The Mountaineers

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 4/20/2018
  • Essay 20547

The Mountaineers is a Western Washington-based organization that has had a major impact on outdoor recreation and wilderness preservation in the state. Started in Seattle in 1906 primarily as a mountain-climbing, hiking, and social club, its members -- men and women -- were first to reach the top of many peaks in the Olympic and Cascade ranges. The organization also embraced skiing, ski-racing, and other outdoor activities, and was instrumental in the creation of national parks, designated wilderness areas, and the state parks system. The club built ski lodges and trails, offered classes and organized activities, and established the nation's first mountain-rescue organization. Seeing the need for better climbing gear, club members in 1938 founded what became Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI). The Mountaineers also established a thriving book-publishing division. From a charter group of 151, membership had grown to more than 13,000 by 2018 and the organization was still run mostly by volunteers.

Getting Started

The club was the idea of climbers W. Montelius Price (1874-1964) and Asahel Curtis (1874-1941), the noted Seattle photographer (and brother of Edward Curtis, famous for his photographs of Native Americans). In 1906 they went on an expedition to Mount Baker with a group from the Mazamas, a Portland-based outdoors club. Price and Curtis decided Seattle should have its own climbing club, as an auxiliary to the Mazamas. They gathered interested friends and fellow climbers and on January 18, 1907, the new club elected as its first president Henry Landes (d. 1936), state geologist, University of Washington professor, and husband of Seattle's first woman mayor, Bertha Landes (1868-1943). Asahel Curtis had envisioned a club of perhaps 20. When the group met again not quite a month later, it recorded 151 charter members.

A newspaper ad in March 1907 promoted the club as one formed for scientific as well as recreational purposes, and said its members would be "exploring the mountains and forests of Washington, to study the history, tradition, botany and geology of the Northwest by making frequent expeditions" ("To Explore Wilds …"). It boasted a membership of 200, representing almost every profession, including a dozen University of Washington faculty members. Planned were a major outing each summer plus two weekend trips a month, with some ground rules: "On these expeditions all members are expected to walk ... Hotels are tabooed while a trip is in progress. Outdoors is the only place its members are then allowed" ("To Explore Wilds ...").

That same month the club produced the first volume of The Mountaineer Annual, a log produced yearly through 1983, and then published as the renamed Mountaineer magazine six times a year until 2016, when it became a quarterly. In the foreword, Landes described The Mountaineers rather poetically as "an association of kindred spirits who love the out-of-doors and to whom the wildwood, the flowery mead and the mountain fastness afford a rest, a solace, and an inspiration" (Landes). By November 1907 the group had sufficient size and momentum to drop "Auxiliary to the Mazamas" from its official name and became simply The Mountaineers.

Early Outings

The club's first outing was a Sunday-morning hike two days after its February meeting. The destination was Fort Lawton, which later became Seattle's Discovery Park. The men wore suits and ties, the women long dresses and fancy hats. By appearances alone, they could have been in a Parisian park.

The first summer outing, the following July, was a bit less formal -- women were expected to wear long skirts in camp but could switch to shorter skirts over bloomers for the trail -- and considerably more ambitious. Club members, led by Price, Curtis, and Dr. Cora Smith Eaton (1867-1939), would explore the Olympic Mountains and attempt to climb the highest peak, 7,965-foot Mount Olympus. A group of about 80 took part, paying $40 each, a considerable sum at the time. They were supplied by a pack train of horses and at least one cow, destined to be dinner.

The climbers reached the top of several mountains, but Olympus gave them trouble. Three men, including Price, were lost in fog for three days while scouting ahead, one of the women climbers was seriously injured when she fell at least 70 feet off a ledge, and a snowstorm forced a temporary retreat. Ten Mountaineers were in the first group to the reach the summit, including Seattle high-school teacher Anna Hubert. Eaton, a practicing physician, made the ascent the next day. A newspaper story said they were the first women to accomplish the feat, and added that Hubert "is now considered the pluckiest mountain climber the club has ever developed" ("Three Men ...").

