Hazard Stevens was right. After returning from Mount Rainier in 1870, Stevens predicted that some folks would remain skeptical that he and fellow climber Philemon Van Trump had been the first to reach the summit.
Nearly 130 years later, there's more doubt than ever.
Indians may have reached the top centuries before any European explorer even set eyes on the peak. In the 1850s, by some accounts, as many as three groups of white climbers made the summit.
Stevens and Van Trump's successful 1870 climb put their names in most history books. But they may have simply been the first to climb the mountain, accurately describe summit features, safely return, tell their story - and be believed.
Even then, some maintain that the pair didn't go all the way to the tippy-top.
Debates over who stood atop what peak first are as old as the sport of climbing. Historically, a climber's claim is believed unless proven a lie.
"Mountaineering's always been sort of on an honor system. Some things just become accepted," said Michael Benge, editor of Climbing magazine.
So who climbed Mount Rainier first?
Human presence in the Puget Sound area can be traced back at least 10,000 years. Few believe early inhabitants ventured to Mount Rainier's summit, and no archaeological evidence suggests any climbs before the arrival of white settlers.
Still, some concede an early inhabitant could have caught summit fever.
"It just seems possible, in the centuries that Native Americans were living in the shadow of the mountain, that at some point some bold soul might have ventured higher and higher and then made it," said Peter Potterfield, co-author of "Selected Climbs in the Cascades."
Potterfield has his doubts, though, as do many people familiar with native beliefs. Nisqually tribal member Cecelia Svinth Carpenter said natives considered Rainier's upper slopes a holy area guarded by spiritual forces best left undisturbed.
"It was that the mountain was a creation of the creator, and that when he finished creating these mountains he put his forces in power to guard the top of the mountain," said Carpenter, author of "Where the Waters Begin: The Traditional Nisqually Indian History of Mount Rainier."
"We feared these forces," Carpenter said, "but by fearing them we respect them and give them their area."
Indian lore recounted by whites offered frightening tales of what lurked high on Rainier. Stevens and Van Trump's Indian guide, a tall Yakama hunter named Sluiskin, tried to dissuade the pair from a summit attempt with descriptions of what they would encounter.
Sluiskin said Rainier "was an enchanted mountain, inhabited by an evil spirit, who dwelt in a fiery lake on its summit. No human being could ascend it, or even attempt its ascent, and survive," Stevens wrote in "The Ascent of Takhoma," an account of their feat printed in 1876 in The Atlantic Monthly.
"At first, indeed, the way was easy," Stevens wrote, paraphrasing Sluiskin. "The broad snowfields, over which he had so often hunted the mountain goat, interposed no obstacle, but above them the rash adventurer would be compelled to climb up steeps of loose, rolling rocks.
"The upper snow slopes, too, were so steep that not even a goat, far less a man, could get over them. And he would have to pass below lofty walls and precipices whence avalanches of snow and vast masses of rock were continually falling.
"Moreover, a furious tempest continually swept the crown of the mountain, and the luckless adventurer, even if he wonderfully escaped the perils below, would be torn from the mountain and whirled through the air by this fearful blast. And the awful being upon the summit, who would surely punish the sacrilegious attempt to invade his sanctuary - who could hope to escape his vengeance?"
Stevens and Van Trump encountered nearly all the terrors predicted by Sluiskin. Climbing historians consider it possible that Sluiskin's description was based on accounts from people who had visited the summit long ago.
"There are legends that allude to that high, high landscape in sort of cryptic ways, and for that reason I don't think it can be totally discounted," Potterfield said.
White explorers and settlers in the 1800s were less concerned with violating spiritual taboos and more intent on standing atop an unclimbed peak.
In 1852, the Olympia newspaper Columbian reported that three men - Robert Baily, Sidney Ford and John Edgar - went high up Rainier in the hope of scouting a good route across the Cascades.
The story did not state that the men had actually reached the summit. Yet, a half-century later, historians interviewing Benjamin Franklin Shaw, a well-respected Washington Territory pioneer, learned that Shaw claimed to have been on the climbing trip. Historian George Himes wrote:
"While Col. Shaw does not claim to have been on the highest point, he does say that 'no other points seemed higher than the one whereon his party stood.' "
Most now believe the group was a few hundred feet shy of the true summit. Shaw's narrative doesn't describe features of the topmost point that surprised later summit visitors.
