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John and Irene Meulemans - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 6 November 2001
At the Meulemans home in Bellevue, Washington
by Lowell Skoog

John Meulemans grew up in Wisconsin and moved to Seattle around 1956. He worked for an insurance company and joined the Mountaineers around 1958-59. Irena Wittlerova was born in Czechoslovakia and lived in New Zealand for a time before coming to the U.S. in 1958. She still speaks with a soft Czech ascent. John and Irene no longer ski, but they still venture into the mountains regularly, now using snowshoes.

John took up skiing around 1957. Trying to recall the date, he said, "The first thing I have a vivid recollection of was an accident involving a party of ski mountaineers on Mt St Helens." He described what was probably the Art Jessett accident in 1952, when a climber on foot, carrying his party's rope, fell into a crevasse and died after his friends failed to rescue him and left him there overnight. (Apparently, this tragedy reverberated for a long time.) John remarked, "What a horrible way to go."

"So that's what made you get into it?" asked Irene incredulously.

"No," John said, "but it was coincidental with that occurrence that I got started with an old pair of army skis and with beartrap bindings. Very simple setup. Twenty dollars if I remember right. They were just an excellent value for the money. Then I got the old army surplus climbers. Mohair. Broke all the time."

"Which you didn't want to take off when you started downhill," remembered Irene.

"Well, that's right," said John. "I didn't know nuthin', and I probably still don't no nuthin', about downhill. I was scared to take those climbers off going downhill, because I knew I'd go too fast. It was really an offshoot of hiking, a way of hiking in the winter time. And that explains why I didn't know anything about skiing techniques. Sideslipping, to me, didn't mean a thing. That's why I hated to take those climbers off."

Irene did some downhill skiing when she lived in New Zealand. "I would have liked to do ski touring [in New Zealand]," she said, "but there's not much in there, just a little bit and it's mostly ice, never any powder." She recalled arriving in the Northwest. "All I could ski was ice. I was the star on Mazama Ridge or wherever it was that the Mountaineers went when it was a concrete board and I was the only one who could ski it in those heavy Kastle skis with the downhill bindings. But then when I hit the powder I just fell over. I couldn't see my skis. It was psychological. There was John, he couldn't ski for nothing, and he went down from Pan Dome. It was stormy, and there he went, slowly down. And there I was--crash--crash--every time. [Because] I couldn't see my skis."

Irene continued: "When I got here I thought, 'Gosh! We are crossing the creeks! And we are climbing the trees--on our skis!' If you went with Cal Magnusson that's what you did. That was really exciting. From then on we didn't do any downhill except for ski bumming in Utah." They spend two or three months in Utah during the winter of 1960-61. "That's when we learned to ski powder," she said. "We were pretty good at that."


John and Irene met Ira Spring through Stella Degenhardt. They met Joe and Joan Firey climbing. John and Irene were new to climbing and the Fireys were good mentors. They recalled that the Fireys, Tony Hovey, Cal Magnusson, Hal Williams and a few others all started ski touring around the same time, in the late 1950s. Having similar experience, they stuck together as a group and did trips together most weekends. Stella Degenhardt, Ira Spring, and John and Janet Klos were some of the "old-timers" who had been skiing since the early 1950s or before. Gary Rose started skiing as a teenager with Ira Spring. They skied a few times at the Gold Hill cabin and met Chuck and Marion Hessey there. "I don't know what kind of skis they used, but they were waxers," recalled Irene. "I don't think they ever used skins." The Hesseys did most of their skiing on the east side of the Cascades.

We discussed some typical ski destinations: Goat Mountain (Nooksack), Hidden Lake Peak, Monogram Lake, Jim Hill Mountain, Icicle Creek, Mt Cashmere (Doctor Creek), and Goat Rocks. They skied or attempted all of the Cascade volcanos, but preferred backcountry trips on smaller peaks. They skied Mt Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier many times. They recalled staying in a lean-to at Schreibers Meadows and at Kulshan Cabin on the north side of Mt Baker. John recalled that he had skied in Boston Basin before he went there with Ira Spring (see st-1959-apr-5-pic12). Irene remembered jumping a cornice for Ira's camera during the Glacier Peak ski-plane trip (see st-1960-mar-27-pic14). "I kept jumping. I liked jumping but I couldn't land, so he didn't take the landing. He just took me in the air. I asked, 'How many [jumps] do you want?' And he said, 'I'll be taking pictures as long as you keep jumping.'"

