Retro Rewind | Marge Mueller: Pioneering Illustrator and Guidebook Artist

In this piece from Mountaineer Magazine, learn about the impact of Marge Mueller on the past, present, and future of Mountaineers Books and the guidebook industry as a whole.
Christine Clifton-Thornton Christine Clifton-Thornton
December 22, 2020
Retro Rewind | Marge Mueller: Pioneering Illustrator and Guidebook Artist

Marge Mueller, author, co-author, book designer, mapmaker, illustrator, and lifetime member of The Mountaineers, passed away in September at the age of 84.

Many think of Mountaineers Books as synonymous with outdoor legends like Fred Beckey, Harvey Manning, Ira Spring, and others whose guidebooks were published to much acclaim and who inspired a new generation of writers and photographers. There is, however, one woman—an established Pacific Northwest author in her own right—who helped make so much of the success of their work possible.

Marge Mueller was an avid outdoorsperson who became interested in our region’s mountains soon after moving to Washington in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, Marge joined Seattle Mountain Rescue, and there she met Ted Mueller. Soon after, their mutual friend Ira Spring invited them to be photography models on a climbing trip to Mount Baker. Matching male climbers stride for stride, she often dangled from belay while wearing attire fit for publication. Marge completed countless climbs and hikes with an unmistakable style, wit, and flair captured by Ira in many of his classic images.

Often the only woman in her climbing groups, it also fell to Marge to prepare meals at the end of the day. While everyone else relaxed around camp, Marge could be found whipping up a hot meal, with her patented handmade mountain ice cream for dessert.

Marge credited her upbringing with two brothers on a commercial farm in Iowa for her strong sense of self and determination. In the 1950s, her parents built a public swimming pool on their property, which strongly fed Marge’s athletic interests. These lessons learned and skills developed at a young age contributed to her success in a field dominated by men.

A style all her own

Marge and Ted married in 1966, which turned into a landmark year for the newlywed couple. Marge graduated from the University of Washington with a BFA in Commercial Design and became a commercial illustrator for Boeing. Also in 1966, the original 100 Hikes in Western Washington, the granddaddy of all Pacific Northwest hiking guides, was published by Mountaineers Books. Written by Louise Marshall, with Ira and his twin brother Bob credited as photographers, Marge was the book’s illustrator. 100 Hikes sold out the initial press run in only a few weeks, and spawned the series of 100 Hikes books published by Mountaineers Books that continues to this day. An avid cartographer, Marge used an artistic interpretation of contextual elevation and detail in the 100 Hikes series, a style that later became her trademark. Marge’s signature style continues to have an influence on adventure writing, illustration, and art in the outdoor industry today.

Also in 1966, Harvey Manning, already renowned as the first editor of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, joined Ira and Marge on Mount Rainier to document what would later become the popular 50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park book. While Harvey and Ira became known as the grandfathers of outdoor guidebooks, it was Marge’s innate outdoor knowledge, design expertise, and frank communication skills that drove the design, look, and feel of their books. She also heavily supported many other titles that created the early lexicon of today’s outdoor and natural history of the Pacific Northwest.

Fred Beckey arrived on Mountaineers Books’ publishing list in 1965 with a guide to Leavenworth climbing areas. The first of what later became a three-volume set known as Beckey’s Bibles, Cascade Alpine Guide: Columbia River to Stevens Pass, was published in 1973. Marge took over designing Fred’s books in 1977. Marge’s ability to wrangle both Fred and Harvey’s work into orderly submissions fit for publication was not only legendary, it was essential. Both men eventually refused to publish without her at the helm of production for their books.

From illustrator to author

Eventually, Marge and Ted began writing their own books. Their first was Northwest Ski Trails, published by Mountaineers Books in 1968, with the text written by Ted, photos by Ira, and maps by Marge. Astonishingly, Marge and Ted created and revised numerous editions of more than a dozen books while Marge continued to design, lay out, and create illustrations for other titles at the same time.

Later, with a growing family, Marge and Ted began to spend less time in the mountains and more time aboard their sailboat. They grew frustrated at the lack of information for boaters as they explored their favorite area: the San Juan Islands. As a solution, the couple wrote The San Juan Islands: Afoot & Afloat, published in 1979. It was their first book featuring their own photography and the first in what would become an extensive series.

“My wife, Jo, and I were guided and inspired by the Afoot & Afloat series, especially the volume on the San Juan Islands, which came out at a time when there was little cruising info available,” said Art Freeman, lifelong skier, and past executive director of Mountaineers Books. “Her book included that, but it also included her characteristically artistic maps and a can-do attitude. We still use the series. She led us, and so many people, in the right direction.”

