1928: Mount Rainier ski climbers below Little Tahoma. From left to right: Bill Maxwell, Fred Dupuis, Andrew Anderson, Otto Strizek, Hans-Otto Giese, Walter Best. (Not pictured: Lars Lovseth.) Photo: Giese Archives.
1928: Mount Rainier ski climbers below Little Tahoma. From left to right: Bill Maxwell, Fred Dupuis, Andrew Anderson, Otto Strizek, Hans-Otto Giese, Walter Best. (Not pictured: Lars Lovseth.) Photo: Giese Archives.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
The Ski Climbers
  Ushering in a new sport — ski mountaineering  

 
 
` Git up, it’s broad daylight.”

Bill Maxwell bent over his snoozing companion and shone his flashlight in the sleepy man’s eyes. The man squinted and shivered in his sleeping bag. At 9300 feet on the northeast flank of Mount Rainier, the morning was bitterly cold. It was Easter Sunday, 1928.

“What time is it?” asked the sleeper.

“One a.m.” said Maxwell. “Time to go.”

His friend groaned a little then began to stir. Moonlight bathed the contours of the Emmons Glacier. At the edge of the glacier, seven Mountaineers emerged from the igloo in which they had escaped the worst of the night’s cold. Their primus stove had been acting up, so they had no warm food to eat and little water to begin their climb. For Bill Maxwell, warmth came from the hope that he would finally ski to the top of Mount Rainier.

The Nearest Large Hill

W.J. Maxwell at left. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, No. 18147.
W.J. (Bill) Maxwell (left) made three attempts to ski Mount Rainier in 1927 and 1928. Walter Best (right) was on the successful 1928 ski-climb. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, No. 18147.
W.J. Maxwell at left. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, No. 18147.

A friend once described Bill Maxwell as “one of the most enthusiastic ski fiends I ever knew.” Maxwell did most of his early skiing near Snoqualmie Pass, where The Mountaineers built a year-round lodge in 1914. The Mountaineers had Snoqualmie Pass virtually to themselves until the late 1920s, and during those years they gradually built trails and explored snowshoe and ski routes to the surrounding peaks. Maxwell made the first ski ascent of Denny Mountain (where the Alpental ski area is now located) in 1926. He skied other peaks in the area, such as Silver Peak and Granite Mountain.

In 1927 he wrote, “Finding that skiing on small hills was extremely pleasant and that higher hills were even more alluring, our ambition was aroused to ski as high as possible on our nearest large hill, namely, Mount Rainier.” With his friend Andy Anderson, Maxwell became convinced that it would be possible to ski to the summit of the Northwest’s greatest mountain. They set plans for an attempt in April 1927.

Mount Rainier had been climbed in winter just once before, in February 1922, when French alpinist-skiers Jacques and Jean Landry and Jacques Bergues climbed to the summit via the Gibraltar route. Every step of their two-week expedition was covered by local newspapers and the climbers were joined at the summit by a newsreel cameraman, Charles Perryman. Originally, the Landry party planned a ski ascent of the Emmons Glacier, but after viewing photographs of the mountain and talking to local climbers, they switched to the Gibraltar route, which offered high-elevation shelters at Anvil Rock and Camp Muir. The French party left their skis at the Anvil Rock fire lookout (9500ft) before climbing to the summit.

Mount Rainier (14,410ft) and its Emmons Glacier, a magnet for early ski mountaineers. Photo courtesy Spring Trust for Trails (negative #3234).
Mount Rainier (14,410ft) and its Emmons Glacier, a magnet for early ski mountaineers. Photo courtesy Spring Trust for Trails (negative #3234).
Mount Rainier (14,410ft) and its Emmons Glacier, a magnet for early ski mountaineers. Photo courtesy Spring Trust for Trails (negative #3234).

Bill Maxwell reckoned that the Emmons Glacier would be a better ski route than Gibraltar, since it was gentler and should have better snow conditions. But in 1927 the road to Chinook Pass was still under construction. In winter the plowed highway ended at Silver Springs, about 1-1/2 mile outside the national park boundary (near today’s Crystal Mountain road). From Silver Springs to Glacier Basin, the base for an ascent of the Emmons Glacier, was a 16-mile ski. There was no high shelter on the route at that time. The emergency hut at 9,500-ft Camp Schurman wasn’t built until the 1960s.

Maxwell and Anderson were joined by three other Mountaineers, Fred Dupuis, Lang Slaussen and Herman Wunderling. They skied to the Storbo mining cabin in Glacier Basin on April 1. Then the weather turned bad, and a snowstorm held them at the cabin for two days. When the storm passed they skied to the top of Steamboat Prow before turning back due to lack of time.