Subsequent summer outings went to the top of Mount Baker (1908), Mount Rainier (1909), and Glacier Peak (1910). Especially successful were the Rainier expedition, when the entire group of 61 reached the top, and the Glacier Peak climb, when 57 successfully made the ascent.

Women Climbers

Photos of those early outings show club members crossing snowfields in tightly-packed single file, their only special equipment calk boots and tall walking sticks called alpenstocks. Those images reflect a bygone era, but The Mountaineers were ahead of their time in one significant way. Although women would not get the right to vote in the United States until 1920, they played a prominent role in The Mountaineers, beginning with the first meeting being held in Dr. Eaton's office, and including the fact that 77 -- more than half -- of the club's charter members were female.

Fifty years later Mollie Leckenby, who joined the club while still in her teens, described the original group: "It seems to me most of the women members were teachers and many of them a little stuffy. They all started out in big full bloomers, determined to be 'LADIES.' However, practically everyone soon became just 'folks' in the mountains'' ("Early Outings ...").

Women helped organize events and shape club policy, and they held their own in the mountains, regularly being among those claiming first ascents in the Cascades and Olympics. A notable example was Winona Bailey (1873-1938), the climber injured on the initial Mount Olympus outing. She had to be carried half a mile to an improvised hospital that was 10 miles from the main camp, and did not make the 60-mile trip back out of the mountains for two weeks. Undeterred, Bailey soon returned to climbing. In 1916 she was elected one of the club's trustees. In 1920, then a Latin teacher at Queen Anne High School, she was one of the first two Mountaineers honored for reaching the top of Washington's six highest mountains.

Spreading Out

The other inaugural six-peak honoree was famed Northwest historian Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935). He had served as club president since 1908 and would hold that position until his death in 1935. Meany was head of the University of Washington history department for 38 years, starting in 1897, and was revered enough to have the university's brick auditorium named for him in 1914.

"The Mountaineers Club was organized to climb mountains," he wrote in 1910, before describing the organization's growing array of other activities. It already had achieved some success in protecting wild areas, was accumulating notes on trails and climbs, and had 400 members. "They are not people of any bizarre creed," Meany wrote. "They are just nature lovers from all walks of life who seek a wholesome recreation along paths in the forest or on the shores of Puget Sound" ("Objects of Our Club").

During the 1910s and 1920s newspaper items portrayed The Mountaineers as sturdy adventurers, while perhaps revealing some bemusement on the part of headline writers. "Sixty Make Tramp," "Hike Made in Fog," and "Midsummer Affords Keenest Pleasure" are typical examples, the latter item noting "No walk was ever postponed because of unkind weather; in fact, The Mountaineers like a pouring rain for the tramp occasionally" ("Midsummer Affords ..."). A brief story about a 1916 walk from Hazelwood to Newport along Coal Creek told of the group stopping to eat in snow 10 inches deep, and reported "The Mountaineers proved their hardihood yesterday" ("87 Eat Dinner ...").

Building Lodges

The club quickly spread out from hiking and climbing to include skiing and other winter sports. That led to construction of a two-story lodge near Snoqualmie Pass that was dedicated in June 1914, about 25 years before commercial ski areas were established there. The lodge had a main gathering room, a large kitchen, and women's sleeping rooms on the ground floor and, upstairs, a men's dormitory big enough to sleep 100. Despite its distance from Seattle -- getting there required a train trip and a hike, or car travel over unpaved mountain roads -- the lodge became a focal point for year-round outdoor activities and, after dark, dance parties, with no alcohol allowed.

The lodge at Snoqualmie was the first of several constructed by The Mountaineers near wild areas. In 1918 female volunteers built Kitsap Cabin and an outdoor theater eight miles east of Bremerton at Rhododendron Preserve. (Initially intended for skits to entertain club members, the Forest Theater opened to the general public in the 1930s, with popular productions by The Mountaineer Players.) Next came Meany Ski Hut, which opened in 1927 three miles from Stampede Pass, the site of spirited ski races. A modest 1948 ski cabin near Stevens Pass was expanded in 1954 to become Stevens Ski Lodge. The club also rented cabins near Mount Baker starting in late 1945.

