“Climbing to me is a battle with yourself, your own shortcomings. It’s not a religion, but it’s damn close to being spiritual. It’s a search inside yourself, to see whether you measure up.”
— Dave Mahre
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to climb one of the many snow-covered peaks that are spread throughout Washington State? For most people, this would be a scary thought, an impossibility.
Now picture climbing those same mountains without the modern technology, tools and equipment that are available today. It puts it all into a bit of a different perspective, doesn’t it?
This is exactly what a core group of Yakima and Ellensburg mountaineers did at a time when most of the Cascade Mountains were yet to be explored, and when most difficult climbing routes had never been touched.
Let’s begin their story in the mid-to-late 1940s, after World War II had ended and the Cascadians Outdoor Club was first started in Yakima. There were fewer climbers living in Eastern Washington compared to the west side. Many local climbers would go to Army surplus stores (purchasing leftover stock from the 10th Mountain Division) and to REI to purchase gear. Some would make their own climbing pitons (Bob Kershaw had been known to use L-Bolts from telephone poles), and would plan trips without solid route info, weather forecasts or first-hand information about the climb.
In 1949, a group of Ellensburg climbers formed the Sherpa Climbing Club after their first annual climb of Mount Stuart. “People were reading about the Sherpas in Nepal for the first time, and we started calling each other Sherpa,” said Gene Prater, a founding member of the club. “Very shortly it became the Sherpa Climbing Club out of Ellensburg. It’s really more of an attitude than an institution. We’d just go climbing.”
The Sherpas consisted of Bill Prater (Gene’s brother), Dave Mahre, Fred Dunham, Fred Stanley and Jim Wickwire. According to Malcom Bates in his 1992 book, “Cascade Voices,” “This group was responsible for most of the important northside ascents of Rainier as well as first ascents on Mount Stuart and other peaks in the Enchantments.”
Many of the Sherpas and Cascadians were influenced or taught by Marcel Schuster, who immigrated to North America after he had served in the German Army and was taken prisoner by Allied forces during WWII.
“After the war, he (Marcel) was employed for several years as a mountain guide in the Bavarian Alps,” said W.D. Frank. “In 1951, he emigrated to British Columbia where he was hired as a ski area consultant, eventually moving to Eastern Washington under the sponsorship of Bob McCall and Lex Maxwell where he worked for United Builders and later at White Pass Ski Area. McCall, along with other local veterans of the United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division such as Cragg Gilbert and Nelson Bennett, were instrumental in spurring a post-war interest in mountaineering and skiing.”
Marcel taught Dave Mahre and Gene Prater front-pointing (the 12-point crampon technique) and accompanied them and Mike McGuire in 1955 on the second ascent of Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier.
The climbers and mountaineers of central Washington, who were spread throughout the Ellensburg and Yakima areas, used the Painted Rocks in Yakima as their training ground. In fact, many of the young climbers who lived in Yakima first went out to the Painted Rocks with Gilbert, their Scoutmaster. There, he taught them the rock-climbing techniques he had learned during his time in the 10th Mountain Division.
Lex Maxwell and Marvin Sundquist also played a large role in teaching aspiring climbers at the Painted Rocks — climbers such as Bob Kershaw, Rod Nelson and Craig Sundquist, all of whom went on to become groundbreaking climbers and mountaineers. (Although the Painted Rocks are off-limits today, the Royal Columns are still open and are a popular area for climbers from all over Washington to hone their skills.)
This group of adventurers not only climbed a number of impressive mountains, but they also pioneered many difficult routes that most Seattle-based climbers wouldn’t touch.
“These upstarts from the farms and orchards of eastern Washington came over to ‘our’ mountain and did routes that no one in Puget Sound country thought feasible,” said Dee Molenaar, on the brash climbing style of Central Washington climbers like Dave Mahre and the Prater brothers.
Not only were their grit and nerves as strong as steel, but the reasoning behind why they climbed was different from many elite climbers on the west side of the mountains. None of them were there to promote themselves, nor were they there to put another notch in their belts. It was their inner drive to challenge themselves that pushed them — to take the “sporting route” as Dave Mahre would say — and to continue conquering new climbs and routes.
Fred Dunham sums up their ideology perfectly: “I enjoy the mountains for the mountains themselves and the people who are there. I don’t need an excuse; I don’t need to go to the mountains to satisfy anything except just going to the mountains.”
When you think back at the tools and gear that these individuals had available to use for these climbs, then you look at the list of what these men and women of our area accomplished in the mountains, it’s impossible not to be impressed. Because even in the present day, with everything we have at our fingertips when we are planning expeditions, climbs and ski tours, the risks are still high. The reason that many of us do what we do in the mountains isn’t that different from why these mountaineers went climbing so many years ago — freedom, adventure, and the feeling that only standing on top of a mountain can provide.