Just such a description casts the most doubt on who got atop Rainier first.
In 1915, historian Lucullus McWhorter interviewed an aging Yakama chief named Sluskin - sometimes spelled Saluskin, but no relation to the Sluiskin who led Stevens and Van Trump - who said he guided two men who claimed to have reached the summit.
Chief Sluskin told McWhorter of two white men who visited his tribe in June 1854 or 1855, after treaties had been signed in Walla Walla.
The pair, who did not give their names but called themselves "Governor Stevens' boys," said they were surveying the treaty boundary of the Yakama Indian Reservation and needed a guide to Mount Rainier. Some suspect that the pair might have been prospectors posing as surveyors.
Sluskin told of how he led the two up the mountain to a point in the vicinity of what likely was Mystic Lake. At daybreak, the two stuffed some lunch in their pockets, slipped on boots with spikes on the heel and toe and headed up the glaciers.
They returned after dark the same day.
"The white men told me they went on top of mountain," Sluskin recalled. "They said, 'Ice all over top, lake in center, and smoke coming out all around like sweathouse.'"
Chief Sluskin, known for his honesty, had little reason to make up the tale. Most Rainier historians focus on whether the unknown climbers told the truth.
The pair's description gives their summit claim its weight. The "smoke" they saw - likely the wispy steam that seeps from beneath the snow in the summit crater - is visible only on the summit.
"Their accurate description of the crater and of steam vents inside the rim leaves little doubt they reached the top," wrote Dee Molenaar in his book "The Challenge of Rainier," a chronicle of climbing on the peak.
Others are skeptical. Many believe it unlikely that two people could climb 8,800 vertical feet from Mystic Lake to the summit, make surveying observations and return the same day - all while traveling on a crevasse-riddled route they had never before explored.
Still others wonder why the first pair to climb to the summit would keep their success a secret.
Climber Fred Beckey's "Cascade Alpine Guide" lists first ascents of the peaks it describes. Beckey notes the unknown pair but doesn't award them any honors: "In the absence of further verification, the cautious historian should maintain skepticism here," he wrote.
Others credit August V. Kautz with reaching the summit, in 1857. The Army lieutenant made his climb by way of the glacier that would later bear his name.
Kautz set off trailed by two fellow soldiers stationed at Fort Steilacoom, a physician and a Nisqually guide. They climbed to about 14,000 feet, turning back largely because the hour was growing late.
Kautz wrote that the party "reached what may be called the top, for although there were points higher yet, the mountain spread out comparatively flat."
His own admission that he could see "points higher yet" settles most arguments, and modern historians believe Kautz had about 400 feet left to climb.
Thirteen years would pass before Stevens and Van Trump would make their successful summit climb. Although they may not have been the first to climb Rainier, they did something no others had done before.
They got people to believe them.
Stevens was a highly decorated Civil War officer and the son of Isaac Stevens, the first territorial governor of Washington. Van Trump was a former gold prospector who came to Washington Territory in 1867. They shared an obsession with Mount Rainier and spent years planning a climb.
They set out from Olympia on Aug. 8, 1870, accompanied by Edmund Coleman, an avid climber who two years before had been the first to summit Mount Baker. Coleman was 47, Van Trump 30 and Stevens 28.
In Yelm, they enlisted James Longmire's pack horses for the trip along the trail Longmire blazed in 1861. Near Bear Prairie, Longmire handed the trio off to Sluiskin.
The three climbers followed Sluiskin toward the mountain. Coleman fell behind and later lost his heavy pack as the party took an indirect path over steep ridges in the Tatoosh range. The others decided Coleman must have turned back.
Stevens wrote that Sluiskin's discomfort grew as they neared Mazama Ridge, where the Yakama warned them against any summit attempt. Sluiskin told Stevens and Van Trump that he would wait three days for their return, and he asked them to write a note that he could take back to Olympia explaining their fate.
"Sluiskin's manner during this harangue was earnest in the extreme, and he was undoubtedly sincere in his forebodings," Stevens recalled. "After we had retired to rest, he kept up a most dismal chant, or dirge, until late in the night."
The next morning, the three hiked 2 miles up the ridge and made camp near timberline at what today is called Sluiskin Falls. The next day, the two ate a quick breakfast and were off by 6 a.m.
