Cloudcap over Mount Adams. © Jason Hummel
  The Serious Sixties  
  Portrait of a climber as a young man  
  by Michael D. Swayne  


hy Climb?
I was often asked that question in the 1960s, before climbing became fairly well accepted in the mainstream. It seems that humans are born fearful, greedy and ignorant. Much of my life seems to have been devoted to ameliorating these “original sins,” which must have been useful during our evolution or they would not be so prevalent in the human condition. These traits cause more trouble today than they are worth, but we are slow to evolve.

Most climbers I knew seemed to have no fear, most were not greedy except for first ascents, and most were far from ignorant. Sometimes I think I climbed difficult and dangerous mountain routes to try to overcome fear. Sometimes I think I rejected making money my main objective in life to try to overcome greed. Sometimes I think I obtained a PhD to try to overcome ignorance.

I started climbing mountains because of a somewhat unusual set of family and friends. I loved going to the hills with my dad fishing and hunting. I had asthma, so I loved the clean fresh air of the mountains where my lungs felt better. I loved athletic activity because it made me feel stronger and energetic. I loved skiing because it was an enjoyable sport in the snow during dark, wet Seattle winters. I loved climbing the peaks that I had seen many times from roads or trails and looking out over the valleys and ranges. I loved the sense of adventure and the sense of being able to accomplish difficult things through training, practice and mental and physical toughness. And I grew to love like brothers some of the guys with whom I went into the mountains. You cannot fake competence and friendship in the mountains. Either you are capable, dependable, enjoyable and interesting to be with, or you are not.

Learning the ropes
In the late 1950s, I took the Washington Alpine Club climbing class to learn how to stay out of trouble during my mountain rambles. The WAC class covered basic equipment and techniques and stressed the “Ten Essentials.” Since the class began in winter, practice was limited to Schurman Rock at Camp Long. We hiked up Granite Mountain to learn how to use an ice ax and perform a self arrest. My clothes were Army surplus but I did buy a good pair of Swiss climbing boots with Tricouni heels and a cheap Dacron parka. After years of slip-sliding around the woods in smooth-soled work boots, I learned that a good pair of climbing boots was the most important piece of equipment to have. Although Tricouni heels were great in the brush and on logs, I got rid of them after skidding a couple times down rock slabs in a shower of sparks.

Approaching the Roman Nose, Mt. Baker. Photo courtesy Mike Swayne
Approaching the Roman Nose, Mt. Baker. Photo courtesy Mike Swayne Enlarge

Our first climbs were on Pinnacle and Castle Peaks near Paradise. I remember looking up from the road and thinking they looked steep and wondering how we were going to get up them. But I soon learned that mountains often have easier routes that avoid the sheer faces and features. The WAC leaders took us up to a saddle and then traversed the back side of Pinnacle, which was much easier than the front side. By the time we scrambled up rock to the top, I was thinking climbing was easy. After lunch we traversed over to Castle Peak, which had one little rock pitch that slowed some people down. I had no trouble when my turn came, so on the way down I was thinking, “I am a mountain climber.” I read all the books about mountains, climbers and climbing in Seattle’s Green Lake Library. I started getting up in the morning and looking out the window and wondering what was going on in the mountains.

In 1960, I climbed with friends from the WAC and Trail Blazers who were also looking for something a little more adventurous. Gordon Thompson worked for the Forest Service during the summer and immediately impressed me with his strength of muscle and character and his steady manner in difficult situations. One day Gordon and I were climbing on the east side of Little Si when a guy came up and asked us what we were doing. His name was Ed Cooper. Ed was from New York and he liked to put people on to see what they would say. He was a few years older and already an experienced climber. He was just down from a solo climb of the face of the Haystack on Mount Si, and he regaled us with his many exploits on difficult and dangerous routes. We talked so long we had to hike out in the dark.

We were all in school until June so we got together on weekends until then. At Castle Rock I learned that Ed’s wiry body was like a spider on the rock. My long arms and legs gave me somewhat of an advantage, but my big feet did not. I also did not have the strength-to-weight ratio to feel comfortable on high angle rock. So for months I practiced doing finger pull-ups and push-ups and standing for long periods on my toes and the edges of my boots. I also jogged stairs on Capital Hill and around Green Lake and trained with the Seattle University baseball team.

