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Mighty Joe Morovits: Real-life Bunyan
Dolly Connelly
January 07, 1963
He came to the Pacific Northwest mysteriously and disappeared without trace, but he left behind a record of amazing feats of mountaineering and exploration, now pieced together for the first time
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January 07, 1963

Mighty Joe Morovits: Real-life Bunyan

He came to the Pacific Northwest mysteriously and disappeared without trace, but he left behind a record of amazing feats of mountaineering and exploration, now pieced together for the first time

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Joe made his first climb of Mount Baker on August 7, 1892, choosing by mere chance and ignorance the most difficult of all routes, that up the precipitous ice wall of the northeast face, the first and only ascent of that horrendous overhanging cornice until it was climbed by trained members of Portland's Mazamas in 1906. Joe set off up Rainbow Glacier with a group of young men from La Conner on Puget Sound. At the Cockscomb, below the summit, the men came to a halt, declaring that no man possibly could climb the terrible ice wall looming over them. That was all the prod Morovits needed. He later wrote: "Four of the party fagged theirselves and myself out, but two more went on. After a while the other two stopped so I had to go it alone. So I did it, finding it a thousand times worse than I figured on." Without even the pike he carried on later climbs, Morovits "cut foot notches in the ice with my rifle." Descent was even more harrowing, as Joe found it necessary to creep down backwards, feeling blindly below with his toes for tiny indentations he'd made in the rock-hard, shadowed ice of the north side.

By 1900 Joe had a number of original routes to his credit and a tidy record of first ascents, though he attached so little importance to the bagging of mountain heights that he made no effort to leave a mark of his passage on summits. Today, while climbers grant that unlettered Joe doubtless did all to which he laid claim, his interest springing from prospecting far up the Sulphide Creek approach to Mount Shuksan, his name is gone from his "front-door mountain." Nobody disputes his firsts on Mount Baker: first ascent of the dangerous northeast ice face in 1892, establishment of the Morovits Route via the ridge between Park and Boulder glaciers in 1894, first ascent of Sherman Peak, the secondary summit of Mount Baker, in 1907.

Climbers marveled at his model ranch and fine buildings. Wrote one, "There is no sawed board in any of his buildings. With adze and axe he fashioned hand-rived timbers of cedar as finely met as milled lumber." At his mine cabins, miles beyond reach of the most surefooted packhorse, Joe had such niceties as sets of china dishes, packed up upon the broad Morovits back. He believed in "eating civilized" even if his fare was primitive. He had an astonishing collection of books, some of them fine editions. Unlike most men who live alone, he kept everything neat as a pin. He bathed every time he passed in the vicinity of the steaming, sulphurous waters of Baker Hot Springs, 2� miles from his ranch. Here he helped timber cruiser Vic Galbraith dig a hole and line it with logs as a rude bathtub just long enough and deep enough for a good soak.

Morovits was something of a volcanologist, leaving many notes on his observations. He believed there had been three great eruptions of Mount Baker from the Summit Crater, the most recent 100 years before his time, and exulted in the fact that Baker has not "blown her top all to hell and gone" but remains a beauteous cone. He traced old paths of fluctuating glaciers by morainal ridges left in their wake, estimating dates of periods of advancement and recession. He followed the path of a massive avalanche for seven miles down Rainbow Creek, wondering at "rocks sticking in the sides of trees along the edge of its path as high as 30 feet from the roots, as big as a man's two fists and much bigger." From Morovits' account, the name Avalanche Gorge was given to the half-mile-wide devastated area.

In 1907 Joe and six Bellingham men set the first speed record on the mountain, reaching the summit dome in 5� hours from snow line. They spent four hours in balmy weather on the top taking elaborate measurements, concluding that the egg-shaped summit is "about 70 acres, more or less." Mount Baker National Forest records of 1916 note that Morovits sold his claims on Sulphide Creek on the southeasterly side of Mount Shuksan, where "ore samples taken out (sic) show values up to more than $2,000 per ton." In 1917 Joe was forced to sell his homestead and the Fourth of July Mines to a group of men who held a lien on the mill. The men never worked the mines, but used the ranch as a base camp for hunting and logging.

Joe paid up his debts and disappeared from his mountains, the river pioneers tell me, in 1918. Some oldtimers claim he went back to coal mining as a powder monkey, a trade for which his experience would have suited him. They say he earned $25 a day, more money than he'd seen in his life before, but that he was grievously injured and crippled only a short time later when he was struck on the head and shoulders by an enormous chunk of coal. They say that the wonderful love of life burned low in him, that only once did he come back to see his mountains. Shrunken and wasted he was, with a rigid brace about his neck, though his years were not advanced. He died a charity patient in some city hospital or nursing home, according to these chroniclers.

This fate for Joe is rejected by others who knew him.

"Joe never went back to coal mining," they scoff. "Man like that couldna worked for any other man. Went into the wilderness mountains of Idaho, Joe did, with no more stake than his 100-pound pack and his rifle. There's some Saint Joe Mountains in the Bitterroots mighta been named for him. No, I think he was clawed by a bear, somewheres all alone, and his bones lie a-bleaching in the sun and the snows to this day. Joe was mean to bears, he was."

I'd just as soon never learn where Joe is buried, for to me he lives, in a way, on his Mount Baker in a hundred stories of derring-do, in a one-ton mortar rusting in the vine maples-Morovits, the mighty man of the mountains.

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