Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project Home
Walter B. Little - Personal Communication
Taped interview, 28 March 2001
At Seattle Yacht Club
By Lowell Skoog
First skiing, 1927After Walt Little graduated from high school he worked for a time at Tacoma City Light. There he met a Danish fellow named Otto who had taken up skiing in Europe. Early in the winter of 1927-28, after the snow came, they could see Mt Rainier from their office. Walt recalled:"Otto said, 'Walter, isn't that snow up there?'
I said, 'Yeah, I guess so.'
'Why don't we go up and ski on it?,' he said.
'What do you mean ski?" I asked. 'What's skiing like anyway?'"
Otto invited Walt to join him and a friend from the Tacoma Mountaineers. Otto and his friend were both good skiers. Their plan was to ski from Longmire all the way up to Paradise and back in a day. Otto lent Walt a pair of his old skis, "seven footers," with a two-piece toe iron fastened through a mortise in the ski. The two pieces were inserted into each side of the ski and they had teeth that engaged when you pounded a plug into the mortise to wedge them tight. A strap, fastened to the toe iron, passed around your heel. With ordinary shoes the strap wouldn't stay on. Also the plug would come out of the mortise and the toe iron would fall apart.
Although Walt had never skied before, he made it to the Nisqually Glacier bridge all right. By then his friends were long gone. They'd told him to stay on the trail and they'd rejoin him on their way back down from Paradise. Eventually they did return and the three started for home. Walt recalled:"I fell down every 500 meters all the way back to Longmire and the bindings came out of the mortise and the strap came off my heel and I got wetter than before. But I did make it, soaking wet and tired. Terrible gear. You'd think that after that, that would finish me and skiing. I still don't know why it is, but I've been sort of a maniac skier ever since."Walt joined the Tacoma Mountaineers. Mt Rainier was the only place to ski and he went to Paradise with the Mountaineers at Christmas in 1927 or 1928. The Mountaineers stayed in the old Paradise Lodge (which has since burned down) not the Paradise Inn. There were no rope tows then. All the skiing was walk-up.
Meany Ski Hut, 1938Walt attended college at Stanford and graduated in civil engineering. He worked a few jobs in the Southwest and did some skiing while he lived in California, including Mt Lassen. He moved back to the Northwest in about 1933 and got a teaching job on the University of Washington engineering faculty.
He soon got interested in the Meany Ski Hut. In the old days you could stay in bunk cars near the Stampede Pass railroad tunnel. The Mountaineers scouted Stampede Pass with the idea of having a series of ski huts in different valleys, as in Europe. But the huts had to be near the railroad because that was the only way to get to the mountains. The Mountaineers found the Meany location by skiing over the pass from the west side (called Stampede) to the east (called Martin). It took them all day to get over and back. There had been an intense fire near the pass, so the country was mostly clear of forest. "Open slope skiing," exclaimed Walt. "That was what everybody around here was talking about. They'd had enough of the big woods. That's why the Mountaineers liked it."
Professor Edmund Meany, the Mountaineers president for 25 years, bought 54 acres on the east side of the pass for $125. During the summer of 1928 they built a hut on the site. You could get there only by train and most people worked Saturdays back then, but they still got enough volunteers to finish the job. It was all hand labor and they had to scrounge materials. The hut was just 20 ft. by 50 ft. at first, with a coal burning stove. The railroad would drop off a load of coal and the Mountaineers would backpack it up to the hut. Walt wasn't around then, but when he arrived on the scene some of the people who had built Meany were still around.
Skiing around Meany was just touring in the early days, but things started to change with the arrival of a young man named Wolf Bauer, who was born in Germany and had learned to ski there. Walt recalled that Wolf organized and won the first ski race in the Northwest on the burned, open slopes at Meany. Walt got up to Meany for the first time at Christmas in 1938. The Mountaineers cleared a slope that they called "the lane" and installed a rope tow during the summer of 1938. The tow began operating in the 1938-39 season and the popularity of Meany soared. Twice as many people were coming up, so in 1939 they enlarged the hut.
In about 1930, the state highway department kept the Snoqualmie Pass highway open in winter from the west side only. Later it was open as a thru-route in winter. This led to the establishment of the Municipal Hill ski area at the pass. Webb Moffett and Bud Anderson installed rope tows there and got some old CCC buildings for a cook house and a ticket booth. Anderson dropped out eventually but Moffett ran the operation up there for many years.
