Mount Rainier Wilderness through Floyd Schmoe

A Year in Paradise: It has a little climbing, a little nature and a lot of outdoor living. (The cover image was provided as a courtesy by The Mountaineers Books.)

I recently read a book by Mount Rainier National Park’s first on-staff naturalist and an early professional guide of the peak. A Year in Paradise by Floyd Schmoe, originally published in 1959, and reprinted by The Mountaineers Books in 1999, tells about the first four seasons he spent in the Paradise Valley in 1920 after World War I. It tells about the natural splendors of Mount Rainier and the enjoyment in struggling with wilderness living.

The story is true and told in a positive way that promotes the idyllic qualities of nature. Others that don’t enjoy nature would surely only perceive the suffering of wilderness living, though Schmoe certainly doesn’t promote it that way.

After the war, Schmoe and his wife moved to the Puget Sound area looking for work. He is lured to Mount Rainier in January with the same intoxication that draws climbers. On a lark, and without any climbing experience, he seeks a job as a guide. Fortunately, he doesn’t lead the uninitiated up that easily, but his timing was impeccable because the park needed to station two people at the Paradise Inn to satisfy the insurance provider’s requirements; one other building’s roof had already caved in because of the 30 feet of snow. They dug their way into a their winter home, tended the roof, learned to ski, recorded weather readings and conceived a child (not surprising) that season.

During the spring, Schmoe moved out of the Paradise Inn and into one of the many tents that were scattered in the Paradise Valley. He and his pregnant wife would live here while he learned to be a guide. He explains the role of being a guide and also provides several anecdotes with some groups on the lower part of the mountain; he did not start heading to the summit until late in the season. On one occasion he relays a story of being lost and having a member of his guided party doubtful of his navigation capabilities.

Schmoe was not yet a naturalist when he live this life in 1920, but his skills and knowledge of the parks flora and fauna as well as the glaciers and their now long melted caves that he acquired since then and by the time he wrote this book were well integrated.

While the book did not take some opportunities for drama — mainly because of the perspective and the author just coming out and telling you everything — the book is a pleasant and informative read about living around Mount Rainier. It might be a little romantically inclined toward the land at times, but I’m okay with that. I wouldn’t have said it any differently.

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Rainier’s Elevation Controversy

During my research time on Mount Rainier I regularly came across an inconsistency. Some of the references to Mount Rainier list it as 14,410 ft. and others add on a foot to make it 14,411 ft. above sea level. So which is it?

The National Parks Service lists it “officially” as 14,410 ft. and so does National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map (No. 217) of the park. But a new measure, done in 1989 by the Land Surveyors Association of Washington, placed its elevation a foot higher.

While some respect the new measurement, most others – including the National Parks Service – are slow to update their maps and records. Maybe they never will. Measuring elevation is more of an art to get at science. Today, surveyors use high tech equipment like lasers and satellite GPS. However, the key information inputted to provide the output of elevation is still based on several judgment calls. These judgments include what might (or might not be) accepted as the average sea level as a starting place and then using that data and applying it to a location many miles away from the sea. It’s remarkable that we can get as accurate as we can.

So which is right? Well, if you are not certain you can always take the approach of Alpine Ascents International, one of the guide concessions in the park; as of July 5, 2011, their website reports both (one in the header and the other in the body) on their Mount Rainier Program page.

But does it really matter? Not in such a minute denomination. When Bradford Washburn and National Geographic revised Mount Everest’s height it was more dramatic – adding on six feet. After all, it doesn’t change the fact that Mount Rainier dominates Puget Sound’s skyline.

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Sources: 1) Hill, Craig, “The True Measure of a Mountain,” The News Tribune, Feb. 16, 2009; 2) Mount Rainier National Park website; 3) Alpine Ascents International website; and 4) Filley, Bette, The Big Fact Book About Mount Rainier: Fascinating Facts, Records, Lists, Topics, Characters and Stories, Dunamis House, 1996.

