Carl Skoog Tribute - From Powdermag.comAn interview with Lowell and Gordy Skoog - By Kristopher Kaiyala
The following is the transcript of a 90-minute interview with Lowell and Gordy Skoog, two of the surviving brothers of the late photographer Carl Skoog who perished in 2005 while skiing on Argentina’s remote Cerro Mercedario (22,210ft). The interview took place on Tuesday, November 15, 2005 in Lowell’s north-Seattle home — three days after a public memorial for Carl and nearly a month after the fatal tragedy occurred. A far shorter version of this conversation ran in the February 2006 issue of POWDER magazine.
Carl was skiing down Mercedario on October 17 with long-time climbing partner Rene Crawshaw when the accident occurred. Crawshaw watched helplessly as Carl tumbled 4,500 feet to his death. Crawshaw hiked for a day and a half to find help, and then contacted Carl’s family.
Carl, 46, was a celebrated photographer whose shots graced covers and features of several well-known ski magazines, including POWDER. Once a product developer for Outdoor Research, Carl contributed greatly to ski mountaineering and ski photography, particularly near his home in the Pacific Northwest.
Lowell, 49, is currently writing a book about Washington state ski history (www.alpenglow.org/ski-history/). He also co-edits the Northwest Mountaineering Journal (www.nwmj.org). Gordy, 53, a nationally ranked freestyle skier in the 1970s, once skied in Dick Barrymore films and currently works near Seattle at www.altrec.com.
Together Carl and Lowell pioneered multi-day ski tours through the wilder sections of the North Cascades. Also among Carl’s many skiing achievements was a successful first descent of the Mowich Face on Mt. Rainer in 1997, a slope once considered nearly impossible to ski.
As Lowell, Gordy, and Carl grew older, their forays into the mountains with each other as partners grew less frequent, but their brotherly bonds remained as strong as ever.
Powder: The world knew Carl as a ski mountaineer and as a photographer, but what was he like away from the mountains?
Lowell: It’s interesting, my life with Carl was pretty much outdoors. That was kind of all we really talked about. Of course I’ve never been one to ask. I never asked about his girlfriends or anything like that. It was always about trips.
Gordy: He was a pretty private guy outside of an outdoor environment. There were the little nuances of those special relationships, we didn’t necessarily know. And his other interests, even though they weren’t mountain- or ski- or climbing-particular, they were still outdoor interests. As much as he’s known for a winter portfolio, he had this extreme interest in desert, and he had a really high interest in third-world countries and in particular there was something about South America that really connected with him.
Lowell: He liked Latin music and Merengue and things south of the border. He became pretty good at Spanish and chose to do a lot of trips down there. Carl also had a pretty strong environmental ethic. He and Gary Brill and some other photographers would go down to the desert, some place on the Colorado Plateau, where there are these wind-eroded landscapes. The ethic is that you don’t walk on those things because you can break them off. They’re so fragile. And he has a picture of some tourist who was there standing on this stuff to get a better view. I think he took a picture of the guy’s foot print which had broken some of the feature. He was very conscious when they would go to Native American sites, about not disturbing them. He also was really rabid about the whole Fee Demo thing and outdoor land management.
Powder: So Carl was politically active?
Lowell: Yeah, vocal at least.
Gordy: He was personally very active with the Fee Demo.
Lowell: When they toured around their slide show from the Mowich Face ski descent on Rainier, he actually slipped the Fee Demo into it as I remember it.
Lowell: Another thing that’s pretty hard to explain is that Carl and I shared a pretty conscious awareness of the effect that media and publicity can have on places — on places becoming overrun. We both agreed that there were some places we wouldn’t publicize. I went so far as to put in writing the philosophy behind it. The way that I justified it to myself and explained it was essentially that there are three kinds of places. There are places that everyone knows about and are easy to get to; nobody worries about the publicity for those. And there are places that, whether or not everybody knows about them, they are hard to get to; and those are kind of protected by their remoteness. Then there are the places that are actually not hard to get to but for some reason aren’t that well known. And those were the places that we decided that we wouldn’t put in our slide shows, and he wouldn’t necessarily sell pictures of those places.
People say, “Oh you’re just selfish.” But to me it came from the delight we had in this feeling of, “Wow, I’ve just discovered this place that I never knew about.” And the sense that you can help preserve that by just kind of being quiet about it; let other people discover it. It’s not like you’re hoarding it for yourself. I mean, you could look at it that way, but the other way of looking at it is why not keep some places like that, places that you can on a weekend stumble into? Doesn’t take a plane ticket, doesn’t take going around the world. And so that was part of his approach, which is a difficult balancing act for somebody whose business it is to sell pictures.
Powder: Since pictures sell a place...
Lowell: Right. And there are places, for example, in the desert Southwest where he was very careful to never — and I think this is a general ethic among people who photograph in these areas — say exactly where the photograph was taken. Because the special character of those places, especially in some of the Native and archaeological areas, can be destroyed.
Gordy: I have a personal experience that relates to that. We have in our house the classic Havasu Falls image — and it caught my attention to the point where I asked Carl questions about the place, like was it worth going to and that sort of thing. It stuck in my head for a long time to go down there. And coincidentally, it happened to be that I was down there when Carl was on Mercedario. But it was his image that drove me there. And my experience was that it was a place that was overrun, that was trashed quite a bit by hordes of people, yet, under normal circumstances would not be that easy to get to. It’s a long walk. But due to the volume of interest, the native Indians there have allowed themselves to kind of compromise their asset. They carry people’s gear down, they fly them in by helicopter. And it’s people like, well, it’s Carl’s images, in part, that have contributed to that — and the Internet, too, in making those images so readily available.
