Nature Notes

Vol. XII April, 1934 No. 4

Highlights of History of Mount Rainier National Park

Part V.

In 1841, eight years after Dr. Wm. Fraser Tolmie's journey to the region which is now included in Mount Rainier National Park, an American Naval party anchored off the shore of Puget Sound near Fort Nisqually. In command was Commander Charles Wilkes, and the purpose of this expedition was to study the Pacific Northwest, to ascertain its geography, topography, commercial advantages and strategic importance to the United States. It must be remembered that this section was still open to question between Great Britain and the United States a treaty of "joint occupancy" being in force at this time. While in the Northwest the Wilkes expedition accomplished many things of considerable value in bringing about a better understanding of this region. A party under command of Lieut. Johnson made the first recorded crossing of the Cascades via Naches Pass, a route which was later to figure prominently as an entrance to the Puget Sound region for early pioneers. And also, while anchored off Ft. Nisqually, Commander Wilkes made the first study of Mount Rainier's elevation. The triangulation method was used, and the altitude as computed from a base line on the Nisqually Prairie was 12,3000 feet above sea level.

The Wilkes episode was the only event of importance relating to Mount Rainier that occurred between 1833 and the first attempt in 1857 to climb to its summit. Until this time no one, as far as is definitely known, had any tangible desire to stand upon Rainier's summit. The Wilkes party had crossed the Cascades, but did not intend to approach closer to the great volcano; Theodore Winthrop visited the region and wrote considerable about "The Mountain" but had no climbing aspirations; early pioneers knew it but were too busy with their labors to consider such a grueling task--so a young army officer Lieut. A.V. Kautz, is credited with making the first attempted ascent on record. Kautz was stationed at Ft. Steilacom in 1857. He had, by his own admission, a passion for standing upon high places, and accordingly he organized a party for the climb early in the summer of that year. Four soldiers agreed to accompany him, two of which were to make the actual attempt with their officer; Dr. Craig, from the army garrison at Fort Bellingham also agreed to accompany the party and an Indian guide Wapowety was secured through the aid of Chief Leschi (Leschi was imprisoned at the Fort under sentence of death for his part in the Indian War of 1855-58) whom Kautz had befriended. Leschi also advised Kautz as to a probably route of approach to the mountain. In consequence plans were made, equipment was gathered together and the start was made at noon on July 8, 1857.

Old Fort Steilacoom
Old Fort Steilacoom - American army post in Washington Territory, 1849-1868.

The party traveled by horseback to Mishawl Prairie where their animals were left in charge of two of the soldiers. The rest of the party pressed onward through the dense forests and after considerable hardship reached the Nisqually River at a point a little below the present town of National. From there they followed up the river to the snout of the glacier of the same name (in 1857 the terminus of this glacier was about 100 yards below the present concrete bridge that spans the Nisqually River), climbed up the face of the ice and finally achieved a small alpine meadow where their base camp was made. This journey which has been so briefly described, was replete with hardship and tremendous effort. It required seven days to reach this point from Ft. Steilacoom. Today we drive a like distance in a couple of hours. The party was poorly equipped and their rations soon gave out as they greatly underestimated the time necessary. Consequently, when they made the final attempt at the summit on July 15, 1857, they were tired and generally exhausted through their hardships of the previous days. Nevertheless, after the start was made at 8:00 A.M. they pushed onward and upward over glacial ice scared with great crevasses and scarred with great bergschrunds and over the treacherous crumbling volcanic rock of the cleavers. As the day advanced one after another of the party dropped out due to exhaustion, snowblindness, etc. At 5:00 P.M. only Kautz struggled on and finally, as was later determined to be somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level, even he gave up the attempt. It became apparent that they could never reach the summit and return before dark, a storm was approaching and other factors made further climbing foolhardy and Kautz retreated to camp where the others of his party had preceded him.

At first it was decided to make another attempt on the next day, but the members of the party were in such poor physical condition, and their food was exhausted it was finally decided to make the return to Ft. Steilacoom. Kautz, extremely accurate in his account of this first attempted ascent, did not claim to reach the actual summit. But although he fell short of being the first man to stand upon the snowy dome of Rainier, his efforts in this regard form an epic chapter in the history of this treat volcano. (C.F.B.)

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