The original Snoqualmie lodge burned down in 1944. A replacement was built nearby by volunteers in 1948, but it too was destroyed by fire, in 2006. The club sold the 77-acre property in 2016 to the company that manages The Summit at Snoqualmie ski area.

Youthful Rebellion

By the early 1930s some of the younger climbers were getting restless under Meany's leadership and dissatisfied with the club's general direction. Part of their dissatisfaction was based on older members' reluctance to share their climbing knowledge. In December 1934, 35 men and women formed an offshoot group called the Mountaineer Climbers "to promote interest and research in mountaineering for those desiring a higher standard of this activity" (Wing).

A key player in the movement was Wolf Bauer (1912-2016), a University of Washington engineering student who was one of the club's best Alpine ski racers and a serious climber who kept up with techniques used in his native Bavaria. Without official club sanction, he began teaching a climbing course in 1935 that incorporated the latest European techniques and included field trips. The next year he added an intermediate class. "By this time," wrote Jim Kjeldsen in his comprehensive club history, "it was evident to anyone who had been reading The Mountaineer annuals that independent climbing ... had begun to overshadow the mass climbs of the summer outings" (Kjeldsen, 54).

Bauer and four of his students delivered the best endorsement for his methods in 1936 when they scaled Mount Goode, a 9,220-foot peak in the North Cascades that had foiled many of the club's best climbers. In Lynn Hyde's biography of Bauer, she wrote of the successful ascent:

"This was not just their culminating recital, but the triumph of the new over the old -- their badge of ascendance over the old guard that had been so stingy with their knowledge. It was an alpha climb for the climbing crown in The Mountaineers. The future power balance of the club would ultimately be determined by it" (Bauer and Hyde, 112).

In 1937 four of the younger climbers were elected to The Mountaineers board of directors. About a dozen older members quit. Bauer's mountain-climbing course, one of the nation's first, was officially sanctioned and drew as many as 80 to 100 beginners in each of the next few years. Meanwhile, its graduates were recording numerous first ascents in the Cascades.

Bauer made other important contributions. He introduced kayaking to Washington and, in 1949, he and two fellow German immigrants -- Ome Daiber (1907-1989) and Otto Trott (1911-1999) -- founded the Seattle Mountain Rescue and Safety Council. Designed to coordinate the response in emergency cases requiring technical high-mountain skills, it is considered the nation's first mountain-rescue organization.

Gearing Up

As mountain climbing got more technical, there was a growing demand for better equipment, but few places to get it. A married couple in The Mountaineers decided to do something about that. Lloyd Anderson (1902-2000) and Mary Anderson (1909-2017) were avid climbers. He was one of the founders of the Mountaineer Climbers and a future Mountaineers president; she helped structure climbing classes and was a longtime board member. The Andersons started ordering gear from European catalogs in 1935 and selling it to friends from their West Seattle home. In 1938 they and 21 other Mountaineers paid $1 each in membership dues and formed the Recreational Equipment Cooperative, which eventually would become the nation's largest consumer co-op -- Recreational Equipment, Inc. -- with some 17 million members.

Initially their gear was sold at the Puget Sound Cooperative store near Pike Place Market, and later at a gas station behind the market. In 1942 they moved into space down the hall from The Mountaineers' classrooms above the Green Apple Pie Café at 523-1/2 Pike Street. By that time the Andersons were making some equipment of their own. When interest in outdoor recreation began to take off after World War II, the co-op's business began to grow rapidly. In 1949 it had sales of $31,354 and 2,688 members. No longer a simple mom-and-pop operation, it was incorporated in 1956 and took its now familiar name, REI.

