1931: Hjalmar Hvam (right) and Andre Roch at the summit of Mount Hood on April 26, 1931. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, #BB 006512.
1931: Hjalmar Hvam (right) and Andre Roch at the summit of Mount Hood on April 26, 1931. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, #BB 006512.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
The Ski Climbers
  Part 4  

 
 
G uardians of the Columbia

Records of skiing in Oregon go back much farther than in Washington. The John Craig Memorial Race in Central Oregon honors a mail carrier who lost his life in 1877 while attempting to deliver the mail on skis over McKenzie Pass. Skis arrived on Mount Hood early as well, spurred by the development of the railroad along the Columbia River. The Cloud Cap Inn was constructed near 6,000ft on the northeast side of Mount Hood in the summer of 1889. In February 1890, Will and Doug Langille visited the inn on homemade skis to check on the structure. This was the first recorded skiing on the north side of Mount Hood.

Mount Hood in the 1930s. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 11, Volume 1.
Mount Hood (11,239ft) from timberline in the 1930s. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 11, Volume 1.
Mount Hood in the 1930s. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 11, Volume 1.

As roads were improved on the south side of Hood, interest in winter sports grew there. Members of the Mazamas started skiing in the 1910s, and the Mount Hood and Cascade Ski Clubs were formed in the late 1920s. Skiing in the 1920s and early 1930s centered around Government Camp, located at 4,000ft on the mountain below timberline. A spur road was constructed from Government Camp to timberline in 1930-31, but it was not plowed in winter until 1937, after the Timberline Lodge opened.

In the 1930s there was informal competition for the fastest time from the Portland city limits to the top of Mount Hood and back. On April 26, 1931, Hjalmar Hvam and Arne Stene of the Cascade Ski Club joined with Swiss skier Andre Roch to set a new record. With driver Harald Lee, the party left Portland at 6:03 a.m. and returned at 2:52 p.m., for a round-trip time of 8 hours, 49 minutes. They started skiing halfway between Government Camp and timberline.

Their ascent was remarkable not only for their fast time, but because they kept their skis on continuously to the summit and back. Hjalmar Hvam later wrote in the Cascade Ski Club yearbook that they sidestepped up the summit chute to the lookout cabin on top. After pausing to take a few pictures, they sideslipped and sidestepped down the chute, then boomed down the Palmer snowfield back to timberline. Even today most skiers leave their skis at the Hogback below the summit gullies and continue to the top on crampons. With leather boots and skis that probably lacked steel edges, it would have been much trickier to ski from the summit in 1931. But this was no ordinary ski party.

Ski ascent party en route to Mount Hood, 1931. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, Org Lot 572 Hjalmar Hvam Collection.
1931: From left to right: Harald Lee (driver), Andre Roch, Arne Stene and Hjalmar Hvam en route to the first ski ascent of Mount Hood. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, Org Lot 572 Hjalmar Hvam Collection.
  Andre Roch, Hjalmar Hvam and Arne Stene after skiing Mount Hood. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, #BB 006513.
1931: From left to right: Andre Roch, Hjalmar Hvam and Arne Stene below timberline after skiing Mount Hood. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, #BB 006513.
Ski ascent party en route to Mount Hood, 1931. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, Org Lot 572 Hjalmar Hvam Collection.   Andre Roch, Hjalmar Hvam and Arne Stene after skiing Mount Hood. Photo: Oregon Historical Society, #BB 006513.

Born in Norway in 1902, Hjalmar Hvam moved to Portland in 1927. In the mid-1930s he emerged as the top all-round skier in the Northwest. Hvam won the U.S. National Championship in Nordic combined at Lake Tahoe in 1932. 1936 was perhaps his best year, when he won twelve straight contests, including the Silver Skis on Mount Rainier. In May of that year, Hvam entered a four-way tournament at Mount Baker, consisting of cross-country, slalom, downhill and jumping events. He took first place in every discipline against stiff international competition.

Andre Roch, born in Switzerland in 1906, was studying in Oregon in 1931. Roch went on to make difficult first ascents in the Alps and he pioneered the route to the South Col of Mount Everest in 1952. In his career as director of the Swiss Avalanche Research Institute in Davos, he was regarded as the world’s foremost expert on snow and avalanches. Roch was also a first-rate ski mountaineer.

The April 1931 ski ascent of Mount Hood was no fluke. In December of that year, a ski party including Miss Elsa Hanft of Spokane repeated the ascent. (It’s unknown whether the party skied all the way to the summit.) Formerly a guide at the Mount Baker Lodge, Hanft was probably the first woman to scale Mount Hood with the help of skis. By the mid-1930s, ski mountaineering on Hood was becoming quite popular. In the 1935 American Ski Annual, Boyd French wrote, “It is an almost weekly occurrence for skiing parties to reach the summit at an altitude of 11,225 feet.” This was written before Timberline Lodge opened or the road was plowed in winter.

Mount Adams (12,276ft) engulfed by a cloudcap. Photo © Jason Hummel.
Mount Adams (12,276ft) engulfed by a cloudcap. Photo © Jason Hummel.
Mount Adams (12,276ft) engulfed by a cloudcap. Photo © Jason Hummel.