When the road was plowed to the White River entrance at Mt Rainier, they toured to Summerland, Owyhigh Lakes, and sometimes skied the big avalanche path on Crystal Peak down to Highway 410. Sometimes they would drive from Seattle to Paradise in the afternoon and sleep in the restrooms so they could start skiing early the next morning, before the Longmire gate opened. John recalled that the rangers didn't really mind it in those days, as long as you were gone before the tourists arrived. They did that at Narada Falls too.

They did some interesting trips with Tony Hovey, including the Paradise to White River traverse; a tour from Stevens Pass to Lake Josephine, Frosty Pass, and Whitepine Creek; and an attempt on Snowking Mountain. They made a ski ascent of Mt Hinman from the Foss River with Tony Hovey and Ted Schotten, a trip that Cal Magnusson had attempted. They attempted Snowfield Peak via Colonial Creek (this may have been a foot trip) but thought the route was avalanche prone. They never skied in the Olympic mountains, nor did they keep a journal or scrapbook.

Irene did a ski trip to Mt Hagan from the Baker River with Joe and Joan Firey. John was not on that trip, according to Irene. "We carried skis in devil's club and everything," said Irene. "Such a miserable way up. And half-way up it started to rain. So we sat there and we said, 'What do we do now?' We decided it's easier to go up than go all the way down that day. It was one of those times when the next day there wasn't a cloud in the sky." So they skied Mt Hagan and climbed one of its pinnacles. "But that was one where we said, 'Never again,'" recalled Irene. (When I talked to Joe Firey on 8 August 2002, he recalled that John Meulemans was along on this trip and they skied both Mt Hagan and Mt Blum. I've gone with Joe's version.)

John said that skiing Eldorado Peak was Joe Firey's idea. Joe proposed an approach from the North Fork Cascade River. The first time, they tried going up Roush Creek and it was awful. So they tried again going up Eldorado Creek. John noted that this is now the standard approach to the peak. Irene recalled that she once skied to and from the very top of Eldorado with Dave Knudson. The summit snow crest was unusually wide that year and they were surprised to make it on skis. They had always kicked steps up the final crest before. Irene said that trip took place after John stopped skiing and after her knee started to bother her, probably about 15 years ago.

They did some trips along the North Cascades highway after it opened, but not many. They recalled skiing Silver Star a few times and Heather Pass once. Heather Pass seemed like avalanche terrain and they didn't consider it a promising tour. The highway was not recognized as a promising skiing area when it opened, as far as they could remember. They made a trip to Canada every year, but didn't do a lot of helicopter accessed trips like Joe Firey did. Irene didn't like "hanging around the hanger" those times when the weather prevented flying.

Irene thought more tours were accessible in the 1960s than today because there were more logging roads and more roads were plowed in winter. John thought there was more snowfall thirty years ago than today, making tours starting at low elevation more practical. Irene felt that by the time they stopped skiing there were just two options "for oldies," Skyline Ridge at Stevens Pass and Bullion Basin at Crystal Mountain.

Equipment and Cascade skiing

John was unabashed about his love of beartrap bindings. "I hope you'll be able to devote something to the brief period during which beartrap bindings were in vogue. They were so useful, and pretty near everybody I can think of liked beartrap bindings until they had some sort of injury. Then they went to some kind of a safety binding. They were so wonderful, you could wear any old boots and be completely comfortable. Maybe the control wasn't there ... but they were wonderful."

Irene replied, "I don't know. I don't think I ever was on beartrap bindings. I was on the 'suicide binding' for about a year or two--you know those wrap-around things you wore on racing skis. And that's how I came in this country. I didn't know anything better. I didn't know anything about touring, so just for downhill somebody sold them to me. So I ski toured with them. You couldn't lift your heel up an eighth of an inch because they had a long thong and you were just tied to the skis. They might have had a sideways [release] but it did nothing on this [forward release] if you hit something. But my achilles tendons must have been so loose because I remember making an imprint in the snow as I fell over, and I was on those things, which I couldn't lift any part."

Irene skied with Marker bindings and cables for years. "They were the best. They were light and no muss and fuss." She recalled that she was reluctant to adopt plastic ski boots. She started with "ordinary leather galoshes." "If it was good snow it didn't matter, and if it was bad snow, it didn't matter either because we were not that good skiers anyway."

John remembered a ski ascent of Mt Baker. "We followed a Mountaineer party. It was Cal Magnusson leading a bunch of Mountaineers. A sunny day, up [Mt] Baker, going up the north side of the Coleman [Glacier] there. And I was kind of ridiculing the Mountaineers for setting their wands on a blue sky day like this. So we followed them. But, by golly, on the way down the weather came in. And did I have to eat crow. Oh, I was so glad to see those wands. Oh boy, I got religion right there."