Lowell: I had a conversation with a fellow who was doing something for Backcountry magazine and we got into this subject. Fortunately he sent me what he was proposing to write and I corrected him because he said something about how Carl and I worried about the mountains being overrun as backcountry skiing became more popular. I would back up and say that wasn’t really it. It wasn’t being overrun by people. We want more people to ski, that’s cool. But it was being overrun by information. From my own experience there’s this wonderful sense of discovery you can get in backcountry skiing when you look at a map and go, “Hmmm, what’s that like?” And you find it out on your own. Carl and I called places like these our Personal Discovery Zones. It’s like, if you meet somebody out there, cool, say “Have a great day,” shake their hand, but don’t put it in a guide book and don’t put it in the “150 Secret Spots on the North Cascades Highway.” That’s essentially the book we always dreaded that someone was going to write.
Powder: Carl is fondly remembered for his quirks: habitual over-packing, his winter driving skills, his eating habits. What memories will you look back on years from now and still laugh about?
Lowell: Well, a lot of this came out at the memorial. There were certain things about food. If there was free food he could be pretty shameless.
Gordy: He was a good grazer. French fries — this cracks me up because it was so true. French fries were just a carrying vessel for ketchup.
Lowell: We called him the ketchup kid when he was a kid because he loved ketchup.
Gordy: It was about bulk, not necessarily quality.
Lowell: When he sort of went pro and spent all his time up at Mt. Baker, he and I didn’t ski together that much any more, but before that we did a lot of lift skiing together and I would always bring a lunch because I’d want to keep my energy up. I feel like I ski better. And he would never bring a lunch. Even though he ate tons in town, out in the hills he wouldn’t bring that much food or he’d just bring bagels on these hikes and mountaineering trips. And I would ask, “How do bagels sustain you?” So I would always share my lunch up at Crystal because you’ve got to have energy to ski longer. If there was free food around, he would just scarf it.
Gordy: I remember in the early days he would get this kind of longing look as he watched you eat, looking at your plate. He’d say something like, “Gee that looks good.” And that would be the end of it. Hopefully you’d get what his message was and then if you didn’t finish he’d go, “You gonna eat that? You done?” It became his joke. At outdoor shows there are free sample foods all around and I’d see him at those shows. I’d pass him in the hall and he’d have a plate in his hand and he’d say (whispering), “Yeah down there at the Danner booth they have free waffles. Head on down there.” (Laughs) He had it all scoped out.
Lowell: Yeah I ran into Dan Cauthorn (W.L. Gore rep) and I think he had the impression that Carl was really a dirt bag. (Laughter)
I told this story at the memorial, and I don’t know that anybody but my wife and I find it funny, but back when he was a ski instructor — we were all ski instructors in high school and college ...
Powder: Where at?
Lowell: Initially at Ski Acres and then Crystal. (To Gordy) Carl never taught at Sun Valley, did he?
Gordy: He went down there to teach and that’s when he got his ACL injury and he never got a chance to.
Lowell: That’s right. We all made pilgrimages to Sun Valley, spent the winter there during college. Anyway, back in high school I think it was, we were all sort of mogul bashers, skied the lifts and the moguls, and one day he came back and he had this scrape on his chin and the beginning of a shiner, and I was like, “What happened to you?” The supervisors at the ski school would come up a wacky ideas for clinics sometimes. They didn’t really want to teach so they’d just go out and ski. So one of the supervisors decided to do an aggressive skiing clinic. The idea was to get all the timid instructors out and kind of push their envelope a little. So Carl tagged along with his girlfriend at the time at this clinic. And Carl didn’t need that kind of encouragement. (Laughter) So he had totally blown out trying to be even more aggressive than he usually was.
Gordy (to Lowell): When you guys reenacted the Silver Skis there was somebody in that group that commented how it was great to see an old guard hanging in there with the young guard.
Lowell: Yeah Carl was always willing to, he was aggressive.
Gordy: Right out there in front.
Lowell: I’m working on a history book on Washington skiing and this past May I organized an informal re-running of the mass start of the Silver Skis race of 70 years ago. And instead of 60 skiers, which is totally insane, we had 18 show up and we all went up to Camp Muir [on Mt. Rainier] and we started all at once, which is really quite an experience, just to imagine what it was like with three times that many people.
Powder: From Muir to Paradise? Chinese downhill?
Lowell: Chinese downhill, all at once. So this had been done in 1934. This time we had a mix of people there, including young gung-ho guys and some of us older guys... I just kind of made easy turns, trying to go fast but not pushing it. But some of these young guys tucked it and Carl tucked it with them, he was going for it. There are some wind ripples as you get toward Panorama or Pebble Creek, and he apparently flew off of one of those and just about landed on another guy. Totally yard-saled after that. He hadn’t lost his aggressive streak.
