A History of Climbing in the Cascade Mountains

A History of Climbing in the Cascade Mountains

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This article is an edited version of a paper I wrote for a research seminar on the Pacific Northwest. Its original title was “The Emergence and Significance of Lifestyle Climbing in the Cascade Mountains.” The assignment was to produce a piece of original historical scholarship at least 20 pages in length that made use of primary and secondary sources, and I was lucky to find a topic as important to me as this one.
The structure of the paper may strike some as odd, so I am going to give a brief explanation of how the final product came about. I started the project intending to investigate the origins of climbing in the Pacific Northwest – how did our mountaineering tradition get started? Who were the primary figures? Where did they get their training? How do groups like The Mountaineers and The Mazamas figure in? – question of this nature. What changed everything was reading Joseph Taylor’s book, Pilgrims of the Vertical, which should be required reading for every American climber. If asked to recommend one climbing book (and I have read over 50 now), I would probably recommend something by Walter Bonatti, but after him I would recommend Pilgrims of the Vertical. Taylor’s work showed me the true potential for a cultural history of climbing and inspired me to reframe my topic around the period of the 1930-60s. I would have liked to extend it through the 90s, but issues of time, sources, and sanity intervened.
As the last portion of this paper concerned the dynamic between Fred Beckey and Ed Cooper, and so I would like to emphasize that most of what I am claiming is speculative in nature. I have not interviewed either of these men and am drawing these conclusions purely from their published works.
A word of warning, this was written as a scholarly historical paper; the intended audience was my history professor, a specialist in American history, I have attempted to make it accessible to the non-historian, but it remains what I am sure many would term, dense and unreadable.


Mountaineering has long suffered from a lack of historical consciousness. While climbers are, by and large, an educated community, few have formal training as historians and fewer still have any conception of the effect this lack of serious historical attention has had. Consequently, climbers often have a peculiar ahistoricism, in which they are aware of their history, of the events of the past, but chronically underestimate how different that history is from the present. Mountaineering is not a single strand, a singular impulse running through history. There is not an innate “climber instinct” that they (we)1 are all tapping into. Rather, mountaineering has been constantly shaped and re-shaped, so as to be almost completely unrecognizable from its genealogical origins, by both the cultures from which the climbers come and the mountains to which they go. The following paper will not be an attempt rectify this situation by producing the much-needed comprehensive history/historiography of climbing, that is a project of another order of magnitude, but rather it will attempt, on a local scale, to gain some understanding of how climbing operates on a cultural level.2
Cloud's Rest
Myself on Cloud's Rest, above Yosemite Valley in my backpacking days
This localized operation of climbing on a cultural level is the subject of Joseph Taylor’s Pilgrims of the Vertical – a history of the Yosemite Valley rock climbers and an examination of how that community, which has been so influential in the wider world of climbing, evolved over the course of the 20th century.
Pilgrims of the Vertical
His monograph is one, and perhaps the best, of the small handful of American academic climbings histories available, yet it suffers from a flawed valuation possibility derived from the author having recently quit climbing. The valuation pertains to the changes that occurred in climbing, as they did in all aspects of American culture, in the 1950s and 60s and is, in essence, a failure to understand why, and not just how, these changes took place. Taylor treats the shift from the family-friendly atmosphere of the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Sections in the 1930s and 1940s to the extremism of Yosemite’s Camp 4 in the 1950s and 1960s as a perversion, when it might be better understood as an inevitable result of developments in worldwide mountaineering that had been going on since the 1920s.3
The full nature of this shift is, once again, outside the scope of this paper, but what emerged, culturally, in the postwar era is what I have chosen to call “lifestyle climbing.” Both Taylor and Mike Swayne, a prominent northwest climber of the 1950s and 1960s, equate these men with the beat generation, a sort of pre-hippie, “grungy bunch readily spotted in a crowd by their ragged beards and hair, war surplus clothes, and Beat girl friends.”4 Although it had, due to its limited scale, little effect on the wider American culture, the emergence of climbing as an alternative lifestyle undermined the traditional climbing communities. Within the discipline, the shifts were momentous. This was the end of the entire military ethic – the whole notion of leadership of a climb and of personal conduct during a climb changed radically.
From a wider cultural-history perspective, this shift in the climbing communities is emblematic of the postwar rejection of mainstream urban society. Climbing was revolt, everything about it, from what Taylor called the fetishization of risk to the migrant “dirtbag” lifestyle, was intended as a rejection of societal norms.5 For a time climbing was truly countercultural. American society had no way of absorbing these men, of appropriating their accomplishments into its own narrative, for the valuations, particularly of risk, were simply too divergent from the norm. Eventually, with the advent of “adventure sports,” and the vast marketing potentials they opened up, this changed, and today climbing once again falls within the standard spectrum of civilized recreation.
What this means is that to draw a continuum between the climbing establishment of the early 20th century, The Sierra Club, The Mountaineers, and The Mazamas, and the climbing that came to prominence in the 1950s but had been brewing under the surface since the 1930s, is deceptive. From the standpoint of conventional climbing history there is no clear break; what is recorded in the American Alpine Journal is a smooth continuum of gradually increasing technical standards, but this disguises the profound cultural shifts that would allow for the explosion of climbing, both in California, and the Pacific Northwest, in the postwar era.
To be a lifestyle climber in America today is to follow a well-trodden pilgrimage route, but in the postwar era most of climbing’s holy sites had yet to be established. More powerfully, there was little precedent for a life totally dedicated to what had heretofore been considered a recreational activity. The determination of men like Royal Robbins and Warren Harding in Yosemite and Fred Beckey and Ed Cooper in the Cascades to make climbing their sole, or at least primary, occupation (the definition of lifestyle climbing), was at least as groundbreaking than their actual technical achievements.

