Mount Baker (10,781ft) from Artist Point. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
Mount Baker (10,781ft) from Artist Point. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
The Ski Climbers
  Part 2  

 
 
` In No Sense a Stunt”

Born in Germany in 1902, Hans-Otto Giese immigrated to the United States in 1923. In Seattle he worked as secretary at the German consulate, studied law at the University of Washington, and competed in ski tournaments in his spare time. A scrapbook entry from the 1920s indicates that he was winning an average of three prizes per month for his prowess in skiing. Giese was also an ardent mountaineer, and his experience on Mount Rainier sparked his interest in more ski mountaineering adventures.

Mount Baker was the logical next step. In 1925, the Mount Baker Club, a Bellingham organization devoted to the idea that Mount Baker should have its own national park, built a sturdy log cabin near 5,000ft on the north side of the mountain. Kulshan Cabin was just below timberline near Heliotrope Ridge and a ten-mile hike from the town of Glacier. The cabin cost $2000 to build, a lot of money in those days. The cost and effort of constructing the cabin so drained the Mount Baker Club that they reorganized in 1928 as an outing club, their days of lobbying and development over.

Kulshan Cabin provided an ideal base for climbs of the mountain. In December 1925, four members of the Mount Baker Club took advantage of the new cabin to make the first winter climb of the volcano, on foot. The cabin remained a landmark on the approach hike to Mount Baker for over 60 years. Climbing parties were still using the cabin regularly in 1975, when I made my first climb of the mountain. The cabin was closed and removed a few years after 1984, when Mount Baker became a federally designated wilderness area.

Hans-Otto Giese at Kulshan Cabin, Christmas Day, 1929. Photo: Giese Archives.
1929: Hans-Otto Giese at Kulshan Cabin on Mount Baker on Christmas Day, 1929. With Robert Hayes, Giese made the first try at skiing the volcano, which prompted a flurry of attempts. Photo: Giese Archives.
Hans-Otto Giese at Kulshan Cabin, Christmas Day, 1929. Photo: Giese Archives.

Hans-Otto Giese made plans with Robert Hayes, another Mountaineer skier, to climb Mount Baker on skis on Christmas Day, 1929. A Seattle newspaper announced their plans the day they left for the mountain. “If we succeed, it will be the first time that a major Western peak has been conquered with skis,” said Hayes. They drove from Seattle to Glacier on the evening of December 23 then climbed 4,000ft to Kulshan Cabin the following day. Rain fell during the approach, and slushy snow made the skiing difficult. On Christmas Day the storm grew to a blizzard. The two skiers labored to a point near the Black Buttes but were forced back. Hayes later said, “I am sure Mount Baker can be climbed with skis under favorable weather conditions.”

Giese and Hayes were not alone in hoping to make the first ski ascent of Mount Baker. One week later, on January 3, 1930, three University of Washington students left Glacier for Kulshan Cabin. Robert Sperlin, Edwin Loners and Ernie Pugh climbed into a blizzard on the Coleman Glacier during their summit attempt and failed to get beyond the Black Buttes. Conditions on January 5 were so bad that it took the men ten hours to ski ten miles downhill back to Glacier.

Two weeks later another party gave it a try. Arnold Campbell, Ned Cunningham, Bert Heinz, Donald Norbeck, and William Sweet were also students at the University of Washington. Their attempt to ski the mountain on January 18-19 was made with clear but bitterly cold weather. The temperature at Glacier dropped to minus six degrees Fahrenheit during their trip, and the skiers estimated that it was 20 below zero at Kulshan Cabin. They abandoned the climb due to extreme cold. Ned Cunningham froze his left foot but managed to get back safely.

Ascending Coleman Glacier during the 1930 first ski ascent. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.
1930: Ascending Coleman Glacier during the first ski ascent of Mount Baker by Edwin Loners and Robert Sperlin with John Booth. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.
  Climbing beneath the Black Buttes during the 1930 first ski ascent. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.
1930: Climbing beneath the Black Buttes during the first ski ascent of Mount Baker by Edwin Loners and Robert Sperlin with John Booth. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.
Ascending Coleman Glacier during the 1930 first ski ascent. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.   Climbing beneath the Black Buttes during the 1930 first ski ascent. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.

Each of these attempts was reported in local newspapers. Francis Koons, outing chairman of the Mount Baker Club, concluded that if anyone was going to ski to the top of Mount Baker, it ought to be somebody from his club. Koons hoped to organize an attempt, but he acknowledged that his club’s members were relatively new to skiing and might not be experienced enough. The series of unsuccessful attempts had ignited quite a rivalry.

The Giese-Hayes attempt also caused a scandal within The Mountaineers. In the February 6, 1930 minutes of the Mountaineers Board of Trustees, historian Stella Degenhardt years later found the following entry:

“Upon the request of Mr. Hayes and Mr. Giese it was voted to insert an item in the Bulletin which will make it clear to the membership that their attempted climb of Mount Baker on skis on New Years was in no sense a ‘stunt’ climb; that ski mountaineering is a new phase of mountaineering, and in many respects safer than summer climbing; that their plans had been carefully made, that it was a feasible trip, and they turned back only on account of weather conditions.”

