Fay Fuller, Mt. Rainier & a Story Is Born
By Jamie McGillen
As I walked into the Washington State History Museum for a Poetry Festival two years ago, a life-sized image immediately caught my eye. It was a photo of Fay Fuller standing on a rocky ledge of Mount Rainier in August 1890. She was the first woman to summit, which opened the floodgates for many after her, and fairly quickly. It just took that one person to break the mold—to just plain choose not to conform to social norms.
So, I decided to jump into that world, explore the history, and ultimately write a completely fictional account of what it might have been like for a woman in that time to dare to summit Mount Rainier.
My overall goal with Anna’s story was to portray the magic of a woman doing something that only men had done in the past, especially when the odds were against her and she risked not being accepted …
In Sight of the Mountain: The Birth of a Book
It was an interesting time in Seattle. In the decades before, families had been pioneering across the U.S. and women were not only allowed, but expected, to be tough and handle the hardships. Yet, as the West became more civilized, and Seattle went from a small frontier town to a bustling city, women were expected to go back into their place, their appropriate sphere—the home.
My story, In Sight of the Mountain, begins just as the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 takes out the majority of the business district. And in the aftermath of that, the main character—Anna Gallagher—has to navigate the pressures of being expected to marry soon, while their family bookstore struggles to stay afloat. But what she really wants to do is summit the mountain.
So, the book follows her journey as she secretly trains to become a mountaineer, and also falls in love with a man who wants her to wait and summit with him. Ultimately, she has to decide what matters most to her, all the while wondering if she’ll even survive the glaciers, avalanches, and icy temperatures.
When I was researching, I found an 1889 article from the Seattle Times (written by a man) saying that hiking could ruin a woman’s ability to perform household duties and I laughed out loud. So, I had to put that in the book—have Anna discover the same article and just shake her head.
She also has the realization that even though no woman had summited Mount Rainier, according to the best written records available to her, it was unlikely that no woman had previously done it. Just because European settlers had arrived in the last hundred years or so, didn’t mean that First Nations people hadn’t been climbing that thing for thousands of years. The truth is we don’t know who the first woman to summit Mount Rainier was, but we celebrate Fay Fuller because we do have that record, and the iconic photo.
And that was another aspect of Seattle history I wanted to highlight in the story, the indigenous people of the area, and the tribe that Chief Seattle himself came from. In the story, Anna’s grandfather forbids her from spending time with the Duwamish. But Anna rarely does as she’s told, and she befriends a Duwamish woman who gives her a special book that ultimately starts her on the journey toward the mountain.
My overall goal with Anna’s story was to portray the magic of a woman doing something that only men had done in the past, especially when the odds were against her and she risked not being accepted like the trailblazing hero that she was. And I also wanted to portray the internal struggles of what it must have felt like for the women in that generation. The ones who watched their mothers and grandmothers chopping wood and hunting, only to have more feminine expectations imposed on them as Seattle society developed.
But feminist movements have always been two steps forward and one step back. There are so many real-life trailblazers who have been the first to summit mountains, and one that was recently brought into the limelight is Junko Tabei. She was the first recorded woman to summit Mount Everest in 1975 and Google recently celebrated her September birthday by creating a graphic on their homepage.
Now that women are celebrated for their adventures and record-breaking awesomeness, I hope that young women today have the opportunity to hear about their heroic stories.
-Jamie McGillen teaches English Composition at Highline College. Her poems and essays have been published in numerous literary journals. Her debut historical fiction novel IN SIGHT OF THE MOUNTAIN is now available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XGD7C4Y.