chantilly in a desperate rear-guard effort to keep the defeated Union forces from being overwhelmed. His father had died in the same charge. But Hazard had recovered and gone on to become a brigadier general of volunteers, the youngest in the Union Army. And he had won the Medal of Honor.

Philemon Beecher Van Trump was an adventurer of a different sort. He had come West from New York to prospect for gold in Montana and Idaho and had wound up as private secretary to the then governor of the territory of Washington, Marshall F. Moore, who happened to be his brother-in-law. Van Trump had been taken with Mount Rainier the moment he saw it and had determined on the spot to climb it, “if that feat were possible to human effort and endurance.”

It was an open question whether it was. The Indians held the mountain in awe and believed that it would kill anyone arrogant enough to climb it. The physical difficulties were indeed awesome, as Lieutenant Kautz had discovered years before. Just getting to the base of the mountain could take a week. The forest floor was dense with underbrush and littered with huge fallen trees, trails were poor, the country was rugged in the extreme. Nobody had modern mountaineering equipment in 1870, and almost nobody in the United States had mountaineering experience; mountaineering was largely a European phenomenon, still confined to the Alps. As it happened, Van Trump and Stevens went to the mountain in the company of an English gentleman, Edmund Thomas Coleman, who owned one of the very first ice axes and a set of “creepers,” what we now call crampons, fixed to the boots for traction on ice. Coleman had climbed in the Alps, he was an original member of the British Alpine Club, and he had written about his experiences. He at least was as prepared as one could be at the time. But neither Van Trump nor Stevens had creepers or an ice ax, although they did end up with Coleman’s, who failed to make the climb. He got lost somewhere in the approaches to Mount Rainier, and Van Trump and Stevens left him behind.


The two men went on alone, striking out early on the morning of August 17, from a camp located at the tree line, stopping after every 70 or 80 steps to catch their breath, crossing the ledge under Gibraltar Rock, where the fall of rock was a constant danger, digging steps up an ice chute where the falling rocks were even bigger, finding their way over or around crevasses. Near the top they had to crawl along a ridgeline because the wind was so strong it would have blown them off it had they stood up. After reaching the summit, they spent the night sleepless, huddled next to a steam vent (Mount Rainier is an active volcano) to keep from freezing to death, sheltering as best they could from the wind. The next day Van Trump fell coming down; it took him two months to recover from his injuries.

It was an isolated success. Climbing for fun was still in its infancy. The only other successful climb in this period was made later that same summer, when two geologists working for Clarence King came up from his surveying party, then exploring the Sierra Nevada, and climbed Rainier in order to try, once again, to determine its exact height. No one else made an attempt on the mountain until 1883.

But then things began to change. The Northern Pacific Railroad was bringing more and more settlers to the region; settlement in southern Washington began to stretch east of Tacoma toward Mount Rainier. A man named James Longmire who owned a mineral spring near the base of the mountain opened a hotel and improved the trail to the mountain itself. People began to climb to the alpine meadows high up on the slopes and to name them: Paradise Park; Elysian Fields. In 1888 John Muir climbed Rainier and wrote glowingly about it: “Out of the forest at last there stood the mountain, wholly unveiled, awful in bulk and majesty, filling all the view like a separate, newborn world, yet withal so fine and so beautiful it might well fire the dullest observer to desperate enthusiasm.” In 1890 a schoolteacher named Fay Fuller became the first woman to make it to the top; she, too, wrote about her triumph. Alpine clubs were formed in both Oregon and Washington. After 1890 excursions to the summit took place almost every summer, and these had no other purpose but to get to the top. By the mid-1890s, people were starting to talk about making Mount Rainier a national park. By 1899 it was done. Mount Rainier was now a tourist attraction.