Written in the Snows
Across time on skis in the Pacific Northwest
By Lowell Skoog
The mountains of the Pacific Northwest are famous for snowfall. Not the light, powdery snow of the Rockies or the sun bathed snow of the Sierras, but deep, heavy snow, heaped on glaciers and piled to the eaves of mountain lodges like Mount Rainier's Paradise Inn. There is no question that Washington receives some of the heaviest snowfalls on earth. The only argument among Northwest boosters is whether the snowfall crown belongs to Mount Baker in the north, Mount Rainier in the south, or Mount Olympus in the west.
Exploring the Cascades on skis, 1930s.
(Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers collection.)
In the century since Washington became a state, just three passes have been opened through its mountains in winter. For six months of the year, the rest of the Cascades and Olympics are snow-bound wilderness. Since the late 1800s, men and women have ventured into this wilderness on skis to eke out a living, appreciate nature, or seek recreation and adventure. Their stories have been woven into the larger story of the Northwest but almost forgotten in their own right. Most people in the Northwest know someone who skis. But few people know the story of Northwest skiing and how it has contributed to the larger history of this region.
This is a story of Northwest people. It is a story of immigration, depression, war, prosperity, conflict, and adventure. Skiing has been shaped by the times, and skiers have in turn influenced their times, by exploring, starting new businesses, promoting and developing ski areas, and fighting to preserve other areas as wilderness. Northwest skiing is a story of both personal adventure and larger social trends. It is a story written in the snows--and thus destined, until now, to fade with the passing of seasons and of generations.
This book tells the story of Northwest skiing for the first time. In particular, it tells the story of skiing in our wilderness mountains. I'll discuss the building of ski resorts, but mechanized skiing is not the focus of this book. Instead the focus is on how skiers have experienced our mountains in their natural state for the past one hundred years. I'll tell the story from my perspective as a wilderness skier and as a seeker of skiing's past. I'll describe episodes from my own journey that helped bring the story to life for me. I'll write for any reader with an interest in the Northwest, in mountains, in lively characters, or in 20th century American history. This is not just a ski book.
With no trail in sight and my way blocked by fallen timber, I took off my skis and began climbing the forested slope. Then I saw it--a small square of orange tin nailed high upon a tree. This was what I had come for, a marker from a long-forgotten ski race, last held during the Depression over sixty years before. A handful of markers remain from a course that once stretched twenty miles through pristine forest along the Cascade crest. Since then, the trail has been nearly erased by logging roads, power lines and clearcuts. Recalling the stories that drew me to this place, I felt as if I'd discovered a relic from a lost world.
This chapter will describe what started me on this trail. I began skiing with my father and spent my young childhood around Norwegian ski jumpers, vaguely absorbing stories of early heroes and bygone days of Northwest skiing. After my father died--much too early--I discovered wilderness skiing and began to experience our mountains as the pioneers had. I pondered questions about the early days that my father was no longer around to answer. In this chapter, I'll describe some of the beauty of backcountry skiing and I'll introduce this story as a journey of rediscovery. It is a process of illuminating memories that have faded into the collective unconscious of Northwest skiers.
Skiing came late to the Northwest. No Snowshoe Thompson crisscrossed the Cascades in the years before the Civil War, and skiing was almost unknown here before the turn of the twentieth century. The Scandinavians who immigrated to the Northwest brought with them a rich heritage of skiing, but they regretfully set it aside once they got here. The mountains that rose beyond the forested hills were scarcely more accessible than distant clouds. The low country where most people settled was mild and rainy, a place for umbrellas and overshoes, not skis.
This chapter will provide background on the world of skiing that existed outside the Northwest in the late 1800s. It will recount the few tales of local skiing from that time that have survived. It will describe the crucial development that made Northwest skiing possible--the railroad. It is fitting that the grandfather of recreational skiing in Washington, Milnor Roberts, was the son of the man who engineered the railroad itself.
1916 was the winter of the Big Snow. A record twenty-one inches of snow fell in Seattle in a single day. With business and daily routines disrupted, a handful of Norwegians, nostalgic for home, did something they hadn't done since they left the old country. They dusted off their skis and put on an exhibition of ski jumping in the middle of the city. The youthful memories revived by this event stayed with them until the following winter. In 1917, several of those Norwegians organized the first skiing tournament in the Washington Cascades at Scenic Hot Springs, below the railroad tunnel at Stevens Pass. At this tournament a twenty-year-old Norwegian woman named Olga Bolstad appeared and asked to borrow a pair of skis. She quickly became the talk of the tournament with her sensational jumping. At a larger tournament that summer on Mount Rainier, Miss Bolstad bested all the men to become the first ski champion of the Pacific Northwest.