Gordon, Ed, Ron Nicoli and I made an attempt on the East Face of Chimney Rock in the Northern Idaho Selkirks in early June 1960. It was my first big rock face and I got a nasty rope burn rappelling down in the evening. Ed and Gordon prusiked up the next day and tried for the top but ran out of time. I learned more about the logistics of climbing on rock faces during this attempt but decided I liked alpine climbs better because they offer more movement and variety of conditions and terrain.

Mount Baker, Roman Nose
A couple weeks after the Chimney Rock attempt, Gordon, Don Ihlenfeldt and I hiked to the Kulshan Cabin for a climb of Mt Baker. Don joined the Trail Blazers in 1953 with Doug Barrie. I planted fish in several lakes and climbed several local peaks with Don and Doug and we became very good friends. Doug’s death on Mount Sir Donald a few years later was hard on us.

We were alone in the cabin until Ed Cooper walked in. Ed had tracked us down by calling my mother and Gordon’s mother. He asked if we wanted to do something “interesting” the next day. Not knowing what we were getting into we all said sure. The next morning we climbed the Coleman Glacier toward the “Roman Nose,” which Ed said was unclimbed. As we started up the ridge, we had to be careful as the volcanic rock was very loose and crumbly. Our route wandered back and forth across the crest to bypass towers until we reached the first large step.

Viewed from below, this spot looks impassable. Gordon led a traverse on the right side of the crest with hundreds of feet of exposure above the glacier. About 15 feet above a tiny ledge, a rock suddenly pulled loose and he began sliding. Fortunately, Gordon had tremendous upper body strength and agility and he managed to grab and hang onto the ledge without going over. As the rest of us held our breath, Gordon pulled himself together and started up again. With much pulling and kicking away loose rock he gained a good belay point. Ed went up next and threw a top-rope down. There were two bad pitches and I almost fell when a hold pulled out. The exposure below did not help matters any.

Ed Cooper on the Roman Nose, Mt. Baker. Photo courtesy Mike Swayne
Ed Cooper on the Roman Nose, Mt. Baker. Photo courtesy Mike Swayne Enlarge

Easier climbing led to the second step, which also looked bad from below, with steep ice overlaying the rock and an edge dropping away to the glacier. We placed pitons in the rock for safety and traversed the ice cutting steps. After this traverse, a short rock pitch lead to easier slopes. We summited after about ten hours of climbing. The weather had been great all day above 6,500ft. The clouds below formed a vast ocean from which only the highest peaks emerged. I learned on this climb that if conditions are reasonably good, you are in good physical condition, and you do not give up when difficult obstacles are encountered then you can find a way up and be successful.

Mount Adams, Lava Glacier Headwall
Ed was interested in doing new routes so the following week he wanted to look at the unclimbed Lava Glacier Headwall on Mount Adams. I was beginning to feel reasonably comfortable on steep snow and ice so I agreed to join him. Approaching from Killen Creek, we camped in a small patch of trees below the North Ridge where we could have fire and water.

At 2 a.m. we rose, ate, put on crampons, and headed up. We dropped from the North Ridge onto the Lava Glacier and started up the slope to the bottom of the imposing headwall. The morning sun cast an orange glow on a couple thousand feet of steep ice and rock bands. We crossed several crevasses at the bottom to get onto the headwall then started up.

Because of the constant small rock fall we moved together for the first thousand feet. The avalanche of huge rocks that narrowly missed us encouraged us to keep moving together over the next thousand feet as well. Around 11,000ft, above a chute that breached a rock band, the slope began to ease so we stopped to rest. Ed built a cairn on a rock projection at the top of the headwall. The route soon merged with the upper North Ridge. From there we contoured around the head of the Adams Glacier to the summit, arriving a little after 9 a.m.

From the summit we could see for miles in all directions. We descended the North Ridge, where we met a group of Everett Mountaineers coming up. They had seen us on the headwall, had seen the rocks fall, and thought we were goners. They later wrote an article in Summit magazine about watching our miraculous escape. I learned on this climb that being in excellent physical condition allows you to move fast up steep slopes for long distance minimizing your exposure to danger. I also learned that belaying can be more dangerous than not belaying in steep, dangerous areas because you are exposed to hazards longer. Any belay would also likely fail unless backed up with ice pitons.

