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Joe Firey - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 8 March 2001
At Joe Firey's home in Seattle, Washington
By Lowell Skoog

Between 1955 and 1960, not long after he arrived in Seattle from California, Joe Firey attended a talk on ski mountaineering by Dwight Watson at the Mountaineers clubhouse (see mtneer-b-1958-apr). Joe recalled that Dwight was "pretty well along in years" (50s or 60s). He talked about pre-war ski mountaineering and urged his listeners to give it a try. This was the only time Joe met Dwight. Joe recalled that there was a small number of people ski touring at that time and Dwight's talk "kind of gave it an extra shot in the arm." He thought there were a couple dozen people at the talk.

Ski touring started taking hold after that. It was alpine touring exclusively. Nordic touring and telemarking grew later. Joe gave me a handwritten list of people who were active in ski touring during three periods: pre-war, 1950-1975, and 1975-2000. The list is Mountaineer oriented, but not exclusively so. For quite a while between 1950-75, it seemed that the Mountaineers were about the only people ski touring. Trips were very informal and non-club members often joined club trips. Joe was sure there were Yakima and Wenatchee skiers active on the east side of the mountains, but he didn't know who they were. He was familiar with some of Chuck and Marion Hessey's trips and considered them among the most important pre-war skiers.

Joe also gave me a list of popular ski tours in winter and spring during the 1950-75 period. He recalled that the Cayuse Pass ski area ran until they stopped plowing the road to the pass, some time after Crystal Mountain opened. The ski area was south of the pass, a few hundred yards down the Ohanepecosh road. A rope tow ran up the hill on the east side of the road underneath the long eastward traverse of the Chinook Pass road. It was a very small, informal area and you could either ski the rope tow or tour up to Chinook Pass and ski on Naches and Yakima Peaks. Summerland was also a popular tour at that time because the road was plowed to the ranger station at the White River entrance to the park.

Joe started skiing in the Eldorado-Cascade Pass area in the 1960s. He led an annual spring Mountaineers trip into Boston Basin for several years. He never went beyond Eldorado Peak toward the Klawatti area on skis, though they did that in summer on foot. He also never skied Eldorado Peak from the true summit. He recalled a late winter trip with Tony Hovey and others approaching Dorado Needle from Marble Creek. They followed an old trapper's path up the valley, climbed steep woods to treeline, and did some skiing on the southwest-facing (Backbone Ridge) slopes near Dorado Needle.

They also started skiing on Mt Shuksan (Sulphide Glacier) in the 1960s. Joe said people had skied up there before him and he heard about the trip from others. He led Mountaineer trips to Shuksan three or four times. In the spring of 1970, he broke his leg skiing down from Shuksan, in the logged-over area near the road. He skied around a tree and hit a hole on the backside. Fortunately they were about a mile from the car and able to make a sled to get him out.

Joe began doing ski tours off the North Cascades Highway shortly after it opened in 1972. Initially they went to nearby destinations like Early Winters Spires, Silver Star and Cutthroat Pass. A few years after the highway opened they visited the Wing Lake-Black Peak area and Ragged Ridge. (In July 2008, Carla Firey showed me some Dave Knudson slides of Joe Firey and Irene Meulemans ski touring near Black Peak in the spring of 1973.)

Joe never skied on Snowfield Peak or in the Olympic Mountains. He didn't keep a journal of his trips. He and his friends did a lot of ski trips in the B.C. Coast Mountains in the 1970s and beyond, usually late in March, which was spring break from the U.W. were they worked. They would helicopter into a basecamp with Mike King.

The Fireys were not interested in peak bagging or winter mountaineering as much as quality skiing. "We were more into the skiing ... and the scenery. If it wasn't any great struggle we'd bag a peak all right. We weren't above that sort of thing. But that wasn't our real purpose," he said. Summer was for climbing. Winter was for skiing. They preferred to ski in, set up a basecamp, then ski out again. They didn't try to do overland traverses on skis. "We didn't go in for that kind of thing," he said. A few people were using skis for peak bagging, people like Fred Beckey and Dan Davis.