That was funny because I didn’t even know he was coming up for that race and I’m chugging up on my really lightweight gear and there’s this guy with skis kind of sticking up out of this big pack and I was like, “Whoa that’s Carl!” (Laughs) And as we started chatting — I hadn’t seen him since Christmas or something — we started talking about his Kashmir trip. And I kind of lost the friends I’d driven up with and went up to Muir with Carl the whole way. And the funny thing is he was wearing his AT boots and he had full-on alpine boots in his pack and he was carrying alpine skis. I didn’t do anything special for racing, I just went on my touring gear. And he was hauling all this stuff with his big pack.
Gordy: Interesting he would do it that way as opposed to, say, using a Trekker or something like that.
Lowell: Yeah, I couldn’t quite figure it out. He said he found with all this heavy gear it was just as easy to walk. He’s done a lot of shooting of these guys jumping off of stuff and he’s on the same gear as they are, all the heavy gear.
Powder: So how would you describe Carl’s skiing style? What kind of gear did he use?
Lowell: He also had lighter gear. Later that month on Memorial Day, Carl and I took our last trip in the mountains together — into the Glacier Peak Wilderness — and did a ski descent. It was cool because it was the first ski descent of a route that Carl and Gordy had done the first climbing ascent of 26 years earlier. So it was a real full circle for him. And he took fairly light gear on that. He and I early on did lots of ski traverses, long tours in the Cascades. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the ’80s. You didn’t have all the choices you have now. So our gear was pretty light. But as he moved more toward descents, and especially taking pictures of these guys jumping stuff, his gear got a bit heavier.
Powder: And then he moved on to the Mowich Face on Rainier...
Lowell: That was 1997. And that remains the biggest of the descents he did and that was with a different crowd of people. He and I had done mostly overland trips, and lots of peaks along the way but we weren’t seeking out steep terrain.
Powder: So if you take how you were describing him a minute ago in the Chinese Downhill and then to a technical descent like the Mowich... What happened?
Lowell: There was a big difference between what Carl would do at a ski area with a ski patrol, and Muir is almost the same — it’s just not remote. But out in the backcountry he was quite cautious and didn’t ski with abandon at all. He knew the difference. Historically, what’s significant about Carl is that he is one of the few people I think you’ll find anywhere in the country who has made significant pioneering contributions in both the horizontal and the vertical in backcountry skiing. You have to go back to somebody like Bill Briggs to find an equivalent.
Powder: Briggs, who skied the Grand Teton...
Lowell: He did the Grand Teton and he also did the Rogers Pass to Bugaboos traverse. There have not been very many other people who’ve done pioneering in both of those styles over the years. And today, of course, ski descents are all the rage. The steeper the better. You’ll find disdain among some of the most respected ski mountaineers; they don’t even think ski traverses are ski mountaineering which, of course, I strenuously disagree with, but it gets dismissed. And Carl had done both. As he got older he was less interested in the high routes and traverses but he had done them both.
Gordy: In a defined area, an area that had a sense of control and predictability to it, like a ski area, he was a bull in a China shop. An incredibly powerful guy and he’d go for it. When he got into the backcountry he was very conservative. Very aware of the dangers and hazards outside of his control. As much as he did the steep stuff he was cautious.
Powder: Was Carl a backcountry purist in any way?
Lowell: I don’t think he ever lost his enjoyment of skiing on the lifts.
Gordy: He loved to just slide on boards.
Lowell: I find it interesting, you talk to a lot of people who go, “Oh yeah, as soon as I got into backcountry skiing I totally gave up lift skiing.” None of us have ever been that way. We’ve always enjoyed lift skiing and backcountry skiing.
Powder: Do you know when and where Carl published his first photograph?
Lowell: There might have been some early photographs with some of the companies he was working for, like Sun Dog or Outdoor Research...
Gordy: He did some early brochures.
Lowell: I think the breakthrough was when Carl and I skied the Picket Range with a friend in 1985, and in the March 1986 issue of Rock & Ice I wrote a story about it and it included mostly his pictures, and I think maybe a few of mine. And following that article, Yvon Chouinard, who was still running his company back then, asked Carl to submit pictures for his catalog. Carl did, and one of his pictures ended up becoming the cover of the catalog and Chouinard made a poster out of it.
Powder: Chouinard Equipment or Patagonia?
Lowell: Patagonia may have existed by then, but it was Chouinard Equipment that his stuff appeared in.
Gordy: Chouinard gave him his first opportunity and there’s always been this close relationship with Patagonia over the years.
Lowell (moving to his computer): This is the picture that they made a poster of that was really sort of his breakthrough picture in a way. I’m skiing on the summit of Mt. Fury in May 1985. So after his success there he got into a regular thing of submitting his pictures to catalogs — to Chouinard and other people. Before that some of his pictures had been used by the company he had been working for. And after that he was submitting all over the place. So it was a period of almost 10 years where he would continue to do his day job, which was designing outdoor gear, but more and more he was trying to get a collection of pictures that he was trying to submit.
Gordy: I was just at the Patagonia environment down in Reno last week. And this poster lives in this shrine of cover posters that they have and it caught my eye right away. There it is with all the others, the best that Patagonia has ever had. It was really cool.
Lowell: Carl wasn’t totally focused on skiing either. He started these trips to the Southwest during that period with another friend who was interested in photography. Carl was just more into it. He had a parting of ways with his employer, Outdoor Research, because he was doing more work to market his pictures. And as I remember it, he went to a trade show to market his pictures and his boss essentially said, “If you go, you don’t have a job when you come back.” They had products to develop and they had some deadlines and Carl said, “I’m going.” He basically quit his job.
