Rainier’s First Celebrated Ascent: 1870

They must be spirits, he thought. They had gone up the south face of Mount Rainier and they should not have come back. He had warned them. He had heard there was a horrible pool of fire at the top. But after a little more observation from afar, Sluiskin, the Yakima Warrior from the Battle of Grande Ronde and now their guide, was relieved and thrilled they were truly alive.

Sluiskin learned they had been to the top and he was overjoyed. Hazard Stephens and Philemon Beecher Van Trump, had summited Mount Rainier on August 18th, 1870. It was the first documented ascent of Mount Rainier.

Hazard Stevens was already a force to be reckoned with. He had some advantages as he was the son of the first governor of the Washington Territory. However, he had already proven himself with valor: Stevens had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage in battle during the American Civil War. After the war he returned and became – as you and I would – captivated by Mount Rainier. But admiring it from Puget Sound was not satisfying.

Stevens had met Van Trump and they became friends because they shared a common passion for approaching and attempting Mount Rainier. But it was their meeting of Thomas Edward Coleman, a British Subject and one of the original climbers among the Alps. He gave them the final nudge to commit themselves to the task and together they headed into the backcountry of Washington without roads.

Sluiskin was hired as their guide to get them through the forest and down the Nisqually River to Mount Rainier; he took his time in order to work and be paid for more days.

Coleman was more of an irritant or comic relief on the journey. Each day he insisted on bathing or at least making a sponge bath, no matter what the inconvenience required. He also sipped tea as his colleagues made camp. Most amusing of all, he filled his own canteen with whiskey instead of water, which he emptied part way to the mountain; he was mildly stunned at the pace Stevens and Van Trump intended to proceed.

Coleman could not make the final attempt as he lost his pack (it fell when he set it down) climbing a nearby slope. Though they lost the bacon for protein, Stevens and Van Trump were determined to press on. I will use contemporary names for these landmarks: They ascended from the Paradise River, walked up the Muir Snowfield, climbed up Cowlitz Cleaver (with a good view of Gibraltar Rock), trudged over Camp Misery and onto the summit proper. They only carried an alpenstock, creepers (similar to crampons), rope, ice axe (like a navy axe of the day), a canteen, lunch, gloves, goggles, a plate, flags, and ascended without coats or blankets.

They believed they could make the ascent in a day, but were forced to spend the night near the top in an ice cave. Van Trump injured his leg on the decent, but that did little to dampen their victory. They were not ghosts, they were Puget Sound’s latest heroes!

Thanks again for dropping by. If you enjoyed this post, please considering following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter.

Sources: 1) Haines, Aubrey L., Mountain Fever: Historic Conquests of Rainier, Oregon Historical Society, 1962; 2) National Parks Service website.

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