Many talented educators pursue careers in areas other than education. Such is certainly the case for Alma Wagen Whitacre, a high school math teacher who was also enjoyed an illustrious career as a mountain climber and national parks guide.
Alma was born in 1878 on her grandparents’ farm in Mankato, Minnesota. As a young child, she discovered a fierce desire to climb, and because there were no mountains near her home, she began to climb local windmills. This earned her the nickname of “the windmill climber.”
After high school, Alma attended the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1903. She then moved to Tacoma, Washington, where she accepted a position as a math teacher at Stadium High School. Just about every minute she was not in the classroom, she climbed in the nearby North Cascades and Olympic Mountains.
In 1913, Alma became an official member of the Mountaineers, a nonprofit outdoor recreation, education, and conservation group founded in 1906. The next year, she traveled to Glacier National Park where she discovered a passion for national parks. The following year she climbed Mount Rainier for the first time. In 1916, the intrepid math teacher spent the summer hiking in Yellowstone National Park, and in 1917, she climbed Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood with the Mountaineers. It was during one of these climbs that Alma nearly lost her life. In the June, 1922, Sunset Magazine, it was recounted that, “When well up to the summit of Mount Hood, a small boulder, loosened by the melting snow, came bounding down the steep declivity, (and) struck Miss Wagen upon the back just above one hip. The pain and shock were terrific, but the girl, clutching the rope desperately, saved herself a fall that would have meant death.”
When the United States became involved in World War I, many mountain guides volunteered for the service. To partially fill this personnel shortage, Alma joined the National Park Service as a guide in 1918. She was the first woman to become a guide in Mount Rainier National Park. She spent her work hours as a guide leading tourists on hikes to nearby glaciers. Joseph Hazard, Rainier’s chief climbing guide at the time, once described the teacher as “one of the best guides in the employ of the company.” She also worked in Yosemite National Park briefly in 1922 before returning to Rainier.
Alma had come to the Northwest wearing a jaunty Tyrolean hat decorated with a pheasant feather. Her hat and feather became her trademark as a guide. The rest of her outdoor clothing was warm and practical for use in uncertain weather conditions. The weather did not dampen her enthusiasm for climbing, however. In an interview appearing in the April 18,1923, Tacoma News Tribune, Alma declared, “I wanted to get up among the clouds and to feel myself as free as the birds and the air, and to be able to shout my freedom as loudly as I liked without having someone point to me sadly and say ‘It is not pretty for little girls to climb windmills.'”
Alma retired from her career as a mountain guide following her marriage to Horace J. Whitacre in Tacoma. After he passed away in 1950, she moved to Claremont, California, where she lived until her death on December 7, 1967.