Powder: When was this?
Lowell: It had to be ’95 or ’96.
Gordy: He was getting closer and closer. I recall about 13 years of taking images when he was at Outdoor Research. I could tell he was getting tugged both ways. It was kind of a wrestling match over a clause or a policy in the OR handbook. They just helped him out by saying, “It’s time for you to go off and take pictures.”
Lowell: If he had a different boss he might have taken longer to get in to photography full time.
Powder: A lot of media accounts portray Carl as a pretty quiet guy. Would you say that depiction is accurate?
Gordy: On the personal level, him sharing his deepest-most thoughts... I would say so. But in an outdoor setting with outdoor people, he was as gregarious and engaged as everybody.
Lowell: But he was never a boisterous kind of person.
Lowell: “Quiet” I think is accurate. He would be very friendly once you were out on a trip with him but he was never in your face about anything and was not pushy or loud about things.
Powder: Some photographers on ski shoots can be control freaks. “Do it this way or do it that way.” Was that his style?
Lowell: I don’t think so. He and I did trips as brothers, and I never got that impression from his pure photo partners.
Gordy: It was my understanding he never pushed a talent to do something they weren’t ready to do themselves. He was just there to capture it if they decided to do it.
Lowell: On our early trips we were compatible because we both liked to have pictures of ourselves and we both liked to take them. We had other friends who were like, “I’m just gonna go make turns.” And Carl and I, we’d be throwing snowballs, you know — “I want you right there, that’s your mark.” We’d be doing that kind of stuff and we’d get back and enjoy the pictures we got from that. Eventually he was doing less with me and doing more with these people he’d met.
Powder: You actually used the word “brother” for the first time that we’ve talked. What was it like taking risks with a brother as opposed to say just a regular partner or acquaintance?
Lowell: We never felt like we were taking a lot of risks. We always did things we felt were well under control. And our trips were not just ski trips either. We did a lot of climbing together. I think we probably would have thought the climbing trips were more dangerous just because the fall potential was higher. So no, I never felt a high degree of risks on these trips. More recently Carl and I did three pioneering steep descents, and I’m trying to think if there was any difference between the way he and I interacted and the way I and other people would have interacted... I don’t think there was really.
Powder: Was there a familiarity there, something unspoken?
Lowell: Yeah we were both always pretty comfortable with each other’s risk tolerance. I never had to think, “What’s he gonna do now? Is he gonna suggest doing something that I don’t think I want to do?”
Gordy: And I think that’s the brother-sibling side. All three of us interchanged partnerships, and it was a great day when all three of us were together because in later years it was unique. It would strike us. “Whoa when was the last time we did this?” Those partnerships — I think, because we were brothers, we had this same kind of attitude. We looked at the mountains and those experiences in the same way. There was this natural, innate understanding of what the other person was doing.
Powder: Would it be too easy to say that you guys were raised in a family and taught to see things in a similar fashion?
Lowell: Part of it has to do with what our goals were in the mountains. I think our goals were primarily aesthetics, not difficulty. We were all interested in doing pioneering, that’s exciting and adventurous. But the aesthetic was always the top motivator. That leads you to value the view and the good weather and the pretty routes and features. If we took a risk and had a near miss, at least to me that was always a negative, not a good feeling.
Gordy: And Carl was very much that way. It was always more about the view, also the rhythm and the flow of it, the grace of the turn, the feeling of that turn. Those kinds of emotions rather than bragging rights like, “I just did something that no one else has done.”
Powder: Were aesthetics the goal for all three of you? Where does that influence come from?
Lowell: I don’t know if it came from our dad, or what. We used to go hiking with our dad, but he was never into mountaineering.
Powder: You look at TGR films, for example, which are certainly in their own camp and I dare say are separate from the ideal you guys just described...
Lowell: I don’t watch those movies... (Laughs)
Gordy: I get tired of watching people jump off stuff.
Powder: I don’t know if you want to call your style “old school... ” It’s just a different thought, maybe more of an alpinism point of view. Where does that come from?
Gordy: I think it comes from the fact that we’re self-taught mountain people. And when you teach yourself you have a lot of time to think about the process you’re going through and you gain an incredible amount of respect for it, as opposed to someone who’s just thrown at it because they’re going along with somebody who says, “Hey let’s go try this.” You gain an appreciation over time.
Lowell: Another part is that our interest in mountains is fairly broad. It wasn’t just skiing, for example, and it wasn’t just climbing. You sometimes find people who focus on one or the other. They get really into that. Peak performance in their particular area is important to them. For us, all of those were enjoyable. The common element, however, was that we just liked being in the mountains.
Powder: Were the mountains always part of your upbringing?
Lowell: It was since we were kids. We have home movies of us. Our dad would introduce us to skiing. And it was skiing first, and hiking a little later. It was always when we were like five. I was a late bloomer, and I started when I was seven.
Gordy: And then there were always summers on the lake, and water skiing, playing in the water...
Lowell: Outdoor stuff all the time. But it wasn’t like our dad was some kind of outdoor jock, either.
Gordy: Family camping. We’d all get loaded up and travel and around somewhere and that was our way of seeing things.
Powder: And what of your other siblings?