At 12,276ft, Mount Adams is second only to Rainier of the Pacific Northwest volcanoes. Yet the south route on Mount Adams provides one of the simplest climbing routes on any major Northwest peak. During the 1930s, pack trains climbed the mountain to extract sulphur from the summit. Covered with snow in spring and early summer, and lacking crevasses, the south route offers an ideal ski descent.

Walter Mosauer was a native of Austria, where he earned a degree in Zoology and learned the Arlberg style of skiing popularized by Hannes Schneider. After receiving his Ph.D. at Michigan he came to the University of California at Los Angeles in 1931. Mosauer immediately began looking for skiing opportunities in Southern California. At first he had difficulty finding companions, but he met students of Pomona College who formed a little community of skiers to accompany him. In June 1932, after the Southern California ski season ended, Mosauer recruited Sandy Lyons, one of the Pomona students, to accompany him on a ski vacation in the Pacific Northwest.

They skied to and from the rim of Crater Lake in Oregon, made a ski-climb of Mount Hood, several trips to Camp Muir and Burroughs Mountain on Mount Rainier, and skied around the Mount Baker Lodge. These trips were made in the company of local skiers such as Bill Maxwell, Hans Grage, Robert Hayes, Ben Thompson, and other members of the Seattle Mountaineers.

Mosauer later wrote: “Every one of the Mountaineers was well equipped and seemed surprisingly familiar with all the ultramodern trends in skiing and outfitting methods. This skiing group of mountaineers, who upon my arrival at Seattle had received me like a brother, keeps pace with every development in Europe, subscribing to the British mountaineering and skiing journals, importing all the new ski bindings, ski waxes and knapsacks or manufacturing slightly modified editions themselves. Thus there is a small number of people in Washington equaling the progressive spirit of ski mountaineers of Europe.”

During his ski trips on Hood and Rainier, Mosauer admired the majestic bulk of Mount Adams standing on the horizon. Local skiers had no knowledge of previous ski ascents of Adams, so a plan was hatched to ski the peak as the climax of Mosauer’s Northwest vacation. The party would include Californians Mosauer and Lyons together with Hans-Otto Giese, Hans Grage and Dr. Otto Strizek of Seattle.

Beginning the ascent of Mount Adams, 1932. Photo: Giese Archives.
1932: Beginning the ascent of Mount Adams, Hans-Otto Giese at left, Walter Mosauer at right. Photo: Giese Archives.
  Giese, Mosauer and Lyons rest on Mount Adams, 1932. Photo: Giese Archives.
1932: Hans-Otto Giese, Walter Mosauer and Sandy Lyons rest during the first ski descent of Mount Adams on July 16, 1932. Photo: Giese Archives.
  Skiing near the summit of Mount Adams, 1932. Photo: Walter Mosauer, AAJ 1935.
1932: Skiing the last hundred feet to the top of Mount Adams. Photo: Walter Mosauer, American Alpine Journal, 1935.
Beginning the ascent of Mount Adams, 1932. Photo: Giese Archives.   Giese, Mosauer and Lyons rest on Mount Adams, 1932. Photo: Giese Archives.   Skiing near the summit of Mount Adams, 1932. Photo: Walter Mosauer, AAJ 1935.

On July 16, the five men left a camp at Cold Creek (around 5,500ft) and climbed to the summit of Mount Adams in about 7-1/2 hours. Mosauer later wrote: “Since an ice cold gale converted the snow into hard ice, skis were used only occasionally during the ascent, while in other places crampons were indispensible. Thus our trip cannot be considered a ‘ski ascent’ proper, which in my opinion is a meaningless classification anyway. The descent, however, was a full, continuous ski-run from 12,307 to below 6,000 feet, delightful in spite of difficult snow conditions.”

Hans-Otto Giese got swept up in the thrill of the descent and later regretted it: “I got so intoxicated with the sensation of speed that I never stopped at all,” he recalled. “I just let it go—all the way down 6,000ft. Suddenly there were flowers and moss under my skis, and then, by God, there was some more snow beyond! I skied until I was across the last foot of snow. When I finally stopped, I decided to look back at the mountain I had just come down. But when I turned my head around, I could barely see a thing. I had not been wearing sunglasses and I was suddenly snow-blind!” With the help of his friends he made his way back to camp. “That night I couldn’t even stand the brightness of the moon,” he said. Returning to Seattle with snow compresses on his eyes, he had to wear dark glasses for several weeks until his vision returned to normal.

Upon returning to Southern California, Mosauer later wrote: “I unloaded my boundless enthusiasm for skiing on anybody who was willing to listen.” He soon founded the Ski Mountaineering Section of the Sierra Club and started (and coached) the UCLA ski team. Tragically, he died in 1937 of a tropical fever contracted on a zoology expedition in Mexico. Today he is regarded as the father of alpine skiing in Southern California.

