Retro Rewind | A Date on Mt. Rainier

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, read about four teenage Mountaineers member's adventure of a lifetime in the alpine world of Mt. Rainier.
Joan Burton Joan Burton
73-year member and Mountaineers Books author
May 21, 2024
Retro Rewind | A Date on Mt. Rainier
Dave, Joan, and Gary trekking beside a crevasse on Rainier's Cowlitz Glacier. Photo by Ira Spring, courtesy of the Spring Trust for Trails.

We were the luckiest teenagers we knew. In the spring of 1953, my sister (16) and I (18) learned we would spend ten days that summer in the alpine world of Mt. Rainier with two other teenage climbing course graduates, as well as renowned photographer Ira Spring. How did this happen? Ira had a contract with the publisher of a new magazine, Sports Illustrated.

Who would he choose? Teenage mountain climbers were not abundant in the early 1950s, let alone female mountain climbers. Ira went to the chair of The Mountaineers Climbing Committee, Harvey Manning. Harvey recommended my sister Carol and me, the Marston sisters, along with Gary Rose and Dave Nicholson. Carol and I knew Gary and Dave from the climbing course and considered them good friends. This was unbelievable news for us.

721782658.468933.jpgCarol rappelling from a peak in the Tatoosh Range with Mt. Rainier behind. Photo by Ira Spring, courtesy of the Spring Trust for Trails.

Picture perfect

I was excited, and struggled to believe we were going to spend a week exploring the glaciers on the south side of the mountain. When the time came, Ira led the six of us to our campsite at 10,000-foot Camp Muir. Ira was pleased with our willingness to pose for his pictures. We knew he was happy when he kept us laughing with his jokes. He made us dinners and breakfasts of Vienna sausages and Zoom hot cereal. Lunches were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The meals weren’t luxurious, but we didn’t care what we ate. We would have eaten anything for the opportunity to climb with Ira.

For the first week, we went out every day to pose for pictures on the glaciers next to enormous crevasses. Ira was shooting dramatic black and white stills and movies of us jumping the crevasses and chopping steps. We willingly did everything he asked. Carol rappelled from a peak in the Tatoosh Range without a harness, only a rope and a smile on her face.

The sun shone as we crossed crevasses on summer snow bridges (due to glacial melting, today’s climbers cross them on aluminum ladders). Our packs were old Trapper Nelsons, and we were roped together with 7/16th Manila rope. Regardless of the old gear, the photos were gorgeous. One of them is still on display in the Paradise Lodge, showing Dave, Gary, and me slogging through summer snow alongside a crevasse from the Cowlitz Glacier, just below Camp Muir.

aa.PNGPages from Ira's story in the 1954 Sports Illustrated magazine featuring the Marston sisters.

A night on Rainier’s summit

The next adventure was the summit climb. Ira had talked the Park Service into giving us permission to camp on the summit. This was not usual practice at the time, and still today would be impermissible. We used an older route that is no longer considered safe, the Gibraltar Ledge. The ledge slopes downward to a drop-off where the Nisqually Glacier rests hundreds of feet below. In addition, random rocks can fall from above when they melt out of the ice wall above the ledge. At one point, several fell very close to my sister Carol. Watching from the side of the ledge, I was scared for her and screamed. But we trusted Ira to get us through it, and he did.

The summit climb began in darkness. Contours of the mountain gradually sharpened as shades of lavender, scarlet, and gold from the sunrise developed. Once on the summit, we set up tents, melted snow water, and rested. I remember filling a cook pot with snow and a package of dried prunes, then setting it on a steam jet for next day’s breakfast. We spent the rest of the day posing for photos and sunbathing in the 90-degree weather of Rainier’s summit.

721782562.393117.jpgJoan checking on the prunes cooked by Mt. Rainier. Photo by Ira Spring, courtesy of the Spring Trust for Trails.

As evening settled, we stood on the summit rim to watch the sunset. Looking west, we watched the sun as it dropped toward the Olympics and lit up Puget Sound with light, golden like molten metal. As the wind came up and the temperature fell, the cities and towns of Puget Sound began to light up, one by one. When we turned and faced east, the shadow of the volcano extended toward the wheat fields we imagined must be there. The shadow of the mountain dominated the skyline. Looking at the expansive view, I felt I was halfway to heaven.

Remembering a changed Rainier

We had an early night. The next morning, we ate soft, warm prunes with our Zoom breakfast, cooked by Mt. Rainier. We started to pack up as soon as breakfast was finished, wanting to get past the Gibraltar Ledge before the ice above it melted and the rocks came down at us again.

The ledge was quiet when we got there, but we hurried across it anyway. In fact, Ira was in such a hurry that he did not take off his crampons. That was a mistake. He fell forward, tripped on a rock, and dislocated his finger. The pain must have been severe, but he didn’t complain.

We dropped uneventfully to Camp Muir, packed additional camping items, and proceeded to Paradise. Ira loaded the car, checked to be sure we hadn’t left anything, and drove us home.

IMG_0321.jpgJoan in her garden. Photo by Mountaineers staff.

We didn’t want to leave. The experience had been so overwhelming that we were silent. We didn’t realize at the time that the ice caves we had traveled through were disintegrating and would soon disappear. We thought over what we had seen and done, and how fortunate we had been to experience Mt. Rainier’s beauty so closely. Today’s summit climbers don’t witness those same glacial formations, or watch the sun set over Puget Sound and the Olympics from Rainier’s summit.

We felt as though we were leaving the magic land of alpine beauty. Ira took great photos of that trip and the story of the four teenagers came out in the second issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954. It was titled “A Date on Mt. Rainier.” For the rest of his life, Ira called us “my teenagers."

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.