Already working as its store manager was Jim Whittaker (b. 1929). He and his twin brother, Lou, grew up in West Seattle. They joined The Mountaineers as 16-year-old Boy Scouts and learned their mountain-climbing skills through club classes and on excursions with older members. Both became world-class climbers. Lou settled down as head guide at Mount Rainier, which he summited hundreds of times, but Jim did something bigger. On May 1, 1963, he became the first American to reach the top of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. That grabbed the nation's attention and helped boost REI's gross income to more than $1 million in 1964. Jim Whittaker remained in charge of sales until Lloyd Anderson retired on January 1, 1971. Whittaker then took over and was REI's president and CEO for eight years as the company went nationwide. During his tenure it reached $46 million in annual sales.

Book Power

The Mountaineers never intended to be a money-making operation, but the club did discover an unexpected source of income -- in books. From the earliest outings, members took notes and wrote about their hikes and climbs in The Mountaineer, climbers' guides, and course outlines, but the information got little notice outside the club. That started to change in 1960 with the publication of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, a revised collection of the club's accumulated knowledge and photos, edited by Harvey Manning (1925-2006) and others. The first printing of 5,000 quickly sold out, providing money and encouragement to keep publishing.

A winning formula was established in 1966 with the publication of 100 Hikes in Western Washington, by Louise B. Marshall (1915-2005), with photos by Bob and Ira Spring (1908-2003) and edited by Manning and his book committee. The combination of precise trail information and photos launched two enduring series, 100 Hikes and Footsore -- a total of 20 books co-authored by Manning and Ira Spring

Another key contributor was Fred Beckey (1923-2017), whose mountaineering exploits spanned seven decades and included nearly 1,000 first ascents in North America. He began scaling peaks in his early teens and learned climbing techniques as a Boy Scout and in a Mountaineers course. Between summits he wrote a dozen books, including a three-book series called Cascade Alpine Guide, with editions from 1973 to 2008. His last book, Fred Beckey's 100 Favorite North American Climbs, came out in 2011.

The Mountaineers had published more than 30 books by 1975, most of them financially successful and all produced by volunteers. That year the club brought in somewhat less than $100,000 in fees and annual membership dues, compared to $250,000 from the sale of books. The club's leaders decided in June 1978 that it was time to hire a professional, fulltime book director. President James Sanford called that one of the most significant changes in The Mountaineers' history, one that "demanded a lot of deep soul-searching and more than a little effort to look into the future to examine the implications" ("The Continuing Question"). He worried that the move steered the club away from its tradition of being volunteer-driven, although he noted that the director would report to a president and board members who all were volunteers.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980 caused a surge in the sale of Fire and Ice, a Mountaineers book by Stephen L. Harris about volcanoes in the Cascades. Its total sales reached 90,000 copies by November 1981.  

By 1986 Mountaineers Books had published 150 volumes with two million copies sold. In the next decade the total rose to about 500. And Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills continued to grow, in both size and sales. An eighth edition was published in 2010, a 600-page reworking of the 430-page original. It has been translated into at least 10 languages and has sold more than 600,000 copies.

Protecting Wilderness

The club was still in its infancy when it began making a difference in preserving Washington's wild areas. As early as 1909 its members were battling to protect a huge portion of the Olympic Mountains from logging, efforts that finally paid off in 1938 with the establishment of Olympic National Park.

In May 1910 two Mountaineers called attention to illegal logging within Mount Rainier National Park. Club members L. A. Nelson and J. A. McCormick documented with photographs the felling of living old-growth cedars, which led to a front page article in The Seattle Times that quoted McCormick:

"It is very queer that any reputable body of mountain climbers are forbidden to cut boughs for bedding purposes, and yet a logging company is permitted to go ahead and ruin one of the most beautiful parks in the world. We will not stop until the entire situation is aired. We are in the fight to save the park from wholesale vandalism" ("Hall Would Lay Blame…").

When Robert Moran (1857-1943), an early club member and former mayor of Seattle, wanted to donate land that included Mount Constitution to create a state park on Orcas Island, he was initially rebuffed, ostensibly because the state was unable to afford its maintenance. Longtime club vice-president Edward W. Allen, working with the legislature, was able to reverse that decision. The result was Moran State Park, which opened in 1921 as a major addition to the state's young parks system.