Notes on Historiography

The field of mountaineering history is simultaneously over-saturated and extremely sparse. The history, in a conventional sense, of climbing, in Europe, in America, and in the Pacific Northwest, is a story told and re-told ad-infinitum. Yet these popular histories tell a necessarily incomplete story, for to try to understand climbing by recounting the events of the climbs is to try to understand a war by looking only at tactics and weaponry.6 The narrative created, strictly speaking, makes sense, but it cannot account for the ethical quandaries that climbing so often faces, the most essential of which is how, in the face of the possibility, even the probability, of injury or even death, such an activity is deemed both justifiable and attractive. To understand this fact is to understand the communities that spring up among climbers.
What Taylor has in the Yosemite community is a very unique thing in mountaineering: a cohesive, clearly definable subject. This he owes in large part of the geography of Yosemite Valley, which serves to concentrate climbers in a very small area. There are, however, other regions of the American west that have just as strong of climbing traditions but, for a variety of geographical and cultural reasons, are not as cohesive – one such area is the Pacific Northwest. Like California, Washington and Oregon possess sizable urban centers with easy access to technically challenging mountaineering. This can be contrasted with both New England, which possesses the urban centers, but more limited climbing challenges, and Alaska, which possesses the challenges, but little in the way of urban centers.
Whittaker and Viesturs
The Pacific Northwest has therefore played a central role the development of American mountaineering, generating many of the most accomplished international climbers to come out of the United States – Jim Whittaker and Ed Viesturs being probably the most widely known.7 Yet the Pacific Northwest has no equivalent epicenter along the lines of Yosemite Valley for California. Because of this the tendency has been to simply follow the documentation, which leads inexorably to two places – Mount Rainier, which despite its prominence and utility as a training ground has not seen a major first ascent in decades, and the climbing clubs, particularly The Mazamas of Portland and The Mountaineers of Seattle who, despite their illustrious histories, are stigmatized and largely shunned by the leading climbers of today.
What this means for lifestyle climbing in the Pacific Northwest is that the community has always been considerably more anarchic than what Taylor found in California; although the same basic cultural patterns were followed, the role of centralized leadership quite what it was in Yosemite. All of this is simply to explain why what histories have been written on climbing in the Pacific Northwest have been so insufficient, even in comparison to what has been written on the climbing communities of California and New England. The one exception to this rule is the era before 1930, and particularly the era before the turn of the century, which, because of its links with the exploration and survey of the Cascades and the establishment of Mount Rainier National Park, has attracted considerable study.

Origins of Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest

Nisqually Glacier
The probable original Kautz route
The earliest serious climbs in the Pacific Northwest appear to have been undertaken almost simultaneously on Mount Baker and Mount Rainier in the late 1850s and 1860s. Earlier in the century groups from Oregon had climbed Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens, but both by non-technical routes.8 In 1857 August Kautz, an officer stationed at Fort Steilacoom, made the first concerted effort to climb Rainier. He was reportedly bored with his military post, and despite his lack of previous climbing experience he had read about the ascent of Mont Blanc in the Alps and assembled a set of homemade alpenstocks and hobnail boots. With several other soldiers and an indian guide, Wapowety, he ascended the Nisqually Glacier and reached a highpoint estimated at around 13,000 feet before descending. Snow-blindness apparently prevented him and his men from making another attempt. It is possible that an ascent of the mountain was actually made in 1852 by a group of surveyors working on a wagon road, but this is unsubstantiated.9
Gibraltar Rock
The original route, now referred to as the "Gibraltar Ledges", is visible on the upper left
Mount Baker was first climbed about ten years later, in 1868, by Edmund Coleman, an English immigrant to Victoria and a member of the prestigious London-based Alpine Club. Coleman had spent several seasons in the 1850s in the Alps, climbing mostly in the Mont Blanc range, but, primarily because of issues with the approach, still took several attempts to summit Mount Baker.10 Coleman was also part of the next major attempt on Rainier, joining Hazard Stevens and and Philemon Van Trump in 1870. The three of them recruited the homesteader John Longmire as their guide, as well as a native named Sluisikin. Before even reached the glaciers however, Coleman had a falling out with Stevens and Van Trump and turned back. Instead of following Kautz’s route,11 the two men forged a path through what would later be called the Gibraltar Ledges and reached the summit, Columbia Crest, late in the day. Instead of attempting a descent in the dark, they holed up in one of the steam vents inside the crater rim and survived until morning, when they descended without incident.12
The second ascent of Rainier was accomplished within months. Samuel Emmons and Allen Wilson, two geologist-topographers working with the US Geographical Survey who had climbed many peaks in California, repeated the Stevens-Van Trump route on October 17th. Somewhat oddly, the third ascent was not made for another thirteen years, when Van Trump returned with John Longmire, William Ewing, and George Bayley. The four of them were again forced to bivouac at the summit and Bayley, who had previously made ascents of Mount Hood and Mount Shasta, considered it the most intense climb he had ever undertaken. The following year the second successful route was put up, this time on the north side of the mountain. The three Snohomish men who accomplished it claimed to not know that the mountain had been climbed before.13 In 1888 John Muir climbed the peak with Major Edward Ingraham and by the early 1900s ascents had become regular occurrences. Large groups became common, with the Sierra Club putting a group of 62 on the peak and a Mazama trip putting over 80 people on the summit in 1905. Additionally, the first winter attempt was made by Ingraham in 1895.14 It is not without consequence that so many of the early mountaineering expeditions were undertaken by soldiers, up until the 1950s serious mountaineering expeditions around the world were invariably undertaken with a military ethic. The basis and model of the relationship between climbing partners was the relationship between soldiers, with hierarchically arranged systems of authority and a strong sense of the necessity for order.
Liberty Ridge
Liberty Ridge cutting through the center of the Willis Wall. photo by Vitaliy M.
Climbing elsewhere in the Cascades lagged behind the volcanos significantly. Early exploration of the North Cascades was far from systematic, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers and the US Geological Survey reports often contradicted each other, and despite the ascents of many of the most prominent peaks, such as Pilchuck, Baring, and Stuart, by surveyors, by the time of the mining boom in the late 1800s the area was still largely unexplored. Records of early climbs are therefore unreliable, and many “first ascents” are likely just “first recorded ascents.”15 The first mountaineering expedition was a 1899 Mazamas trip that traversed the range via Cascade Pass from Lake Chelan to the Skagit River. The first climber to really realize and publicize the area’s potential was Herman Ulrichs.16 The 1936 issue of the American Alpine Journal published an article by Ulrichs in which he challenges the impression of the Cascades as a series of gentle snowy volcanic mountains, instead he claimed that the Cascades, and especially the North Cascades, were the most Alpine region of the contiguous United States.17 What truly marks the beginning of a new phase of climbing in the Pacific Northwest however, is the article directly after Ulrichs’, which is Ome Daiber’s account of his Liberty Ridge climb, then the most technical route on Rainier.18 What stands between these two periods, the early volcano climbs of the 1800s and the nationally recognized climbs of the 1930s, is the formation and rise of The Mountaineers as the premier Pacific Northwest climbing organization.