Mount Adams, Wilson Headwall
The Pizza Haven managed by Eric Bjornstad in Seattle’s University District became a hangout for people more passionate about climbing than about making a living. The denizens were a grungy bunch readily spotted in a crowd by their ragged beards and hair, war surplus clothes, and Beat girl friends. They were not above bumming food, an occasional cigarette, or a place to crash. Sleeping on couches, porches, lawns and parks during trips was typical. Reading poetry or philosophy was not unusual.

This group contrasted with the Mountaineer and Washington Alpine Club climbers who were more upstanding citizens, but because of their jobs could only climb on weekends and vacations, so they were not considered serious climbers. I was fortunate to have an athletic “ride” at the university that paid tuition so I only worked part of the summer. Jim and Lou Whittaker, who guided on Rainier, were the “boy scouts,” tall, strong and admired more for feats of endurance than for doing risky new routes. Fred Beckey, who was already a legend, was the undisputed guru of the renegade climbers interested in exploring exciting new routes and not afraid of being called crazy.

While I had grown up more or less “normal,” joining the Trail Blazers and happening to meet Ed Cooper caused me and a few friends to fall in with some “interesting” people. I went on a few climbs with Fred Beckey in June 1961 to get in condition and do some exploring. Fred was always on the lookout for new climbs. We got along fine because he was the master while I was the apprentice learning new things, some of them about climbing. I learned how to use coded person-to-person messages to make free long distance phone calls. I learned that sleeping in public rose gardens was okay because little old ladies did not have cell phones to call the cops in those days. I learned at Beacon Rock that the sheriff had a hard time stopping an illegal climb once you were off the ground. I learned that Fred’s address book had lots of helpful people listed. Seriously, I learned that Fred was not only a great climber but he did not take unnecessary risks if the conditions were not right.

Near the end of June 1961, Ed Cooper arrived in town after climbing the Squamish Chief in British Columbia. Dee Molenaar had written an article in the spring issue of Summit magazine with a picture showing the great unclimbed East Face of Mount Adams. Naturally, this aroused much interest among the renegade climbing fraternity. Since Ed and I were familiar with the north side of Adams from the year before, we thought we might be able to traverse from the north to the east side.

Ed Cooper on approach to Mt. Adams. Photo courtesy Mike Swayne
Ed Cooper on approach to Mt. Adams. Photo courtesy Mike Swayne Enlarge

On Friday, June 30, we drove to Killen Creek where we sacked out and swatted mosquitoes. We did not get started until about 6 a.m. because our plan was to bivouac below the East Face, so we could climb the most dangerous part during the early morning hours. Snow on the lower slopes of the mountain made cross-country travel easy. By a little after 10 a.m. we were at the north edge of the Wilson Glacier. All morning there had been a cloudcap obscuring the summit and now big lenticular clouds were forming as well.

We studied the cliffs for about 45 minutes, looking at a photograph of the face and listening. We watched for rock and icefall and kept an eye on the weather. The temperature was cool. The cloudcap, which extended over a mile east from the summit, was keeping the sun off the slopes. The rightmost of three chimneys on the Wilson Headwall looked like it might go. We had planned to bivouac, but it was before noon and cool enough to stabilize the slopes. There was 4000ft of climbing above us but we decided to go for it.

We climbed easy slopes north of a rock ridge that splits the Wilson Glacier. We roped up above the rocks and climbed the crevassed glacier to the bergschrund below the headwall. The chimney we had chosen had water running under the snow and ice. Higher we encountered rotten ice, verglas, and snow. We climbed without crampons by stemming the four foot wide chimney, kicking steps in the rotten snow, or cutting holds in the fragile ice. After three pitches there was a fork in the chimney, with a dead-end heading left. It was at this point that a boulder about a foot in diameter came down, ricocheting from wall to wall. I yelled “ROCK,” as it rebounded down the walls and disappeared below me. When it quieted down I yelled down to Ed to see if he was okay. After a few seconds he yelled back that he was okay but the rock had missed him by just a foot.

Ed cussed at my meager steps and holds as I belayed him up. He led up the right fork of the chimney, staying on the rock on its right side. I joined him after waiting for a small avalanche to pass that started on the ice cliffs above us. The climbing appeared to be all snow and ice above us, so we put our crampons back on. We ascended into the cloudcap as we climbed the easier slopes of the upper Wilson Glacier.

