The Spokane Mountaineers: From Walking to Summiting

The history of a local club with national impact

Beginning as a group of active librarians, the Spokane Walking Club evolved to become the Spokane Mountaineers

For over one hundred years now, the Spokane Mountaineers club has had a sizable impact on recreational sports and environmental stewardship in Eastern Washington and beyond. Founded on September 19th, 1915, by well-known public librarian Ora Maxwell, the organization was originally chartered as the Spokane Walking Club. The original fifteen or so members consisted solely of women librarians, joined together with a passion for long and challenging walks. A year later, in 1916, a contested vote would allow male members to join what had previously been an all-woman’s club. By 1921 they would change their name to the Spokane Mountaineers to reflect the increasingly ambitious adventures undertaken by those within the club. It was recorded a year later in 1922 that the club had sponsored over three hundred walks and that their membership was around fifty individuals strong (Kershner). In the following decades they would incorporate as Spokane Mountaineers Inc. (SMI), establish a members’ newsletter “The Kinnikinnick”, and continue to sponsor members in increasingly challenging summits (Spokane Mountaineers).

In 1939 the Mountaineers joined the Spokane and Selkirk Ski Clubs in purchasing over 500 acres of Mount Spokane for recreational facilities (Arksey). A ski shack built on the mountain in the ‘30s would be replaced in the ‘50s by the ski chalet that stands there today. Situated on forty acres, the chalet was built by the Mountaineers themselves. The female members continued to be a driving force in the club, contributing manual labor to the chalet’s construction alongside male club members (Burge). The ski chalet is still in regular use today and is available as a perk of membership for ski trips and mountain getaways.

Continuing to expand its reach, the club established biking activities and began its own Mountain School in 1939, a program focused on outdoor education, safety, responsibility, and stewardship that continues to this day in their many educational programs. While that year marked their official outdoor school opening, SMI has been focused on educating its members since its very earliest years. This focus can be traced back to prodigious mountaineer Elsa Hanft, who joined the club in 1921. A guide for Mt. Rainier at the time, Hanft had summited over 50 times and was instrumental in teaching technique to the early generations of Mountaineers (Burge). This legacy continued in 1937 with the first-ever Climbing Class, a six-session course that would eventually grow and evolve into the Mountain School that exists today. In addition to advancing the sport of climbing, the Spokane Mountaineers club has focused its efforts on preserving the natural resources its members enjoy. Members heavily lobbied for the founding of the North Cascades National Park and contributed to joint efforts in the management of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Some notable ongoing clean-up efforts have been active in Sun Lakes State Park, the Centennial Trail, and SMI-adopted lakes and trails around Stevens Peak in Idaho. In the present day, a portion of membership proceeds go towards continuing conservation efforts in the Inland Northwest. Current estimates put this at around $2000 a year (Burge).

Throughout its years of operation, the Spokane Mountaineers has produced many notable members and sponsored historic firsts throughout the outdoor sporting world. Climbers John Roskelley, Chris Kopczynski, Kim Momb, and Dr. Jim States pictured here were the first team to complete an American ascent of the Himalayan peak Makalu. They did so without Sherpa support or oxygen tanks, and their accomplishment was heralded by the American Alpine Association as “a seminal moment in Himalayan climbing history” (Mazur). Throughout SMI’s history there have been members like these four who distinguished themselves as climbers not only on a local level, but on the world stage.

Club membership did see a decrease over the Covid pandemic with membership rosters dipping to around 250 total. However, due to the lifting of restrictions and the resumption of the SMI Mountain School they have seen their numbers skyrocket to over 600 members this year (Burge). Club Historian Chic Burge, a member since 1984, says of the Spokane Mountaineers, “The club has always been a nurturing element in the community; it’s always been a family organization that promotes outdoor recreation..” In 2015 the club celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it shows no signs of slowing its forward momentum.