Paradise and Mt Baker, 1930sThe national park service kept the Paradise road open to Narada Falls starting in 1932. This was a big development, making Paradise much more accessible to skiers. The park service offered rooms in the Paradise Inn, Paradise Lodge and several cabins for winter lease at something like $25 a season. People jumped at the opportunity because it was now so much easier to get there. "Lots of people who skied at Paradise before World War II are firm friends still today," recalled Walt. "I don't think there was any group of people who ever had more fun. The skiing was all walk-up initially, before the rope tows went in."
Walt recalled that the first rope tow at Paradise was installed in 1933. [I think it was 1937-38.] The park service required the operators to remove the tow in summer. The rope ran pretty loose and it dragged in the snow. It had a manila rope with some kind of waterproofing in it. "It was supposed to be waterproof," remembered Walt, "but as the rope got wet--it was always wet--it dripped water and waterproofing on your pants. You could tell anybody who'd ridden on the Paradise rope tow because they had this big patch of waterproofing and goo on their pants. No kind of cleaning would ever take it out."
Paradise skiers did tours to McClure Rock, Camp Muir, Sluiskin Falls, and the Tatoosh Range. Before long somebody decided, "Hey we've gotta have a race." So the Silver Skis race was born, from Camp Muir to Paradise. The first race had a mass start. There was no ski patrol in those days, only Bill Butler, the park ranger. After the wipeouts during that first race, some of the survivors had to go back up and pick up the guys who were injured. Walt never skied in the Silver Skis race. The Washington Ski Club at Paradise organized it. The club used the old Guide House. Walt recalled:"Most all the old-timers who were any good at all got into the first Silver Skis race. There were supposed to be sixty of them. Knowing what skiing was like around here, that probably was most of the best skiers in the Northwest!"The Mt Baker Ski Club had a cabin about a mile down the hill (along a direct trail route) from the Mt Baker Lodge. The highway department was usually able to clear the road up to the Mt Baker Ski Club, but they were frequently not able to clear the road from there up to the lodge. Sometimes people staying at the lodge would get snowed in. They couldn't get their cars out. So they'd ski down to the ski club cabin to catch a ride out. With the deep, wet snow, the trail would get packed out and become very fast. People would start out carrying suitcases in their hands and get out of control. "They'd take a dive," recalled Walt, "and a suitcase would fly and hit a tree, emptying the contents and so on. There were a lot of funny sights, like ladies' clothing all over the place."
Patrol Race, 1941I asked Walt whether he ever skied in the Snoqualmie-to-Stampede Pass Patrol Race and he said, "I ran it." The Pacific Northwest Ski Assocation (PNSA) wanted each member club to host a race of some sort. The Mountaineers decided to host the Patrol Race, thinking this would be something different. "At first there was quite a lot of enthusiasm," Walt recalled, "...which diminished..." The Mountaineers consistently entered teams (sometimes more than one) after some other clubs lost interest and stopped participating.
In 1941, Walt headed the group that put on the race. They sent out trailbreakers early to make a trail for the racers to follow, but the course was so icy that they didn't leave a track anywhere. So they dropped markers instead. Walt said that it took 75 Mountaineers to put on the race. They needed to operate both Snoqualmie Lodge and Meany Ski Hut, with starters at Snoqualmie and finishers at Meany. There had to be food at both lodges. People had to walk up to the start at Lodge Lake from the highway on the Denny Creek side. From Meany you needed a way to get people out. If you didn't take the train, you had to walk or ski out to the highway. "So there were 75 Mountaineers running it for 15 racers," recalled Walt. "Since it was a patrol race, there were three racers per team. The race was really between the slowest men on each team, so there were really just five racers. I looked into all that and proposed to the Mountaineer board that we drop it. There wasn't much resistance." 1941 was the last race.
Ski mountaineering course, 1941-42Walt and others became interested in longer tours to higher summits. He skied Mt St Helens four years in a row before World War II. He recalled that May 25 was the magic date and they had great skiing every time they went. Around 1940, Walt collaborated with other members of the Mountaineers to create a course for ski tourers who wanted to ski mountains, not just go cross-country. They wanted the course to be complete, to cover winter camping and appropriate mountaineering techniques. This became the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course. About a dozen people were involved organizing the course.