Maxwell and Anderson returned four weeks later with E. Lester LaVelle. They made two attempts from the Storbo Cabin, the first one thwarted by storm. They began their second attempt at 2:30 a.m. on May 2. Navigating in fog and snow they sensed their direction by calling and listening for echoes from Ruth Mountain on the left and St. Elmo’s ridge on the right. Reaching Camp Curtis at 7 a.m., Maxwell wrote, “The fog had lifted and a wonderful panorama of majestic, rugged mountains, winter-clad in all their icy grandeur, entranced our eyes.”

1927 ski attempt. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 13.
1927: Bill Maxwell (left) and E. Lester LaVelle climb the Emmons Glacier during an early attempt to ski Mount Rainier. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 13.
1927 ski attempt. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 13.

Morning passed as they zigzagged upward, pausing now and then to take pictures. By 3 p.m. they had climbed the Emmons Glacier to 12,500ft when a sudden windstorm made it impossible to continue farther. “No arguments were necessary about the return,” wrote Maxwell. “Spontaneously came the idea of shelter as quickly as possible.” They descended in a long series of zigzag turns to avoid crevasses then untied from the rope to ski freely. Later, Maxwell tried to describe this experience:

“Chilled from the breeze which usually prevails at Curtis Ridge, you point your skis downhill. Swiftly they rush, and perforce you fight to keep up with them. Your blood warms with the struggle, and for a moment your whole effort is concentrated on the idea of balance; desperately you sink from erect position to an extreme crouch; your eyes water; you face glows from the whipping of the wind; a spray of snow fluffs behind; your muscles relax somewhat as you grow accustomed to the swift descent; your mind blots out the idea of fear and telegraphs to every nerve the sheer joy of living; the thrill of speed exalts you and every petty worry fades away—this, indeed, is life. [...] Stretching out over the very points of your skis until at last the slippery boards skid around to change direction, you rush down in a wild ecstasy of speed—down, down, past the mine tunnel of summer time, across the side of Burroughs Mountain, over the snow of the glacier to the shelter of the mining camp.”

A sense of venturing into the unknown must have been palpable for these pioneers. Three weeks after Maxwell’s second attempt on Rainier, Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St Louis solo from New York to Paris. Aviator Elinor Smith later said, “It’s hard to describe the impact Lindbergh had on people. Even the first walk on the moon doesn’t come close.” Lindbergh’s spirit of adventure inspired millions of Americans, and it’s easy to imagine Maxwell and Anderson feeling the flame of their Mount Rainier desire burn a little hotter afterward.

They returned to Rainier in 1928 with a strong and experienced team. Fred Dupuis was on the first ski attempt in 1927. Norwegian Lars Lovseth had been one of the most experienced skiers in The Mountaineers for a decade. Walter Best was a varsity crewman on the 1925 University of Washington rowing team. Otto Strizek, a dentist and son of the Czechoslovakian consul in Seattle, had just won a trophy from The Mountaineers as the most improved new skier in the club. Finally, Hans-Otto Giese competed in the German Winter Olympics in 1922 before emigrating to the U.S. and was regarded by many as the best skier in the Northwest.

At the park entrance, 1928. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 13.
1928: At the White River park entrance during the first ski-climb of Mount Rainier. From left to right: Fred Dupuis, Andy Anderson, Lars Lovseth and Bill Maxwell. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 13.
  Roped climbing on skis, 1928. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 70.
1928: Ascending the Emmons Glacier during the first ski-climb of Mount Rainier. From front to rear: Fred Dupuis, Walter Best, Bill Maxwell and Lars Lovseth. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 70.
  Hans-Otto Giese and friends prepare an igloo on the Emmons Glacier, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.
1928: Hans-Otto Giese (facing the camera) and companions prepare an igloo near the edge of the Emmons Glacier during the first ski-climb of Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese Archives.
At the park entrance, 1928. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 13.   Roped climbing on skis, 1928. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Mountaineers Collection, Album 70.   Hans-Otto Giese and friends prepare an igloo on the Emmons Glacier, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.

Their climb on April 8 started out badly. Otto Strizek had spent most of the night jumping in place because he thought his feet were freezing. As they ventured onto the Emmons Glacier, Andy Anderson, in the lead, plunged into a hidden crevasse. He swung a ski pole across the chasm to check his fall then dangled for a moment before his friends pulled him out. Fortunately, ski poles in 1928 were made of stout wood. After the men rescued Anderson and regained their composure, they tied into their safety ropes to continue the climb.