Joe recalled a trip in the 1970s to Wells Creek Basin (also known as Coleman Basin) west of the Mt Baker ski area. The party included Joe, daughter Carla, son Alan, Dave Knudson, Chuck Loughnie, and Lee Mann. They skied in on a nice day and camped near Coleman Pinnacle. That night and the next day a big storm blew in, so they started skiing out. Chuck Loughnie was leading the way along a ridge crest in a whiteout. "All of a sudden he just disappeared," remembered Joe. He had skied off a small cornice without seeing it. Later Joe was leading on a sidehill near Table Mountain and the slope released. Joe was buried to his neck "but the slide stopped, fortunately." Worried about further avalanches they camped that night near Chain Lakes.

The next day, with the storm still raging, Lee Mann talked them into going out Wells Creek to a logging road far below. They skied down some distance before the snow ran out. "We were in brush and downed logs and a god-awful mess," said Joe. "As we went down through that stuff it went from snowing to raining. By the time we got down to the logging road--it was way down--we were just soaked through. We put up our tents and camped on the road. I remember that in the tent there was so much moisture coming off of us, because we were so soaked, that the candle couldn't stay burning. It was that wet inside." Luckily, the next day they met a forest ranger at the Mt Baker highway who drove them back to their car at the ski area. They had to sign out for tours in those days and they were a couple of days overdue, so the ranger was very happy to see them. Friends remember that trip as "The Wells Creek Disaster."

Taped interview, 8 August 2002
At Carla Firey's home in Seattle, Washington
By Lowell Skoog

Joe Firey's daughter Carla and son-in-law Jim McCarthy joined in this conversation at times. Joe Firey grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington in 1940. He did some climbing while at the university, but not much skiing. He attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and served in the Navy during World War II. From 1946, after he got out of the Navy, until 1955, he worked for Chevron Research in the Bay Area in California. He met his wife Joan in California and they were married in 1950.

I mentioned finding a July 1939 article about the first climb of that year on Mt Rainier (spi-1939-jul-04). Joe Firey was listed in a party that preceded Sigurd Hall and Andy Hennig to the summit on the day of Hall's historic ski ascent. Joe was not aware of this coincidence, but he said he climbed Rainier at about that time. It was the only time he ever climbed Mt Rainier. Joe recalled, "He was a powerhouse, that Sigurd Hall." He remembered the death of Hall in the 1940 Silver Ski race. "He was going like a bat out of hell," said Joe. "Then boom, he hit the rocks."

Joe took ski lessons while he lived in California and he and Joan did some touring in the Sierra Nevada, mostly near Lake Tahoe or at Sierra Club cabins. He recalled that the best ski touring was on the east slope of the Sierra and that was a long drive from the Bay Area. So their touring was sporadic, mostly on three-day weekends. He moved to Seattle with his family in 1955 and joined the Mountaineers. Joe met other ski tourers through the Mountaineers. He recalled that John Hansen, Gary Rose, Ted Reyhner, Cal Magnusson and Stella Degenhardt were leading club trips at that time. Joe hooked up with them and with other skiers like Tony Hovey and John and Irene Meulemans for private and club trips. Joe soon started leading Mountaineer trips himself. There were few people touring in the late 1950s and it seemed to Joe that he knew most of them.

We looked at slides to find the dates of Joe's early ski trips and locate good pictures. Joe took black and white prints and Joan took color slides. (We didn't look at any black and whites during this visit.) We looked at pictures of Eldorado Peak, Mt Shuksan, Mt Hagan, Boston Basin, and Mt St Helens. Most of Joe's ski pictures are from the B.C. Coast Mountains.

In November 1962, the Fireys did a three or four-day ski trip into the Goat Rocks with Cal Magnusson, Tony Hovey, Hal Williams, and Dina Rover, who later married Arnie Bloomer. They got to Chambers Lake in the "Snow Kitten," a tiny snowcat built by Magnusson. Magnusson was a mechanical engineer working on gas turbines for Boeing. The Snow Kitten was small enough to be trailered and they used it on several trips in the early 1960s. Joe recalled that they stayed in a three-wall shelter on the way to Snowgrass Flats. They climbed Old Snowy, toured in the area of Mt Gilbert, and had great skiing. Dina Rover hurt her knee and they hauled her out on a ski sled fashioned by Hal Williams using a backpack. Joe recalled that Arnie Bloomer and Kent Heathershaw lived in Bremerton and did a lot of ski touring in the Olympics. They invited Joe along but he never skied there. (In a 4/19/07 e-mail, Arnie Bloomer wrote that he thought Cal Magnusson built the Snow Kitten many years later.)

