A Costume Climbing Tradition: Anywhere, Anytime

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, read about the Mother's Day tradition, taking fabulously-dressed climbers to summits around the PNW.
Kristina Ciari Tursi Kristina Ciari Tursi
Membership & Communications Director
April 30, 2024
A Costume Climbing Tradition: Anywhere, Anytime
Dress climbers on Mt. St. Helens, May 2018. All photos by Mushtaque Silat.

The sweat pours from your brow as you trudge under the spring sun, a mere half-mile from the summit. You know you’re tired, but begin to question if you’re unwell when you see not one, but a dozen people bounding toward you, clad in all kinds of hiking-inappropriate garb. One man is in a hula skirt, followed by a woman dressed as Belle from Beauty and the Beast. You sit down for safety and watch the apparitions get closer. You’re not hallucinating. You’ve just stumbled upon the elusive Mother’s Day hikers outside of their usual haunt.

One of the Pacific Northwest’s grand traditions - a right of passage for many aspiring mountaineers - is climbing Mt. St. Helens, in a dress, on Mother’s Day. Inspired by the famous 1987 red dress of Kathy Phibbs, photographed and featured on the cover of the Seattle Times, thousands of aspiring summiteers flock to the flanks of Helens each May, donning their Sunday best. But as the tradition has grown and permits have become more restricted, many are taking their dress-game elsewhere.

IMG_0686.jpgThe dress climbers on Sourdough Mountain, May 2019.

IMG_0639.jpgTracy Brigham (the co-organizer) on Sourdough Mountain, May 2019. 

Enter: Mushtaque Silat, dress-hiking enthusiast and annual organizer of the anywhere-but-Helens Mother’s Day dress tradition.

“My hiking career started back in 2009,” said Mushtaque, who one day hopes to explore more of the mountains in his homeland of Pakistan. “I was just following all the Washington Trails Association (WTA) hikes and finally got to a point where I needed something more challenging. I joined The Mountaineers in 2015 and took the scrambling course. I got to learn a lot of new skills and get comfortable in the snow. I took the glacier travel class and was able to climb the Washington five volcanoes.”

One of those volcanoes was Mt. St. Helens on Mother’s Day weekend, a tradition Mushtaque and his crew took part in with great enthusiasm. But after a few years, crowds got bigger and permits became harder to come by. Plus, they’d seen Helens already.

“There are so many mountains out there - why not try something else,” said Martina Kohlus, a 7-year Mountaineers member, and regular participant in the dress-donning tradition.

So explore they did. To train and have regular touch points with the community, Mushtaque began organizing weekly sunset hikes in the Snoqualmie region. A highly international crew shows up each week, with the training regimen helping to ready folks for the annual dress-climb the weekend before Mother’s Day.

IMG_0651 (1).jpgKavita Kamani donning a traditional shawl on Sourdough Mountain, May 2019.

IMG_4453.jpgEva Szalewicz in her Belle costume on Icicle Ridge, May 2021.

The location is selected based on the whims of the weather. One year, the group had to bail on a trip to Ruth Mountain to instead go to Umtanum Ridge because of an atmospheric river. No matter, they shared a fun day and surprised casual day hikers with their spirited attire and spirited celebrations.

As for a dress code? “Not everybody shows up in a dress, but everyone dresses up,” said Mushtaque. “It’s a really multicultural crew with a lot of people from India, so they wear Saris. Other people wear kilts. I've worn my wife's dresses that she's discarded. It really depends on what people are comfortable with.”

IMG_6907.jpgJoyous coordinated posing on Umtanum Ridge, May 2022.

IMG_6896.jpgThe Kilt Climbers on Umtanum Ridge, May 2022.

“I’m not really a dress person,” said Lindsay Fincher, ten-year Mountaineers member and reluctant dress-hiker. “I was digging through my closet one year and I found this dress that I’d bought for a job many years ago where we had to put on this formal conference. I really hated that job. My boss was an awful person. But when I was digging through my closet, I was thinking that I wanted to take this dress that held bad memories and turn it into something awesome.”

The tradition is fun for onlookers too. “People definitely notice you,” said Mushtaque. “They want to take our picture and celebrate with us.” Sometimes folks join in their summit celebrations. Mushtaque always plans for a few hours at teach summit so folks can share food, dance, sing, take goofy pictures, and listen to memorable ukulele performances by Eva Agnieszka Szalewicz, who the group lovingly refers to as “our musician.”

IMG_0732.jpgEva Szalewicz (the group musician) providing summit entertainment on Icicle Ridge, May 2021.

IMG_4316.jpgTracy and Tony doing theirfavorite pose on Icicle Ridge, May 2021.

When I asked why this has become such an important tradition, the answer came as no surprise. “We all have our lives - our very busy lives,” said Martina, who grew up in big cities in Germany and the Czech Republic and never thought of herself as a mountain person before moving to the PNW. “Some of those people I don’t get to see unless I go to those hikes. It’s a great opportunity for all of us to come together and just enjoy ourselves.”

IMG_4417-Edit (1).jpgThe dress climbers on Icicle Ridge, May 2021.

“These trips are a really nice day to see a lot of people you don’t normally get to see,” said Lindsay. “One of my favorite hikes was in 2021. We did Icicle Ridge in Leavenworth, and at that point, COVID was going on and everyone was finally able to get vaccinated. A lot of us hadn’t seen each other for a year or so. The time away made our experience together all the more special.”

“Every year I am able to attend is unique in its own way,” said Martina. “It’s not about the climb itself, it’s just about being together.

This article originally appeared in our spring 2024 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

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