Hot Button: Uphill Climb

The Mountaineers, one of the region

Category: Articles


 The rock felt like real granite. Scoping out the route ahead, I marveled at the variety of holds and the coarse texture of the surface, perfect for frictioning with rock shoes. Ten feet up I clipped into a bolt, ensuring the rope would catch me if I fell. Taking a deep breath, I followed a series of ledges, cracks and pockets toward the top of the 34-foot tower, the most stunning feature of the remarkable new Mountaineers clubhouse, located in the northern end of Seattle’s Magnuson Park.

The clubhouse (completed in November) and its signature climbing wall represent an ambitious attempt to revive the iconic Seattle outdoor organization and boost its flagging and aging membership (median age of members is 49). Club membership peaked in the mid-’90s at 15,000 and gradually declined to 10,500 today. The goal is to return to 15,000 members within five years and 30,000 within 10 years.

It won’t be easy. During the same period, membership has declined in outdoor clubs like Oregon’s Mazamas and Colorado Mountain Club. And the culture of the club itself could prove a challenge: How does a club steeped in the introspective 19th-century Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir reinvent itself for the 21st century?

Founded in 1906 in Seattle, the Mountaineers’ charter membership included luminaries like photographer Asahel Curtis. Today, it boasts famous mountaineering figures like Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Over the years, the Mountaineers has introduced thousands of Seattleites to the outdoors, offering courses in climbing, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, bicycling and kayaking. I took the Mountaineers basic climbing course 30 years ago, learning how to tie into a rope, use a map and compass, dress warmly, climb safely and always bring the Ten Essentials. 

Back then, the club hewed to a certain amount of rigidity. When I couldn’t make the belay session, the club wouldn’t let me reschedule. No exceptions; without that session, I couldn’t complete the basic course and go on club climbs. I drifted away, climbing with friends instead. When I bumped into Mountaineers groups in the backcountry, they could be condescending. On Sloan Peak in the North Cascades, my friends and I encountered a club party in the afternoon coming down after summiting.

“You’re not going to the top, are you?” the leader asked, looking at my day pack, hiking shoes and Gore-Tex jacket.

“Yes, we are,” I said, noticing his overnight pack, wool pants and heavy climbing boots.

“You should turn around,” he said. “It’s too late. We don’t want to have to rescue you.”

We ignored his advice and kept going. After ascending the peak, we caught up with the group near the Sauk River. Its members were attempting to cross it using a Tyrolean Traverse, a complicated, antiquated maneuver that required one of them to swim across first with the rope and the others to follow, braving the cold, icy Sauk River. Shaking my head, I walked down the trail to a foot log that allowed us to cross without so much as wetting our boots. The club seemed locked in the past.

“Some people had the attitude ‘We do it the right way, and they don’t,’” admits the affable, sandy-haired Steve Costie, who served as executive director through the renovation before stepping down in April. “It was a bit stodgy, a family with not a lot of new members.”

Now that is changing. The club realized it needed to reinvent itself to survive. The turning point came in 2007 with a proposal to sell the club headquarters near Seattle Center for $4.5 million and move to a new facility at Magnuson Park (leased from the City of Seattle and costing the clu