Irene said, "I always claim that the skiing in the Cascades is not skiing. It's negotiating to get down. The whole sport is to just get up, be in, and now you're going to get down. If you're lucky you get good snow. Most of the winter time it isn't and it just works somehow." She recalled a trip from Christine Falls to Van Trump Park on a sticky snow day. "That's typical Cascade snow. Somehow I feel that now we do more, getting out on our snowshoes, because it doesn't matter what the condition is as long as it's not avalanche. But the oldsters, they don't even go that often, because the avalanche danger's high or the snow is too icy or the snow is too crusty or it's too mushy or whatever."

The wild Cascades

"No matter where we went in those years," said Irene, "in the 60s and early 70s--we were the only party ever there. I remember clearly [the day] when we went up [Mt] Shuksan and I was just appalled and disgusted because there was another party. They might have been from Canada. That's when it started getting more popular. Now there's too many people. We always knew we were the only ones. Schreibers Meadows--we almost burned that big lean-to down--we had a big bonfire. Now you go and there's all those snowmobiles."

I said I thought the creation of parks and wilderness areas in the North Cascades was important to ski mountaineering here, because it created a very different environment than Europe, where there are many roads, ski lifts and huts. Irene remarked, "There was an argument [in the 1960s], should it be park or should it be wilderness. Now, looking back, I wish it was wilderness rather than a park." She felt that park designation was not restrictive enough. "That's another area [in] which I always disagreed with Joe [Firey]," said Irene. "Because Joe always wanted the European model and to have the huts. And I said, 'No way would I ever support it.' And then I sort of dug into Joe. I said, 'Joe, you've had your wilderness and now because you can't walk anywhere you want a hut and you're going to spoil it for the next generation. Why don't we leave it to them wild as we've had it. Why bring all these huts in there.' So fortunately there's still no huts anywhere. And I keep saying [about huts], well they're dangerous. Because I remember it was Colorado somewhere there was a party going into a hut. Well it's only a little ways right? And whether the snow conditions were bad or whether they got stormed out or whatever--and of course they didn't carry anything--that was the end of them. And I said, well this way we always have a house with us. But he would have preferred to have a little creature comfort and I said, 'Well Joe, we've had our fun. Let's not spoil it for the next ones.'"

Discussing the feeling of exploration when skiing wilderness mountains, Irene said, "It's similar between climbing and mountaineering. Climbing--you just can do it on a water tower if you want to. But mountaineering--that's what the Fireys did a lot--they always went somewhere, or tried to, where nobody else was and figured it out--no you don't have any guidebooks on how to do it. It's just more fun."

Modern skiing trends

John and Irene generally didn't attempt ski traverses. They preferred trips where you could leave the road and go straight up, without a lot of up-and-down or flat skiing. "Walking on the flat, it was not easy on those heavy things," Irene recalled about their skis. Thanks to our wilderness mountains, high routes in the Cascades are particularly challenging, requiring skiers to be self-sufficient and to travel light. John remarked, "In our eyes, that's simply super-human stuff. I mean, we can't even imagine what it would be like." When we talked on the phone before our meeting, John called the 1960s the "dark ages" of ski mountaineering. He said, "It was just absolutely nothing compared to what [skiers] did in the 1980s. But back in the 60s and 70s we were using heavy boots and heavy boards and all the rest and, of course, it pales by comparison with what folks did later."

Irene asked about cliff jumping and extreme skiing. She wondered where the people doing this sort of skiing came from. "Probably not much from ski tourers," she said, "because they are too cautious. I remember the son of the guy who got killed on the Eiger. He was a young kid, about 14, 16, something like that, and he came with us and he just skied differently. We were scared all that trip. We didn't want him on the trip because he is skiing like on downhill. I try to explain, 'There is no ski patrol here. You've got to be more careful.' I wonder whether ski tourers are involved in this crazy thing, because they're just too cautious, or maybe it's just the mountaineers [who are] too cautious."

E-mail correspondence, 6 February 2005
From John Meulemans
To Lowell Skoog

After listening to the interview tape and making notes, I sent John a few questions. He clarified one or two points and verified the date when he started skiing. He confirmed my guess about the young skier who made them nervous. It was John Harlin III and they were on a tour to Monogram Lake. The fourth party member was a teacher from Edmonds who spent time with Harlin after the death of his father.

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