Ski Descent of the N Face of Spickard
  Cascade Steeps  
  by Lowell Skoog  

Ski mountaineering has a history as rich as that of alpine climbing but much less well documented. As climbing in the Northwest has mirrored development in other ranges—with advancements in equipment, techniques and ambition—so too has ski mountaineering. During the past twenty-five years, ski mountaineering in the Cascades has entered a phase that began earlier in the Alps and has spread to other North American regions. Skiers are pursuing steep, technical descents, often on classic mountaineering routes, where judgment of terrain and snow conditions is critical and the consequences of a fall can be as serious as in climbing.

Ski descent of the Mt. Shuksan summit pyramid.Photo by Lowell Skoog.
Ski descent of the Mt. Shuksan summit pyramid. Enlarge
© Lowell Skoog.
Slowly at first, Cascade skiers dabbled in steeper terrain—intermittently, cautiously, and in isolation from each other. But in the last decade, due to better equipment, changing attitudes, greater communication, and a new generation of skiers, the floodgates have burst open. In the past seven years, more new steep descents have been made in the Washington Cascades than in the previous twenty. Northwest ski mountaineering has passed through several stages—from infancy to the conquest of the volcanic peaks in the 1930s and 1940s; consolidation and the scouting of wilderness summits in 1950s and 1960s; resurgence and the pioneering of remote high routes in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, we have entered a period of unprecedented growth in the number of skiers and a Golden Age of pioneering steep ski descents. This article will trace the development of Cascade steep skiing from the earliest days through 2003. Since many of the descents I’ll mention have never been recorded before, and since I’m continuing my research with the goal of writing a book on the first century of Cascade ski mountaineering, I hope this article will help bring other reports to light.

Records of ski mountaineering in the Cascades are sketchier than those of climbing. It is possible that on just the right day, with just the right conditions, early skiers made some remarkable descents that were never recorded. A few surviving accounts hint at the possibilities. In 1931, Hjalmar Hvam, Andre Roch and Arne Stene made the first ski ascent of Mt. Hood. Whether they skied from the actual summit is unknown, and authorities such as Lou Dawson in his book Wild Snow doubt it. Yet if anyone could have skied from the top in those days it was these men. Hjalmar Hvam was the Silver Skis champion on Mt. Rainier in 1936. During the same year, he entered the Washington Ski Club’s four-way competition at Mt. Baker—cross-country, slalom, downhill, and jumping—and won every event. Andre Roch became one of the most accomplished climbers and ski mountaineers of the twentieth century, best known for his Swiss avalanche work and for pioneering the route to the South Col of Mt. Everest in 1952, a year before the successful climb by Hillary and Tenzing.

In 1933, Paul Gilbreath and J. Wendell Trosper skied up and down Little Tahoma, using skis to within eight feet of the top. In The Challenge of Rainier, Dee Molenaar wrote (with considerable understatement) that this was “a delicate feat considering the high angle of the upper several hundred feet of the peak.” 1933 was a big snow year in the Cascades and these men were just the sort required for such a feat. Gilbreath later became a two-time winner of the Silver Skis race. Trosper, in addition to being a Silver Skis competitor, was the first man to climb Mt. Rainier by ten different routes. First-rate skiers and climbers pursued ski mountaineering in those early years, and these ascents on Mt. Hood and Little Tahoma suggest that they may have accomplished more than we commonly give them credit for.

Sylvain Saudan relaxes following his descent of the Newton Clark Headwall on Mt. Hood in March, 1971. Photo by Mel Olmstead.
Sylvain Saudan relaxes following his descent of the Newton Clark Headwall on Mt. Hood in March, 1971. © Mel Olmstead.
Without dismissing the potential achievements of the early skiers, we can pinpoint the beginning of the modern era of steep descents in the Cascades precisely. On March 1, 1971, Swiss mountaineer Sylvain Saudan skied from the summit of Mt. Hood by the Newton Clark Headwall. Saudan was the best-known of the Europeans developing the sport of “extreme skiing,” descending classic snow and ice climbing routes in the Alps on skis. Saudan promoted himself as “The Skier of the Impossible” and was famous for one of his training methods—skiing down talus slopes without the benefit of snow. Starting in 1967, he had made a half-dozen major descents in the Alps, including the Gervasutti Couloir on Mont Blanc and the west face of the Eiger. He came to Mt. Hood expressly to make the first descent of its kind in North America.

Saudan’s attempt was delayed by illness and a blizzard that dumped five feet of snow on the mountain. Waiting at Mt. Hood Meadows for two weeks, he studied potential routes on the peak on a topographic map. When the weather cleared he was whisked by helicopter to the summit and completed his descent, which was covered prominently by the Northwest skiing press. Saudan’s feat preceded by three months the more widely publicized ski descent by Bill Briggs of the Grand Teton in Wyoming. Yet, neither descent was really the first of its kind in North America. That distinction belongs to Brooks Dodge, who during the late 1940s and early 1950s pioneered a dozen ski descents in Tuckerman Ravine, New Hampshire, including gullies that exceeded 50 degrees. Dodge’s achievements were generally unknown outside of New England.