The Mountaineers: The Rise and Fall of Organized Climbing

Between 1907, when the The Mountaineers were founded, through to the 1940s, when their prominence began to diminish, much of the development of climbing in the Cascades was accomplished by the Seattle-based climbing club. The organization was founded on the model of the Sierra Club of California and The Mazamas of Portland, as a combination of preservationist society and outdoor club. Initially their activities were very limited, the club organized walks around the Puget Sound area, communal dinners, and the occasional hike. But several members were clearly interested in pushing the club farther and organized the first multi-week summer outing with its destination as the unclimbed Mount Olympus of the Olympic Mountains. Two members were particularly instrumental in the early Mountaineer climbs: Asahel Curtis and Montelius Price.
Price and Curtis undertook the first ascent of Mount Shuksan together in 1906 and began to talk about forming a Seattle-based climbing club shortly thereafter. The original members of the club met as a committee to organize a reception for Frederick Cook, who claimed (falsely, as it is now known) to have made the first ascent of Denali. Many of the founders, including Curtis, were Seattle members of the Mazamas, and their original idea was to found a chapter of that club, rather than a entirely new organization. Early in 1907 the club held its first official meetings and elected Henry Landes, a geology professor at the University of Washington, president. Within the year the club had upwards of 200 members, but, unlike the Mazamas, which required members to have made an ascent of a glaciated peak, anyone could join The Mountaineers, and the group seems to have quickly become little more than a social club for the outdoors-inclined.19
Taylor makes much of the “heterosocial” atmosphere that predominated in the Sierra Club and its offshoots, the Cragmont Climbing Club and the Rock Climbing Sections. The idea seems to be that because women were included on the rosters and attended trips, mountaineering in this period was less male-dominated than it became in the 1950s, when what he calls a “homosocial” atmosphere began to predominate, and women were pushed to the margins of the climbing world.20 Taylor’s argument could be just as easily applied to the Pacific Northwest; only slightly less than half of the original charter members of The Mountaineers were women, and women attendees would be prominent at many if not all early club activities.21 What this presumes however, is that proximity can be equated with equality. While within The Mountaineers as a social club women were on an equal footing, the leading climbers were still, nearly without exception, men, and therefore the entrance of women into technical climbing in the 1970s and 80s was just that: an entrance and not a re-entrance. Interestingly, Jim Kjeldsen, the author of the official Mountaineers history, also promotes the inclusion of women in the early years of the club, although he admits that they were generally in the subordinate, traditional roles of the time – managing the cooking and cleaning on the outings for instance.
Although the main impetus behind its founding came from climbers like Curtis and Price, prior to the 1930s climbing was never the primarily focus of the club. The selection of presidents emphasized this: both Henry Landes and Edmund Meany, the second president, were University of Washington professors and avid outdoorsmen, but neither was known as a leading mountaineer. Not until 1935 was a climbing training course established and before then any and all instruction took place on the annual “summer outing.”22 Of note is the lack of crossover between these two periods; none of the early pioneers of Mount Rainier and Baker – Hazard Stevens, Philemon Van Trump, Edward Ingraham, men who would maintain a climbing tradition through the late nineteenth century – were founding members of The Mountaineers. Ingraham did become the first honorary member in 1907, but the other names are absent.23
The Mountaineer’s first official summer outing was to Mount Olympus, and its first ascent was the last in Washington of such a prominent peak. In order to facilitate the climb, Asahel Curtis and Montelius Price successfully petitioned the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce to cut a trail up the Elwha river valley to their proposed base-camp, which would allow them to bring in a pack-train. This almost backfired when one of the guides hired to assist the trailblazers claimed to have climbed the mountain; it was later determined that he made the first ascent of the lower middle peak, instead of the higher true summit on the west peak.24 Discrediting non-club ascents was nothing usual for The Mountaineers, in his study of The Mazamas Erik Weiselberg describes similar efforts from their leadership to establish Mazama first ascents as genuine.25 The first attempt on the summit was actually unsuccessful, the party retreated due to an August snowstorm, but within a week they returned and 10 members, including Montelius Price and Henry Landes, made the first ascent.26 Between 1908 and 1910 the club made ascents of Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Glacier Peak, but none were first ascents and all were non-technical in nature. What is most emphasized in the reports is not even the climbing, but the generalized outdoor experience – the campfires, the storytelling, the flora and fauna, and the scenery.27
