The Mountain

Bigger, taller, and No 3 or 4?

Mount Rainier regularly appears in the news. Lately it has been for a long simmering story about the name. The Puyallup Tribe is seeking to restore the Lushootseed name for the mountain, təqʷuʔbəʔ. Pronounced variously as Tacoma, Tahoma, Talol, and Takobah, it has been translated as meaning “the mother of all waters” according to Brandon Reynon, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. The more recent name originated in May 1792 when Captain Vancouver named the edifice for his pal Peter Rainier, who didn’t make it closer to the mountain than Jamaica.

According to the Royal Museum in Greenwich, the image on the right “captures a sense of Rainier as a precocious man of action, with the dashing swagger that made successful young naval officers the popular idols of their day.”

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, a different controversy centered on size. In 1939, National Park Service officials had the gall to declare that Rainier was no longer the third highest peak in the lower 48. It was now relegated to the pathetic fourth spot, below mountains in California and Colorado. Mountaineers, public officials, and newspaper editors were aghast, shocked, and downright pissed off.

In a rare front page editorial, Col. Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, wrote: “Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in the the United States.” He then complained about the “official measurements of mountains from theoretical sea level, [which were the basis for] indicating their actual height…This is sheer nonsense….A Seattle man six feet tall visiting in Denver is still six feet tall when he gets off the train in the Colorado metropolis—not 5,286 feet tall.” Therefore Rainier, which rose from sea level, was by far the tallest, and most beautiful and wonderful and amazing, mountain in the continental U.S.

Others planned more practical methods for addressing the slight. Rainier could be remeasured to “find” the extra feet. (Hmm, aren’t we still dealing with people who think a recount will find the numbers they seek?) Or someone could build a summit cairn to increase the mountain’s height. “We’ll build a cairn both as a monument to the death of Mount Massive’s brief glory and to Mount Rainier’s return to its proper place in the sun,” wrote C.E. Johns of the Washington State Progress Commission. No such cairn was built, although the idea resurfaced in 1948. (By the way, I wrote a book about cairns.)

The Mountain, though, has regularly had a vacillating elevation, not due to erosion and eruption (though it did loose as much as 2,000 feet in an eruption ~5,700 years ago) but due to cartographers. At this point, the official elevation is 14,411 feet above sea level. But I suspect the elevation will change over time, particularly with global warming and consequent glacial melt (which will lead to limited isostatic rebound), and increased erosion due to more water and less stable sidewalls (from the loss of stabilizing glaciers). So stay tuned.

But back to the naming issue. I have a simple proposal. Let’s just go with the moniker favored by locals: “The Mountain.” I mean, come on, like you know, it’s the most totally awesome mountain so why shouldn’t we acknowledge this with the name. Plus, The Mountain is one of the few local weather terms we have, as in we all know that when someone says the “The Mountain is out,” we have relatively clear skies.


Lots of fun responses to my Horse piece last week, which my brother called my “Mr. Ed” story. Someone asked about drinking fountains for horses. I don’t know of any. Anyone? Another reader told me that older sewer tunnels were oval-shaped to be high enough for the horses that dragged out the excavated dirt. And, I forgot to mention the old fire station on north Beacon Hill, which housed horses to pull fire engines. In 1910 the city Department of Health and Sanitation sent a terse note to the fire chief that Fire Station’s 13 manure piles and storage were not up to snuff. The chief also got in trouble for keeping chickens in the basement. I doubt modern fire chiefs get similar notes.


And, finally, a wonderful note from someone who read Homewaters. “You did a great job and should be proud of the book. I learned a huge amount, and even better I really felt something about Puget Sound I never did before, the sense of it as a living breathing entity. You brought it to life.”