A Quick Look at Depression Era Mountaineering in the Northwest

January 11, 2009

skinsTilly Jane Ski Cabin circa 2007: a depression era building project that is still very much in use today

Oregon’s Mazamas climbing club maintain a library at their Mountaineering Center in Portland. I visited the library and spent a few hours looking through their old journals. Reviewing old climbing publications is always an interesting exercise for those interested in the sport. They really capture the time period and as original sources give a historical perspective that can’t be found elsewhere. The grainy black and white photographs of happy young men and women in the backcountry exemplify the freedom found in the mountains and it is easy to feel a connection to these people. Love for wild places transcends time and they remind me of my friends and I, minus the wool clothes and hemp ropes of course.

In the journals there was little direct mention of the economy or much written that would indicate there was a depression happening. I suspect that a glut of bad news circulating, people most likely wanted to keep economic news out of their climbing news. The Mazamas annual publication mostly contains articles on climbs in which club members participated. Most of the reports during the years I reviewed were local climbs in Oregon and Washington, as well as some documented trips to Canada and the Tetons. This isn’t all that surprising in that during this time period much of the Cascades were still unexplored. There were also a number of research related reports including such topics as: A Photographic Survey of Glaciers and Mountaineering Physiology.

In the December 1932 publication, Margaret A. Redman wrote in the article The Lure of Other Lands that there was, “a movement towards private jaunts and journeys, alone or with other clubs, North to Alaska, South to Mexico, Central and South America, through the Mediterranean Sea, to Africa, around the world- where not? And why not? Since we come back satisfied that, for us, ours is the best.” She mentions that perhaps this is because of depressed prices. This is also evident in the 1931 American Alpine Journal, where the editor writes, “The Himalayas are becoming more popular. We read of at least four expeditions now under way for climbing there next summer.” More than anything this highlights the deflationary nature of the Great Depression. Those that had jobs and money were doing well enough financially to have the luxury of traveling abroad for the seemingly frivolous activity of climbing mountains. Those without were having The Grapes of Wrath experience.

There were a few other interesting points of note: a change in the kind of advertising in the Mazamas annual publication and the steady number of club members. In the 1930 publication there were a variety of advertisements for services ranging from sheet metal workers to florists to hardware stores. By 1938 the bulk of the advertisers were skiing and outdoor retailers and service providers. The other obvious statistic to look at was club membership. In 1930 the club had 627 members. By 1932 that number dropped to 612. Unfortunately numbers were not available for the next five years, but by 1938 club membership had increased to 698. It is interesting that throughout the 30’s there seems to have been little fluctuation in the number of club participants.

Not necessarily related to the economy, but an interesting case of what is old is new again, I came across at least three articles dealing with concern over glacial recession. In the December 1938 annual publication Kenneth N. Phillips writes in an article entitled Our Vanishing Glaciers, “While we in the Pacific Northwest are in no danger of suffering glacial bankruptcy, it does seem worthwhile to take some inventory of our glacial assets at this time.” I suspect that if Mr. Phillips saw our glaciers today he might be surprised at the extent they have changed.

Most climbers today (myself included) are not part of regional climbing clubs. I don’t doubt that there were a number of climbers operating outside of the Mazamas in Oregon in the 30’s. Therefore I don’t believe that the Mazamas journals provide an exhaustive record of everything that was going on during this time period, but they do give us an idea of the level of activity in the region. I would be interested in knowing the number of active Oregon climbers who were not members of the Mazamas and what they were doing in the mountains.

Another lasting impact the Great Depression had on climbing were building projects stemming from Roosevelt’s New Deal. For the last 70 years climbers and skiers have benefited from depression era construction of trails, huts and other structures in the mountains. The Civilian Conservation Corp had a number of projects around the state. Probably the most recognizable CCC project in Oregon is Timberline Lodge. Other construction on Mt. Hood included the Timberline Trail, which circumnavigates the mountain, and also the Tilly Jane trail and ski cabin which are both still enjoyed by backcountry enthusiasts.

Climbing for sport has been around since, at the latest, 1786. People have continued to climb despite over 200 years of human history and all the turmoil and tragedy associated with that time. The sport has survived depressions before and will continue to survive. With America’s new financial reality perhaps a new Civilian Conservation Corp will be created that will repair neglected trails and build new hut systems, allowing those that love the mountains to live and work in them. Climbing may begin to seem like an impossible luxury to those struggling financially, but those that can will always find a way to get into the mountains.

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