Mount Rainier’s Foggy First Ascent

Unlike the conquests of the Alps or the Himalayas, the events of the first ascent of Mount Rainier (14,410 ft./4,392 m.) were virtually lost in history. The details that we do know are thanks to a Native American that lead the unnamed — and therefore unheralded — duo to the mountain.

Saluskin of the Yakima Tribe was born around 1823 and passed away in 1917. He never learned to speak English so his story of guiding the mystery men to the mountain had to be interpreted. In the latter years of his life he gave two translators on separate occasions his story of the first ascent. This, as well as some other factors described by Aubrey L. Haines, author of Mountain Fever (1962), gave Saluskin his credibility.

Saluskin told his second interpretor, Lucullus McWhorter, the account Haines includes in his book. Haines explains that both McWhorter’s version and the one by A.J. Splawn corroborate on the key details.

In the day when skins trading was huge in what was then known as the Washington Territory, the settlements along Puget Sound were pushing their government to establish a road through the Cascade Range; no reliable route could be found. It’s likely that the two men that came to the Yakima Chief, Owhi, to ask for help in getting to the mountain were surveyors. Saluskin describes two white men, one tall and one short. The short man was clean faced while and carried a pistol; the taller one had a mustache and carried a long musket.

The Yakima Tribe were suspicious of the men’s intentions — most likely looking for gold or some other mineral. The white men explained that they represented Governor Stevens (the first governor of the Washington Territory) and that they were looking to identify the lines drawn in a treaty. The white men then shared their telescope to demonstrate their exploratory intent. This comforted the tribesmen and they assigned Saluskin to take them to the mountain.

Over several days, he lead them to Mystic Lake near the end of the Carbon Glacier. Saluskin was surprised when early one morning, the men put plenty of food in their pockets, put on hobnail boots and left not indicating where they were going.

They returned at dark the same day and described the summit crater adequately, including the rim, ice and pool at the center. The men also reported that they found the lines that they sought through their looking glass. And that was the first ascent to the top of Mount Rainier.

Both translated accounts gave the approximate timing, which places the first ascent in 1855 or so — some historians still disagree on the precise year.

It is interesting that the climb’s details have been lost in history to the degree it has. It is likely because the summit team did not think it more important than other events of their journey and that the visit to the top was more curiosity than athletic or sporting accomplishment.

The story of these two unlikely mountaineers should also not give the impression that Mount Rainier is an easy climb. Naivety would say that it is a walk to the top. However, the conditions of the surveyors’ climb and that they skirted danger, such as crevasses, may have been more due to luck than ease of the challenge.

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