Three years after Saudan’s visit, a young local skier, Brian Raasch, repeated the Newton Clark descent. But the seed planted by Saudan lay dormant for almost a decade before it began to take root. In May, 1980, Dan Davis, a veteran Northwest climber who had made first ascents of the north face of Mt. Robson in Canada and the north peak of Mt. Index in the Cascades in winter, skied from the summit of Mt. Rainier to the Nisqually River bridge via the Fuhrer Finger. Davis was accompanied by Tom Janisch and Jeff Haley, who also skied the Finger, starting somewhat below the summit. This, the first new ski route on Rainier in almost two decades, went unreported for years. But as Davis and friends were quietly returning to Seattle, on the other side of the mountain two men were approaching Rainier with even bigger plans.

Chris Landry, of Aspen, Colorado, and Doug Robinson, of Bishop, California, had met earlier that spring at an outdoor industry trade show in Las Vegas. There they hatched the idea for their expedition and lined up a few sponsors. They approached Mt. Rainier hauling a sled and 200 pounds of gear, including two pairs of boots each and two pairs of downhill skis for Landry. On May 6, they warmed up by skiing the Emmons Glacier, with Robinson making what he believed to be first ski descent of Rainier on three-pin bindings. Then they circled the mountain to the north, waiting out a blizzard for several days. On May 12, they climbed Liberty Ridge, the classic north-side route on Rainier, and Landry completed its first ski descent. Robinson descended the route on foot to take photos.

Chris Landry skis the upper slopes of Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier in May 1980. © Doug Robinson.
Chris Landry skis the upper slopes of Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier in May 1980. © Doug Robinson.
Landry described Liberty Ridge as “definitely the finest descent I’ve ever done and well worth the two years of preparation.” Remarkably, the descent was repeated just three years later by visiting skiers Tom Carr and Eric Hendren using telemark ski gear. Most skiers who considered descending such routes felt, as Landry did, that alpine ski gear was essential. Landry descended Liberty Ridge on Rossignol FP downhill skis carefully sharpened and hauled up the mountain “taped together with a paper spacer, only taking them out the morning of the descent.” His skis were mounted with Marker M5 bindings set to “Race” and he switched from climbing boots to alpine ski boots before starting down. Alpine touring equipment in the 1980s was poorly suited for such descents (telemark gear was even more poorly suited) and few skiers were motivated to work as hard as Landry had, carrying all the extra gear, to make subsequent descents.

Chronology before 1990
A different era is presented on each page of this article. Not every descent listed is “steep” and not every steep descent is listed. These are selected noteworthy routes. Except for the Newton Clark Headwall, no Mt Hood descents are listed here, due to incomplete research. Routes mentioned in the accompanying article are indicated with an asterisk.

• 1971, March 1
Mt Hood, Newton Clark Headwall
Sylvain Saudan*
• 1979, April 28
Mt Stuart, Cascadian Couloir
Eric and Kurt Feigl
• 1980, May 3
Mt Rainier, Fuhrer Finger
Dan Davis, Jeff Haley, Tom Janisch*
• 1980, May 12
Mt Rainier, Liberty Ridge
Chris Landry*
• 1981, March 1
Mt Shuksan, North Face
Jens Kieler, Gordy Skoog*
• 1981, April 19
Eldorado Peak, True Summit
Jens Kieler, John Mueller, John Waldrop, Gordy Welsh, Craig Wicklund*
• 1983, April 16
Del Campo Peak, North Face
Jens Kieler*
• 1985, March 13
Whitehorse Mountain, NW Glacier
Jens Kieler*
1985, spring
Robinson Mountain, East Cirque
Sprague Ackley, Hope Barnes*
1985 (circa)
Cannon Mountain, NE Couloir
Gordon Briody, Rob Harris
• 1985, May 19
Mt Fury, SE Glacier
Jens Kieler, Carl and Lowell Skoog*
• 1985, spring
Mt Rainier, Kautz Glacier
Dale Farnham*
1987 (circa), spring
Mt Shuksan, Summit Pyramid
Steve Vanpatten, Jim Witte*
1988, spring
Mt Rainier, Gibraltar Chute
Dale Farnham*
• 1989, March
Oval Peak, North Couloir
Sprague Ackley, Hope Barnes*


The original version of this article wrongly stated that Sylvain Saudan's 1971 Mt. Hood descent was of the Wy’east Route. A more careful review of sources indicates that he skied the Newton Clark Headwall. The article has been corrected.

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