They consulted European books about skiing on glaciers, but concluded that the books hadn't got it right. One book showed skiers carrying big coils of rope, but that was no good. There should be no slack in the rope, to minimize the length of a fall. The books also recommended ropes that were too short. Walt's group found that 200 feet of rope was desirable, with at least three people on a rope. 100 feet was not enough. The longer rope gave more friction to stop a fall. They spent a few weekends experimenting at Paradise. They would send a skier over the cornice in Edith Creek Basin and practice stopping the fall and performing a crevasse rescue.
They ran the course for two years until it was stopped by World War II. They created a course syllabus, but Walt didn't keep any of the materials (see msc-1941). After the war, Walt lost interest in the course and John Hansen took it over. I asked whether other clubs had comparable programs at the time. Walt didn't know, but he thought the Sierra Club might have. I mentioned David Brower's Manual of Ski Mountaineering, published in the 1940s. Even in the first course, most of the skiers were in their thirties, not their twenties. As lift skiing grew, very few younger skiers got into ski mountaineering.
Ski trips, 1940sWalt recalled that during the 1941 ski ascent to St Andrews Rock on Mt Rainier (mtneer-a-1941-p11a), Anne Cederquist fell into a crevasse. "We were doing it right though, and she didn't go in very far," he said. He remembered hauling 60 lb. packs up from Indian Henry's to the Tahoma Glacier--too much work. Carrying loads like that turned him off to ski mountaineering eventually. I asked Walt if he knew of any parties who skied the Tacoma Glacier in its entirety and he didn't know of any.
During World War II, Walt was in the Army Corps of Engineers, working in Wenatchee and Alaska. His 1943 ski trip into the Enchantment Lakes with George Dennis was a weekend trip. They had both been there before on foot, Dennis while working for the Forest Service. They didn't know where they would hit snow on the climb up. They stayed in a cabin near Nada Lake, then continued to the upper basin on their second day. Walt went into the area two or three times after that, but his 1943 Mountaineer article (mtneer-a-1943-p18) described the first trip. Not many people had been in the area before that, and after his article was published, "climbers got a hold of it." Climbers like Fred Beckey saw the photo of Prusik Peak and went in to climb it after the war.
Walt participated in the 1947 ski ascent of Whitehorse Mountain (mtneer-a-1947-p12a). He said lots of people had been up the peak, but he didn't know about ski ascents. They just followed the summer climbing route, using skis to the top. "This was where I very nearly skewered myself with my ice axe," he recalled. He was skiing unroped with his ice axe in hand (for self arrest) rather than his poles, which were strapped to his pack. He caught an edge and did a somersault. "The ice axe hit the snow first, but it hit point first, so it didn't go through me," he said. The slope was steep and he recalled doing 10 or 12 somersaults in a row, "but I didn't lose my ice axe," he remembered.
Walt recalled once skiing into a cabin at Tomyhoi Peak, near Mt Baker ski area. He also said that Jack Hossack was a very active ski tourer in the early days, and very strong. He was fast going up the mountains and few people could keep up with him.
Crystal Mountain ski areaMary Lea Griggs was the spearhead in developing a ski area northeast of Mt Rainier. Everybody enjoyed skiing at Sun Valley and they wanted something comparable in Washington. They assembled a board of directors, mostly of Seattle people. Walt recalled several names, consistent with the list in the Crystal Mountain prospectus. Leo Gallagher was on the board as a representative from Tacoma. Walt worked for John Graham, who he had met in Sun Valley after leaving the Army Corps of Engineers. Graham assigned Walt to make a feasibility study of Crystal Mountain. Walt thought it was a dream job at first but after three years was glad to get out of it. "Skiing is a very thin business," he remarked.
They organized a half-dozen trips to Corral Pass, mainly because there was a road up there. "As we found out later, there was a good way to get up there because there was deficient snow," said Walt. The base of Crystal Mountain is at the same elevation as Cayuse Pass, but gets only 40% as much snow. Corral Pass gets less than that. Corral Pass proved unfeasible, so the group started looking farther up Silver Creek. Walt recalled driving up a crude road with Dave Newton, who later became PNSA president, to what is now the Crystal Mountain base area. They looked around and said, "This is the place." Dave Newton accompanied Walt on many subsequent scouting trips.
In winter they'd leave the highway at Silver Springs Lodge (since removed) and ski seven miles up Silver Creek to do their snow surveys. Fortunately there was a cabin they could use. Walt led five trips a year for three years. Warren Spickard also led five trips a year. They ran survey trips every two weeks throughout the winter. Walt recalled that this was from 1956 through 1958. "But the time I'd run fifteen trips up there," said Walt, "I'd had enough ski mountaineering to last me the rest of my life."
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