A statement to this effect was published in the club’s March bulletin “to modify or correct the recent criticism” aimed at Hans-Otto Giese and Bob Hayes.

Nearing the saddle during the 1930 first ski ascent. Photo: C. F.  Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.
1930: Nearing the saddle during the first ski ascent of Mount Baker by Edwin Loners and Robert Sperlin with John Booth. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.
Nearing the saddle during the 1930 first ski ascent. Photo: C. F. Easton’s Mount Baker Collection, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA.

I’m unaware of other attempts to ski Mount Baker during the winter of 1930, but on May 4, Robert Sperlin and Edwin Loners returned to the mountain to complete the first ski ascent. Sperlin and Loners left Seattle on a Friday evening with John Booth, a novice at both skiing and climbing. They started hiking to Kulshan Cabin at midnight and ate breakfast at the cabin after arriving around 5:30 a.m. Then they headed straight for the climb on skis. Poor weather turned them back later in the morning, so they spent the afternoon skiing new snow in the cirque above the cabin. They went to bed very tired after about 37 hours without sleep.

The morning of their successful climb was crystal clear. Snow conditions were good and they made normal time zigzagging upward. “We stopped often to enjoy a view which was beautiful beyond description,” wrote Sperlin. “Before us were the Black Buttes and the peak itself, glorified by a fresh fall of snow.” Above the Coleman-Deming saddle conditions became icy. Booth left his skis there and continued upward on crampons. Sperlin and Loners worked up the slope above the Deming Glacier on skis. “Here we were very cautious, as a slip might mean a drop into one of the many crevasses below,” Sperlin recalled. “The snow was crusty, but by stamping our skis down hard they would break through enough to give a comfortable hold.” Eight hours after leaving the cabin, the two men skied to the summit, with Booth not far behind.

“We decided it would be unwise to use skis for the descent on the icy snow slope above Deming Glacier,” wrote Sperlin. “Hence we roped up and used crampons until we reached the saddle. At the saddle we found ourselves in a cloud. However, our morning tracks were plainly visible, and in almost no time, it seemed, we were back at Kulshan Cabin. It was one fast run after another.” Their climb was heralded as the first ski ascent of a major Cascade peak.

Pioneeering Climbs

1927, April 1-4: Mount Rainier
First ski attempt via Emmons Glacier by Andy Anderson, Fred Dupuis, Bill Maxwell, Lang Slaussen and Herman P. Wunderling. The party reached Camp Curtis at 9,500ft and turned back due to lack of time. A 36-mile round trip starting at Silver Springs.

1927, May 2: Mount Rainier
Ski attempt to 12,500ft via Emmons Glacier by Andy Anderson, E. Lester LaVelle and Bill Maxwell. Turned back due to high winds.

1928, April 8: Mount Rainier
Successful ski-climb via Emmons Glacier by a party including Andy Anderson, Walter Best, Fred Dupuis, Hans-Otto Giese, Lars Lovseth, Bill Maxwell and Otto Strizek. Four men reached 12,000ft, where icy conditions forced them to abandon skis and use crampons. Best, Giese and Strizek continued to the summit.

1930, May 4: Mount Baker
Ski ascent via Coleman-Deming route by Edwin Loners and Robert B. Sperlin. The first attempt by Hans-Otto Giese and Robert Hayes on Christmas Day, 1929 was followed by several unsuccessful tries.

1931, April 26, Mount Hood
Ski ascent and descent via the south side route by Hjalmar Hvam, Andre Roch and Arne Stene.

1931, June 28: Mount Baker
Ski-climb of Park Glacier by Ben Thompson, Robert Hayes, Milana Jank and Otto Strizek. Skis were left at the bergschrund below the Cockscomb and the climb was completed using crampons. On July 15, Milana Jank repeated the ascent solo in a one-day round-trip from the Mount Baker Lodge.

1932, July 16: Mount Adams
Ski descent of south spur route by Hans-Otto Giese, Hans Grage, Sandy Lyons, Walter Mosauer and Otto Strizek. Due to icy conditions most of the climb was made on crampons.

1933, April: Little Tahoma
Ski ascent by Paul Gilbreath and J. Wendell Trosper. Skis used to within eight feet of the top.

1933, June: Mount St. Helens
Ski ascent, presumably from Spirit Lake, by Hans-Otto Giese and Otto Strizek.

1938, July 4: Glacier Peak
Ski ascent and descent by Sigurd Hall and Dwight Watson. The ascent was via glaciers east of Frostbite Ridge and the descent was via Kennedy Glacier west of the Rabbit Ears.

1939, May 13: Mount Baker
Summit ski traverse by Andy Hennig, Erick Larson and Dwight Watson, ascending the Coleman Glacier and descending the Park Glacier. The traverse from Kulshan Cabin to Mount Baker Lodge was completed in a single day.

1941, March 29: Mount Shuksan
Ski ascent and descent of White Salmon Glacier by Henry Reasoner and Otto Trott. The party bivouacked at the base of the summit rocks after climbing to the top then skied down the following day.

1948, July 18: Mount Rainier
Complete ski descent of Emmons Glacier by Kermit Bengtson, Dave Roberts, Cliff Schmidtke and Charles Welsh.

 
 
Continued
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