This chapter will describe the slow awakening of Northwesterners in the 1910s to the beauty and accessibility of our winter mountains. They formed clubs like the Mountaineers, the Mount Baker Club, and the Cascadians, and they started community ski tournaments, like those at Cle Elum. There the annual winter carnival was a source of civic pride and a welcome distraction from the dangers of working in the coal mines during the rest of the year.
After World War I, many people fled the shattered countries of central Europe. One was a young German skier named Hans Otto Giese. Giese was in the vanguard of a new style of skiing that thrilled war-weary Europeans during the 1920s. It was a style not from the Norwegian tradition of jumping and cross-country running, but from a new school, inspired by an Austrian ski teacher named Hannes Schneider. This style allowed skiers to swoop down mountainsides with graceful turns--a perfect blend of exhilarating speed and control. Giese soon met like-minded Northwest skiers who were attuned to the latest developments in Europe and eager to learn from an expert. Together they began exploring Northwest mountains at a level undreamed of just a few years earlier.
This chapter will describe pioneering ski ascents of the great Cascade volcanoes--Mount Baker, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens, Glacier Peak, and finally Mount Rainier--by Hans Otto Giese and his peers. It will describe the adventures of locally born skiers like Bill Maxwell, Ben Thompson and Dwight Watson, who discovered the wonder of venturing deep into the Cascade and Olympic mountains on skis.
It was no coincidence that skiing in the Northwest flourished during the Great Depression. Skiing was cheap in those days. There were no lift tickets to buy, and sports were a distraction from hard economic times. The New Deal put men to work on projects like the Stevens Pass ski hut and Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge, which made the mountains more hospitable to skiers. The center of Northwest skiing in the 1930s was Paradise Valley on Mount Rainier. Here a sort of underground city grew--summer cabins leased for the entire winter, buried deep in snow, accessed by tunnels and ladders. Skiers escaped the city every weekend for races, carnivals, night skiing under the floodlights, and late-night dances in the lodge.
Amid this bustling scene, Hans Otto Giese proposed to Royal Brougham, Seattle P-I sports editor, to stage a skiing spectacle unlike anything ever seen in America. The Silver Skis race would be a four-mile schuss from Camp Muir at 10,000 feet to Paradise, dropping nearly a vertical mile. Brougham, an old school newspaperman who didn't worry about the difference between making the news and reporting it, took the idea and ran with it. On April 22, 1934, sixty skiers started simultaneously from Camp Muir in what was arguably the wildest ski race ever held in this country.
This chapter will describe the Silver Skis race and other Depression-era skiing through the recollections of men like Wolf Bauer, who seventy years later welcomed me into his home to tell his story. I'll describe my own experience reenacting the Silver Skis on a smaller scale. Finally, I'll describe the arrival of the future--ski lifts--with the appearance of rope tows at Paradise.
East of the Cascade divide, the Great Depression hit hard. With no jobs available, some men turned to the mountains to scratch out a living. Dale Allen, born into a pioneer family near Lake Wenatchee, survived by trapping in the North Cascades. "That was the way to make a living in the winter," said Allen. "When those banks went broke, I stayed in the mountains. There was no work. I'll tell you, I could eat by trapping." Later, Allen worked for the State Game Department. With Walt Anderson, a Forest Service man, he made remarkable mid-winter ski trips throughout the North Cascades solely for the enjoyment of seeing the mountains and their wildlife.
In the Pasayten country near Harts Pass, the Azurite mine operated year-round during the 1930s. Several smaller claims were also occupied in winter during those years. Winter life in the North Cascades was full of isolation and danger with little chance of help if anything went wrong. Dog sled teams delivered mail to the Azurite and men sometimes skied in or out. January 1935 was a terrible month for avalanches and four men died in separate incidents. In 1937, dog sledders worked heroically to rescue a young miner stricken with appendicitis. They rushed him to civilization but he died in the hospital following surgery.
This chapter will describe the lives of miners and trappers, members the last generation to live off the land in the North Cascades year-round. They included a young man named Mel Gourlie, who lived with his parents near Harts Pass for five years during the Depression. In summer they high-graded gold out of an old claim and in winter they trapped on homemade skis. I'll describe meeting Gourlie in Wenatchee on September 11, 2001. As images of the burning World Trade Center flashed on the TV screen in the next room, Mel told me stories of another era in the North Cascades. In one story, his mother had to ski out from their cabin eleven miles under her own power for an emergency surgery. Mel said he was the last of the old-timers who lived year-round in the Pasayten country in the years before World War II.
