By Jason Hummel
Some 20,000 years ago, glaciers ruled the planet. As the world warmed, the Cascades we know and love today were revealed. Yet fragments of those great continental glaciers survived. There were nearly 300 named glaciers in Washington state in the 20th century. Together they made up more than two-thirds of the remaining glacier ice found in the contiguous U.S. But that began changing in the last century.
These glaciers have continued their retreat into the 21st century. They are disappearing. As they do, their stories remain untold.
One of my favorite quotes by Charles Sholes, an early-19th century climber, says it best, “Humanity may ebb and flow around them [mountains], tragedy and romance may stain with blood and tinge with beauty their rugged heights; but until named they can take no permanent place in song or story.”
With that in mind, I’ve taken on not only skiing every glacier in the state, but I’ve begun to write about them as well. My goal: To tell their story and share their history, so they are not forgotten.
Columbia Crest Glacier
Mt. Rainier’s three summits rise like arches on a royal crown, and among the Pacific Northwest’s volcanic court, no other peak overshadows this undisputed queen of the Cascade Mountains.
The first names placed upon these peaks were those given to them by Hazard Stevens (1842–1918) and Philemon Beecher Van Trump (1838–1916) in 1870. They first named Peak Success on their ascent and upon reaching the summit plateau, they named the other two summits as well. According to a report on their climb by The Washington Standard, “The ridge between them [the summits], on which was deposited the brass plate and canteen [never found], is the highest summit of the mountain. It was named ‘Crater Peak.’ The northern peak they named ‘Peak Tah-ho-ma,’ to perpetuate the Indian name of the mountain.”
Of Stevens’ and Van Trump’s names, only Peak Success was partially retained in today’s version, Point Success. The name Crater Peak, for the crater it houses, was dissolved for its generic roots. On the other hand, in 1894, E. S. Ingraham and a party of thirteen others, including three women and the largest party to ascend the mountain to that point, anointed the peak with an appropriate, if ultimately undeserved, name. In Ingraham’s own words, he writes of their ascent in an article subtitled Rainier the Highest Peak in America and says, “Almost immediately upon reaching the crater I skirted its rim until the highest point, a crest of snow about 300 feet in diameter, was reached, when I took the reading of my barometer, 15,550 feet at 2 o’clock p.m., July 18. That reading makes Rainier the highest point in the United States, excepting Mount St. Elias.”
Ingraham concluded after he returned to his party that “… it was thought that this crest [Crater Peak] should receive an appropriate name. After much discussion, Columbia’s Crest [Columbia Crest], suggested by Mr. Hawkins [F. W. Hawkins], was adopted.” The first use of ‘crest’ was by August Kautz who wrote in his 1857 journal, “The crest of the mountain was now fairly turned, and the ascent less steep.” He’d later publish variations of his journal entries in 1857 and 1875.
The fact that Ingraham considered Mt. Rainier to be the highest peak in the Union wasn’t necessarily wrong. At the time, Alaska wasn’t a state (so technically St. Elias didn’t count) and America had yet to be fully surveyed. Moreover, Ingraham’s barometric reading was incorrect, adding more than 1,000 vertical feet to the actual height of the mountain, which wasn’t 15,550 feet, but 14,411.
Where the term Columbia is concerned, its meaning is more nuanced than Crater Peak’s name was. It is a derivative of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), just as America’s name is a derivative of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512). Since countries were often female, it became America instead of Amerigo, Lady Columbia can be looked at the same way. Before Lady Liberty gained popularity, Lady Columbia was the “female personification” of America. So, in essence, Columbia Crest was “America’s summit.” Sadly, for Washingtonians, Mt. Rainier has long since been relegated to the 17th highest point in the country. While Columbia Crest may no longer be deserved, it still is a symbol that millions of people see whenever the skies are clear. What isn’t seen is equally impressive.
Beneath the Columbia Crest Glacier are two wonders of nature, both sustained by fumaroles, which warm and melt the surrounding ice. The first is Lake Muriel, a 30-by-50 lake named after explorer Bill Lokey’s mother. Because it’s only liquid due to rising heat from the crater and not of any great size, it has been debated whether it is a lake at all. Were it considered an actual lake, it would become the highest body of water in the U.S. at 14,100 feet.
Leading to Lake Muriel is the second wonder, the steam caves themselves, which honeycomb the summit crater and apparently “contain the world’s largest volcanic ice-cave system.” Found within those caves are fallen items of every sort, from climbing gear to the most impressive of these artifacts.
In 1990, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub crashed into the summit of Mt. Rainier, killing two. Some years later, it would be sighted in the steam caves, partially sticking from the walls, having descended through the glacier. However, this wasn’t the first plane on the Columbia Crest Glacier.
In 1951, Lieutenant John W. Hodgkin was flying in the area and attracted to lofty landing zones. What better destination to satisfy such an urge than Mt. Rainier? With a stroll from the Columbia Crest Glacier to the summit also in mind, he set out for an adventure that would all go according to plan until he returned to his plane, climbed in and it wouldn’t start.
With no escape, Hodgkin spent a very cold night in his plane. Thinking that there was no one coming to rescue him, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Meanwhile, a team of climbers had been sent to rescue him. It turns out another pilot had seen his plight and called in a rescue. Only just before his lifesavers arrived, he set his plane facing downhill and pushed off, sans engines and in gravity’s unrelenting grasp. Of that heart-skipping experience the matter-of-factly Hodgkins related to The Seattle Times that he “… went down the slope, and just as it [the plane] went over the edge, I caught an updraft and I was flying.”
The stunt landed him in hot water publicly, but privately, he got a thumbs up and a pat on the back, because in the end he glided onto a frozen Mowich Lake, landed, repaired his plane and flew on to Spanaway no worse for wear, but richer for the story he’d tell the rest of his life.
And yet, while humans forsake the summit after a short stay, one creature described by Hazard Stevens, made a home of the crater. “Last summer,” he says, “the summit parties found the crater inhabited by a certain chipmunk. In some strange way he had climbed to the summit and had made his home at Register Rock. He always received nuts and raisins and hardtack with evident gratitude.”
Anyone with information on the history of glaciers please contact Jason Hummel through his website jasonhummelphotography.com. x
Jason Hummel is an outdoor adventure photographer based in Gig Harbor. He’s currently working to ski every named glacier in Washington state.