Lowell: Of the six of us five certainly have been skiers, extensively. Three of us have been mountaineers. One is quite interested in sailing and has done some flying. But there’s nobody who you’d say is gonzo...
Powder: So even in his Chinese downhill days Carl wasn’t gonzo?
Lowell: No, he was going for it but he knew he had a ski patrol. (Laughs) I guess he did blow his ACL, as certainly lots of people do, but that was I think his only ski injury.
Gordy: Well and it was a fluke accident...
Powder: You can blow an ACL getting off a chairlift.
Gordy: It was almost that innocent. It was after ski school tryouts and he was going down lower Warm Springs and fell head-first sliding, coming to a stop and his ski top hit a death cookie, a little chunk of snow and that was it. And he was like, “How does that happen?”
Lowell: This was in 1987. I remember the year because he missed out on a trip I did that year.
Powder: When you guys were out doing your tours, what kinds of things did you talk about?
Lowell: A fair amount of quiet, just talking about what we’re seeing. The mechanics of what we think would be a good picture.
Gordy: Really in the moment.
Lowell: Yeah, pretty much in the moment, just enjoying where we are.
Powder: Did you do a lot of trips with the foreknowledge that there may be some media attention to what you’re doing, or this could have the makings for an article or a book?
Lowell: We did hundreds of trips that nobody has ever heard of. But, you know, why does anybody try to do pioneering trips? There are a lot of elements to it. There is the personal satisfaction of doing something no one has done before, and I think anybody gets a little bit of a warm glow from that. But especially with the high routes, there was a real aesthetic satisfaction because it was the realization of an idea: “Gee wouldn’t it be cool to go from point A to point B, and what do you think this terrain will be like when experienced on skis?” And you look at a range of mountains and when you envision a route there, suddenly it snaps into place and you’re seeing it in a different way. It’s a creative act. You start becoming a little bit of a collector. You say, “You know what, I’ve done this branch and that branch and this branch and all we need to do is that branch and we’re all the way to the Canadian border.” And so it’s a way of just extending your knowledge of an area you know well and just thinking well this would be a cool trip. It’s almost, even though it’s for yourself, it’s performance art in a way. An idea combined with great execution that has great satisfaction.
Powder: You use the word “art” which is interesting, because in a way it sounds like a couple of engineers putting a project together. Carl was a mechanical engineer, correct?
Lowell: And I’m electrical.
Powder: So do you think there’s some of that mindset that goes into it too?
Lowell: Maybe. The engineer having an eye for detail and an eye for connections... There have been traverses done in other parts of the Cascades too, particularly farther east and northeast in the Pasayten mountains, but the area that we focused on was the more glaciated part, along the spine, and it’s the area that’s most like the Alps of anywhere in the country. It’s just beautiful country. It’s just very satisfying to be able to ski through this area and take runs and bag peaks and have an extended experience out there on skis.
Gordy: Lowell, you talked about at one time finding your spirituality after you read The Power of Myth, and how that kind of helped you to understand what the spirituality of the mountains was all about. I know for me, and I have to think for Carl and you, is that why do you keep going back? And I know for me it was like going to church every weekend. When we were doing so much stuff every weekend it was like there was this refilling of your personal spirituality. And I think that’s a big part of it.
Powder: Did Carl have that side to him?
Lowell: Not overtly religious, I don’t think, but yeah there is this sense of being nourished by the experience.
Gordy: You know, there’s an emotional experience to it, whether you want to... you feel close to God or something. I don’t think we’ve been those kinds of people but I think we definitely appreciate the emotion, the filling up that it brings.
Powder: So there’s the experience, but there’s also just being there...
Gordy: Well that was probably number one before what you did. For the three of us it started as, and always has been, about the view. Being there in a place where you sit and it’s almost like, “This is for me.” This is mine for this moment, and it’s pretty powerful stuff.
Powder: Especially if you felt like these places were yours and you weren’t necessarily going to share them with the world...
Lowell: Well it wasn’t like they were ours — we discovered them. We didn’t own them, we had discovered them.
Gordy: It’s the reward of that discovery that you recognize in your leaving it. By not telling it, you’re leaving it for someone else to have that same discovery-reward. If you tell them, they can’t get the same response...
Lowell: ...they were led there by the hand.
Powder: Lowell, at some point did you and Carl say to each other, “We have something here as long as you stick with the writing and you stick with the camera?”
Lowell: Yeah, a little bit. We had some sense of that, though I guess I decided early on I didn’t want to be in the outdoor industry. I didn’t want to have that be my job.
Powder: It would take away some of the purity?
Powder: You’d just leave it to your brothers then...
Gordy: Well it does, judging from my early experience, and I think it did for Carl at some point. When it becomes your job then your passion for doing it does fade. It does become a job.
Lowell: I actually — I call it my midlife crisis — I quit my engineering job in about 1994 to be the editor of an outdoor magazine here. I’d been working for 15 years in quite a good-paying job and I had been there long enough to get lots of vacation and all these good things. And I was itching to do something. This was before Tom [Lowell’s son] was born, and I quit my job to work for this magazine. In those days I had the same very strong sense of not wanting to commodify everything, not wanting to market everything. During the first issue it just hit me straight in the face that I was going to have that conflict constantly. Fortunately the magazine went out of business. And I’d already said this isn’t going to work.
Powder: How did Carl make the two — business and art — work? Did he? Could he?
