The following was written by Jeff Antonelis-Lapp for her new column series, “All Things Mount Rainier”. Antonelis-Lapp series will be published in the fourth edition of every month.
When I left my native Indiana in 1975 to finish school at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington State College (now WWU) in Bellingham, I had a vague notion to study the natural sciences. I had hiked and camped as a Boy Scout and loved the outdoors. Our barrel-chested, cigar-chewing scoutmaster, a crew cut ex-Marine we called “Turtle,” ignited my passion for The Great Outdoors. Even those 20-mile hikes on scorching-hot country roads—we didn’t know of any long trails—fed my 12-year-old soul a sense of wonder and freedom. Of Western, I’d read that women outnumbered men on campus by a three-to-two ratio. I liked my chances.
I graduated a few years later and in the following two summers worked at Mount Rainier National Park. I helped direct U.S. Youth Conservation Corps camps, spending time in the backcountry supporting co-ed teenaged crews, repairing and rebuilding trails. We sang around campfires and slept under the stars. I came face-to-face with black bears and mountain goats, and skinny-dipped in crystal-clear, ice-cold streams. I dreamed about climbing the mountain.
As Mount Rainier had done to thousands before me and many more since, its bug bit me. And bit hard. It would come to play a mountain-sized role in my life as I became of student of it, taught about it, and wrote a book about it.
Valerie and I moved to Enumclaw in 1982, and I began teaching for the White River School District. Our photo albums show us at various spots on the mountain in 1980s-style bad moustaches (me) and frizzy perms (Valerie).
During most summers until the mid-1990s, I supervised trail crews in national parks and forests throughout the west. I now had a family of four, and we often spent a month or more in the backcountry, many miles from electricity, refrigeration, or running water. Our kids learned to split wood and build fires, make pudgy pies, and howl at the moon with the coyotes. They gazed in awe at the Milky Way, braved torrential downpours, and shoveled snow in August. Most of all, our family became deeply anchored in our love of and respect for all of nature. The outdoors was our sanctuary, a retreat that healed and fed us emotionally and spiritually.
About this time, I became obsessed with hiking each of the 50 trails in Ira Spring and Harvey Manning’s Fifty Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park, and Valerie and the kids accompanied me on many of those adventures. When I realized I’d hiked most of the park’s nearly 300 miles of mapped trails, I finished off that project, with binoculars around my neck, notebook in my back pocket, and wildflower field guide in my pack.
In 2004, before the kids set out on lives of their own, we backpacked the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that encircles the mountain. Dimitri and Beau had become strong hikers and by the time Valerie and I made our destination each day, they had already set out snacks and started making camp.
I summited Mount Rainier with a group of friends in 2007, on one of the hottest days of the year. My beloved mother-in-law had passed away that spring, and Valerie and her brother urged me to spread some of her ashes on the summit. (Yes, it’s illegal, so don’t tell anyone, and if you choose to spread ashes, don’t get caught.) I agreed to do the deed when Valerie said, “Mom always liked living where she had a great view.” Slogging up to Paradise under a heavy load on the first day of our climb, I thought, “This is great. My mother-in-law’s on my back one last time.”
Of Mount Fuji, the Japanese say “A wise man climbs Fuji-san one time; a fool climbs it many times.” I’ve followed that axiom in climbing the mountain just once, but I’ve become a bit of a fool for the Wonderland Trail, completing it five times, several solo.
While teaching at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, I began creating a course on Mount Rainier, and wanted students to read a current natural history of the mountain. Much to my surprise, I found no such book. So started my 10-year adventure to write Tahoma and Its People, published this spring by Washington State University Press. I thought I knew a bit about Mount Rainier, but it didn’t compare to what my research and fieldwork held in store. Park scientists and technicians invited me to help measure glaciers, survey for endangered species, and search for ancient stone tools. Among the many things I learned, my favorites are the mountain’s full geologic story, that Native Americans have traveled to Mount Rainier for over 9,000 years, and that the effects of climate change extend far beyond the mountain itself.
I’ve hiked, climbed, and studied the mountain for over 40 years, and look forward to sharing my enthusiasm and some of what I know in All Things Mount Rainier each month. Over the next year, I’ll tackle these questions, and many more: Is it safe living in Enumclaw in the event of an eruption? Where are the best trails for kids, dogs, and horses? What local folks have long-time connections to the mountain? Are Mount Rainier’s glaciers melting? A tattered knapsack full of these and other stories are itching to see the light of day, and I’m eager to pull them out for your inspection. Until then, keep your boots dry and your spirits high.
Jeff Antonelis-Lapp is an educator, naturalist, and writer living in Enumclaw since 1982. Tahoma and Its People, his natural history of Mount Rainier National Park, was published this spring by Washington State University Press. Copies are available at https://jeffantonelis-lapp.com/. Jeff would love to hear from you about Mount Rainier. Send your questions and favorite stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and subscribe to his blog, too.