Six Summits
The next major shift in northwest climbing was from the major glaciated peaks – the “six summits” that gained one public recognition in The Mountaineers: Rainier, Baker, Glacier Peak, Adams, Saint Helens, and Olympus – to the Snoqualmie Pass area, where The Mountaineers built a lodge in 1914. Effectively replacing these six peaks were the designated “First Ten” and “Second Ten” Snoqualmie region summits. The basic motivation for this was to provide financial justification for the construction and maintenance of the lodge. At first this was no great issue; Snoqualmie Pass was, and remains, the most accessible group of moderate technical peaks in the state, especially in the winter. As members began to look elsewhere for challenges however, they found their efforts stifled by older Mountaineers who felt that the lodge had to be the center for all activities in the Cascades.28 These policies, or rather the outlooks that generated them, were the basic reasons why The Mountaineers’ control over climbing in the Cascades began to decline in the 1930s.
As the ever-growing network of roads, and the cars to travel them, and made the Cascades more accessible, more and more younger Mountaineers became what the older members of the club termed “Outlaw Climbers”: focusing more on their own, non-sanctioned, weekend climbs than the annual summer outing.29 This development actually prefigures what would happen to the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Sections in the late 1940s. Taylor describes how increasing numbers of young climbers, trained in the Sierra Club classes, ventured to Yosemite on their own. This reached a breaking point when a series of fatal accidents prompted the Rock Climbing Section leaders, at the behest of the park service, to try to reign in the climbers; when they realized that they could not, that they no longer had the hegemony they once commanded, the era of club climbing in California was effectively over.30 It appears that this transition began earlier, but was generally less dramatic, in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1934 a group nominally led by John Hossack but effectively directed by Wolf Bauer started to meet to focus more exclusively on climbing technique. Although they did not have the official sanction of The Mountaineers leadership, their leaders were members of The Mountaineers and they considered their gathering club activity. Some of the techniques were self-taught, these were the skills Wolf Bauer resented the older generation for forcing him to learn on his own, but others were imported – Bauer mail-ordered German climbing manuals and taught the skills he learned from them to his students.31 As the climbing classes became more popular, the general feelings of the club shifted toward the younger members, and when several of them were elected to the board in 1937 the “Climbing Course,” which is still taught today, was institutionalized.32 During this time the standards of climbing in the Cascades were consistently being pushed, and the narrative of The Mountaineers begins to intersect with the nationwide climbing community: Wolf Bauer and Ome Daiber’s climbs on the north face of Mount Rainier were on par with anything being done in the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada.
Members of The Mountaineers continued to make important climbs through the late 1930s and 40s, with first ascents of Mount Goode, Gunsight Peak, the Hanging Glacier on Mount Shuksan, and important climbs outside the Pacific Northwest in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and the Bugaboos of British Columbia.33 The actual extent to which these can be considered “Mountaineers” climbs seems doubtful. Most Seattle climbers continued to be introduced to the mountains and get their initial training through the club, but Mountaineers members did not seem to have any qualms about climbing with skilled non-members and culturally the community was shifting toward a less organized, collectivist, mode. As standards of technical climbing increased, the more generalized outdoors community, with its budding environmental activism, drifted away from mountaineering, and the climbing lifestyle began to be less and less recognizable to the school that traced its origins to men like John Muir and William Gladstone Steel.
The continual concern with ever more difficult, technically demanding, climbs was the fundamental driver of the new post-organized climbing community. The combination of a necessarily group activity, belayed rock climbing, with a systematic scale of difficulty, the Yosemite Decimal System imported from California, led to a disregard for tradition and authority and an embrace of local elitism, the logical conclusion of which was total dedication – lifestyle climbing. The community that emerged could genuinely claim to be climbing more demanding routes than any before them, discouraging them from heeding too strongly the admonitions of their elders, and encouraging the creation of a local scene. As climbers began to learn, as they were in the 40s and 50s, the value of training for hard routes, they began to do the math and realized that the best climbers were not always those with the most natural aptitude, but often simply those who had put in the most hours at the local crag. From this comes the basic logic of lifestyle climbing – to be the best one must climb constantly.

