Volcanoes and History
Cascade Range Volcanoes - "Volcanoes and History"

First Ascent of Mount Rainier, Washington
August 17, 1870

Excerpts from: Hazard Stevens, 1876, The Ascent of Takhoma, IN: The Atlantic Monthly, November 1876, Vol.38, Issue 229, published by Atlantic Monthly Co., Boston, p.513-530.

-- Issue of The Atlantic Monthly found at Cornell University Library, "Making of America".

...     Before daylight the next morning, Wednesday, August 17, 1870, we [Philomon Beecher Van Trump and the author Hazard Stevens] were up and had breakfasted, and at six o'clock we started to ascent Takhoma. Besides our Alpine staffs and creepers, we carried a long rope, an ice-axe, a brass plate inscribed with our names, our flags, a large canteen, and some luncheon. We were also provided with gloves, and green goggles for snow-blindness, but found no occasion to use the latter. ...     being satisfied from our late reconnoissance [of the previous day] that we could reach the summit and return on the same day, we left behind our coats and blankets.

In three hours of fast walking we reached the highest point of the preceding day's trip, and commenced the ascent by the steep, rocky ridge already described as reaching up to the snowy dome. We found it to be a very narrow, steep, irregular backbone, composed of a crumbling basaltic conglomerate, the top only, or backbone, being solid rock, while the sides were composed of loose broken rocks and debris. Up this ridge, keeping upon the spine when possible, and sometimes forced to pick our way over the loose and broken rocks at the sides, around columnar masses which we could not directly climb over, we toiled for five hundred yards, ascending at an angle of nearly forty-five degrees. Here the ridge connected, by a narrow neck or saddle, with a vast square rock [Gibralter Rock], whose huge and distinct outline can be clearly perceived from a distance of twenty-five miles. This, like the ridge, is a conglomerate of basalt and trap, in well-defined strata, and is rapidly disintegrating and continually falling in showers and even masses of rocks and rubbish, under the action of frost by night and melting snow by day. It lies imbedded in the side of the mountain, with one side and end projected and overhanging deep, terrible gorges, and it is at the junction of these two faces that the ridge joined it at a point about a thousand feet below its top. On the southern face the strata were inclined at an angle of thirty degrees. Crossing by the saddle from the ridge, despite a strong wind which swept across it, we gained a narrow ledge formed by a stratum more solid than its fellows, and creeping along it, hugging close to the main rock on our right, laboriously and cautiously continued the ascent. The wind was blowing violently. We were now crawling along the face of the precipice almost in mid-air. On the right the rock towered far above us perpendicularly. On the left it fell sheer off, two thousand feet, into a vast abyss. A great glacier filled its bed and stretched away for several miles, all seamed or wrinkled across with countless crevasses. We crept up and along a ledge, not of solid, sure rock, but one obstructed with the loose stones and debris which were continually falling from above, and we trod on the upper edge of a steep slope of this rubbish, sending the stones at every step rolling and bounding into the depth below. Several times during our progress showers of rocks fell from the precipice above across our path, and rolled into the abyss, but fortunately none struck us.

Four hundred yards of this progress brought us to where the rock joined the overhanging edge of the vast neve or snow-field that descended from the dome of the mountain and was from time to time, as pressed forward and downward, breaking off in immense masses, which fell with a noise as of thunder into the great canyon on our left. The junction of rock and ice afforded our only line of ascent. It was an almost perpendicular gutter, but here our ice-axe came into play, and by cutting steps in the ice and availing ourselves of every crevice or projecting point of the rock, we slowly worked our way up two hundred yards higher. Falling stones were continually coming down, both from the rock on our right and from the ice in front, as it melted and relaxed its hold upon them. Mr. Van Trump was hit by a small one, and another struck his staff from his hands. Abandoning the rock, then, at the earliest practicable point, we ascended directly up the ice, cutting steps for a short distance, until we reached ice so corrugated, or drawn up in sharp pinnacles, as to afford a foothold. These folds or pinnacles were about two or three feet high, and half as thck, and stood close together. It was like a very violent chop sea, only the waves were sharper. Up this safe footing we climbed rapidly, the side of the mountain becoming less and less steep, and the ice waves smaller and more regular, and, after ascending about three hundred yards, stood fairly upon the broad dome of mighty Takhoma. It rose before us like a broad, gently swelling headland of dazzling white, topped with black, where the rocky summit projected above the neve.