Looming in the background during the Depression was growing fear of war in Europe. In September 1939, the European war began and by December 7, 1941, war had spread to the Pacific and had engulfed the United States at Pearl Harbor. During the winter of 1939-40, the Russian army invaded Finland and Finnish troops, clad in white and moving swiftly on skis, defended their country for months against overwhelming odds before grudgingly signing a peace treaty with the Russians.
In the United States, admiration for the Finns and concern for American preparedness led to creation of ski troops in the U.S. Army. It was hoped that American ski troops could defend our northern states or fight in the mountains of Europe if necessary. The troops were formed on Mount Rainier during the winters of 1941 and 1942. It was a time of high spirits for the young soldiers, most of them college educated volunteers who loved mountains and skiing. They spent a winter in lodgings at Paradise, training every day and in the evenings composing songs about skiing and soldiering. One of their favorites had this chorus:
Ninety pounds of rucksack
A pound of grub or two,
He'll schuss the mountain
Like his daddy used to do.
This chapter will tell the mountain troops' story, based on my conversations with veterans such as Duke Watson and John Woodward, as well as first person accounts by Northwest men of combat in Italy. I'll also describe the forgotten war at home. In 1943, Hans Otto Giese was charged with being a Nazi sympathizer. Another German immigrant and prominent skier, Dr. Otto Trott, was arrested and interned as an enemy alien. This chapter will tell their stories as well.
The years following World War II produced a baby boom, an economic boom, and a skiing boom. Former mountain soldiers, long-time skiers, and local businessmen started dozens of new ski areas, large and small, and skiing became one of the fastest growing sports in the nation. Yet in the 1950s and 60s, America's entrepreneurial spirit collided with another deeply held American value, the love of unspoiled places. In 1954, the conservation movement in the Northwest reached a turning point over plans to build a ski lift from Paradise to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier. The proposal was defeated and larger battles followed, eventually leading to the establishment of millions of acres of new national parks and wilderness areas in the North Cascades. In the early 1960s, one old-time skier summed up the change wrought by rope tows and chairlifts: "Nobody wants to walk uphill anymore." Yet during the conservation battles of the 1960s, skiers sided with conservationists as often as they did with ski area developers and timber companies.
This chapter will tell the story of Northwest skiing and conservation through the eyes of skiers like Chuck and Marion Hessey. Chuck Hessey grew up in the mountains above Yakima and started skiing in the 1920s. With his wife Marion, he wrote newspaper articles and joined with other conservationists to lobby Congress to protect the North Cascades. The Hesseys also showed that the old ways of skiing were not dead--by walking up hills. They skied deep in the Cascade wilderness and made movies to share their experience with others. In this chapter I'll describe meeting Marion Hessey in the log cabin near Chinook Pass that she shared with her husband for many years. I'll tell other stories of wilderness adventure during the boom years of downhill skiing.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of questioning and experimentation in America. The conservation and anti-war movements reflected disillusionment by many people with the direction the country was heading. Signs of discontent appeared in skiing as well. Rejecting the cost and hustle of downhill resorts, some skiers took up cross-country skiing, a way of life in Scandinavia but a style of skiing ignored in the United States since the 1930s. Cross-country skiing offered a back-to-nature appeal and it was cheap.
A few former downhill skiers began experimenting with old Norwegian techniques that enabled them to ski down slopes on their flimsy cross-country gear. They rejected stretch pants, plastic boots, and fiberglass skis and other trappings of downhill skiing and embraced wool knickers, leather boots, and wood skis, derided by some alpine skiers as "hippy sticks." One of the leaders of this movement was Steve Barnett of Mazama, Washington. Barnett's book Cross-Country Downhill blended old and new techniques, including the telemark turn, and fueled a mini-revolution in North American skiing. Telemark skiers touted the benefits of lightness, simplicity and increased mobility and launched a renaissance in wilderness skiing.
This chapter will describe the impact of the telemark generation on Northwest skiing. Skiers during the 1970s and 80s ventured farther into the mountains than ever before and came to appreciate the legacy of wilderness passed on by the generation of the Hesseys. As one who started backcountry skiing in the mid-1970s, I'll recall some of my own experiences during this time and describe the unique beauty of our Northwest mountains on skis.