Outlaw Climbing Victorious: A New Tradition

The key figure that emerged during this period was Fred Beckey. It is difficult to overstate the importance and influence of this man to mountaineering both in the Pacific Northwest and in North America as a whole. His cantankerous reputation aside, it is undisputed that he has done more first ascents of technical routes than any other person has done or is ever likely to do. From a cultural perspective his influence has been more subtle; even before the dirtbags of Camp 4 were squatting on public land, Beckey was living out of his car, road-tripping around the country, establishing a pattern for American climbers that essentially amounts to a pilgrimage route. What this means obviously merits more examination, but the remainder of the history of mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest through the 1960s must be sketched out first in order to understand what emerged on a cultural level during these years.
Fred Beckey established his reputation early, at the age of 19, with his younger brother Helmy, by making the second ascent of Mount Waddington in British Columbia.34 By 1946 he was writing for the American Alpine Journal; his first article was entitled simply “Cascade Climbs, 1945” and covers his ascents of the North Peak of Mount Index, the Northeast Face of Mount Shuksan, and the Adams Glacier on Mount Adams, and he would continue to contribute regularly through the early 1970s. There are points where nearly half of the first ascents recorded for the state of Washington for a given year are his. Another name to emerge in the late 1940s was Dee Molenaar, who would pioneer many technical climbs on Mount Rainier and become the preeminent historian of that mountain.35 A key development in the early 1950s was the opening of the North Cascades Scenic Highway, or Hwy 20, which linked the towns of Concrete and Marblemount to Mazama and Winthrop over Rainy and Washington Passes. This allowed for much easier access to the interior of the North Cascades, and accelerated the rate of exploration.
Climbers of the 50s
Between the late 1940s and early 1950s the record shows a number of notable climbs being done, Beckey’s ascent of Hozomeen Mountain and Dee Molenaar’s ascent of the Nisqually Icefall on Rainier, but not until 1954 is there a discernible shift in climbing itself. In the 1954 issue of the American Alpine Journal, Fred Beckey describes his ascent of Burgundy Spire. The article is actually a general one, describing a number of first ascents in the Cascades, not all of which included Beckey himself, but what most stands out is the growing emphasis on new technical routes over unclimbed peaks.36 As should be obvious, this had been happening on Rainier for some time, the reason this moment seems indicative is that while Rainier has always been a singularity among Cascade peaks, Burgundy Spire was just another bit of rock – a random unclimbed tower on the flank of Silver Star Peak.
The reason for this shift is twofold. For one, as new technologies and techniques filtered into the Pacific Northwest from Europe and California, the ever-expanding new route potential began to dwarf the ever-shrinking new peak potential, leading those, like Beckey, who sought out first ascents, to focus more on routes than on peaks. This rather mathematical formulation is probably less important than the cultural developments going on in those communities. Within the climbing circles of Yosemite and the Alps, to climb a peak is almost meaningless, what matters is to climb a route on a specific face, or aspect, of that peak. This stems from a geological reality: there are few points that cannot, with a little searching, be reached easily. Nearly all of the Yosemite big-walls have hiking trails to their summits.37 All of the six great north faces of the Alps can be climbed by much easier routes from the south.38 Therefore what we see here is a communal system of valuation. A technical first ascent, in and of itself, is worth nothing – its value to the climber is precisely the glory he (or more recently she) derives from it, which is determined by the opinion of the climb by the community. As mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest were increasingly influenced by the world climbing capitals of Yosemite and the Alps, both by visiting them and be reading the literature that came out of them, the values of those communities begin to show up in the Pacific Northwest; the preference for new routes over new peaks was one substantial effect.
The litany of new routes through the end of the 1950s reflects the influence of the Yosemite culture: Fred Beckey focused largely on minor unclimbed pinnacles and new routes on previously climbed features in the Cashmere Crags, the Stuart range, Tumwater Canyon, and the Washington Pass area.39 In the second half of the 1950s several new names round out what would become the elite climbing community of the 1960s. The most prominent new climber was probably Ed Cooper. A transplant from the east coast, Cooper would quickly establish himself as one of the best first ascensionists of the Pacific Northwest; although possibly a stronger technical climber than Fred Beckey, his early retirement and comparative lack of publications have insured that he is remembered with far less reverence. Of Don “Claunch” Gordon40 less is known. The man appears as an early partner of both Cooper and Beckey, participating in some of their finest ascents and writing a number of pieces for Summit and The American Alpine Journal.
Pete Schoening and the Whittaker brothers also deserves mention, all three were prominent Rainier climbers who accomplished a handful of first ascents elsewhere in the Cascades and rose to international fame though participation in Himalayan expeditions. The relationship between the Pacific Northwest climbers and the New England climbing community, with its connections to the international arenas of Alaska, the Andes, and the Himalayas, is an issue that deserves more attention than it can be granted here. The final two major climbers to emerge by the end of the 1960s are Eric Bjornstad and Jim Wickwire. By this time, the late 1960s, there were so many skilled mountaineers accomplishing first ascents that it is impossible to trace out, in this context, the exact structure of the community, I mention these two simply because Bjornstad’s values offset Beckey and Cooper’s in an illuminating fashion, and Wickwire because his climbs point toward the growth of so-called “extreme alpinism” in the 1970s and 80s.

Beckey and Cooper: Pioneers of Lifestyle Climbing

The 1960s can be considered something of a golden age for technical mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. The American Alpine Journal reported so many first ascents that only the highlights and the broad trends can be outlined here, and Summit magazine, the only west coast climbing publication independent of a climbing club, printed articles on the Cascades in nearly every issue. The first major achievement of the decade can be considered the north face of Mount Baring. Because of its high visibility for long stretches of US Highway 2 there had been many failed attempts on its immense 3000-foot north face by most of the names here-to-for mentioned. Ed Cooper and Don Gordon are credited with the first ascent, and although it was certainly Cooper’s climb, Fred Beckey has to be considered a part of the team as well, as he had joined them for previous attempts and missed the summit simply because he had to return to his job.
The details of this saga are both peculiar and illuminating. Cooper, Gordon and Beckey’s previous attempt had come to a rather poor end when Gordon decided he wanted to descend and Beckey attempted to persuade him otherwise, their disagreement escalated to a yelling match and the two did not speak to each other for the remainder of the climb. That Beckey then joined Cooper and Gordon for another attempt is rather surprising, as is the fact that he retreated early down their fixed lines. What seems to be going on here is the beginning of a conflict of personalities between Beckey and Cooper that would crop up several times before Cooper retired from climbing several years later in the mid 60s.41
Mt Baring
The north face of Mount Baring. photo by TQW

