The Long, High-Climbing History of The Mountaineers


Editor’s Note: This is part one in a series focused on the Mountaineers. 

The Mountaineers is a Seattle-based club that has had a major impact on outdoor recreation and wilderness preservation in Washington. Started in 1906 primarily as a mountain-climbing, hiking and social group, 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 12,000 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 Jan.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” 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.”

That same month the club produced the first volume of The Mountaineer, a magazine produced annually through 1983, then published sporadically 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 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.’”

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.


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