Lowell: He was able to because he wasn’t marketing all of his “precious” ... I don’t know what the word is. He didn’t have to sell his soul.
Powder: Kept a little for himself...
Gordy: Yeah. Gary Brill is a long-time ski buddy of ours and people know him usually as an avalanche instructor. He defined it quickly for me after Carl’s death. He said Carl was a purist. He was not out there doing it for self promotion. He saw it as a means to continue to be out there, being outdoors doing what he loved. He never went into photography in studio work or the classic assignment stuff. It was always passionate outdoor photography. That’s what he wanted to do. I think he was able to preserve that passion because the business of shooting pictures didn’t become exclusively that — a business.
Lowell: Part of it too — any concern about spoiling a place — a lot of his pictures were iconic. They didn’t have to be any particular place. And the ones at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, again just iconic. There’s Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker in the background. It could be anywhere in the Baker ski area. It wasn’t easy, of course, working in that small niche but he had this sense of always being torn between selling something that he didn’t think was for sale.
Gordy: Carl was very conflicted by the nature of making photography a business. Because what he wanted to do was be out there shooting pictures, but he also had to be in the office and it just tore him apart. It was really a mental battle for him.
Powder: Did he have a space at home?
Gordy: We shared a house in more recent years, and he worked out of the house.
Lowell: It became kind of chaotic. His office was his living space.
Gordy: It was kind of like the days of OR. His photography business had built to a certain magnitude that he just had to go off and do it. Well it’s kind of the way the office went, too.
Lowell: He was at a point were he really needed to do something. He needed to separate his work and his living arrangement. He hadn’t made that move like we now have to — to clean up the mess.
Powder: Was Carl after bigger and grander things for his photography? Or did he see his spot and know he should stick there? I mean, he wasn’t trying to be, say, Art Wolfe, was he?
Lowell: He did trips with Art Wolfe. He knew Art Wolfe and they did photo shoots together. So he had been exposed to somebody like that.
Powder: Would we have ever seen, or may we ever see, a huge Carl Skoog exhibit at REI?
Lowell: Maybe an exhibit...
Powder: A studio on First Avenue?
Lowell: The thing is I don’t know that he ever had the vision of, say, having a book. I think he knew what he wanted — to do trips to interesting places. And I think he was realistic enough to say that wasn’t going to produce the kind of books that you see from Art Wolfe, which tend to focus on a particular area.
Gordy: Art would probably go off with a photo theme in mind, from start to finish, but Carl went off on a trip and say, “Oh this is cool, I’ll take pictures of this.”
Lowell: More of a photo journalist.
Powder: Most of Carl’s photos contain a human figure. Did he see himself as either a portraitist or a landscape photographer?
Lowell: He did on his own take a fair amount of scenic pictures. Just nature pictures.
Gordy: The people pictures are probably more a documentation of that trip in some form. The desert images and those kinds of things are more the art side that a lot of people didn’t see.
Powder: If you’re going to sell a photo to a ski magazine you have to have a skier in it...
Lowell: I think what Galen Rowell called a “figure in a landscape”...that was a favorite kind of image for Carl. A human presence in a grand place.
Gordy: I wanted to come back to the thought of brothers in the outdoors. As much as we were of the same mindset and were each other’s preferred partners, whenever we weren’t in the same place — say Lowell and Carl were out on a trip — I was very conscious of the fact that I didn’t know what was going on. And if the timing was such that they were coming back late or whatever, I would worry — as a brother. Because I wasn’t there and had some sense of what could be going on, it bothered me when things didn’t seem to be quite right.
Powder: How about when Carl would go off like he did to Argentina, and neither of you were a part of that?
Lowell: As I mentioned at the memorial, I hadn’t even known he was in Argentina when we got the call. (To Gordy) I don’t know if you knew...
Gordy: I knew, but recently he was more private about his time and I knew he was going, but I didn’t know the intimate details of it.
Lowell: I was always pretty comfortable with his judgment. From years of experience I didn’t feel he was going to do anything crazy or stupid.
Powder: Regarding the accounts of the accident, it sounds like it was one of those things — caught an edge, whatever, something that could happen at any time or hardly ever happens...
Lowell: Clearly the terrain they were on was dangerous enough. To be able to fall as far as he did... it was steep enough to be dangerous. But it was certainly within the ability of both those guys. So yeah we don’t really know. It doesn’t sound like the snow conditions were such that it was bad judgment to be trying to ski.
Powder: Have either of you met with Rene since he came back?
Gordy: Yeah. I was very appreciative of Rene being there and what he did for us as a family and for Carl. Rene was an incredible friend and asset down there. And when he came back he showed us images of their trip and gave us the opportunity to experience it along with Carl and that was very cool. Rene has been an outstanding climbing partner and it reminds me that Carl picked a great guy to go down there with.
Powder: He’s someone you’ve known for a long time?
Lowell: We didn’t know him well. We knew of him quite a bit. I did one climb kind of by accident on Glacier Peak with him. I was with two other friends and Carl and Rene showed up at the trailhead. So we all five went up Glacier. I had a good impression of him.
Powder: Are you or anyone in your family planning to go to Mercedario?
Lowell: I think Maria might, Carl’s off-and-on girlfriend. I think she said something at the memorial about wanting to go down there.