The final matter of interest in the Cooper-Gordon Baring climb is one of means. Throughout the many attempts great difficulties had been encountered in the placing of bolts, the then standard method for climbing stretches of rock without features for free-climbing or cracks for aid climbing; the rock of Mount Baring is apparently so hard and brittle that the expansion bolts they had available at the time tended to shatter the stone. Consequently, the key to the route ended up being a number of chromoly knifeblade pitons Beckey had acquired from Yvon Chouinard, one of the foremost climbers and gear manufacturers in the nation. This demonstrates very well the point about technologies designed for the big-walls of Yosemite opening up route possibilities in the Pacific Northwest that would not have existed previously.42
During the next few years Ed Cooper would live out his bright, brief life as a genuine dirtbag climber, living on practically nothing – as little as $7.00 a month – and regularly accomplishing groundbreaking climbs. Another that would bring him into conflict with Fred Beckey was Squamish Chief in British Columbia. Over the course of several months with Jim Baldwin, Cooper established a route up what he called the Grand Wall – then the longest, most ambitious, most technically demanding climb in the area.43
The Split Pillar
A modern climber on The Grand Wall. photo by MichaelJ
The legitimacy of this route was questioned several years later, after Beckey had put up a route called Northwest Passage directly adjacent to it. In his article for Summit Beckey wrote that contrary to what Cooper had claimed, his and Baldwin’s route was not the first of its kind, and that the route was furthermore illogical, as it neither followed one of the obvious crack systems nor was it truly direct, as it exited the face to the side several hundred feet from the true summit.44 Cooper, who by this time had all but given up climbing for landscape photography, did not let this lie however, and wrote a reply to Beckey’s article that Summit printed the next month. His defense basically consisted of pointing out that Beckey’s climb began at a much higher elevation than his, and, while ending higher, still did not reach the highest point on the wall.
What this is vaguely reminiscent of is the conflict between Royal Robbins and Warren Harding that Taylor uses to define that same period in Yosemite. Both sets of men had a series of conflicts that reflected different values: Beckey and Robbins tended to be obscurists, climbing natural lines where ever they could find them; conversely, Harding and Cooper tended to attack the most prominent features head-on, picking a route and then climbing it by any means necessary. Robbins and Beckey tended to challenge Harding and Cooper on ethical grounds, while Harding and Cooper found Robbins and Beckey’s routes simply unappealing. The historical precedent for this was the ongoing debate over the interwar ideal of the “directisima” climb that was pioneered in the Eastern Alps.45 What this was, on a deeper level, was a disagreement over how much a climb should be an imposition on the mountain. Early formulations of mountaineering saw climbing as part of the Victorian conquest of nature: it was a heavily sexualized seizure of primal virginity. Taylor tends to interpret all interest in first ascents in this manner, and while this is certainly true of the period before the first world war, it is much less the case afterward, when first ascents had, with a few exceptions, ceased to have any relevance outside of climbing circles and became more a means of achieving legitimacy within the community than some sexualized modernist quest. By the 1960s the dynamic had been reversed completely, and climbers wrote of working with the mountain, of climbing only so far as it allowed them to.46 Cooper and Harding can be seen to have a more conservative view in this matter, Robbins and Beckey a more progressive one.
Throughout the 1960s mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest continued to diversify. In 1964 Eric Bjornstad and Fred Beckey climbed the north face of Mount Slesse, which was another massive alpine face that had repelled many attempts. Similarly, first ascents of the east face of Liberty Bell and the north face of Bear Mountain were accomplished. Winter climbing also took off, with the first park-sanctioned ascent of the Willis Wall on Mount Rainier and the first winter ascents of the North Peak of Mount Index, Big Four Mountain, Three Fingers Mountain, and Sloan Peak. The first major route on the Upper Index Town Wall, the Holland-Davis, was also put up. Through the end of the decade Fred Beckey continued to have as many was 40% of the reported first ascents in the Cascades, although prior to 1966 he was almost matched by Ed Cooper. Toward the end of the decade his prominence would begin to fade, with younger climbers like Eric Bjornstad, Dan Davis, Jim Wickwire, and Alex Bertulis becoming more active.47

Towards a General Cultural History of Climbing in the Pacific Northwest and The Meaning of Lifestyle Climbing

The comments of visitors to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest are remarkably consistent over the last one hundred years. They either gasp in awe at the volcanos, or insist that there is far more to the range than the snowy giants, and in both cases they comment on the pristine nature of the wilderness, the feeling of isolation, and the great physical beauty. This characterization seems to be as true of 19th century tourists to Mount Rainier as it is of elite climbers in the 1960s, and in many ways native characterizations of climbing in the Pacific Northwest are very conservative. As a preface to his guidebooks Fred Beckey gives not a history of mountaineering, but a history of the exploration of the Cascades, as if thinking, completely erroneously, that local climbers owed more to the prospectors and logging companies than to Taylor’s pilgrims of the vertical in Southern California. Pete Schoening was also not immune to Frederick Jackson Turner’s western myth, writing that climbing was a means to personal and national strength – a way of re-claiming the pioneer spirit.48 He saw climbing not as an endeavor separate from society, but a part of it; the public needed to understand what climbing was so as to avoid damaging it.49 Similarly traditional alpine sentimentalism is found in Eric Bjornstad’s writing, in which he claims that “I find that in the high world I become a better person.”50
This sort of climbing-to-become-a-better-citizen-ideology is not unique in American alpinism, and neither is the seemingly contradictory notion of bringing civilization to the wilderness precisely to avoid civilization. The tradition is full of people going to remote places so that they, and only they, can be in a remote place, and somehow become a better person while doing it. Because for the lifestyle climber climbing is not a break from ordinary life, but ordinary life itself, what lifestyle climbing means is the rejection of this there-and-back-again ideology, and what Taylor means as a critique of the glorification of risk is intrinsic to it. Cooper lived the way he did, for the short period that he did, because he assumed that he was not going to live much longer. He writes that when he started transitioning away from extreme climbing was when he started considering that he might not die in the near future. Throughout Taylor’s argument there is an anti-individualistic undercurrent that challenges the idea that climbers have the right to take the risks that they do and posits that they might owe their fellow man more.
This kind of argument is often found in critiques of risk-taking and its most common form relates to familial relationships. Parents do not have the right to risk their lives because their children and spouses depend on them, children do not have the right to risk their lives because their parents care about them, more generally: citizens do not have the right to risk their lives because of some inborn debt to society. This is the notion that lifestyle climbing rejects, that the societies we live in own our bodies, and to reject this, to revolt against it, is to insist that we have the right to die not for a greater good in the ways society proscribes (soldiers, policemen, firefights, etc) but for ourselves.