Around the same time, Allen also drafted a plan to create more access roads within Mount Rainier National Park, while still retaining its wildest areas. That became a formula used to balance access and wilderness in subsequent national parks.

Pushing Harder

The Mountaineers' activism lagged during the Depression and World War II but was revived in the 1950s, led by the club's conservation committee. Members such as Art Winder, Philip Zalesky (1924-2013), and Polly Dyer (1920-2016) were able to curtail logging that had returned to Mount Rainier National Park, and to extend wilderness coastline on the Olympic Peninsula. The club later helped in the passage of the National Wilderness Act (1964) and was instrumental in the creation of North Cascades National Park (1968) and the Glacier Peak and Alpine Lakes wilderness areas (1960 and 1978 respectively).

Mountaineers Books played a role in some of those successes. Manning was a founding member of the North Cascades Conservation Council and his 1964 book The North Cascades, with photos by Tom Miller, brought national attention to the beauty of that region. Manning followed that with a 1965 collection of essays, The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland, adding momentum to the push for national-park status. Manning named foothills east of Seattle the Issaquah Alps, and he also helped create the Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park and the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway along Interstate 90. When he died in 2006, The Seattle Times called him "a dedicated and caring conservationist who may have done more than any other single person to preserve wilderness in the Cascades" ("Conservationist, Author Remembered ...").

Most dramatic was the impact of a 1971 book called The Alpine Lakes by Brock Evans, with photos by Ed Cooper and Bob Gunner. Legislation to create that wilderness area had passed Congress, but President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) was being urged to veto it by several groups, including the U.S. Forest Service. During a one-on-one meeting, Washington Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), no relation to Brock Evans, showed a borrowed copy of the book to Ford. The president marveled at its gorgeous images and later signed the bill, prompting Manning to say that this particular copy "may be the most persuasive single volume in wilderness history" ("Unfinished Business ...").

The club's book division made no bones about its motives in publishing such large-format, photo-driven books. Donna DeShazo, The Mountaineers' book director, said Washington Wilderness: The Unfinished Work, edited by Manning with photos by Pat O'Hara, was "intended to give convincing information to legislators who will be involved" in a wilderness bill being drafted in 1984 ("Unfinished Business ..."). Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, a 2003 Mountaineers book by photographer Subhankar Banerjee, served a similar purpose -- bringing images of unspoiled land to wider attention.

Adjusting to Change

During The Mountaineers' lifetime Western Washington has been transformed by population growth and development. As then-president Sanford described it in 1976, the area had changed "from pockets of cities in a wilderness, to pockets of wilderness surrounded by cities" ("The Continuing Question"). "For the early members," former president Sam Fry recalled, "it took a four-day expedition just to reach the summit of Mount Si ... Outings to Mount Rainier and Mount Olympus were truly expeditions" ("Whither the Mountaineers").

The club had 233 members at the end of its first year. Branches soon opened in Everett and Tacoma, and the roll grew slowly if not steadily, staying at around 500 during the Depression era. It tripled in size after World War II, reached 3,540 in 1956, and with the addition of an Olympia branch, topped 10,000 in 1978. A Bellingham branch followed in 1983. The mid- to late 1990s were peak years, with about 15,000 members. The club's website in early 2018 put the membership count at more than 12,000, with six branches outside Seattle.

Meeting places changed with the times. For the first two decades The Mountaineers rotated through a half-dozen downtown locations. They convened at the Rialto Building at 1005 Second Avenue from 1930 to 1942 before settling above the Green Apple Pie Café. In the late 1960s the club bought a building at 715-719 Pike Street, occupying rooms and an auditorium upstairs while coexisting with a noisy tavern below. The Mountaineers were forced to move again by the impending construction of the Washington State Convention Center. After considerable legal wrangling, they sold their building and bought as their new home the former Norway Center, a sprawling three-story structure at 300 Third Avenue W.    