Gordy: As I saw the pictures from Rene and Carl’s trip I thought, “Wow, looks like a cool place. I’d like to go skiing there.” And in a certain regard it’s tweaked my interest much like the Havasu Falls photo did. Here’s another circumstance where those images caused me to think about, you know, I probably need to go down there and go see what Carl was seeing, what he liked so much about it down there. He’s done it, I haven’t.
Powder: What do you think will be Carl’s legacy?
Lowell: Locally speaking I guess it would be taking adventurous, imaginative trips into interesting areas. As far as his photography, during that period — say the mid ’80s though about 2000 — Carl was taking the best pictures of anyone in the Northwest of wilderness skiing, backcountry skiing. He would go out and deliberately get pictures of people skiing among seracs, glaciers, and jumping off of cornices and stuff. He was defining the look of that decade in the Northwest, defining how people here thought about ski mountaineering and backcountry skiing. He had the most compelling pictures of it. And the people that he skied with expressed — and it was kind of touching — just how much he taught them. He was the photo guy but he was the guy with the mountaineering experience. I don’t know how much they knew it before they started skiing with him, but Carl was more experienced in the mountains than just about anyone he was shooting. I can remember, though, he was like, “You know I’m trying to get these Baker guys to go on mountaineering trips, get them to camp out.” He’d go out with me and it was kind of a relief for him because we’d go out on a mountaineering trip. I think to some extent he showed some of those guys what was possible outside the ski area, and mentored them in more of the mountaineering side of skiing.
Gordy: Here’s my legacy. The images are there, pretty clear to see. But what Carl reminds me of is living your passion. That you can do it. You don’t have to go down the everyday path like everyone else does. And when you live your passion you can be a happy, smiley guy. Yeah it can be tough, but ultimately Carl was probably the happiest guy in the world because look at what he got to do every day. So that reminds me, inspires me, to not live the ordinary everyday life, to be purposeful about it, so that’s his legacy. And when I think about South America, you know Carl, you had it right. I need to go do that. Or whatever place he had the opportunity to go to, it’s my intention to try to have those opportunities too.
Lowell: You’ve probably gotten the impression that our family is pretty straight laced or conservative — not necessarily politically, but conservative in terms of pretty mainstream lifestyles, really. And there were times certainly when my mom was kind of like, “Oh Carl, why can’t you go back to doing engineering or have a regular job, something that will give you a regular income...”
Powder: “Why can’t you be more like your brothers?”
Lowell: Yeah, sort of this sense... you know none of us are driven by money. We all have pretty normal jobs. It’s not like money makes you a success, but there is this sense of stability, and the family is fairly orthodox. And Carl wasn’t... that wasn’t his way. And we worried about him some. And yet to me the thing that’s kind of stunning, after all the outpouring of people on the Web and the emails and the cards and everything — it’s amazing how much influence he had. And I think that’s pretty profound. There’s success. When you’ve made that much of a ripple in the world, when you weren’t making a lot of money at it but... That’s success. I think that’s a different way of saying what Gordy was saying.
Gordy: And that’s what our mom has come to realize through this whole process. She was always, “Oh I wish he worked for Boeing...” But now she’s a proud parent realizing how many people he impacted and how much they cared about him even if they didn’t know him. Lowell has talked before about the power of the image, but I think for me the image gets your attention and then you find out about the person.
Lowell: A TV guy asked me why this has drawn so much widespread attention. I speculated that maybe it’s the power of images, how much they affect us. Somebody who can make great images and share great images...
Gordy: And the heart of an image is emotion. Emotion drives all our actions.
Powder: You guys are talking about the effect Carl had on others and people who’ve seen his photos, but you guys just lost a brother.
Gordy: I think of him constantly. I’m sad that I won’t have that physical presence, that buddy to share it with. He’ll go everywhere with me and we feel fortunate that Rene happened to find this compass that Carl carried with him on Mercedario and it was our dad’s compass. And this is another thing that kind of has come out of all of this. That Carl, as private as he was, he had this real connection to his family that I became more aware of.
Lowell: He didn’t always make it clear. (Laughs)
Gordy: (Laughs) No, not clear at all. But I’m definitely strongly and emotionally connected and thankful that we have this compass because it’s a symbol of that, and I certainly intend to carry it a lot of places with me, bringing Carl with me.
Lowell: Time will tell how it affects me. It’s still too soon. It’s like he’s still just on a trip and he’ll be back next week or something. It hasn’t totally sunk in to me. But he and I were always, even after Tom was born and after Carl was spending time with other friends, we would always get together a few times a year to do trips. We’d get together at family holidays and stuff, but then we’d have these trips that we’d do. So that will be the thing that I’ll miss the most because we were always so compatible and enjoyed the same kinds of things. And we’re all getting to middle age — I guess most people would say we’re well into middle age — and as I mentioned I’m working on this book which is a history book, and I’ve been talking to a lot of older people... oh this is gonna get really personal... I’ve come to realize over time that the work I’ve been doing on this history book is a bit of a father quest, it’s a bit of a filling-in. Our dad died when he was only 56. It’s a bit of a filling in of all the things I wished I could have asked him about because he was the one who got us into skiing. And part of the pleasure of talking to these people is that some of them knew him directly, but they were also his peers. And I think one of the things that over time I’m really gonna miss is that I’m not gonna grow old with Carl.
Gordy: Yeah... without a doubt.
