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On Mountain Culture in the Central Cascades

I recently climbed Mount Pilchuck with some friends. It’s a peak that’s just over 5,000 feet, located on the far west end of the Cascades.

Pilchuck is listed on hiking websites as being an intermediate skill level. Our group went in late June and the snow pack was pretty deep and melty. The final route to the top entailed a gnarly rock scramble with a steep drop off. Definitely not intermediate!

As an amateur historian, I tend to take the long view of things and try to understand my story in the context of a broader perspective. As we drove down the potholed road to the Pilchuck trailhead in four-wheel drive vehicles, I mediated on the obvious: my friends and I weren’t the first people to climb in groups on this mountain.

I began to think about all of the people who were attracted to this same peak. Why were we all drawn here? Why would we voluntarily subject ourselves to scaling slushy snowfields and clambering over rocks – especially in an era when you can sit at home and stream unlimited television?

That day we had the advantage of opting to use yak tracks, water-wicking socks and trekking poles. At the summit we saw photos of Pilchuck climbing parties from the 1910s. They wore leather and wool.

The truth was self-evident: people be coming here, always, drawn by… something. But what is that something? What is the nature of our local mountain culture?

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Settlers of European descent have been coming to the mountains in our neck of the woods for over a century. The first white men in these woods came to the Cascades looking for ore and timber. They set up camps, strip-mined the hills. Then many of them left.

Today you can hike to the ghost town of Monte Cristo, which was once inhabited by over 1,000 miners. You can still make out where streets used to be in an empty meadow. It’s an eerie feeling.

The people who lived in the nearby towns were people of the mountain out of necessity. They were loggers and they manned the fire lookouts, keeping their eyes peeled for wildfires. 

This backwoods culture seeped into the towns. In the small town of Darrington, the high school mascot is the Logger. Their high school gymnasium is a wonder of woodworking and milling. Darrington still has a working lumber mill and it’s a major employer for the people who live there.

Every year the city celebrates the Timber Bowl.

There was no way of separating the people from the land.

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The Mountaineers

Attitudes toward the outdoors in general, and the mountains in particular, began to change in the Twentieth Century. Nature was seen as less of a commodity and more of a democratic asset. Nobody at the outset of the century thought about climate change (the idea simply hadn’t emerged yet). But there was a movement, begun by Transcendentalist thinkers and poets and popularized by writer John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) and Theodore Roosevelt – a movement to go to nature for the sake of being refueled and recharged of spirit.

Nature was more than something to drive local economies. It suddenly had inherent aesthetic value.

The Mountaineers of Seattle were part of a national movement to form mountain climbing clubs. They were an offshoot of the Mazamas of Oregon. These groups taught members basic mountaineering skills, how to use equipment, and information about local geology and geography.

The Everett Mountaineers were the people who laboriously constructed the current fire lookout on the top of Pilchuck. They still maintain it to this day.

The black and white photos of climbers in the lookout? Mountaineers of yesteryear.

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Today and the Future of Mountain Culture

In the past decade there’s been a resurgence in going to mountains, fueled by Instagram influencers and outdoor gear brands. To log onto social media (and get channeled into the right algorithms) is to enter a world of beautiful tanned people who don’t seem to have to work and have infinite amounts of leisure time and money to spend on climbing gear.

It sounds desirable to live like a modern Muir, but few of us can manage to slough off earthly responsibilities to follow our muses around the Cascades.

But the travel trends do indicate that Northwest trailheads are busier than ever, especially on weekends.

This interest in mountain culture is a great thing. The more people who visit the slopes, the more ambassadors there are to advocate for preserving the natural beauty of our peaks.  

The flip side of the coin is that trailheads can be overrun. These crowds have to be educated, through social media messages and public ads, about how to recreate responsibly – to pack the ten essentials, pack it in/pack it out, and how to comport themselves in the era of Covid-19.

We’re all for responsible use of the mountains. More time outdoors is good for folks, especially those that have been cooped up during quarantine. We need ambassadors more than ever and rural economies in the foothills need the economic activity.

Where will mountain culture go next? It’s hard to say.  

In most Japanese paintings there is a depiction of Mount Fuji somewhere in the background. This is not merely a stylistic choice, it’s also a philosophical choice. Yes, we live in close proximity to a giant mass of geological material that predates us by millennia and will likely be here long after the human effort has come and gone.

Maybe appreciation is the first step on the route to preservation. Let’s all become good stewards of our common inheritance: the peaks of the Central Cascades.

Or, as the transcendentalist American Henry David Thoreau put it:

"I keep a mountain anchored off eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep."

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