Mount Rainier has attracted thousands of mountain climbers since the first documented ascent of the 14,410-foot peak in 1870. All have had to cope with Rainier's fickle weather, which can be deadly. Rising as it does in western Washington, Rainier bears the unabated force of storms sweeping across the North Pacific. On stormy days, which can occur at any time of the year, the mountain offers a grim face to mountaineers. Winds can buffet the climber with near-hurricane force. Temperatures can plunge to Arctic extremes in minutes, and when the clouds roll in, visibility is reduced to a few feet.
For the mountaineer of the 19th century, it was challenge enough just to reach the summit by one of the well-explored routes. But in the early part of the 20th century, the climbers sought fresh challenges, and several new and difficult routes were pushed to the top. Still, all mountaineering activity was confined to a few months during the summer.
The clothing and equipment of the day were primitive. Much of the climbing hardware had to be handmade or ordered from Europe, and the cold-weather clothing was bulky and heavy. Climbers were wary of the hazards of a winter ascent—deep snow approaches, few daylight hours, volatile weather. Winter mountaineering was gaining popularity in Europe, but in North America it was viewed as pure folly.
Unsurprisingly, the first winter ascent of Mount Rainier was accomplished by three French Alpinists. Accompanied by a news photographer, they did it by the well-traveled Gibraltar Ledge route in February 1922. American newspapers were enchanted by their courage, and the climb received wide publicity. The Frenchmen had been lucky. They ascended during a period of quiet weather, and the climb was straightforward. In fact, they attained the summit nearly as quickly as summer climbers had. However, their success didn't suddenly motivate others to tackle Rainier in the winter. The National Park Service officially discouraged winter mountaineering. Local climbers, who could just cast a glance at Rainier to see the fury of its winter storms, were happy to heed the warnings. All but one, that is. Rainier's second midwinter ascent, and the first by an American, was undertaken by an eccentric loner with dubious mountaineering credentials. In January 1936, Delmar Fadden, a sensitive, artistic, 23-year-old resident of Seattle, went to Rainier for a midwinter respite from city life. He journeyed to Glacier Basin on the mountain's northeast side, ostensibly to sketch, paint, ski and write a bit of poetry. The story of Fadden's expedition is one of the most poignant tales in American mountaineering history.
Fadden had a long history of unusual wilderness wanderings. In the summer of 1932 he made a solo hike across Washington's Olympic Mountains. The adventure took 30 days and nearly killed him. Fadden didn't have the pioneering conquer-the-land mentality that still permeated American mountaineers. He wanted to face nature on its own terms, learning what he could without even the rudimentary equipment of the time. Soon after his parents dropped him off at Lake Quinault on the Western fringe of the Olympics, he destroyed his compass and later burned his map. "I'm free! Whoopee!" he wrote in his journal.
When, at the end of his trek, he arrived at Hood Canal on the eastern edge of the mountains, he had lost 30 pounds and staved off starvation only by foraging for frogs and plant bulbs the last week.
Fadden was no stranger to Mount Rainier. Four times he had attempted to reach the summit. He finally made the top during a solo ascent in September 1933. When the film of his climb turned out blank, he repeated the ascent the next weekend. Again Fadden danced his singular waltz with potential tragedy. As he descended, fog obscured the footprints he'd made on the way up. Time after time he nearly slipped into shrouded crevasses. When he neared his base camp, Fadden got lost. He wandered around for 2� hours before regaining his bearings. Even with the delays, he made the full round trip of the long Emmons Glacier route in a remarkably fast 18 hours.
Fadden then returned to Rainier in 1936 to tackle his greatest challenge, a winter climb to the summit. He was alone, as he so often preferred to be. Fadden had told his twin brother, Donald, that he would be hiking up into Glacier Basin and might make the trek up to Steamboat Prow—the customary high camp for climbs on Rainier's northeast side, and only a day trip from his base camp in the Basin.
Whether Fadden had made plans to attempt the summit climb at the time he left will never be known, but try for the top he did. When Fadden failed to return home on schedule, his brother notified the Park authorities. A massive search was organized. Some of the best climbers in the Northwest combed the trails and lower basins across the north and east faces of the mountain.
In a few days searchers found tracks leading above Glacier Basin toward Steamboat Prow. A few willow wands, used to mark climbing routes, were spotted in the glacier above, but facing intensely cold weather, the searchers retreated. They reasoned that if Fadden were still alive and lost high on the mountain, his chances of survival were nonexistent. For the next few days, they focused their efforts on the lower slopes.