As was noted earlier, American society has come to accept extreme climbing under the umbrella of adventure sports. The average person may be a little perplexed at the man hanging nearly upside down off a rock face or clinging by tiny metal blades to a frozen waterfall, but then people also ski off cliffs and kayak over waterfalls and scuba dive through underwater caves; its all just part of how we, the bourgeoisie, try to relieve our boredom. Andy Selters noted in a recent article for Alpinist that in the postwar era climber were always faced with the question “why?” but that this has faded in favor of simple adulation.51 I believe that this is lamentable, that given its countercultural, anti-authoritarian background, lifestyle climbing should be more threatening to an establishment founded on urbanity. Specifically how this has happened, whether it be through the commercialization of outdoor sports with its sponsorship of elite climber “athletes,” the domestication of climbing by climbing gyms and sport climbing, or the simple backpedaling of American culture in many areas from the radicalism of the 1960s, is a subject for further study. What is perhaps most perplexing is that the same forces that drove the rejection of organized climbing, the demand for ever bigger and more demanding climbs, seem to be wholeheartedly endorsed by the media machines that have immunized the public to the actual philosophical challenges posed by lives dedicated to, and willing to die for, the mountains. It is possible therefore, to take a more postmodern viewpoint, that what occurred in the 1960s what nothing more than a particularity: a reaction against the totalitarian outlooks spawned by the great depression and the second world war, and not some grand answer, as Chouinard suggested, to “the dark night of the soul.”52
All of these conclusion are, as should be obvious, tentative, if for no other reasons than the fact that climbing in the Pacific Northwest continues to evolve as I write. Much work remains to be done, many avenues of exploration remain open, and hopefully this effort of mine is nothing more than a first step toward a much larger project.


1 I have struggled writing this paper to differentiate my historian-self from my climber-self. I often feel, writing about climbing and climbers, as if it is we, but proper historical method requires at least some semblance of detachment. In general I have tried to avoid writing in the first person plural, but there are some points where it cannot be avoided. I offer my utmost apologies to any good Rankeans who find this abhorrent.

2 For those unfamiliar with academic history, I have attempted to define some terms as I use them, these descriptions are by no means exhaustive, but I have tried to define a few of the more obscure and/or ambiguous terms of which I make use. Additionally I have offered brief definitions of some climbing terms that may be unfamiliar to northwest mountaineers.

Historiography is the study of the writing of history.

3 Camp 4 was and is the Yosemite Valley campground traditionally used and often squatted in by climbers; it was recently declared a national historic site.

4 Swayne, [http://www.mountaineers.org/nwmj/07/071_Swayne2.html].

5 Taylor, 90, 146.

6 Some fine, and often referenced, popular histories of climbing are Fergus Flemings’ Killing Dragons, Walt Unsworth’s Hold The Heights, and Dee Molenaar’s Challenge of Mount Rainier.

7 Jim Whittaker was the first American to climb Mount Everest, Ed Viesturs was the first American to climb the 14 8000m peaks (of which Everest is one); not coincidentally, both men served time as climbing guides on Mount Rainier.

8 Beckey, Range of Glaciers, 320-321.

9 Beckey, RoG, 298-301; Beckey Cascade Alpine Guide vol.1, 84-85

10 Beckey RoG, 291-298.

11 Not to be confused with the modern-day Kautz route, which follows the glacier named in his honor.

12 Beckey RoG, 303-309; Beckey CAG vol.1, 84-85.

13 Beckey RoG, 309-316.

14 Beckey RoG, 318; Beckey CAG vol.1, 84-85.

15 Beckey CAG vol.1, 12; Beckey CAG vol.2, 31.

16 Beckey CAG vol.2, 223-224.

17 Ulrichs, 462.

18 Daiber, 475

19 Kjeldsen, 11-13.

20 The term “homosocial” is most often found contrasted with homosexual, but Taylor simply means it as a social atmosphere that excluded women.

21 Kjeldsen, 14; Taylor, 136.

22 Kjeldsen, 21.

23 Kjeldsen, 193.

24 Kjeldsen, 23.

25 Weiselberg, 9.

26 Kjeldsen, 25-26.

27 Kjeldsen, 26-33

28 Kjeldsen, 37-44.

29 Kjeldsen, 45-50.

30 Taylor, 130.

31 For a variety of geographical and cultural reasons, during the interwar period most advances in climbing technique were made by German climbers.

32 Kjeldsen, 50-55.

33 Kjeldsen, 56-59; Daiber, Mountaineer, 51.

34 Beckey, Challenge of North Cascades, 262.

35 AAJ 1946-1949.

36 Beckey, AAJ 1954, 171-172.

37 A “Big-wall” is a large, usually at least several thousand foot, shear cliff, generally granite, and generally glacier-carved, found in a handful of places on earth: Greenland, Baffin Island, the Trango Towers of Pakistan, several regions of Kyrgyzstan, and Yosemite Valley. The “big-wall style” of climbing refers to the methods pioneered in Yosemite Valley, particularly the use of fixed lines, portable sleeping platforms called port-a-ledges, and advanced aid climbing techniques.

38 Perhaps the most dramatic is the Eiger, whose north face, the infamous Nordwand, was the last great problem of the Alps and the scene of the greatest accomplishment of the interwar German mountaineers; by another route it is an easy day hike from the Jungfrau railway station.