"Besides our alpine staffs and creepers, we carried a long rope, an ice ax, a brass plate inscribed with our names, our flags, a large canteen and some luncheon," Stevens wrote later. They also packed gloves and goggles but left behind their coats and blankets, figuring they would return soon.
Climbing rapidly, the two passed near what today is Camp Muir and worked up a jagged rock ridge to the base of Gibraltar Rock. Dodging falling rocks, they snaked along a narrow ledge to the icy snowfield at the top of the rock.
They climbed until eventually they were on an upper dome that "rose before us like a broad, gently swelling headland of dazzling white, topped with black, where the rocky summit projected."
They slogged up to the top of the peak, waved their flags and gave three cheers.
"It was now 5 p.m.," Stevens recalled. "We had spent 11 hours of unremitted toil in making the ascent, and, thoroughly fatigued, and chilled by the cold, bitter gale, we saw ourselves obliged to pass the night on the summit without shelter or food, except our meager lunch."
Then they realized their mistake.
The broad summit's middle peak, about a mile to the northeast, looked about 200 feet higher than where they stood. They left the smaller peak (later named Point Success), crossed the intervening depression and entered Rainier's western summit crater, where the smell of sulfur led them to steam seeping from snow caves along the crater rim.
"Never was a discovery so welcome!" Stevens wrote. A cavern melted by a large vent offered warmth and shelter from the howling wind. Forty feet inside, they passed an uncomfortable night huddled near a jet of volcano-heated steam.
"We passed a most miserable night, freezing on one side, and in a hot steam-sulfur bath on the other," he wrote.
The wind was still howling at dawn, but the sky cleared a bit by 9 a.m., and they hurried to descend. First, Stevens deposited the brass plate with their names in a cleft in a boulder near the peak's highest point. They named the high point Crater Peak, but it was later renamed Columbia Crest.
They also spotted the peak's larger, eastern crater and, to the north, Rainier's third peak, which they named Peak Takhoma. It, too, would be renamed, first to North Peak and ultimately Liberty Cap.
(Stevens and Van Trump's first-hand descriptions would later prompt editor Harry M. Majors to argue in a 1985 edition of the journal Northwest Discovery that the pair never walked the final 70 feet up to Rainier's highest point. Majors argues that the honor of the first complete ascent, therefore, should go to Samuel F. Emmons and Allen D. Wilson, who reached the crest the following October. Major's argument, however, never caught on.)
The miserable Stevens and Van Trump headed back down the mountain. Just above their tree line camp, Van Trump slid 40 feet down steep snow and struck loose rock "with such force as to rebound several feet into the air," Stevens recalled. Van Trump's hands and face were badly skinned, and he had a deep gash on his thigh. With difficulty, he hobbled into camp, where Stevens made a fire and began to roast some marmot Sluiskin had killed.
As they were eating, their guide returned. Stevens wrote that Sluiskin stopped abruptly when he spied the pair, "gazed long and fixedly, and then slowly drew near, eying us closely the while, as if to see whether we were real flesh and blood or disembodied ghosts fresh from the evil demon of Takhoma."
Once convinced that the men were real, the astonished Sluiskin "kept repeating that we were strong men and had brave hearts: 'Skookum tilicum, skookum tumtum,'" Stevens recalled. "He never expected to see us again, he said, and had resolved to start the next morning for Olympia."
The party headed back, slowed by rain and Van Trump's injury. On the way they met Coleman, safe at Bear Prairie. They waited out the rain for a few days before Sluiskin, unable to find food for his family in the prairie, bid them goodbye.
Days later, Longmire's horse-drawn wagon carried the climbers victoriously through the streets of Olympia, where they were received, in Stevens' words, "like veterans returning from an arduous and glorious campaign."
They published short newspaper accounts of their ascent, and their detailed descriptions of summit features leave little doubt about their success. However, the brass plate Stevens said he left on the summit has never been found - not, at least, by any climber willing to part with it.
Even at the time of his climb, Stevens noted that his and Van Trump's claims would likely always be greeted with skepticism. As he wrote in his Atlantic Monthly article:
"An occasional old Puget Sounder will still growl, 'They say they went on top of Mount Rainier, but I'd like to see them prove it.'"