Joe's trips to Eldorado Peak were in spring. He had climbed Forbidden Peak and admired Eldorado as a potential ski destination. One of Joe's slide boxes suggested that they went to Eldorado in 1959 (possibly on foot). We found some fine pictures taken on Eldorado in May 1961. The party included John and Irene Meulemans. One of the slides was used as a reference picture for a painting made by Joan Firey. Their ski climbs of Eldorado were always done as overnight trips. They would hike up Eldorado Creek, negotiate the boulder field, then camp in the upper basin. The next day they would cross the rib into Roush Creek basin and continue to the peak. (In July 2008, Carla Firey showed me a color slide of Joe Firey and Irene Meulemans ski touring on Eldorado in early spring, 1959.)

Regarding his broken leg on Mt Shuksan in 1970, Joe recalled that they used his skis to make a sled. His injured leg was lashed to one of the skis as a splint. The skis were connected together and Joe sat upright near the bindings. His leaned against a pack lashed to the front of the skis. During their Shuksan trips, the Fireys usually camped near timberline on the ridge above the logged out area.

In June 1966, Joe and Joan Firey, with John and Irene Meulemans, made a ski trip to the Hagan-Blum area from the Baker River. They carried their skis straight up through the woods and camped in the basin between Hagan and Mt Blum. They skied Mt Blum and climbed one of the peaks of Mt Hagan, skiing to the base of the summit rocks. Joe recalled that they had good skiing up high but didn't enjoy the approach. "Because of the bushwacking, we didn't go in there again," said Joe. "When you've got your skis on your pack, it doesn't feel very good anymore."

Joe thought his first trip into Boston Basin may have been around 1963. It became one of his favorite areas and he did many spring trips there. He led a Mountaineer trip every spring for several years, sometimes with as many as 8 to 10 people in the party. They never saw anyone else on these trips. Joe never went on ski trips with Ira Spring. He recalled that Ira would often stay out than longer than Joe could get away from work. Ira would go early in the season, start low in the valley and stay out about a week.

Most winter touring was done around Paradise or Summerland on Mt Rainier and near the Mt Baker ski area. Other trips we discussed briefly included Hidden Lake Peak, Snowking Mountain, Goat Mountain (Nooksack), Del Campo Peak (to a saddle near the summit, with the Meulemans), Glacier Basin (descending from the Cadet-Monte Cristo saddle to the townsite), and the south side of Mt Baker, where Joe encountered over a dozen snowmobilers. "They've kind of taken over in there," I said. "Yeah they have," replied Joe, "and I don't blame them, because it is very scenic, but it kind of takes the fun out of touring. So I think we decided we wouldn't go there any more for that reason." Once Joe made a quick ski trip to Mt Munday in the B.C. Coast Mountains with John Neal, landing on the Ice Valley Glacier in Neal's ski-wheel plane. They skied up the peak to the summit rocks and scrambled to the top. Joe never skied in the Lyman Lake area above Railroad Creek.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Joe used cable bindings with releasable toe pieces and Attenhofer touring adapters. The touring adapter was a beartrap sort of device that slipped onto the ski and kept the toe from releasing while touring. In the early 1970s, they switched to Gertsch bindings, which were plate bindings with a touring adapter and full release, but quite heavy. Army surplus climbers worked well at first, but eventually the cotton straps rotted and broke when you put tension on them on a steep slope. Trima skins had rails that fit into slots in the ski base. The trouble with Trimas was that you had to drill through the ski and over time water would enter and freeze, causing delamination. Joe recalled that he once took Ray Smutek's avalanche class. He recommended Ray as a good source of information.

Afterword

I neglected to ask Joe what he did when he worked at the University of Washington. Later, Gary Rose told me that Joe was a mechanical engineering professor and his specialty was internal combustion. Gary recalled that in his spare time in the engineering lab, Joe made a reciprocating engine that burned coal. "It had more plumbing and wires going into it--I'd never seen anything quite like it in my life," said Gary. "I used to kid him about that engine all the time." Gary thought the price of oil was too cheap for Joe's engine to have much market potential today.


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