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Charles E. Welsh - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 14 September 2001
At Chuck Welsh's home in Seattle, Washington
By Lowell Skoog

Chuck Welsh did a little skiing with the Boy Scouts in 1938-39. He didn't ski a lot until he joined the Mountaineers and started going to the Meany Ski Hut. He had done some hiking before joining the Mountaineers, but no climbing. In 1942-43, he graduated from one of the first ski mountaineering courses offered by the Mountaineers, under Walt Little (see mtneer-b-1943-oct).

Chuck graduated from high school in December 1942, a few months early. Within days of his 18th birthday in August 1943, he received a notice from his draft board. Before graduating from high school, Chuck and his friend Jerry O'Neil applied to join the mountain troops. Then they received a letter from Jim Crooks, who told "a horror story" of life at Camp Hale. Crooks described the 80-pound packs, the cold and the altitude and said it was not like civilian mountaineering at all. So O'Neil joined the seabees and Welsh joined the army air corps. Chuck felt it was the safest thing he could have done, although he didn't know it at the time. His closest encounter with the mountain troops was on Mt Rainier. "I can remember snow camping out at Edith Creek one beautiful spring morning and seeing those--what did they call those vehicles?--those weasels--coming up over the hill."

Post-war skiing and climbing

Chuck made ski ascents of Mt St Helens and Mt Adams. He attempted Mt Baker with Fred Beckey and others in about 1947, but stopped due to illness. Beckey continued to the top. Chuck recalled that they had spent the night in Kulshan Cabin and in the morning he mixed some powdered milk for breakfast. He used water from a bottle sitting on the mantlepiece. "It turned out it was there to catch drips from the roof," Chuck said. "I got up to that saddle between the Black Buttes and Mt Baker and began to feel kind of funny. In very short order I was so weak all I could do was hunker down behind a wind formation and lose all my food in both directions." Chuck recalled that the cabin was just a short hike from the road, so the Glacier Creek road must have been extended by that time.

During the summer of 1947, Chuck was a guide on Mt Rainier with Dee Molenaar, Bob Parker and Bil Dunaway (chief guide). He recalled taking just seven parties to the top that summer, in contrast to the hundreds of climbers who summit annually today. He guided on Rainier again in 1949 under Bob Craig.

After the war, Wally Burr used to buy army surplus skis "by the carload." He was a wood shop instructor at one of the Seattle high schools (Garfield or Roosevelt). He would shorten the skis, strip the white paint off, make ridge tops out of them, then refinish them. "A lot of us bought skis from him," remembered Chuck. "You could buy them from him a lot cheaper than you could buy them in sports stores." Chuck thought he probably used a pair of those skis on Mt Rainier in 1948. He used cable bindings with solid toe irons, a front throw and side hooks. He didn't get release bindings until the early 1950s, after an injury in Austria. In January 1952, he left the U.S. for Europe and stayed there four years. He did some ski touring in the Austrian Alps, but very little ski mountaineering after he returned to the Northwest. Most recently, he was employed as a lawyer.

"There wasn't a lot of activity after the war in ski mountaineering," Chuck said. "I don't think many people were doing it. At least I have no recollection of it." Regarding the mountain troops and post-war skiing, he said, "I wasn't in the infantry and I didn't know great hardship, but these guys that had been sleeping out in the mud and their lives in danger for two or three years, they wanted no part of putting on another pack and going out and sleeping in the snow. If there was a lift and a packed hill they went for it." He continued, "One reason I never got really fired up about ski mountaineering in later years was the more I learned about avalanches the less I was inclined to go back into those uncontrolled areas."

Mt Rainier, first complete ski descent, July 1948

In the late 1940s, there was a ranger at Mt Rainier named Gordon ("Pat") Patterson. "To climb the mountain," recalled Chuck, "you had to submit to an inspection by Gordon. He delighted in picking up a pair of those G.I. surplus crampons, putting them on the asphalt and stomping on them and they'd go 'ppffthp.' Or a G.I. surplus ice axe, he'd whack it on the end of a table and just break it. That sort of gives you an idea of what their attitude was. Their duty versus climbers ... was to keep us from hurting ourselves. They had some theory about ski mountaineering in the winter, and they weren't going to let anyone even try it." Chuck and friends tried repeatedly to get permission. "Finally they made up some excuse that it would be okay for us to do it but we had to give them a full report and recommendation or some such stuff." Chuck wasn't sure where the policy came from, whether it was from the park superintendent or ranger Bill Butler. He said George Senner and Dee Molenaar would know more about the park hierarchy in those days.

Chuck's partners on the trip were Kermit Bengtson, Dave Roberts, and Cliff Schmidtke. Bengtson was an engineer of some sort, Chuck thought. He last saw him many years ago in Austria. Roberts earned a PhD in history at the University of Washington. Last Chuck knew he was teaching in Ohio. Dave Roberts and his twin brother were conscientious objectors during World War II. Schmidtke was a 10th Mountain veteran who had seen combat in the war. He was a short, stocky guy, very agile and athletic. Around 1949-50, Schmidtke took his own life after a failed romance. The party also had some support people along. Bob Albrecht may have been one of them.

None of the men took any pictures, Chuck recalled. "We were well above Steamboat Prow at sunrise and we climbed up through a lightning and thunder storm. There were still some residual lightning strikes below. And then a beautiful sunrise, and everything turning marvelous colors ranging from kind of a lavender to peach. It would have been ... I don't know how photographs would have caught that--but it was beautiful."

High on the mountain, the snow became so hard that three of the men removed their skis and climbed on crampons. Dave Roberts kept climbing on skis. "He was a strong sucker," said Chuck. "On the way down of course you'd use your edges, but we had those old canvas G.I. surplus climbers. The straps went over your edges, and you couldn't get much use out of them." In his Mountaineer Annual story of the climb (mtneer-a-1948-p37), Chuck wrote that a wax-on climber might be superior. I asked him about that and he said, "I never used a pair. I'm not sure I ever saw a pair. But I knew of them." He thought they were usually applied using klister or skare wax. Climbers were traditionally made of sealskin, but that was expensive, so the mountain troops came up with mohair climbers. Chuck thought that mohair was a synthetic material, but his wife said it was an animal product, made from sheep. "The trouble with mohair," said Chuck, "was that you couldn't go forward and you couldn't go backward, not like sealskin where you could slide it forward pretty well."

During the descent, they had to ski across some snow bridges high on the mountain. Chuck had practiced belayed skiing in the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course, three or four times at most. "There was nothing spectacular about it," he said. "You just put an ice axe in. The trick is to let the rope out fast enough so you don't pull the guy ahead of you down." After the descent, Chuck sent his recommendations to the park service, basically saying that ski parties should be sufficiently experienced. He wasn't sure what they were looking for and he never tried skiing Rainier again to see whether they loosened up their policy toward ski climbs.

In a 4/18/2013 email, Cathy Denshaw Roberts, niece of David Roberts, sent this information:

Just perusing your site ... In the "Mt Rainier, first complete ski descent, July 1948" section, I can tell you that Dave Roberts, my uncle, ended up working at Dartmouth in New Hampshire. It was my Dad, Clayton Roberts (the unnamed twin brother), who ended up teaching in Ohio. Both twins got PhDs in history although my Dad got his PhD at Cornell. My Dad and his brother are still alive and will turn 90 on Nov 10th. My Dad is in Michigan my uncle is in New Hampshire. Thanks for your project. It was fun to read about my Uncle and his accomplishment! I knew he was one of the first to ski down Rainier but it was fun to see it in print!

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Last Updated: Thu, Jun 13, 2013 9:35:15 PM