Of the books Marge and Ted published with Mountaineers Books, the best known are the Afoot & Afloat titles and Washington State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide, although they also wrote about other topics.

“One of the very first outdoor books I bought at REI, probably around 1970, was Northwest Ski Trails by Marge and Ted, which was a big inspiration to me,” said Art. “I still look at it and think fondly of Marge and Ted, and of the early days of Northwest resort skiing, when it snowed feet, not inches, and never rained.”

Donna DeShazo, former director of Mountaineers Books, reminisced about working with Marge for more than 30 years. “I first met Marge in her freelance mapmaking days, and we continued to work together as she added ‘author’ to her title and then as she joined the Books staff in 1985,” said Donna, who remained friends with Marge beyond their time working together.

“Marge’s maps alone set a new standard for guidebooks. At the time, it was common practice to use chunks of USGS topo maps, which—while definitely accurate—gave the average hiker little or no impression of the ‘flavor’ of the trip. Her unique ‘oblique angle’ style conveyed both terrain relief and relative distances in a way that was often copied (but never successfully!) by other publishers.”

Donna also praised Marge’s limitless creative nature. “Marge was art directing one edition of Freedom of the Hills when the editorial committee insisted on achieving absolute perfection of detail in drawings of such maneuvers as ice axe self-arrests on snow climbs. In typical Marge fashion, undeterred by it being a season of no snow anywhere, she solved the problem by covering an old hollow-core door with carpet. She then used it to create the necessary snow slopes and photographed committee-member-climbers cramponing on the door with all the proper moves. An artist then created the necessary drawings for the book, and everyone was happy.”

Through Marge’s creative influence, The Mountaineers and Mountaineers Books inspired generations of recreationists and adventure. Not limited to hiking, paddling, skiing, or any other outdoor disciplines, Marge’s body of work stands out as truly special, even in Mountaineers Books’ extraordinary catalogue.

Bonus Material: The Next Generation

Editor's note: Please enjoy this bonus material that we weren't able to fit into the print edition.

Marge continued to shepherd book production for the next generation when Ira Spring’s daughter, Vicky, and her husband, Tom Kirkendall, both professional photographers, decided to follow in Ira’s footsteps. Tom and Vicky researched, wrote, and photographed numerous books of their own, many also published by Mountaineers Books.

“Marge was a great help to me. I could barely write a complete sentence when it came to our guidebooks, so I took over the map creation. Without Marge's help they would have been a squiggly mess, ” said Ira's son in law Tom. "At the drop of a pencil, no matter how small the problem, I could stop by her house and she would help me work out the kinks. It was always a pleasure to sit down with Marge, despite the fact her dog once barfed on my shoe and another time her rabbit ate my pants. She will be missed.” 

Marge’s daughter, Heidi, remembers the barfing incident vividly. “Our dog Mittsie loved greeting all the authors who came to our house, and was always there to get a scratch behind the ears. I don’t remember what was wrong that day, but as usual he went up to Tom to say hi, when suddenly he barfed all over Tom’s shoe! Tom was very gracious about it and my mom couldn’t have been more embarrassed, but secretly I think she thought it was hysterical. She still laughed about it years later!”

A die-hard Huskies fan, Marge had a sparkling sense of humor that made her a delight at any gathering, and she took pleasure in adding a touch of creativity to everything around her. Heidi and her brother, Craig, remember the grade-school lunch bags decorated  lovingly by mom with their names and little drawings, often matching the season with illustrations such as Jack-o-lanterns or Easter bunnies or snowmen.

“Each day our lunch sacks featured a new work of art,” said Heidi. “Those little bags made us feel so special, and also so guilty when we went to toss them away at the end of the day. But mom didn't mind; it just gave her another opportunity to design something new.” Marge especially enjoyed Halloween and rarely missed an opportunity to create elaborate costumes not just for the kids, but for herself and husband Ted as well.

Heidi and Craig are grateful for how their parents’ love of mountains and the outdoors shaped them into who they are today. “No matter what harebrained idea we had or what wild adventure we wanted to take off on, mom and dad were always so supportive. As they got older and could no longer do their own adventuring, they enjoyed armchair adventuring though us. Mom would get wistful when thinking of Paradise wildflower fields or snowcapped Cascade peaks, but she couldn’t be happier that Craig and I were out there experiencing them for her."

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

Main Image:  Marge Mueller on Mt. Challenger in 1966. Photo courtesy of Heidi Mueller.

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