Mount Rainier’s Trailhead

To hikers and climbers near Puget Sound, Paradise isn’t in the afterlife or an abstract idea for a Caribbean beach, it’s an actual place. Paradise is an area of reference in the National Park Service map and the name of a valley in the same region of Mount Rainier. The name is also synonymous with the starting point for most visitors’ adventures in Mount Rainier National Park.

Coming from Tacoma or Seattle, people normally pass through Ashford on route 706 – where the guide concessions are located – and enter the park through the Nisqually Entrance in the southwestern corner of the park. From there, visitors continue to the Longmire Museum or just drive straight to Paradise – just 16 miles from the entrance. The road in Paradise itself is mainly in the Paradise Valley. (Keep in mind, road access is limited in the winter based on conditions.)

When most people think of a valley they think of it as the deepest area between two mountainous slopes. Paradise Valley is not a valley like that. Instead it’s actually elevated. It is actually a broad shoulder of the mountain with elevated features on three sides of its plain. On the north end, flowing into Paradise Valley, is Sluiskin Falls – named for the Indian warrior guide to Stevens and Van Trump in 1870 I wrote about earlier – and Narada Falls on the southern end. The water plummets about 200 feet from Narada Falls and out of the “valley.”

Paradise Valley is technically a “hanging valley.” It is also what is left of a glacial cirque. Treeline is approximately 7,000 feet elevation, and Paradise sits at approximately 5,400. There, at that elevation, in winter the landscape can see 30 feet of snow. It buries the Paradise Inn on the western rim of the valley, only to melt and give way to some amazing alpine meadows.

For non hikers and climbers, Paradise is often where the journey stops, but oh what a view! From this hanging valley of alpine flora, you have a front row seat to take in the mountain. If you thought Rainier seemed enormous from Puget Sound, here it would make your HD television’s definition wanting. From there, you can take in the Nisqually Glacier, Gibralter Rock, the edge of the Emmons Glacier and Point Success.

For the hikers and climbers, Paradise is just the starting point. If you’re inclined to hike, there are several trails around Paradise for brisk walk to take in the views or pick up the Wonderland Trail – which circumnavigates the mountain – from the base of Narada Falls. For the climbers, this is where the ascent really begins. More on that later.

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Sources: 1) Schmoe, Floyd, A Year in Paradise: A Personal Experience on Mount Rainier in the Early 1900s, The Mountaineers (1999); 2) National Park Service’s Mount Rainier website.

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!

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

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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Mount Rainier: First National Mountain Park

In 1899 the United States Congress established Mount Rainier National Park. It was the first park where the primary feature was a mountain and not mainly a forest, like Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite and General Grant National Parks before it.

Mount Rainier was designated as federal public land to enjoy and preserve the “outstanding scenic and scientific value for the enjoyment of present and future generations,” according to Theodore Catton on the National Park’s website.

In fact, the park almost did not come to be. The land around it was first designated as forest preserve and covered part of the mountain’s glaciers but not all, and even then, the forest protection did not provide sufficient authorities to ensure the conservation of the mountain’s features. The eventual National Park designation addressed all these issues and more thanks to lobbying from the conservationists in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

The establishment of Mount Rainier National Park, according to Catton, also set a precedent for America’s growing National Park system. It signaled that conservation could include more than just natural resources, like forests for lumber and ore deposits for mining, but natural landmarks of beauty.

Mount Rainier tops the Cascade Range and dominates the skylines across the communities of Western Washington. If you live and work in Seattle or Tacoma or fly in for a visit, you’ll get a glimpse of the mountain. Maybe you want to get closer and be absorbed by it.

Without the National Park designation, I wonder whether the park could have a Whistler-like ski resort at its base. Would the area be less pristine? Would commercialism have trivialized the wilderness experience there?

My speculation about what could have been makes me appreciate this mountain and the community around it even more. I’m glad the mountain is where it is and what it is.

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