The Northwest's Influence on the Growth of Wilderness Recreation

  • By Peter LeSourd
  • Posted 5/01/2018
  • Essay 20551
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The mountain wilderness that rims the Puget Sound Basin has beckoned adventurous residents since the late 1800s. Hiking, backpacking, and mountain and rock climbing grew steadily there until World War II, continued after the war's end, and exploded in the 1960s, eventually leading to overcrowded backcountry campgrounds and permit systems to limit the daily number of hikers and climbers on some trails and cliffs. This People's History was written by Peter LeSourd, a Seattle native and lifetime hiker, backpacker, and occasional journeyman mountaineer who can recall buying gear over-the-counter at REI in the 1950s from Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In it he describes how Puget Sound residents and organizations played key roles in fostering growth in those activities nationwide, through innovation in technical gear, training, retail marketing, and guidebook publishing. Many of their innovations preceded the 1960s boom in wilderness recreation and were key factors in promoting it. While their individual contributions have been documented, in this essay the author evaluates the cumulative effect of their innovations.

The Clubs

In the nineteenth century, American wilderness-recreation adventurers came together in mountaineering clubs, the first of significance being the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston, formed in 1876. In the Pacific Northwest, the Mazamas club in Portland was founded in 1894, and Seattle's The Mountaineers spun off from it in 1906. These clubs promoted group outings that included mass assaults on major volcanic glacial peaks. The Mazamas club made clear its lofty ambitions when 105 of its members held their founding meeting on the summit of 11,250-foot Mount Hood. On The Mountaineers' 1910 expedition to 10,541-foot Glacier Peak in the North Cascades, 57 people hiked 44 miles from a railroad right-of-way to the expedition's base camp, then climbed the peak.

The only technical training provided for inexperienced participants before undertaking those activities was preliminary practice on snow and rock, introducing them to rudimentary techniques. Describing The Mountaineers' 1908 climb of 10,781-foot Mount Baker, historian Jim Kjeldsen noted that "their rescue gear was non-existent ... Their clothing ... was scarcely sufficient to save them from freezing if the weather changed or one of them fell into a crevasse" (The Mountaineers: A History, 27-28).

Snow-climbing gear such as ice axes and crampons were unknown, and climbing ropes were rarely used. If used they were made from hemp, which gave little protection on cliff climbs because hemp did not stretch under tension. If a tethered climber fell, the rope could either break or break the climber's back. For this and other reasons, the traditional rule nationwide was that "a leader absolutely must not fall" (REI: 50 Years ..., 49).

Technical Training

In the 1930s members of The Mountaineers broke new ground in mountaineering training. Before 1935 the club had offered such instruction only at its annual summer outing. Dissident members formed their own climbers' group in 1934. In 1935 Wolf G. Bauer (1912-2016) created the Basic Climbing Course, "a seven-week class that included lectures, demonstrations and field trips -- all compulsory, followed by a stiff, college-style exam created by Wolf" (Crags, Eddies & Riprap, 101).

In 1936 Bauer introduced an intermediate course, covering "winter travel and weather, including snow and ice, avalanche readiness, winter camping, search-and-rescue techniques, and leadership situations" (Crags, Eddies & Riprap, 110). The two climbing courses became official club activities in 1937, and in 1938 they came under the guidance of Lloyd (1902-2000) and Mary (1909-2017) Anderson. Each instructor produced a written outline for advance review by a committee. Once approved, the outlines were mimeographed and distributed to students.

Meanwhile, a similar development was occurring in technical rock-climbing training. In the San Francisco Bay area, Sierra Club member Richard Leonard (1908-1993) founded the Cragmont Climbing Club in 1932 and "devised a method of certifying [rock] climbers that altered the technical and cultural parameters of the sport" (Pilgrims of the Vertical, 45). This new breed of rock climbers headed for the fabulous walls of Yosemite Valley, which became the mecca of technical big-wall rock climbing in the U.S.

The Mountaineers has continuously offered two mountaineering courses since 1936. According to Jim Kjeldsen, The Mountaineers' 1935 climbing course "was perhaps the first of its kind in the nation" (Kjeldsen, 54). Although a few mountaineering clubs in other areas made some initial efforts to develop training programs before World War II, none persisted. The following brief review of the history of mountaineering training in the U.S. shows that the "perhaps" may be deleted from Kjeldsen's statement, thereby giving The Mountaineers appropriate recognition.