Ascending diagonally towards the left, we continued our course. The snow was hard and firm under foot, crisp and light for an inch or two, but solidifed into ice a foot or less beneath the surface. The whole field was covered with the ice-waves already described, and intersected by a number of crevasses which we crossed at narrow places without difficulty. About half-way up the slope, we encountered one from eight to twenty feet wide and of profound depth. ...     Throwing a bight of the rope around a projecting pinnacle on the upper side, we climbed up, hand over hand, and thus effected a crossing.

We were now obliged to travel slowly, with frequent rests. In that rare atmosphere, after taking seventy or eighty steps, our breath would be gone, our muscles grew tired and strained, and we experienced all the sensations of extreme fatigue. An instant's pause, however, was sufficient to recover strength and breath, and we would start again. The wind, which we had not felt while climbing the steepest part of the mountain, now again blew furiously, and we began to suffer from the cold.

Our course, -- directed still diagonally towards the left, thus shunning the severe exertion of climbing straight up the dome, although at an ordinary altitude the slope would be deemed easy, -- brought us first to the southwest peak [Point Success]. This is a long, exceedingly sharp, narrow ridge, springing out from the main dome for a mile into mid-air. The ridge affords not over ten or twelve feet of foothold on top, and the sides descend almost vertically. On the right side the snow lay firm and smooth for a few feet on top, and then descended in a steep, unbroken sheet, like an immense, flowing curtain, into the tremendous basin which lies on the west side of the mountain between the southern and northern peaks, and which is inclosed by them as by two mighty arms. The snow on the top and left crest of the ridge was broken into high, sharp pinnacles, with cracks and fissures extending to the rocks a few feet below. The left side, too steep for the snow to lie on, was vertical, bare rock. The wind blew so violently that we were obliged to brace ourselves with our Alpine staffs and use great caution to guard against being swept off the ridge. We threw ourselves behind the pinnacles or into the cracks every seventy steps, for rest and shelter against the bitter, piercing wind. Hastening forward in this way along the dizzy, narrow, and precarious ridge, we reached at length the highest point. Sheltered behind a pinnacle of ice we rested a moment, took out our flags and fastened them upon the Alpine staffs, and then, standing erect in the furious blast, waved them in triumph with three cheers. We stood a moment upon that narrow summit, bracing ourselves against the tempest to view the prospect.

The whole country was shrouded in a dense sea of smoke, above which the mountain towered two thousand feet in the clear, cloudless ether. A solitary peak far to the southeast, doubtless Mount Adams, and one or two others in the extreme northern horizon, alone protruded above the pall. On every side of the mountain were deep gorges falling off precipitously thousands of feet, and from these the thunderous sound of avalanches would rise occasionally. Far below were the wide-extended glaciers already described. The wind was now a perfect tempest, and bitterly cold; smoke and mist were flying about the base of the mountain, half hiding, half revealing its gigantic outlines; and the whole scene was sublimely awful.

It was now five p.m. We had spent eleven hours of unremitted toil in making the ascent, and, thoroughly fatigued, and chilled by the cold, bitter gale, we saw ourselves obliged to pass the night on the summit without shelter or food, except our meagre lunch. It would have been impossible to descend the mountain before nightfall, and sure destruction to attempt it in darkness. We concluded to return to a mass of rocks nto far below, and there pass the night as best we could, burrowing in the loose debris.

