Ladies’ Cascade Expedition

by Joan Burton

What was it like to be a woman climber in the 1950’s? To start with, the available gear was not suited for us, so we made do with men’s or boy’s work boots and inset nails or lugs, and Army surplus anorak parkas and wool pants. Our packs were old style standard Trapper Nelsons without waist belts or accommodation to women’s narrower backs and wider hips. Tents were also Army surplus, made of waterproof material that caused heavy condensation on the inside in cold weather. When we learned to rappel, we did not use slings, but wrapped the 5/8” manila sliding rope across our bodies and felt its burn.

Women did not usually climb together in groups. An exception was a Ladies’ Cascade Expedition thought up by photographer Ira Spring for a picture story for The Seattle Times. Betty Manning and I were members in June of 1958 of the weeklong Ladies’ Cascade Expedition to traverse Cascade Pass and Boston Basin and attempt the 8,800 foot- summit of Eldorado. Seven women, including Ira’s wife Pat, and Ira himself, backpacked up ridges and meadows to reach the Inspiration Glacier before our final assault on the peak. There we camped, and looked out over the heart of the North Cascades. The weather was clear and sunny until the last day, in time for the long descent.

Hiking together was a delight. Betty was witty and kept us laughing as we crossed over rock, snow, and ice. At night she pulled out her recorder and played for us and accompanied our folk songs. Stella Degenhardt, brought up in England, loved to sing. Betty identified shrubs and flowers along the way. All of us wanted to know more native botany than we did, and she filled us in on junipers and grasses. After we had reached the summit she remarked that if her children wanted to see her again, they would have to come up there because she wasn’t coming back down. Pat, Betty, and Stella were older than I but were having as much fun as girls sent to camp once school has let out.

I remember sleeping on a thin plastic air mattress in a tent laid directly on glacier ice and shivering all night long. Betty remembers that her mattress was a coiled up climbing rope. Ira thought it would be funny to show us women sponge-bathing in a snow tarn wearing our bras, so Pat and I posed for him, as modestly as we could. He also posed other shots of us tending to our feet and combing our hair, an unnecessary and futile act while mountain climbing.

I had never hiked with an exclusively female group before so I thought the conversations were delightful. (Men go on and on about gear features and possible climbing routes). We lingered over our meals and savored our coffee. I remember that we represented a range of ages, and all got along well, no matter what the adversity, such as blisters or the aches and pains of carrying heavy packs.

When the time came to attempt the summit of Eldorado, we discovered steep slopes on either side of the knife-edged ridge. For some reason, Ira asked me to lead out across to the summit. I was so thrilled to be on top, I wasn’t afraid, and my boots seemed to float. He must have thought I looked too fearless so he called out to me to bend over and probe with my ice axe to make the picture seem more realistic. Though I had previously climbed all six major glaciated peaks, and slept on the summit of Mt. Rainier, the technical aspects of this climb were more demanding. We all felt triumphant that we had made the summit.

The weather changed as we turned around to descend after days of sunshine and clear skies. Suddenly it started to rain, and the wind came up. I remember packing up our wet gear and dropping down steeply through meadows filled with wet false hellebores, which soaked our clothes more with every step. Because one of our members was exhausted, I carried her pack in addition to my own. I felt cranky and sad that we were going down. The Ladies Expedition magic had disappeared.