In the mid-1930s the Colorado Mountain Club organized some rock climbing trips that in part were intended to provide instruction, but the training had "not perhaps been as valuable as if purely instructional classes had been held" (Long, 132-134). In 1939 the club presented its annual week-long summer outing as a School of Mountaineering at a location high in the Rocky Mountains, with instruction in rock- and ice-climbing techniques being a major focus. During that week 90 people spent at least one night in the tent camp. One can speculate that such a successful outing might have spawned a formal and ongoing off-season classroom mountaineering course had World War II not intervened.

Following the war, the Colorado club in 1947 started another training program for rock climbing, and in the 1950s began a program in basic mountaineering techniques. According to the club's historian, Woody Smith, these programs did not become formalized until the 1960s. Neither Michael P. Cohen's authoritative History of the Sierra Club nor Joseph Taylor's exhaustively researched history of rock climbing in California mention any classroom component or written curriculum for the 1930s-era Sierra Club mountaineering and rock climbing training activities. The Appalachian Mountain Club did not have any formal training program until the late 1940s, when its New York chapter developed a highly organized one for rock-climbing.

By the 1950s outdoor groups across the country were asking The Mountaineers club for information about the operational details of its courses. By the end of that decade many of the country's major mountain-oriented organizations were offering mountaineering training programs of varying degrees of formality, making it possible for beginners to receive expert basic instruction before venturing into the mountain backcountry.

Technical Gear

Clothing for hikers and mountaineers early in the 1900s generally was still that which New Englanders had been wearing for a century or more. As already noted, the clothing worn by climbers on Washington State’s glacial peaks in the early 1900s was inadequate for the extreme weather conditions they might encounter. Even George Mallory (1886-1924) and Andrew Irvine’s (1902-1924) attire on their ill-fated attempt to summit Mt. Everest in 1924 was insufficient by today’s standards. Without warmer, more durable, more waterproof clothing and foot gear, mountain backcountry travelers were at risk in wet/cold climates.

A young Seattle sports-equipment retailer and inventor named Eddie Bauer (1899-1986) (no relation to Wolf Bauer) sought a solution. In 1923 he was pursuing one of his outdoor passions, winter-run steelhead fishing, in freezing weather and a snowstorm. His wool outer garments became soaked; he developed hypothermia and almost died before he was able to get back to his car. Bauer set to work to develop better cold-weather clothing, and in 1936 he introduced the first goose-down, quilted jacket in North America. He went on to design goose-down sleeping bags and the insulated outerwear worn by high-altitude U.S. bomber crews in World War II.

Eddie Bauer's outdoor-clothing innovations became the standard for American mountaineers. Seattle's James W. "Jim" Whittaker (b. 1929), a graduate of The Mountaineers climbing courses, was clothed from head to foot in insulated outerwear on Mount Everest's 29,029-foot summit in 1963, including Eddie Bauer's down-filled parka and pants reaching to his ankles. Whittaker also was wearing insulated overboots that were custom-made by the Trager Manufacturing Co. of Seattle.

Innovations developed during World War II brought the nylon climbing rope, lightweight synthetic fabrics, and  improvements in the design of climbing hardware, which by late in the war incorporated lightweight aluminum. After the war, innovation exploded in the design and manufacture of technical gear for every type of forest and mountain recreation. The commercial introduction of this gear, along with the continuing refinement of the dynamic-belay technique, revolutionized both technical rock/ice climbing and snow/glacier mountaineering, greatly reducing the risks involved.

Los Angeles backpacker Asher "Dick" Kelty (1919-2004) became fed up with the standard pack design, which was very oppressive to the shoulders and back when carrying a heavy load. Tinkering in his garage at home, he invented a lightweight aluminum pack frame that transferred the load to the hips. After making packs in that garage for friends for several years, in 1952 Kelty expanded his production, and that year he sold 29 packs for $24 each. The design became the gold standard in the industry. Americans Thomas Hornbein (b. 1930) and Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979) used Kelty packs on their historic first traverse of Mount Everest's summit in 1963, when they pioneered a route up its West Ridge, then descended by the established South Col route.