The middle peak of the mountain [Columbia Crest], however was evidently the highest, and we determined to first visit it. Retracing our steps along the narrow crest of Peak Success, as we named the scene of our triumph, we crossed an intervening depression in the dome, and ascended the middle peak [Columbia Crest], about a mile distant and two hundred feet higher than Peak Success. Climbing over a rocky ridge which crowns the summit, we found ourselves within a circular crater two hundred yards in diameter, filled with a solid bed of snow, and inclosed with a rim of rocks projecting above the snow all around. As we were crossing the crater on the snow, Van Trump detected the odor of sulphur, and the next instant numerous jets of steam and smoke were observed issuing from the crevices of the rocks which formed the rim on the northern side. Never was a discovery more welcome! Hastening forward, we both exclaimed, as we warmed our chilled and benumbed extremities over one of Pluto's fires, that here we would pass the night, secure against freezing to death, at least. These jets were from the size of that of a large steampipe to a faint, scarcely perceptible emission, and issued all along the rim among the loose rocks on the northern side for more than half the circumference of the crater. At intervals they would puff up more strongly, and the smoke would collect in a cloud until blown aside and scattered by the wind, and then their force would abate for a time.

A deep cavern, extending into and under the ice, and formed by the action of heat, was found. Its roof was a dome of brilliant green ice with long icicles pendent from it, while its floor, composed of the rocks and debris which formed the side of the crater, descended at an angle of thirty degrees. Forty feet within its mouth we built a wall of stones, inclosing a space five by six feet around a strong jet of steam and heat. Unlike the angular, broken rocks met with elsewhere, within the crater we found well-rounded bowlders and stones of all sizes worn as smooth by the trituration of the crater as by the action of water. Nowhere, however, did we observe any new lava or other evidences of recent volcanic action excepting these issues of steam and smoke.

Inclosed within the rude shelter thus hastily constructed, we discussed our future prospects while we ate our lunch and warmed ourselves at our natural register. The heat at the orifice was too great to bear for more than an instant, but the steam wet us, the smell of sulphur was nauseating, and the cold was so severe that our clothes, saturated with the steam, froze still when turned away from the heated jet. The wind outside roared and whistled, but it did not much affect us, secure within our cavern, except when an occasional gust came down perpendicularly. However, we passed a most miserable night, freezing on one side, and in a hot steam-sulphur-bath on the other.

The dawn at last slowly broke, cold and gray. The tempest howled still wilder. As it grew light, dense masses of driven mist went sweeping by overhead and completely hid the sun, and enveloped the mountain so as to conceal objects scarce a hundred feet distant. We watched and waited with great anxiety, fearing a storm which might detain us there for days without food or shelter, or, worse yet, snow, which would render the descent more perilous, or most likely impossible. And when, at nine a.m., an occasional rift in the driving mist gave a glimpse of blue sky, we made haste to descend. First, however, I deposited the brass plate inscribed with our names in a cleft in a large bowlder on the highest summit, -- a huge mound of rocks on the east side of our crater of refuge, which we named Crater Peak, -- placed the canteen alongside, and covered it with a large stone. I was then literally freezing in the cold, piercing blast, and was glad to hurry back to the crater, breathless and benumbed.

We left our den of refuge at length, after exercising violently to start the blood through our limbs, and, in attempting to pass around the rocky summit, discovered a second crater, larger than the first, perhaps three hundred yards in diameter. It is circular, filled wiht a bed of snow, with a rocky rim all around and numerous jets of steam issuing fromt he rocks on the northern side. Both crater are inclined -- the first to the west, and the latter to the east with a much steeper inclination, about thirty degrees. The rim of the second crater is higher, than that of the first, and upon the east side rises in a rocky wall thirty feet above the snow within. From the summit we obtained a view of the northern peak [Liberty Cap], still partially enveloped in the driving mist. It appeared about a mile distant, several hundred feet lower than the centre peak, and separated from it by a deeper, more abrupt depression or gap than that separating Crater and Success peaks. Like the latter, too, it is a sharp, narrow ridge springing out from the main mountain, and swept bare of snow on its summit by the wind. The weather was still too threatening, the glimpses of the sun and sky through the thick, flying scud, were too few and fugitive, to warrent us in visitng this peak, which we named Peak Takhoma, to perpetuate the Indian name of the mountain.

Our route back was the same as on the ascent. ...


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