Twenty-five years later The Mountaineers moved again, swapping the Norway Center in Lower Queen Anne for an extensively renovated navy motor-pool garage in Magnuson Park. The club's new headquarters and program center opened there in November 2008. Besides classrooms, staff offices, a library, a book store, an auditorium, and a lobby with a rustic fireplace, it had two indoor climbing walls and an outdoor one 35 feet high. Those features were clear reminders that everything -- a century of outings, classes, and conservation efforts, with hundreds of books published and what one writer called a "constant cavalcade of social events" (Stokke) -- started with climbing.


Jim Kjeldsen, The Mountaineers: A History (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1998); Wolf Bauer and Lynn Hyde, Crags, Eddies & Riprap (Seattle: Northwest Passage Press, 2010), 110-112, 169-171; Henry Landes, "Foreward," The Mountaineer, March 1907; Edmond Stephen Meany, "Objects of Our Club," Ibid., November 1910, pp. 5-7; Mollie Leckenby King, "Early Outings Through the Eyes of a Girl," Ibid., December 28, 1956, p. 36; Jane E. Wing, "The Mountaineer Climbers," Ibid., December 1934, pp. 23-24; Sam Fry, "Whither the Mountaineers," Ibid. , June 1976, pp. 29-35; James S. Sanford, "The Continuing Question," Ibid., 1978, July 1979, pp. 26-29; James S. Sanford, "Who Will Decide?," Ibid., August 1980, pp. 30-34; "To Explore Wilds of the Northwest," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 10, 1907, classifieds, p. 13; Archie Satterfield, "Mountaineers: Committee Publishing That Works," Ibid., May 11, 1975, p. L-8; "Three Men Face Fearful Death on Olympus," The Seattle Times, August 20, 1907, p. 12; "Mountaineers Leave on Long Outing Trip," Ibid., July 15, 1911, p. 3; "Two Mountaineers Win Distinction," Ibid., July 23, 1920, p. 2; "Honor for Meany in Lifetime," Ibid., May 1, 1914, p. 1; "Mountaineers to Dedicate Lodge," Ibid., June 21, 1914, p. 8; "Midsummer Affords Keenest Pleasure," Ibid., June 14, 1911, p. 4; "87 Eat Dinner in Snow," Ibid., March 6, 1916, p. 22; "Two Mountaineers Win Distinction," Ibid., July 23, 1920, p. 2; "Hall Would Lay Blame on Ranger in Rainier Park," Ibid., May 25, 1910, p. 1; "Moran Offers Tract for Public Park," Ibid., November 20, 1910, p. 23; Sherry Stripling, "The Mountaineers 80 Years and Counting: Keeping in Step," Ibid., November 9, 1986, Pacific Magazine pp. 4-11, 15; Mary Ann Gwinn, "Unfinished Business: The Mountaineers Put Politics on the Coffee Table," Ibid., February 5, 1984, Pacific Magazine pp. 4-11; Sara Jean Green, "'Memories ... also Dreams' Go Up in Flames," Ibid, May 13, 2006, p. A-1; Kyung M. Song, "Conservationist, Author Remembered as a Vocal Force To Be Reckoned With -- Harvey Manning, 1925-2006," Ibid., November 14, 2006, p. A-1; Stuart Eskenazi, "Mountaineers Consider Moving to New Home Base," Ibid., May 5, 2005, p. B-1; Stuart Eskenazi, "Call to Mountaineering -- New Headquarters Gives Club Chance to Invite Others to Join the Adventure," Ibid., October 14, 2008, p. B-1; Jim Whittaker, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999), 63-70; Philip John Schwarz, "Mountaineers and Bookmen," Pacific Northwest Library Association Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, January 1969, pp. 25-28; Robert D. McFadden, "Fred Beckey, Conqueror of North American Peaks, Dies at 94," New York Times, October 31, 2017, p. B-15; Julie Ellison, "Freedom Turns 50," Climbing, September 2010, p. 24; Geoff Lawrence, "Mountaineers Sells Historic Snoqualmie Pass Property," The Mountaineers website accessed April 12, 2018 (; Dick Stokke, "Nearing 80, Mountaineers Aren't Slowing Down," Argus, July 15, 1983, p. 1.

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