In the 1950s a youthful interest in falconry led Yvon Chouinard (b. 1938) into rock climbing to locate falcon aeries in Southern California. He became one of the leading rock climbers at Yosemite and then throughout North America, and one of his era's most influential advocates for new climbing concepts, techniques, and ethics. In 1957 Chouinard began forging his own design for steel pitons. Over the following two decades he created and manufactured other improved climbing products. These included a new design in 1969 of crampons and ice axes for climbing on steep ice slopes, which mountaineering-history authors Laura and Guy Waterman say created another "revolution" in the sport by the "Pied Piper of American climbing equipment" (Yankee Rock and Ice, 253-254).


In the 1930s, as American rock climbers and snow/ice mountaineers began extending their activities into ever more difficult terrain, they were frustrated by the lack of local retail outlets for quality technical mountain gear at affordable prices. European manufacturers offered equipment that was state-of-the-art for the time, but it was rarely available through American outlets, and then only at prices beyond the financial resources of most potential users.

To the rescue came Lloyd and Mary Anderson, Mountaineers members and noted climbers, who in 1937 started ordering technical-climbing gear from Sporthaus Peterlongo in Innsbruck, Austria, at a remarkably modest cost. As word spread through the Puget Sound mountaineering community, requests flowed in to the Andersons asking them to include specific items in their next Sporthaus order. Soon their Seattle home was overflowing with boxes of gear and they found themselves working a full-time volunteer job in addition to their full-time weekday jobs.

It quickly became clear that their activities needed to be organized into a formal business structure. In 1938 the Andersons formed the Recreational Equipment Cooperative under Washington state law. It soon moved out of the Andersons' home, and sales grew steadily. In 1956 the co-op was legally reorganized as a Washington nonprofit corporation, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, later known to all as simply "REI."

In 1955 the Andersons hired Jim Whittaker as their first permanent full-time employee. By the time he was granted a leave of absence to join the 1963 American assault on Mount Everest, his management experience and skills qualified him to be the expedition's equipment manager. On January 1, 1971, Lloyd Anderson retired and Whittaker became REI's CEO. REI eventually developed a continent-wide mail-order business, became a leading international mountaineering-expedition outfitter, and in 1975 opened its first store outside of Seattle, in Berkeley, California. It was on its way to becoming an American outdoor-gear retailing behemoth, and by 2017 was operating 151 stores in 36 states around the country.


By 1960 great advances had been made in technical training, technical equipment, and specialty retailing for forest and mountain recreation. But how was the budding mountain man or woman going to know where to go?

Hiking guidebooks: Comprehensive U.S. hiking-trail guidebooks go back to the beginning of the twentieth century, published exclusively by mountaineering clubs until other publishers entered the field in the late 1960s. By the late 1930s trails in the mountains of New England, New York state, and the Appalachian Highlands were fully described in various published guidebooks.

Meanwhile, the expansion of forest recreational activities across the continent had finally resulted in the first publication of a hiking guidebook to the Western mountains. In 1934 the Sierra Club published, a year after the author's death, A Guide to the John Muir Trail, by Walter A. "Pete" Starr Jr. (1903-1933), a detailed description, organized in a format similar to the New England hiking guides, of the famous trail along the north-south backbone of California's Sierra Nevada. The early mountain guidebooks were periodically updated and were published continuously. However, even into the early 1960s they maintained their traditional format for describing the trails, and there were no published hiking guides for most of the Western mountains.

In 1966 The Mountaineers issued the first edition of 100 Hikes in Western Washington by Louise B. Marshall, a hiking book that significantly altered the traditional format. Sketches of the road approaches to the trailhead and of a trail's circuitous route to the stated goal accompanied the textual descriptions. The book was larger in two-dimensional size than previous guides, but was only 225 pages long and had much less text than the traditional Eastern mountain guides. However, 100 Hikes provided an easily readable summary for each hike, giving the round-trip length, approximate hiking time, highest elevation point, and elevation gain. The guide also included a full-page photo of often-spectacular scenery found along the trail of each hike. Overall, its visual layout made it easier to grasp the essential details of each hike than did the earlier formats.

Publishers in other areas of the country rushed to print new hiking-trail guides in a similar format. A Google Books title search of "100 Hikes" in February 2018 brought up a multi-page list of currently available guidebooks from around the country whose titles contain that phrase.

