SPOKANE — The Spokane Mountaineers have changed since the group was founded 100 years ago as the Spokane Walking Club by five female librarians. What motivates people to join the club has not.
“The Mountaineers have equipped me with what I needed to chase my dreams,” said Lindsay Chutas, a leader in the club’s climbing committee. “They gave me the community as well as the skills.”
The club’s size has swelled with the passions of its members for other forms of non-motorized backcountry travel. Depending on the season, the weekly schedule of group outings could include an evening day hike or a multiday backpack, rock climbing at Dishman Hills or mountaineering on Rainier, road biking or mountain biking, canoeing or kayaking, snowshoeing or various types of ski outings.
On the other hand, the membership’s appetite for fresh air, burning calories and replacing them with good food has not changed in a century. Hardly a week goes by without one of the club’s cherished potlucks.
Nobody could have predicted 50 years ago that Spokane Mountaineers would be conducting an avalanche beacon training clinic — the technology is relatively new.
But Friday evening’s “New Moon Hike and Potluck” based out of the club’s Mount Spokane chalet was classic. Snowshoeing or hiking to the summit of Mount Spokane on New Year’s Eve is another fun-and-food tradition.
Although booze in the early years was not allowed on Mountaineers meetings or outings, archived minutes refer to “incidents” on that account.
Mount Spokane has been a base for Mountaineers activities since the 1920s and especially since 1939 when the club bought land within what is now the state park. For $1,500, according to the original deed, the club purchased “34 acres give or take a little.”
Club members built the first version of their chalet and eventually installed a rope tow for skiing on the property — a total investment that divided the ranks. In 1951, the purist hikers broke away from the big-spending hiking, climbing, skiing group — daily cost for using the rope tow was 25 cents. The walkers formed the Hobnailers, a group that still treks many miles around the region each year.
The Mountaineers eventually spread wings and soared even higher.
In 1959, the club formalized its Mountain School to prepare climbers in every way — from tying a double figure-8 knot to prusiking out of a crevasse — for the ever-more-ambitious climbing schedule.
By the time the Beatles were taking the USA by storm, club members were racking up first ascents in the North Cascades and in Canada. In 1965, the Mountain School attracted a pair of teenagers who eventually took the club banner to the top of the world.
John Roskelley and Chris Kopczynski cut their teeth on Mountaineers climbing trips before making their marks on the Eiger, Mount Everest and other world-class peaks.
In 1980, they joined with two other Spokane Mountaineers, Kim Momb and Jim States, for an alpine-style expedition that put Roskelley on the top of Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak. That four-man effort was recognized in 2002 by the American Alpine Club as one of the world’s 10 most significant climbs of the 20th century.
An annual Backpacking School also brings dozens of newcomers to the club and to the region’s trails each year.
“Other people who like to hike — that’s the best thing the club has given me,” said Ken Ratz, who’s been backpacking for 50 years. “The club allows you to get out on the edge of your comfort zone with a group that will help make sure you get back home to tell about it.”
Along with monthly programs and slide shows, training sessions are often organized in other specialties such as mountain biking, winter camping and wilderness first aid.
Their zeal for the mountains made most Mountaineers passionate about keeping them wild.
Club members have taken leading roles in securing now-treasured places such as North Cascades National Park, the Salmo-Priest Wildernesss, the Dishman Hills and John Shields County Park.
“They paid my way to all the meetings and hearings regarding the North Cascades,” said Joe Collins, 90, the oldest active club member and a mentor to Roskelley and Kopczynski.
“Conservation continues to be a foundation of the club,” said Luke Bakken, chairman of the club’s active conservation committee. “All of our activities depend on protecting our natural resources. We want every legislator this year to know we’re not just recreationists, but also conservationists at heart.”
In this centennial year, club committees rallied members to set their sights on 100s. Hikers will get patches for logging at least 100 miles of trail mileage — some of them in single backpacking trips around Mount Rainier or through the Pasayten Wilderness.
Bikers pedaled 100-milers. Some climbers were aiming at 100 pitches. Perhaps some skiers will rally for 100 miles of Nordic tracks.
“The Conservation Committee’s ‘100 Hours of Trail Work Goal’ was arguably the most difficult to achieve since it required 12 or 13 days to complete, essentially every Saturday for three months,” said Lynn Smith, one of the club’s softest-spoken and hardest-working members.
“There was a bunch of people who put in a day or two, or three or four, but only seven who made the full 100 hours by (November).”
Chris Baldini, Nancy Kiehn, Denise Beardslee, Todd Dunfield, Dave Drum, Holly Weiler and Smith donated from 100 to more than 400 hours of trail work apiece this season.
Calling them the club’s Magnificent Seven, Smith said, “They are the backbone of the 2015 trail season where they and probably hundreds of others saved our trails and other recreational venues, or at least made them more usable with the muscle and time put in.”
These and other Mountaineers also kicked in after the Nov. 17 windstorm to help clear hundreds of downed trees on Mount Spokane trails.
Smith, incidentally, has led more than 600 Wednesday evening hikes for the club over the years.
This year was like many in the club’s history of surmounting highs and lows, from what nature delivers to fiery club debates. Issues have ranged from safety and conservation to turning down an offer to put a cell phone tower on the Mount Spokane property, and the monthly income that would have come with it.
There was virtually no snow at Stevens Lakes for the Mountain School’s annual spring Snow Practice to develop ice-ax arrest techniques and other climbing skills.
The Summer Outing campout and hiking-biking activities set for late summer at Sullivan Lake were canceled because firefighters had taken over the campground in the battle against the state’s worst wildfire season on record.
An extremely rare accident in a non-club-related rock climb took the life of Anna Dvorak, a popular and active club leader for climbing and mountain biking activities.
From that low point, members rose to the occasion, said Brian Hoots, the club’s president in the centennial year.
“It made me proud how Mountaineers came to support her family and friends,” he said. “And we were involved with a technical review of the accident to learn something from it.
“It’s a moment to think about those who are gone but actually are still with us because they mentored us, because we learned something from them. We’ll always have that.”
Some Mountaineers are actively engaged in the club for decades. Others pass through like a thunderstorm. Either way, they have a time-tested opportunity to learn enduring lessons about the facts of life, living and staying alive.
Membership in the club peaked in 2007 at 1,097, before settling back into the range of 700-800, Hoots said.
“What’s the greatest thing joining the Mountaineers has done for me?” said Will Murray, repeating the question. Murray was active in some of the club’s most ambitious regional mountaineering adventures of the ’60s, but his answer zeroed in on another element of the club’s community.
“It gave me my wife,” he said.
Indeed, the club has connected numerous couples over the years.
“A lot of guys would say the Mountaineers took their wife away,” countered a smiling Geary Rise.
Complaints that the Mountaineers was evolving into a singles club have come and gone during its 100 years, but the hiking, climbing, biking and other activities continue to be the main attractions.
A member for 60 years, Collins made his last climb at age 85 while enjoying good health he attributes to his association with the club’s muscle-powered activities in the great outdoors.
“The Mountaineers gave me the start to see the world in a different way,” he said Thursday, assessing the club’s impact on his life: “Years of adventure memories and, most important, a lifetime of friendship.”