The Legendary Climbers and Explorers Who Shaped Washington’s Wilderness

And the feud that followed them to their graves.


There are those legends, the Ed Abbeys and Fred Beckeys and Yvon Chouinards of the world, that define what it means to be an outdoor person. We hold images of them–Beckey hitchhiking with a sign penned “will belay for food,” Chouinard wild and rambling down the Pacific Coast–in our minds as if they were the patron saints of dirtbaggery, conservation, and heart for wild places. Growing up in Washington State, however, two lesser-known names figured prominently in my introduction to the outdoors.

Bob and Ira Spring photographed the spiral-bound wildflower guide I still religiously carry with me on summer hikes in the Cascades, carefully documented hundreds of trails in the state for best-selling guidebooks that opened up Washington’s wilderness areas to thousands of new-to-the-outdoors hikers, and contributed to the original edition of the mountaineer’s bible, Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills. They were a part of a broader community of mountaineers and hikers who doubled as writers and photographers in the Pacific Northwest, but their thoughtful photography and the light-hearted, relatable, and informative writing accompanying that work sets them apart. In cohort with people like Harvey Manning, a writer and activist who penned many of the guidebooks they shot photos for, they helped protect Washington’s wilderness and trails and opened it to a huge community of day-hikers and future mountaineers (including yours truly). That very accessibility, however, was the source of a rift between Manning and the Springs that would follow them to their grave.

Bob and Ira Spring were twin brothers who fell in love with the mountains during a childhood on the Olympic Peninsula. Born in 1918, they were just 20 years older than Washington’s first national park–Rainier–and wouldn’t see the Olympics protected as a national park until 1938. Their passion for wild lands came well before outdoor recreation was even close to the booming industry it is today. The self-inflicted suffering concordant with pursuits like mountaineering hadn’t come into vogue just yet, thanks to the fact that “frontier life” wasn’t yet a distant memory. Willfully dismissing creature comforts when real life involved regular, nature-induced hardship, wasn’t all that popular. But for the Spring brothers, escaping into the lush wilderness of Washington state wasn’t just recreation. It was a spiritual pursuit, a chance for what Ira Spring called “green-bonding,” a term meant to evoke the type of bonding a young animal does with its mother in its formative days. In the case of green-bonding, however, Spring was talking about the bond a human being feels for our natural surroundings and the powerful conservationist spirit that creates.

Ira first started shooting photos with a free Kodak camera sent out to 12-year-olds as a promotion in 1930–Kodak’s 50th anniversary–and quickly fell in love with the art, which neatly fit into his love for exploration and beautiful places. He shot photos through high school as an employee of Mt. Rainier National Park and abroad after he was drafted in 1942. When he returned from war, he and Bob–who had been independently developing his own craft and passion–were determined to make it as freelance photographers. They shared everything, including a tiny homemade darkroom, a child-portrait studio in Queen Anne that doubled as a two-unit home for the twins and their wives, Norma (Bob’s wife) and Pat (Ira’s). Their work wouldn’t have been possible without Norma and Pat, who accompanied them on many of their hikes, helped manage their business, and wrote stories to accompany the photos in the early years. The families scrambled to make ends meet, selling photos to organizations and publications like The Seattle Times, LIFE, and The Mountaineers, and spent all their free time on the trails of Washington State, embodying a unique combination of the dirtbag and the starving artist.

Bob and Ira eventually started working independently when Bob began to take more out-of-state assignments, and though their finances diverged, they continued to publish all their work under their shared moniker. Ira found a new partner in Harvey Manning, a legendary figure in Washington’s outdoor community. The founder of Mountaineers Books and editor of Freedom of the Hills, Manning was an irascible, stubborn environmentalist and writer. Between him and Ira, their knowledge of the Pacific Northwest’s wildlands was unmatched.

The Springs published their first guidebook, 100 Hikes in Washington, in 1966, which was authored by Louise B. Marshall, founder of Signpost magazine, and published in a small run by The Mountaineers. The book sold out in three weeks, and the trails featured exploded in popularity. In an effort to alleviate the newfound traffic and to satiate the burgeoning community of hikers in the Pacific Northwest, the Springs and Manning immediately set to work on their next book. They would go on to document 450 trails in the Pacific Northwest in their 100 Hikes series, giving an army of wilderness lovers and outdoor athletes the information they needed to explore well before the days of slick trail websitesmountaineering forums, and apps.

Ira, Pat, and Manning hiked every trail they wrote about, including summits of many of the Cascades and Olympics stunning peaks, falling ever more deeply in love with the lands around them. They each worked tirelessly as activists for the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, fighting for the preservation and funding of trails, the protection of more wild land, and education for the general public about ecology, backcountry skills, and proper stewardship. Their books weren’t all guidebooks, though. They included vibrant photography collections of early climbers, my beloved aforementioned wildflower guide, and a good-natured autobiography.

Ira’s true love, though, was the trails. He believed green-bonding was the key to broader environmentalism, and that the public would only be motivated to protect their lands if they could experience them. You could call this a passion for wilderness “shallows”–accessible places curated for human recreation.

Manning, on the other hand, was a warrior for wilderness “deeps”–places inaccessible to all but the most dedicated of humans, places protected from the environmental hardships brought by hundreds of hikers and their noise, trash, and inevitable “traces,” even with the most diligent of Leave No Trace tactics. He eventually publicly discredited Ira and what he deemed his misguided activism, claiming he cared more about the people experiencing wildlands than the wildlands themselves.

Spring and Manning died never having reconciled their differences, despite Ira’s attempts to mend their frayed relationship. Both men left behind a powerful legacy. Manning is in large part responsible for the creation of North Cascades National Park, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, and Cougar Mountain Regional Park. Spring co-founded, with Louise Marshall, the Washington Trails Association, an influential organization that advocates for trails and conservation in Washington and that has created an invaluable resource for hikers and climbers in their comprehensive guide to trails in Washington State. In his last years he established the Spring Trust for Trails, which continues to fund trail building and restoration in the Pacific Northwest today.

The debate that separated these founding fathers of Washington’s outdoor community is acutely relevant as the outdoor industry continues to grow. Should well-trodden wilderness be made less accessible to human visitors? Do everyday hikers truly become champions for the outdoors after connecting with Mother Nature? And perhaps most importantly, what’s the most ethical, sustainable way to share our most treasured experiences and places in the outdoors?

Photo: High Worlds, by Bob and Ira Spring.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Chris KING
    Reply

    I enjoy these protected places that generations before us decided we’re worth preserving. Thanks

  • Stuart
    Reply

    I have hiked throughout the Olympic Peninsula and the Elwha/Quinault divide and never knew of the Spring brothers-
    This article made me appreciate this beautiful area even more…

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