Mountaineering/Climbing Guidebooks

The Appalachian Mountain Club's journal Appalachia had been documenting rock climbing routes since the early twentieth century, but beginning in the 1930s the technical skills of Western rock climbers rapidly outpaced their New England counterparts. As a result, the flowering of technical rock climbing route guidebooks first occurred in the Far West. In 1949 the American Alpine Club put out the Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington, by famous Seattle climber Fred Beckey (1923-2017), which covered all the known routes on more than 500 peaks. Jim Kjeldsen considered that guide to be "the prototype on which many other [climbing] guides are based" (The Mountaineers: A History, 163-164). In addition, in 1960 The Mountaineers published the first edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, a detailed instructional manual on all aspects of wilderness mountaineering on ground, rock, and snow. This book has been so successful worldwide that it has been published in 11 foreign languages, and is still in print in updated editions.

The Backpacking Boom

By the mid-1960s an avalanche of publications was underway in the U.S. about various aspects of hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, and technical rock climbing, almost all of them published by nonprofit mountaineering clubs. Technical training was also widely available, provided by those clubs, and greatly improved technical gear was retailed nationwide, through REI or another of the technical gear retailers that subsequently sprang up.

For an explosion in forest and mountain recreation to occur, all that was still needed was the baby-boom generation. Every written history of mountaineering and climbing mentioned in this essay comments on the rapid increase in American recreational backpacking that began sometime after World War II. Puget Sound historian Harvey Manning (1925-2006) and New England historians Laura (b. 1939) and Guy (1932-2000) Waterman provide the most extensive analyses of its causes.

In an article titled "Where Did All These Damn Hikers Come From," published in the summer 1975 issue of Backpacker magazine, Harvey Manning proposed that a "surge" (or "epidemic") began in the Puget Sound area of western Washington in the early 1950s, followed by a "boom" (or "pandemic") beginning in the mid-1960s ("Where Did All ...?"). The Watermans observed that the growth in recreational backpacking in the Northeast had been proceeding at a rate comparable to the increase in population, then suddenly exploded starting in the late 1960s. Across all such commentaries, there is universal agreement that the largest acceleration occurred about the time that that people born in the immediate post-war years were coming into young adulthood.

In the second edition of their book Forest and Crag, in a chapter titled "The Backpacking Boom," the Watermans list what they believed to be the principal causes for the hiking boom in the Northeast:

  1. the coming of the post-war baby-boom generation into adulthood
  2. economic prosperity
  3. increased leisure time
  4. the construction of the interstate highway system and other highway improvements
  5. the rise of the "hippie" counterculture and  the environmental political movement

In the Watermans' view, the innovations in technical gear, training, retail marketing, and guide book publishing "began as effects of this movement," and then "became contributing causes as well" (Forest and Crag, 566, italics theirs). As examples, they discuss the rapid growth in the manufacturing and marketing of gear and in the publication of guidebooks that occurred after the mid-1960s.

Manning acknowledges the causes proposed by the Watermans, but also focuses on what the motivations were that led so many people, beginning in the 1965-1970 era, to shoulder backpacks and hike up trails. He cites some analyses published by the Wildland Recreation Research Unit of the U.S. Forest Service that show that children who had pleasurable car-camping experiences in uncrowded forestlands tended to continue that activity as adults with their own children. They sought the same uncrowded surroundings of their childhood, but as the country's population grew and forestland car-camping facilities became more crowded, many shifted their focus to backpacking as soon as their children were old enough.

Manning concludes that this history of  childhood car-camping was a principle reason that the number of backpackers skyrocketed beginning in the mid-1960s. He also places part of the blame on the "backpacking chic" attitude that developed during that era's counter-culture revolution, "leading people to do what once was extremely rare: walk directly from sidewalks onto trails" ("Where Did All ...?"). By implication, these were people who did not have the forest experience as kids.

Four more-recent commentaries also touch on the backpacking boom: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking, a Ph.D. thesis by Silas Chamberlin; an article by William Hemsley Jr. published in 2007 in Appalachia titled "How the 1970s Backpacking Boom Burst Upon Us"; Vacation from Civilization: The Origins and Emergence of Thru-Hiking on the Appalachian Trail, a Phd thesis by Adam P. Berg (2012); and "Ramble On -- A History of Hiking," by Jeffrey J. Doran (2018). Of them, only Berg's thesis analyzes the issues of cause and effect discussed by Manning and the Watermans."