On the summit ridge above 12,000 ft, we met the full fury of the wind. The wind whipped ice crystals into our faces like needles. In thick clouds, I could barely see Ed on the other end of the rope. Now the problem was survival and finding our way to the North Ridge to descend. We stumbled in a NW direction to where the slopes started going down steeply. We knew that the slopes at the top of the North Ridge were not this steep but we did not know which side of the ridge we were on. If too far left, we were on top of the Adams Glacier; if too far right, we were on top of the Lava Glacier Headwall. Since we didn't want to go down either of these steep glaciers we sat and waited. The wind was blowing a gale and we were rapidly cooling down. Occasionally the clouds parted so we could get a hazy view of steep ice and rocks below but we could not get enough information to make a decision to go right or left.

We became so cold that we decided to traverse left toward a rocky ridge we had seen. The clouds parted briefly and we could see the Adams Glacier below. We traversed and climbed back to the right until another break in the clouds showed us that we were on the right track for the North Ridge. As we descended below the cloudcap, the wind dropped considerably and we rested in the late afternoon sun. We took off our crampons and glissaded the west side of the ridge a couple thousand feet to the bottom.

We entered the woods above the Killen Creek trail in growing darkness. Heading in the general direction of the trail we could not distinguish any landmarks. Soon I heard frogs croaking in the distance and remembered seeing a small pond on the way in, so off we went following the sound of croaking frogs. Sure enough, after reaching the pond, we found the trail and were soon out. It was a memorable way to celebrate my 21st birthday. I learned on this climb that remaining rational during a life threatening situation can save your life and again that being in excellent condition increases your options and allows you to keep going to escape trouble. Also remembering details of the terrain from previous trips can help plan extensions to those routes and help figure out how to get down in bad visibility. Even remembering details from the lower approach can help you on the way out, even in the dark.


Mike Swayne was born on July 1, 1940 in Seattle. His father worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and loved fishing, hunting and rock hounding in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. In the mid 1940s, Mike began doing camping and fishing trips with his family to places like the Icicle, Taylor and Cle Elum Rivers. They fly-fished from log rafts in the days before spinning reels and inflatable rafts. There was no catch and release. Today Mike says, “I still consider catch and release to be harassing fish and not showing respect for a beautiful animal. If I don’t need a fish to eat I don’t try to catch them.”

In 1958 Mike joined the Trail Blazers, a Seattle organization that since 1933 has planted fish in remote high lakes. (See Mike’s article about the Trail Blazers in the 2006 NWMJ.) In the days before good maps, Trail Blazers often climbed ridges and peaks near the lakes to scout potential routes. Mike made many trips with George Kniert who showed him how to travel cross-country through difficult Cascade terrain.

Mike’s aunt immigrated to Seattle from Germany after WWI and joined the Washington Alpine Club, which has a cabin near Snoqualmie Pass. She introduced the family to skiing and climbing, and Mike’s uncle gave him an old pair of cable binding skis with boots and poles. They spent many weekends at the WAC cabin, paying $1 for the rope tow or $3 for the chairlift at Snoqualmie Summit, or climbing on skins or snowshoes to Frenchman’s Cabin in Commonwealth Basin or Source Lake, beyond today’s Alpental ski area.

During a WAC work party one weekend, Mike hiked up Commonwealth Basin and traversed to Gravel and Alaska Lakes, where he caught several fish. Rather than retrace the difficult approach, he bushwacked out to Gold Creek, where he knew there was a trail. He reached the highway and hitch-hiked back to the WAC cabin after dark. A search party had been sent out for him, and he was scolded for the anxiety and trouble he had caused. Mike offered to take the WAC climbing class to learn how to stay out of trouble in the future. So began his days as a climber.

In college, Mike earned a BS degree in Electrical Engineering and later a PhD in Environmental Engineering. He says, “Although my family and I were not Catholic, I believe that going to Saint Catherine Elementary, Blanchet High, and Seattle University gave me the idea of learning how to do some good in the world as well as doing well. After working on military projects from 1963 to 1972, I turned my efforts to environmental projects, which I still do.”

tricouni heal plate
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