history of mountain guiding in America is an important part of the overall
history of climbing in North America. From the early exploits of Conrad Kain
to those of Paul Petzoldt and Doug Robinson, mountain guides have been doing
incredible things for well over a century. The Pacific Northwest, even in
its isolation from other major climbing areas, is in no way immune to this
phenomenon. Indeed, the gentle slopes of the volcanoes and the sharp summits
of the North Cascades provide a powerful lure to potential guides everywhere.
It is no surprise then, that the first female mountain guide in North America earned her stripes on the slopes of Mount Rainier. On June 9, 1918, park superintendent Dewitt L. Reaburn announced something that seemed unfathomable at the time: the inclusion of Alma Wagen into Mount Rainier’s guide staff.
In the early years of guiding, the idea of a woman taking people onto the snows of a mountain like Rainier seemed ludicrous. Such an endeavor was reserved for men and men alone. In order to win a job on the guide staff, Alma needed an incredible amount of experience—far more than most of her male contemporaries.
Born in 1878, Alma began her climbing career in Mankato, Minnesota where she grew up on her grandparents’ farm. Minnesota is painfully bereft of mountains, so Alma began climbing on local windmills. As a little girl she called these structures her mountains and those around her began to call Alma “the windmill climber.”
It wasn’t until 1903, after graduating from the University of Minnesota, that the young woman was able to pursue climbing in a more natural venue. She moved to Tacoma and became a math teacher at Stadium High School. Not long after her move to the Northwest, Alma became involved in The Mountaineers and began to venture into the mountains on outings with members of the organization.
As a teacher, Alma found the free time to do some serious backcountry travel during her summer breaks. Her first major expedition took her from Port Angeles, over the Olympic Mountains, to the Pacific Ocean. On the way, she explored and climbed numerous peaks, many of which were unnamed at the time.
“It was like opening a new life to me,” Alma told the American Magazine during a 1923 interview. “At last I had found the time and the place to climb, and I climbed hills and mountains and learned everything I possibly could about climbing. Then I looked for new fields to conquer… And in 1914 I walked through Glacier National Park and found my life’s work right in the National Parks. There were places to climb and I wanted to teach other women the joy of climbing.”
From a modern climbing perspective, Alma was still at a beginning level where trekking and climbing sometimes meet. It was not until her next trip that she was required to engage all of the climbing skills she developed in the previous years.
In 1915, Alma joined an expedition that circumnavigated Mount Rainier above treeline and finished with a climb to the summit. According to early reports, she did this by ascending the seldom-climbed north side of the volcano. “By that time I felt that I could climb any mountain that ever reared its head in the air,” she said of her ascent.
In all likelihood, Alma actually climbed the Emmons Glacier, which faces to the northeast. The first well-documented ascents of the steeper routes on Rainier’s north side did not take place until the thirties. Regardless of the route she took, any ascent far from the security of the “standard” route up the mountain was unusual and worthy of note.
After spending time in a few other high mountain venues after Rainier, Alma joined a 240-mile Mountaineers outing. The first objective of the trip was to climb Mount St. Helens, which was quite a bit taller then that it is now. From there she walked to both Mount Adams and Mount Hood, easily climbing both peaks.
“And there,” she stated. “I felt the winds blow between the worlds at last, on the snow-capped peak of Mount Hood. No one but a mountain climber can know the joy it brings to reach the top at last, and to realize that you are alone with the fresh, free air, while you rest and enjoy the view and plan for other peaks to conquer.”
It was during the descent from Hood that tragedy nearly struck. While Alma was holding the rope that ran between the climbers, a large rock came bounding down the steep slope. The bouncing boulder struck her painfully on the lower back. Shocked by the unforeseen blow, Alma held the rope tightly and saved herself from further injury. She knew that if she let go she would have certainly slid to her death.
Alma’s injury called for an evacuation, which was accomplished by rather unusual means. A guide named Elijah Coleman lay down in the snow, converting himself into a human toboggan. Alma was then wrapped in coats and sweaters and tied on top of Elijah, whom she rode down the mountain. Elijah was pulled, pushed, and lowered down glaciers and snowfields until they made it to the Cloudcap Inn, thousands of feet below. Surprisingly, Alma did not sustain any further injury during the descent and Elijah merely remarked that he felt worn thin in a few spots.
Guides on Mount Rainier became a scarce commodity after the United States joined the fighting in Europe during the First World War. Indeed, the shortage of men created a new opportunity for Alma. She jumped at her chance to become a guide. Before she knew it, she was bringing people up Pinnacle Peak, onto the Nisqually Glacier, and up to the newly built hut at Camp Muir. And every now and then she was provided the opportunity to assist with summit trips.
Throughout her years as an instructor and a guide for the park, male guides gave Alma credit for being a proficient leader. The chief climbing guide of the day, Joseph Hazard, wrote: “The career of Alma Wagen as a mountain guide is striking… She led the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. party like a master.” T.H. Martin, head of the Rainier National Park Company, was credited in a Tacoma Times article as saying that Alma was “one of the best guides in the employ of the company.” This was no small accolade, as many considered Mount Rainier guides to be the best in the entire park service.
After Alma married Doctor Horace J. Whitacre, she retired from guiding and in December of 1967 she passed away. She was eighty-nine years old. Though she has been gone for many years, her enthusiasm for the mountains lives on.
“Mountain climbing is the greatest sport in the world,” she told one interviewer. “There is no better fun than that of sliding hundreds of feet on the snow in mid-summer while the rest of the world is sweltering below you, or to know the wonderful exhilaration of viewing range on range of mountain peaks for hundreds of miles, that rise in tinted ranks against the sky.”
Her words ring true, but her pioneering spirit has influenced modern climbing in a more tangible way. Today, hundreds of women guide on rock, snow and ice throughout North America. They continue to bring people to the high places of the planet while pushing the very limits of climbing on their own. As the small community of female guides continues to grow, so too does the community of climbers who wish to be guided by them.
Once, when Alma Wagen was young and practicing her climbing, she was told that “it’s not pretty for girls to climb windmills.” Today, as female guides continue to scale harder and harder mountains, most climbers would disagree.
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