In March, 1958, Dan Evans had a close call in the mountains. Evans was in a group of eight skiers scouting the proposed Crystal Mountain ski area. The group triggered an avalanche, and fortunately Evans was near the edge of the slide and escaped without injury. Ironically, the two most experienced avalanche men in the party, both professional snow rangers, were taken for the longest rides in the avalanche. One was injured, and Evans and his friends administered first aid and helped transport the man to the road on a makeshift sled. It was a lucky thing that none of the eight skiers was buried that day. Though no one could have known it then, the citizens of Washington had a special reason to be thankful, because Dan Evans would later become one of the state's most popular governors and its U.S. senator.
The record of avalanches in the Northwest stretches back to the 1890s, when miners near Monte Cristo were regularly trapped by crushing snows. In 1910, the worst avalanche disaster in American history took place at Wellington below Stevens Pass. Two trains were blocked by slides for nearly a week, during which time snowflakes "the size of soda crackers" fell and accumulated at up to a foot an hour. When the falling snow turned to rain, a snow slab a half mile long by a quarter mile wide and twenty feet deep released, sweeping the two trains into a ravine and burying them. Ninety-six people died. Other major tragedies followed, including the 1939 avalanche on Mount Baker that killed six Bellingham College students and the 1971 slide at the Yodelin ski area that buried two cabins and killed four. Today, skiers, climbers, and snowmobilers continue to be caught, and at least one avalanche fatality has been recorded each winter in most recent years.
This chapter will describe avalanches in the Northwest through the experience of the people who hunt them, who have been caught in them, and who have rescued the victims. It will describe the establishment of the Northwest Avalanche Center, which has played a crucial role in preventing the explosion of backcountry winter sports from causing an equivalent surge in avalanche deaths.
High on Forbidden Peak, in the North Cascades, I edged my skis and prepared to make my first turn. Below me, the slope plunged steeply for nearly a thousand feet to the glacier below. A mistake here could mean a cart-wheeling fall into the nearest crevasse. Hoping to make the first ski descent of the peak's north ridge, I felt confident of my abilities, but unsure of my motives. Was I here for enjoyment, to satisfy my curiosity about steep skiing, or to impress people back in town? As I linked turns carefully down the face, I tried to sort out my answers to these questions.
Over the past twenty years, "extreme" sports have become a media phenomenon. But the sport of extreme skiing is older, dating from the 1960s in the Alps. In 1971, Sylvain Saudan, a self-styled "skier of the impossible" from Switzerland, made the first extreme skiing descent in the Pacific Northwest on the southeast face of Mount Hood. Local skiers were slow to take up the sport, but in the past ten years interest has snowballed, and today the Northwest is witnessing a Golden Age of steep ski pioneering.
This chapter will describe the introduction of extreme skiing in the Northwest by Sylvain Saudan and others. It will examine the influence of the media, including the world-wide web, on the sport's acceptance. The growth of steep skiing can be viewed as a normal progression in the search for new challenges, a consequence of better equipment and refined techniques. It can also be seen as a break from traditional values and a shift toward greater acceptance of risk. This chapter will examine both points of view.
On a winter day in 1958, Ed LaChapelle set out across the Snow Dome of Mount Olympus on skis. With his three-man research team, he settled into a daily routine of measuring snowfall, temperature, and other data on the Blue Glacier for the International Geophysical Year. Scientists in more than 70 countries that year conducted studies that led to the theory of plate tectonics, the exploration of outer space, and greater understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Three decades later, the work of LaChapelle and thousands of other scientists around the world began to suggest that the Earth is getting warmer.
In the North Cascades of Washington, the South Cascade Glacier has been monitored longer than any other glacier in North America. Since 1957, the glacier has shrunk almost a mile in length. During the summer of 2004, researchers predicted that the glacier may disappear completely within a hundred years. With each passing year, a world of evidence points more strongly to a sobering conclusion. The planet is getting hotter; man is to blame; and it's going to get worse. In the Northwest, rising snow levels and shorter winters are expected to affect water supplies, power generation, fisheries, agriculture, wildlife, forestry, and of course, skiing.
This chapter will describe the predicted effects of global warming in the Northwest, on skiing and other activities that give the region its special character. Since the beginning, skiing has been more than just an eddy in the flow of Northwest history. It is a lively stream that has both responded to the larger course of events and influenced it in significant ways. Fifty years ago, skier-scientists like Ed LaChapelle began to contribute to our understanding of the global warming problem. Today, recreational skiers have the opportunity to contribute to solutions. As Americans increasingly recognize and respond to the challenge of global warming, skiers, who have experienced nature's cycles intimately for the past one hundred years, will play a role. The future, like the past, is written in the snows.