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Glacier’s Rich History of Mountaineering
New exhibit in Columbia Falls highlights climbing in the park
Hans Reiss, Dorothy Pilley and unidentified climber on Grinnell Point, 1926. - Courtesy photo by Ray Bell.
COLUMBIA FALLS – The photo is stunning. Three rock climbers, dressed picturesquely old-fashioned and wearing no helmets, gaze up toward the summit of Grinnell Point in Glacier National Park. The climber in the middle, Dorothy Pilley, is calm, if not stoic.

In the background is the sprawling vista of one of America’s most beautiful national parks. Yet the eye comes back to Pilley, the photo’s centerpiece. Here she is, in the midst of scaling 25 peaks in 19 days and dangling from a rocky mountainside, and she couldn’t seem more relaxed.

The photo, taken by Ray Bell in 1926, is featured in an exhibit called “Mountaineering in Glacier National Park” at the Glacier Discovery Square in Columbia Falls. The exhibit’s grand opening is Saturday July 30 during Heritage Days.

After that, the public will be able to view the showcase Tuesdays through Fridays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. or by request outside of those hours. Hours will be extended on Thursdays for the farmers’ market. The project is the result of a partnership between First Best Place, Glacier Mountaineering Society and Northwest Historical Society.

Barry Conger, executive director of First Best Place, said the exhibit is the second in an ongoing series to highlight the region’s history and outdoor lifestyle. The first in the series featured Joe Cosley, a legendary Glacier Park outlaw.

The Cosley display moved on to the Museum at Central School in Kalispell, as will the mountaineering show after spending a year in Columbia Falls. The next exhibit, starting in the summer of 2012 at Glacier Discovery Square, will focus on the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.

“It’s part of a long-range effort to make sure we preserve local history,” Conger said.

Along with photographs, from the 1920s up until recently, the exhibit also displays historical mountaineering equipment, newspaper clippings highlighting climbing achievements and information pertaining to Glacier Mountaineering Society, which is celebrating its 30-year anniversary.

According to its website, Glacier Mountaineering Society, founded in 1981, “is a group of people dedicated to the mountain environment of Glacier National Park, Waterton National Park and the Northern Rockies of Montana and Alberta.” These mountaineers are “motivated to experience, explore and protect and the varied landscapes of the region.”

Among the pieces on display are Glacier Mountaineering Society’s annual journals, which come out each spring and provide schedules of the group’s planned climbs, among other information. The society includes a range of mountaineers, from beginners who simply enjoy hiking to hardcore technical rock climbers.

“The Glacier Mountaineering Society provides people the opportunity to get off trail in the park,” Larry Hiller, a society member who was instrumental in organizing the exhibit, said.

There is a strong mountaineering community in the Flathead Valley, most of whom share an affinity for Glacier National Park, Hiller said.

“The people who do it develop a great affection for Glacier,” Hiller said. “It’s that close proximity and that concentration of peaks.”

But it’s not just locals who seek out Glacier, as shown at the exhibit. Pilley, who climbed all across the world and was known for mountaineering in the Alps, embarked on her Glacier adventure just a few years after Norman Clyde first famously spent more than month in the park.

In 1923, Clyde climbed 36 peaks in 36 days in Glacier, including many first ascents. Clyde returned to climb in 1924 and 1937 and is featured in a section of the exhibit.

No regional mountaineering showcase would be complete without the late J. Gordon Edwards, the famed climber who authored “A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park.” That book has been the Glacier climber’s standard for 50 years. Edwards passed away in 2004 but his legacy lives on both through his enduring influence and now at the exhibit.

Edwards, Clyde and Pilley all shared the same spirit of adventure seen in many of Glacier Mountaineering Society’s members today. Hiller knows about this spirit.

“I don’t know if you want to call it an addiction,” Hiller said of mountaineering, “but I guess that’s what it is.”

For more information on the exhibit at Glacier Discovery Square, contact First Best Place at (406) 892-1363 or by email at barry@firstbestplace.org. It’s free but donations are encouraged.
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