As they zigzagged up the glacier, some of the men used sealskin climbers strapped to their skis to grip the frozen snow. Others used a sticky wax rubbed onto the ski bases. Most of the men climbed with two ski poles, but Maxwell skied with a single pole, holding a long ice axe in his other hand to fashion a belay if needed. After a few hours of climbing, alpenglow tinted the summit dome and the sun began to rise behind them.

As they neared the 12,000-ft level, still 2,400ft below the summit, lack of water and food took its toll on the men. The snow became so hard that their climbing skins and wax would no longer grip. None of the men’s skis had metal edges, and their bindings, made of iron lugs bolted through the skis with leather straps to secure their boots, gave only limited control as they stamped their feet for purchase.

Abandoning the skis near 12,000ft, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.
1928: Abandoning the skis near 12,000ft during the first ski-climb of Mount Rainier. Photo: Giese Archives.
  Hans-Otto Giese high on the Emmons Glacier, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.
1928: Hans-Otto Giese high on the Emmons Glacier during the first ski-climb of Mount Rainier, April 8, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.
  Seattle P-I story following the 1928 ski-climb. Clipping: Giese Archives.
1928: Seattle Post-Intelligencer article on April 11 after the first ski-climb of Mount Rainier (skis used to near 12,000ft). Clipping: Giese Archives.
Abandoning the skis near 12,000ft, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.   Hans-Otto Giese high on the Emmons Glacier, 1928. Photo: Giese Archives.   Seattle P-I story following the 1928 ski-climb. Clipping: Giese Archives.

Reluctantly, Maxwell, Anderson, Lovseth and Dupuis decided to turn back at 12,000ft. Best, Giese and Strizek abandoned their skis and continued to the summit on crampons. After a short summit celebration, the three men returned to their skis and skied back to Glacier Basin, descending in 2-1/2 hours what had taken two days to climb. “It was marvelous,” Giese later recalled. “We skied past our igloo so fast we couldn’t stop.”

Bill Maxwell was surely disappointed to have been turned back again by Mount Rainier, but proud of his friends who made what was regarded as the second winter ascent of the peak. Although they failed to ski all the way to the top, Hans-Otto Giese, Otto Strizek and Walter Best had established a milestone in Northwest mountaineering. They had demonstrated that skis could be tools of mountaineering, full-fledged complements to crampons and an ice axe. Skis had carried them higher than nearly all the mountains in the Northwest, and promised one day to conquer the highest of them all. Their climb of Mount Rainier had ushered in a new sport to the Pacific Northwest—ski mountaineering.

Ski Mountaineering
 
Defining What Ski Mountaineers Do

Ski-climb
A climb in which a significant portion of the route is done on foot. Historically, ski-climbs preceded ski ascents. Ski mountaineers would climb as high as possible on skis, then abandon them and continue to the summit on foot. An example is the 1928 ascent of Mount Rainier by Best, Giese and Strizek, in which skis were abandoned below 12,000 feet and the climb was completed on crampons.

Ski ascent
A climb completed on skis. Ski ascents (without corresponding descents) have seldom been recorded since World War II. A classic example is the 1939 ski ascent of Mount Rainier by Sigurd Hall. Due to icy conditions, Hall walked down the upper 2,000 feet of the mountain before beginning his ski descent with Andy Hennig.

Ski descent
A descent completed on skis. A pure, complete ski descent begins at the summit of a peak and is made entirely under ski control, with the skis worn at all times. A rope may be used for safety, but not to bear weight. Sidestepping and using an ice axe are fair game, but the highest style eschews both. Falls don’t nullify a ski descent, but in today’s steep descents, a fall would probably not be survivable. These ideals are pursued by record seekers, but most ski mountaineers don’t worry about whether a ski descent is pure and complete, and will do whatever is safest and most efficient to descend the mountain.

Ski summit
Ski summit is proposed as a casual term to describe a ski ascent combined with a ski descent. I prefer not to extend the term ski ascent for this, but instead retain its more restrictive, traditional meaning. The term ski descent doesn't very well convey the experience of skiing both up and down a peak. Ski summit is appropriate to describe skiing a remote peak, not necessarily difficult technically, where just getting there on skis is an accomplishment.

Ski traverse
A trek from point A to point B substantially made on skis. A ski traverse over a summit follows different routes on the ascent and descent. A loop or orbit ends near its starting point, but does not retrace its route.

 
 
Continued
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