All of the factors mentioned by Manning and the Watermans did play major roles in the boom. However, the availability of technical mountaineering courses, guidebooks, and greatly improved gear and retailers to provide it preceded the growth spurt and deserve greater recognition as significant causes. For example, though the Watermans mention down-filled parkas and the Kelty backpack, they don't mention that the parka design actually was brought to the American market in the mid-1930s by Eddie Bauer, the improved backpack by Kelty in 1952, and that both products had been to the summit of Mount Everest by 1963. Nor did the Watermans, focused as they were on Northeastern mountain recreation, discuss the impact in the West of the climbing guides published in the 1940s, or Freedom of the Hills from 1960 and 100 Hikes in Western Washington from 1966.

The Watermans do discuss REI's nationwide mail-order service, but they fail to mention that by 1960 REI had developed its own, less-expensive versions of  hip-loaded, aluminum frame packs, down-filled parkas and sleeping bags, and a wide variety of other technical gear. During the 1950s the co-op's catalog tripled in size and an annual winter supplement was published. In fact, after an overall nine-fold growth in the 1950s, in the 1960s REI's gross sales increased another 16 times (and that was before it opened its first retail store outside of Seattle).

Manning acknowledges that The Mountaineers courses helped make it possible for him to have an accomplished mountaineering career, and that great improvements in gear "eliminated many former agonies of backpacking" ("Where Did All ...?"). Anyone who in former days shouldered wooden-framed Trapper Nelson backpacks loaded with heavy cooking gear, canvas tent tarps, canned food, and bulky sleeping bags would agree with that characterization. Nevertheless, it was Manning's belief that "Kelty and company pampered the crowds but didn't spawn them" (Backpacker, p. 39).

Both Manning and the Watermans ignore the question of how many people would have chosen to abandon car camping and strike out up-mountain with backpacks and with kids in tow if vastly improved gear had not been available by the late 1950s. Manning's reference to the "former agonies" of backpacking indicates at the very least that not all of them would have done so. In fact, it would be appropriate to say that the path people began walking from sidewalks to  trails passed through REI or another of the specialty-gear retailers that followed.

Colorado historian William Bueler makes the same point in discussing that state's "explosion of growth in technical climbing" (Bueler, 174). He wrote that "between 1945 and 1965, advanced techniques and new equipment were introduced and created intense interest in applying technical climbing to the great mountain walls of Colorado ..." (Bueler, 174, italics added).

Summing It Up

Aids to safer and more comfortable backcountry activity were created in the 1930s by people who could not have anticipated World War II and the baby-boom generation that followed. In addition, they pursued their innovations during the greatest economic depression in our country's history. They did so to satisfy their own needs and those of a small market in their region, not because they had market surveys indicating that their sales would increase exponentially.

Following the war, when Dick Kelty was pouring his efforts into designing a backpack in his garage in the early 1950s, he was doing it to provide better gear for himself and his friends. Yvon Chouinard personally forged his own steel piton design in 1957 for his own use and for sale to other members of the Yosemite climbing brigade. These innovators were not initially responding to, or even anticipating, a boom in backcountry recreation. Instead they helped spawn the boom, and many of them had the determination and business skills to capitalize on it when it came.

The new hiking and climbing guides and the technical how-to-do-it manuals provided the final impetus to inspiring and enabling the baby-boom generation to go into the mountain backcountry. For example, the first printing of 5,000 copies of 100 Hikes in Western Washington in 1966 sold out in three weeks, and 15,000 were sold in the first six months. Within eight years the book was divided and expanded into four separate Washington Cascade hiking guides of 100 trails each, plus another edition of 50 trails in Mount Rainier National Park.

Thus did the various types of guides and manuals, combined with the available technical gear and training programs, help open the door to mountain trails, cliffs, and summits for beginning and experienced hikers and climbers alike. Many of the most important developments came out of the Puget Sound Basin. They have made it much easier to identify and properly prepare for hikes and climbs that are within the degree of difficulty, strenuousness, and time available of each person inspired to experience the mountain backcountry.


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