Retro Rewind | Coming Full Circle

50 years ago Judy Sterry was a Mountaineers youth - now she's paying it forward to the next generation.
Peter Dunau Peter Dunau
Content & Communications Manager
September 29, 2018
Retro Rewind | Coming Full Circle

Judy Sterry remembers the exact day she joined The Mountaineers. It was her 14th birthday, the minimum age required to become a member at the time. By 16, she had climbed all six of Washington’s major Cascade volcanoes: Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Olympus, and Mount Rainier – 65,640 feet in total elevation.

“I wanted that pin,” Judy tells me, referring to The Mountaineers Six Majors honor, awarded to members who’ve summited each peak.

Much has changed since Judy trekked up the state’s highest mountains as an intrepid teenager in the 1950s. Mt. St. Helens blew its top in 1980 and is no longer considered a major. Climbers no longer summit Rainier on 100-person teams like Judy did. And The Mountaineers no longer teaches students to catch their falling climbing partners using a harness-free hip belay. (Judy’s recalls honing her skills by bearing the weight of a plummeting 100-pound cement block at the old Camp Long training ground.)

And yet as the adage goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The Mountaineers is still launching youth into the outdoors – and Judy is still part of it.

Now 77, Judy has stepped up as a regular volunteer with our Mountain Workshops, a partnership program The Mountaineers leads with local organizations serving low-income and at-risk youth. The program breaks down barriers to the outdoors and introduces kids to rock climbing, first aid, navigation, and more. Judy also supports Mountaineers youth through personal donations. In addition to Mountain Workshops, these contributions benefit The Mountaineers’ year round adventure programs for kids and teens.

“This was an important part of my life, and I want kids today to have that too,” says Judy. “I want them to develop a comfort in the outdoors, gain leadership skills, and pass their love of adventure onto others. I also want them to grow up and vote for conservation so we can maintain our wild places.”

Life As A Junior

When Judy joined the club, she took the basic climbing course and joined Mountaineers Juniors, a youth program open to members under 18. Judy became a leader with the Juniors, serving as the youth representative to The Mountaineers board.

“We were a ragtag group of kids,” Judy says. “We’d plan all kinds of adventures. The rule was we had to have a chaperone over 18, but that person was just there to make sure we were okay. We were the ones making the decisions and leading the outings.”

She recalls ski trips to The Mountaineers Meany Lodge and bike expeditions to the San Juan Islands. Her face lights up when thinking of the biking adventures.

Juniors San Juans.jpgJunior Mountaineers on a bike trip to the San Juan Islands. Photo by Bob and Ira Spring.

“We’d pile into the train in Seattle, get off at Mt. Vernon, ride to the ferry, and then cache our bikes on the island and camp. Back then, there were huge unsettled areas that we had to ourselves.” She also recalls adventures with the late photographer and guidebook author Ira Spring. His Mountaineers Books publications like 100 Hikes in Western Washington inspired entire generations to explore Pacific Northwest trails. 

Ira would regularly ask the Juniors to go on trips, so he could snap photos of them for one his upcoming books.

“He’d take us up to places like Foss Lakes in his station wagon,” says Judy. “For food, we’d eat canned tuna, canned peas, noodles, and mushroom soup – and we were totally delighted with it. He wasn’t a legend at the time; he was just Ira.”

Judy’s time with The Mountaineers helped inspire a lifetime of outdoor adventure. She went on to become ski patroller and instructor and spent time working at NOLS and Outward Bound, two of the nation’s leading outdoor schools. She remembers years where she spent 150 days on the ski slopes.

“I still keep my skis in the living room,” she says. “They’re close by for whenever I want go.”

Kids Today

Ten years ago, under the leadership of Mountaineers’ Education Director Becca Polglase and former CEO Martinique Grigg, the club made a major investment in our youth programs – an effort Judy says she’s “just delighted with.”

Since then, our youth programs continue to grow. In addition to Mountain Workshops, we now feature three year-round youth programs: Mountain Adventure Club or MAC (for ages 14-18), Explorers (for ages 10-13), and Pioneers (for ages 7-9). We also offer weeklong summer camps in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Kitsap. In total, The Mountaineers provided 10,156 experiences for youth last year.

MAC, our teen program, carries on many of the traditions and leadership values Judy treasured during her time as a Junior. “It’s a program designed to be run by the kids,” says Becca. “They determine the curriculum. They determine their goals.”

The group meets regularly and plans monthly adventures, going over everything from food to budgets to gear. Adult advisors are on hand, but MAC teens are given the space to learn from their successes and failures. It’s a philosophy Judy has always endorsed. “Let kids experience things,” she says. “Protect them, but don’t mollycoddle them.”

Recent MAC highlights include backpacking the Ozette Triangle, cross-country skiing to Lost Lake, and climbing Mount St. Helens. Each year, the MAC program also makes a weeklong pilgrimage to Squamish, a rock climbing mecca in British Columbia.

On this year’s trip, MAC volunteer Jeffrey Hunt climbed with 14-year-old Ben Saelens. The pair made it up Skywalker, a route that requires climbers to go up five pitches of 60 meter rope, while placing their own protection – a combination of athletic and technical skill that many adults aspire to.

Ben and Jeffrey took turns taking the lead. Jeffrey summed it up with a Facebook post saying, “Ben's protection placements were all very good; these kids are well taught.” He went on to give a shout out to Carl Marrs, who along with Sarah Holt in Tacoma, serves as the point person on Mountaineers staff for the MAC program.

Climb On

After Judy spoke with me, we headed out to The Mountaineers climbing wall to help belay for a Mountain Workshop.

While we waited for the kids to show up, we met another helper, Keely Carolan. Now entering her senior year in high school, Keely came to The Mountaineers summer camp six years ago, and later joined our Mountaineers Adventure Club. Last fall she became the youth representative on our board – the same position Judy held 50 some years ago.

I asked Keely, if she was on the MAC trip that summited Rainier the previous weekend. “No,” she said. “I couldn’t go because I was competing in climbing nationals in Georgia.” Wow, I thought, our youth are crushing it!

As we waited, I suggested getting some photos of Judy and Keely climbing together. “That’s fine,” Judy said. “But these days, I can only belay. My body’s just not up for climbing anymore.”

With Judy belaying, Keely scampered up the rock wall. When she came down, we all started chatting again. Then came Judy’s voice: “Alright, let me give it a shot.”

Judy got tied in. A series of steady, well-practiced moves followed. In no time, she was up the rock wall looking down on us.

“Okay,” she said. “You can take me down now.” Judy could still do it, and soon she’d be showing the Mountain Workshop kids that they could too.

Judy Climb.jpgJudy scales The Mountaineers’ climbing wall with Keely on belay. Photo by Peter Dunau


This article originally appeared in our Fall 2018 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

Tags: ,

Add a comment

Log in to add comments.
June Fitzpatrick
June Fitzpatrick says:
Oct 04, 2021 03:32 PM

Wonderful story and recollections from a junior mountaineer who never gave up or gave in. We should all aspire to be like Judy Sterry.

Thank you
June Fitzpatrick
Former Seattle mountaineer