Lowell: It was cut short.
Gordy: There are a lot more adventures out there to experience with him for sure. That’s why my solace is knowing that I’ll take him with me. He’ll always be in my heart on these trips. But what you miss is the elbow in the side, you know, knocking you down when you make a bad turn. Doing some goofy thing. And you just go, “What do you think you’re doing?” (Laughs) You don’t have that spontaneous interaction.
Lowell: It was always nice to do a trip with Carl. There was never any sort of breaking the ice or feeling each other out. You get straight into the heart of the matter which was going some place.
Gordy: That common understanding, that common philosophy and approach, it never changed. And so you could not have a trip in a year or two years, and then you take a trip and it was like no time had gone by.
Lowell: I would say the nature of our experiences together in the mountains didn’t change in 30 years. We still enjoyed the same things that we did when we started and we got better at the technical level and we got to know the mountains more and we’d go to more interesting places, but the basic character of the experience was the same for 30 years.
Gordy: And part of missing Carl is he was the best partner for both of us because of that common understanding. He was always our first choice because he was just the perfect partner. “What do you want to do? Sure I’ll go.” It was that simple.
Lowell: I think Gordy and I, being older, tended to be more the technical leads but he was just a great companion. And sort of a co-conspirator, I guess. I would hatch most of the ideas for the trips that he and I did, but he would be completely into it.
Powder: Have you given any thought to some kind of anniversary event or permanent memorial to celebrate Carl’s life?
Lowell: The other day I had this flight of fancy... The Silver Skis, the race up to Muir and down, like a rando-rally... I thought in honor of Carl everybody would have to carry 50 pounds of heavy boots. (Laughter) You’d have to go up there with this huge pack. But no, it’s not a particularly good idea.
Gordy: Come up with ketchup bottles and a bag of French fries and you have to eat that before you take off... like a beer slalom...
Lowell: Somebody I think on Turns All Year (www.turns-all-year.com) asked if it was too early to be thinking of naming a tour after Carl. I never did reply to that but I remember thinking, well I know of one tour that would really be appropriate but I’d have to kill myself (laughter) if I ever named it after him because it’s the one we always kept to ourselves.
Gordy: I do have this desire, and I thought about it early on — somehow, I don’t know how — of keeping his work alive. I think it would be a shame for those inspiring images to live in our basements and not continue to circulate. If there’s some way that can happen... If it simply means it lives on Lowell’s Alpenglow Web site, that’s better than not.
Lowell: I definitely feel like there will be some of that in my book. There will be some of his images in there, he’s part of that history. But the book needs to be impartial. It’s a story of the whole region, not of Carl. There are small ways where I would definitely like to have pictures on my Web site from Carl and at some point I will probably write something about Carl on it. Probably over time there will be a lot more than one thing, there will be stories of some of our trips.
Gordy: Somebody at the memorial mentioned that they were intending to build a cairn somewhere in Carl’s honor. What a great idea. I’m going to do that somewhere. And to name a ski route after him or a face or wherever, that’d be great. I can’t imagine where that might be but that would be pretty fun. For me it would be personal, not that I’d be looking to have it established as “Carl’s Peak” or something. But that’d be fun. It seems like for Carl it would be a place. Some place that he cared about, that hopefully wouldn’t be giving away a secret.
Lowell: It’s tough. Something up at Mt. Baker Ski Area... Most of us kids took some ashes and I haven’t figured out where I’m going to scatter them...
Gordy: I was up at Crystal on Saturday and I was thinking, “Dang I should have brought them up here.” Crystal was an important place to him through his upbringing and I certainly want to have him re-share those, so, I know I’ll do that at some point this winter.
Powder: So what does become of Carl’s entire portfolio?
Gordy: There’s a lot that he has there of value and you know, when I was down at Patagonia they asked about Carl and they had been such a supporter of him over the years and I thought you know, they do such community-oriented things that maybe they can help us out. But, I don’t know.
Lowell: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve figured it out. Part of it is just the daunting task of finding out what’s there. We — Gordy and I or whoever — will be working on that for quite a while. I have a bunch of stuff upstairs but the estate needs to be settled, what becomes of the ownership of his stuff, and then just the mechanics of figuring out what’s there. He’s got stuff that’s not filed at all and things in boxes straight back from the photo processor.
Gordy: Quite possibly that could in part be Carl’s legacy — some sort of Carl Skoog foundation for budding photographers, or whatever it might be.
Lowell: I know for example Bob and Ira Spring, I don’t know if you’re familiar with those guys...
Powder: The “hundred hikes” books?
Lowell: Yeah, they were my dad’s generation. They were the premier photographers of my dad’s generation. When Ira died — Bob had gotten out of outdoor photography years ago, he was doing travel photography — but when Ira died I guess what his kids did is they created a trust. It’s called the Spring Family Trust for Trails. My best guess is that it’s essentially a repository for his pictures and any sales of his pictures go to these trail projects.
Gordy: See that would just be so cool...
Lowell: That’s one of many possibilities. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of making that happen, somebody has to respond to the request for pictures and make a print and all of that and that takes time. Who’s going to do that? These are all things that we need to figure out because we all have regular jobs. I certainly have a sense that through the various writing projects I’m working on I can see how Carl’s pictures can really... there’s synergy there.
My writing ideas and his photographs — there’s synergy there.