In celebration of Women’s History Month (March) and International Women’s Day (March 8), it seems like a fitting time to talk about the amazing women who impacted the history of Mount Rainier National Park. While writing my upcoming novel, The Road to Paradise, I was inspired by the incredible stories of women who both challenged themselves and pushed against cultural boundaries while at the park.
Fay Fuller was a journalist and schoolteacher who, in 1890, became the first woman to climb to the top of Mount Rainier. Instead of the fancy Thinsulate and crampons that today’s climbers wear, Fuller put together a wardrobe of flannel underwear, a thick bloomer suit, woolen hose, heavy calfskin boy’s shoes with caulks, and a small straw hat. Like most mountaineers of her era, she carried an alpenstock and protected the skin on her face by rubbing it with charcoal. She tied her belongings in a rough wool blanket slung over one shoulder.
After her record-breaking climb, she helped found several climbing clubs, including the Washington Alpine Club in 1891 and the Portland-based Mazamas in 1894. [Learn more about Fay Fuller here, here, and here.]
Alma Wagen had grown up in Makato, Minnesota and dreamed of mountain climbing. She got her start scaling local windmills, but eventually moved to Tacoma after college and took a job as a math teacher at Stadium High School. Joining the local Mountaineers club, she began traveling with other members, taking part in climbs in the Olympic mountains, Glacier National Park, and Alaska. She was passionate about sharing her love of adventure with other women, and in 1915 made her first ascent of Mount Rainier. She scaled many of the other high peaks in the Cascades, and came close to losing her life in an accident on Oregon’s Mount Hood.
As the First World War broke out, many rangers and guides took up arms and headed overseas. This created a unique opportunity for many women to find positions in parks. Wagen was hired as a climbing guide at Mount Rainier in 1918–and is thought to be the first female guide in the National Parks. She originally led short trips to the mountain’s glaciers and ice caves, and helped groups scaling the smaller peaks in the Tatoosh range on the park’s southern side. Eventually she rose in prominence among the guides, and visiting climbers began requesting her expertise for summit trips. Wagen even escorted John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s party to Rainier’s summit in 1920. Chief climbing guide Joseph Hazard boasted that she led the party like a “master.” [Learn more about Alma Wagen here and here.]
Even though several other national parks had been hiring women rangers for decades, Mount Rainier’s first female rangers didn’t come on board until World War II. Barbara Hilton and Katherine Burns worked at the park’s Nisqually Entrance Station from 1943-45. I couldn’t find much written information about these two, but I’d love to know more of their stories. They likely were responsible for collecting entrance fees and offering information to park visitors.
As time went on, women at Mount Rainier took on more and more responsibility. By the time I worked there in the mid-1990s, there were women in just about every ranger classification. I had friends who served as fee collectors, interpretation (naturalists), law enforcement, administration, backcountry, natural resource protection, and and as climbing rangers. I witnessed women who were as quick to volunteer for fire crews and search and rescue emergencies as their male counterparts.
It’s the stories of these brave women that inspired me to write The Road to Paradise, the first of of my Vintage National Parks series. My main character arrives at Mount Rainier in 1927 with the dream of working as a ranger. Though she doesn’t nab the coveted title, she manages to gain the admiration of everyone who witnesses her work–particularly the Chief Ranger, Ford Brayden. I hope you enjoy their story. The Road to Paradise releases June 6, published by WaterBrook & Multnomah. If you’re interested in reading the book, you might want to check out some of the fantastic pre-order sale prices offered right now.