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Cal Magnusson - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 13 September 2001
At Cal Magnusson's home in Enumclaw, Washington
by Lowell Skoog

Cal Magnusson graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in mechanical engineering. He moved to Seattle in 1951 and took a job at Boeing in their gas turbine division. Later he worked on the 747 project designing aircraft controls. In 1971, he was on the SST project when it was cancelled. With layoffs looming, he talked to Jim Whittaker at Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) and suggested that they start a quality control program. Whittaker thought it was a good idea, so when Boeing laid off Cal he started work at REI immediately. He managed REI's test lab and quality assurance department for 25 years, until his retirement in 1996. Before then, quality was the responsibility of buyers who often made their decisions based on price. REI had sold some bad carabiners and Larry Penberthy, founder of Mountain Safety Research (MSR), had been very critical of REI in his newsletters. Cal said that Penberthy indirectly helped him get his job. He said REI probably had the most elaborate test facility of any retail outlet in the country.

When Cal was at Boeing he got interested in skiing and was one of the charter members of the Boeing ski club ("SkiBacs"). He joined the Mountaineers in the late 1950s and took their basic and intermediate climbing courses. In the Mountaineers he met people like Stella Degenhardt, Joe and Joan Firey, Frank Fickeisen, Hal Williams, Dick Curran and Vic Josendal. This group did quite a bit of ski mountaineering together, and Cal suggested to Stella Degenhardt, who was outdoor division chairperson at the time, that the Mountaineers revive their ski mountaineering course. Cal was chairman of the ski mountaineering committee during the first year of the revived course, in the early 1960s.

The course was largely patterned after the Mountaineers climbing course. They didn't teach ski technique--students had to be reasonably good skiers to begin with. The course used Manual of Ski Mountaineering and Freedom of the Hills as texts and covered subjects like route finding, avalanche avoidance, first aid, snow camping, glacier travel and crevasse rescue. Graduates had to attend lectures and field trips, complete a winter bivouac without tents, and demonstrate controlled skiing on moderately steep slopes. The course offered ski tours and ascents of major peaks in the Cascades. I asked Cal whether they used any of the materials from the original course in the 1940s, and he thought they didn't. He recalled that there were typically 15-20 students in the course.


Cal kept a simple trip log and consulted it for dates occasionally as we spoke. His first climb on foot was Mt St Helens in 1954. In 1956 he did his first ski climb on the same peak. We discussed a number of trips that were probably routine in the 1950s and 1960s, destinations like Mt Baker, Glacier Peak (attempts), Mt Pilchuck, peaks in the Snoqualmie Pass area, Crystal Mountain (1959, before the ski area was built), Hogback Mountain, and the Goat Rocks.

In 1961, Cal and friends made a ski ascent of Tamanos Mountain, above Owyhigh Lakes, near the White River entrance to Rainier National Park. Cal later recalled that this was the first time he saw anyone use lightweight cross-country skis in the backcountry. Gary Rose had a pair on this trip and he broke one on the way down.

On April 21, 1963, Cal and friends, including Tony Hovey, made a ski ascent of Snowking Mountain. He skied Big Snow Mountain from the Taylor River road with Hal Williams and Hans Zogg in 1964. They climbed from the road to Snoqualmie Lake and camped at a saddle at the head of Dingford Creek. From there they skied the west slope of Big Snow, which was wide open and offered good skiing. The Taylor River road has since been closed and the trip would be considerably longer today. Cal thought he first skied Mt Shuksan after the ski mountaineering course was revived. He found a 1966 ski ascent of the Sulphide Glacier in his trip log. He recalled that his wife's cousin Gary Tate, Dick Curran and Hal Williams were on that trip.

Cal couldn't recall any avalanche incidents on his ski trips, but he did remember a crevasse incident on a trip he led up Mt St Helens with Jim and Betty Stake [sp?] and others. While skiing down unroped above the Dogs Head, Betty caught an edge and fell. "She was sliding head first," Cal remembered. "She couldn't get turned around, I guess, to stop. She slid into a crevasse and I skied around the end of it and down below. I looked down and she was hanging upside down. Her skis had caught on a little ledge down in the crevasse and both bindings had released and she was hanging by her Arlberg straps upside down in the crevasse. I had a rope in my pack and I pulled it out and tossed it down to somebody to give me a belay. I went down and tied it around her ankle, which was all I could reach at the time. The rest of her was down below. I got her secured and then we hauled her up and got her out. She wasn't injured but it was a scary proposition."

In the ski mountaineering course, they had practiced skiing with a rope but decided it was too hazardous. "I figured it was safer skiing without the rope because when skiing roped, if you fall, you'll probably pull the others in too," said Cal. So they would rope up during the ascent and flag the crevasses with wands, then ski down unroped once a safe route had been marked.

Cal skied Mt Daniel and on another trip attempted to ski Mt Hinman from the East Fork of the Foss River. At their camp it snowed 3 feet overnight, then warmed up and started raining. "So we had wet snow on top of powder snow and you couldn't stay on top of it," he remembered. "You'd break through and it was so heavy on top you couldn't push through it because it would pile up in front [of your legs]." Tony Hovey, a powerful skier, became nearly exhausted trying to break trail out from camp. Cal remembered, "Using my engineering talents I devised a way to keep the ski tips up. I put a cord through a hole in the tip of my ski and up around my pack so when I pushed the ski forward the cord would lift it up out of the snow. I put the climbers on so when my skis sank in at an angle I could move forward. So coming downhill we were plowing along with climbers on the skis. I broke trail for quite a way down with that system. That was one of the most strenuous downhill trips I ever did," he laughed.

I asked Cal whether he and his friends ever did ski traverses and he said no, they mostly went up into an area and back out the same way. He said, "A lot of our ski trips were in early spring when the roads are closed by windfalls or snow drifts. I did a lot of shoveling. I got my first chainsaw to clear roads for skiing. We opened a lot of roads in spring."


Ski tourers in the 1950s and 1960s typically used regular lace-up leather downhill ski boots, smooth soled, not lug soled. Cal used the same boots for touring that he wore while ski patrolling at Stevens Pass.

We visited Cal's basement and he showed me a veritable museum of touring gear from that period. He had army surplus climbers, canvas climbing socks, Vinersa climbers, and Trimas. The Trima skins required installation of three rails in the groove under the ski. Each rail required two holes to be drilled through the ski through which small bolts passed. Plates on the back of the skin slipped over the rails and the skin was strapped to the ski under longitudinal tension. The rail hardware eliminated any side-to-side play in the skins. Cal fitted some sealskin climbers with Trima hardware. They were more expensive, but had better glide than mohair.

He showed me touring plates from Marker and Attenhofer. I picked up the Attenhofer and commented that it weighed a ton, more than some whole bindings today. He also had a Skimatic toe piece, an early Tyrolia touring binding, and rope tow grippers by A&T and Norski. He had a pair of short Head skis used by Tom Hornbein on Mt Everest. They could be hooked together as a sled to haul supplies and presumedly disassembled and fastened on the boots to ski back down.

Cal started skiing with hickory ridge-top downhill skis. After using them a couple of years he got laminated hickory skis. In the mid-1950s he got a pair of Head standards. He had several copies of a homemade device he called a "Sit-Bob." This was an aluminum plate with fins on the bottom and straps that fastened around one's legs. The Sit-Bob was essentially a high-tech pie plate for sitting glissades. Cal made several to lend to his friends on climbs. He used them on Mt St Helens, Glacier Peak and Mt Baker.

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Last Updated: Sun Feb 6 12:13:32 PST 2005