39 Bell, 121-122.

40 The issue of Don “Claunch” Gordon’s name remains mysterious; in early publications he is referred to without exception as Don Claunch, but then sometime in the 60s the name Gordon starts showing up and he is referenced in more recent guidebooks simply as Don Gordon. He is reported to have claimed that Claunch was his middle name, yet Cooper, writing much more recently, says that he changed his name sometime during the period for personal reasons. As none of his writing is personal in nature, one can only guess as the true reasons and refer to him awkwardly by both names.

41 Cooper, 61-62.

42 Beckey and Cooper, 302-305.

43 Cooper, 82-90.

44 Beckey, ‘Northwest Passage’ on the Squamish Chief, 24-27.

45 Legendary Italian Dolomite climber Emilio Comici describing his ideal route, said, and I paraphrase, “from the summit a drop of water will fall to the base and that will have been my route.”

46 Taylor, 196.

47 Bjornstad, “The North Face of Mount Slesse,” 66-67; AAJ 1964 Climbs and Expeditions, 169-175; AAJ 1965 Climbs and Expeditions, 407-412; AAJ 1966 Climbs and Expeditions, 126-136; Bertulis, 291-294; Beckey, “The North Face of Bear Mountain,” 67-72.

48 The “Turner Thesis” is a landmark in American historiography. Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the key to understanding the development of the American people was the frontier spirit and the pioneer experience and his ideas are linked to the notion of Manifest Destiny. Although largely discredited among professional historians, the influence of the Turner Thesis both within the discipline and outside of it is undisputed.

49 Schoening, 19.

50 Bjornstad, “Winter Climbing On Volcanic Rock,” 9, 26.

51 Selters, 87-88.

52 Taylor, 146.


Beckey, Fred, “New Climbs in the Cascades.” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1954. p.171-172.

Beckey, Fred. “The North Face of Bear Mountain.” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1968. p.67-72.

Beckey, Fred. The Cascade Alpine Guide, vol.1-3. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2003.

Beckey, Fred. Challenge of the North Cascades. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1969.

Beckey, Fred. “‘Northwest Passage’ on the Squamish Chief.” in Summit. Big Bear Lake: Summit Magazine, March 1966. 24-27.

Beckey, Fred. Range of Glaciers: The Exploration and Survey of the Northern Cascade Range. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2003.

Beckey, Fred and Cooper, Ed. “The North Face of Mount Baring” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1961. p.302-305.

Bell, George. “New Ascents in the Cascade Range” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1956. p.121-122.

Bertulis, Alex. “The East Face of Liberty Bell.” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1967. p.291-294.

Bjornstad, Eric. “The North Face of Mount Slesse.” in in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1964. p. 66-67.

Bjornstad, Eric. “Winter Climbing On Volcanic Rock.” in Summit. Big Bear Lake: Summit Magazine, March 1961. 9, 26.

Cooper, Ed. Soul of the Heights: 50 Years of Going to the Mountains. Guilford: Falconguides, 2007.

Daiber, Ome. “The First Ascent of Mt Rainier by Way of Liberty Ridge on Willis Wall.” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1936. 475-478.

Daiber, Ome. Note in “Climbers Digest: 1939 Review” in The Mountaineer vol. 32. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1939. p.51.

Kjeldsen, Jim. The Mountaineers: A History. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1998.

Schoening, Pete. “Our Responsibility.” in Summit. Big Bear Lake: Summit Magazine, November 1961. p.19.

Selters, Andy. “Wired: Climb Disconnected.” in Alpinist 39, Summer 2012. Jacksonville: Height of Land Publications, 2012. 86-90.

Swayne, Mike. “The Serious Sixties: Portrait of the Climber as a Young Man.” in Northwest Mountaineering Journal. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2007. [http://www.mountaineers.org/nwmj/07/071_Swayne2.html]

Taylor, Joseph. Pilgrims of the Vertical. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Ulrichs, Herman. “The Cascade Range of Northern Washington.” in The American Alpine Journal. New York: The American Alpine Club, 1936. p.462.

Weiselberg, Erik. Ascendency of The Mazamas: Environment, Identity and Mountain Climbing in Oregon, 1870 to 1930. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1999.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-6 of 6

Fleshj27 - Jun 16, 2013 7:19 pm - Voted 10/10

History Major

I like it! Hope you got a good grade and published.

Matt Lemke

Matt Lemke - Jun 19, 2013 6:41 pm - Voted 10/10

Awesome Article!

I read the entire thing. Very well written!

Josh Lewis

Josh Lewis - Jun 24, 2013 5:52 am - Voted 10/10

Lots of Info

I listened to Matt read the article out loud which caught my attention. You have earned my rare 10/10, well done Jacob.


nicozone - Jul 5, 2013 5:41 pm - Hasn't voted

The next step?

This is an excellent entry into the cannon of Pacific Northwest climbing literature and historiography (which admittedly is not large). I'm sure that you were constrained by time and effort-required, but I feel that I speak for others in the climbing community when I say it would be nice to see this pushed further. There is certainly enough content that this could become a book length piece regarding the evolution of climbing culture in the PNW. There seems (to me at least) to be a need for such reflective analysis that is localized to our backyard crags and peaks. Excellent article!


jacobsmith - Jul 7, 2013 7:23 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: The next step?

long term that is definitely the plan. i would like to expand/focus the project on the 1930s through the 1990s and use the PNW as a case study of the interaction between climbing and mainstream culture, and my work over the next couple years will be moving in that direction.
the big, heinous task in front of me is probably tabulating the information in the Beckey guides so that i can look at the chronology and identify patterns, instead of just looking up specific peaks like i have been doing.

schmiddlearth - Dec 20, 2020 6:55 pm - Hasn't voted


Well done. Check the date for the opening of the North Cascade Highway, as I believe it was later than the 1950’s.

Viewing: 1-6 of 6