Otto Strizek and Hans-Otto Giese, the fathers of ski mountaineering in Washington. Photo: Giese Archives.
Otto Strizek and Hans-Otto Giese in 1929. Their attempts on Baker, Glacier, Rainier, Adams and St. Helens between 1928 and 1935 introduced ski mountaineering to the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Giese Archives.
Otto Strizek and Hans-Otto Giese, the fathers of ski mountaineering in Washington. Photo: Giese Archives.

Toward the end of 1932, Art Winder wrote an article for The Mountaineer that highlighted club skiing for the year. The ascent of Mount Adams was the outstanding achievement, and Winder recognized it as part of a larger trend. “Mountaineers are re-exploring their alpine domain,” he wrote. “But instead of going in the plodding manner of preceding years, afoot, slim skis that dart like lightning over the white blanket of snow carry the enthusiast into the wilderness he loves.” Winder predicted with confidence: “Much still remains for the Mountaineer to do. Not only is he confronted yet with the vast task of completing the exploration of his own Northwest mountains afoot, but he has as yet but scratched the surface of the possibilities of re-conquering old man mountain’s domain a-ski. But the fever is growing rapidly and the next few seasons will see the track of grooved ski firmly implanted beside the mark of nailed boot on the summits of many of our beloved mountain monarchs.”

In June 1933, Hans-Otto Giese and Otto Strizek made the first ski descent of Mount St. Helens, the last of the “Guardians of the Columbia” to be skied. Their trip received only the tiniest mention in the August 1933 Mountaineer bulletin, so tiny that it was overlooked for nearly 70 years. Much later, Giese recalled the ascent for Tim Thompson in the December 1969 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Giese had just gotten his first pair of steel-edged skis. In the early 1930s, few manufacturers supplied skis with hard edges, so the skier usually had to install them himself or find some woodworker to lend assistance. People were experimenting with all sorts of designs. Semi-hard edge materials included celluloid, bakelite, textolite, glyptal, aluminum and brass. The really hard edges were made of cold-rolled steel sheet, heat treated duralumin, or stainless steel. Edges might be cemented onto the ski, screwed on flat (either on the base or side of the ski), formed into a T or S-section, or installed at a forty-five degree angle in a slot cut into the ski edge. Steel edges were initially thought to be too dangerous for beginners, but this idea faded during the 1930s.

Mount St. Helens in the 1930s. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
1930s: Ralph Eskenazi crosses Spirit Lake during an early ski of Mount St. Helens (9,677ft). The first ski descent was made by Hans-Otto Giese and Otto Strizek in June 1933. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
Mount St. Helens in the 1930s. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.

As the two men skied down Mount St. Helens, Giese decided to show off his new skis. “I’d say, ‘lean out, Otto’ but, of course, I had the advantage,” he recalled. As they were zooming down on opposite sides of a small ridge, Giese slipped, and at nearly the same time—unknown to him—so did Strizek. The two men slid for hundreds of feet, unable to see each other. Giese recalled, “I tried to stop with my bamboo poles, but I was going too fast.” Finally, he slid over a crevasse and went “BAM!—like a ball hitting a mitt—right into the lip on the opposite side,” he recalled. The same thing happened to his companion. “It was foggy and we couldn’t see each other,” Giese said. “He yelled ‘Otto, Otto’ and I yelled, ‘Otto, Otto.’ Oh what a mess!”

The men finally found each other and rejoined their girl friends who had been waiting at the bottom of the mountain during their climb. With six bottles of homemade beer, they drove to Cannon Beach in Oregon for a night swim in the ocean. “Ha! Marvelous,” recalled Giese. “That was quite a day, quite a day!”

A New Discipline

In the 1920s and 30s, the pioneers of ski mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest took their cue from Europe, where skiing was a decade ahead of America. Northwesterners like Bill Maxwell and Robert Hayes learned everything they could from the books of Arnold Lunn of England and Hannes Schneider of Austria, as well as the films of Arnold Fanck of Germany. Visitors and immigrants to the Northwest brought first-hand experience from the Alps, but dissemination of that knowledge was sporadic.

Wolf Bauer, who emigrated from Germany as a boy, developed The Mountaineers climbing course in 1935 to bring systematic climbing instruction to the Northwest for the first time. Bauer’s students expanded the course to include winter mountaineering and by the late 1930s and early 1940s they were scheduling ski climbs on peaks such as Mount Baker, Mount Pilchuck, Granite Mountain, Little Tahoma and Mount St. Helens.

In 1941, Walt Little oversaw the creation of a ski mountaineering course for The Mountaineers that was intended to stand on its own. Students would no longer have to take a separate climbing course before learning the basics of ski mountaineering. Little supervised the writing of a 100-page handbook that covered snowcraft and waxing, avalanches, route finding, snow camping, glacier skiing, and self-rescue.

Little and his friends consulted European books about skiing on glaciers then modified the techniques after rigorously testing them. One book showed skiers carrying big coils of rope, but that was no good. There should be no slack in the rope, to minimize the length of a crevasse fall. Other books recommended ropes that were too short. Little’s group found that long ropes were necessary to provide enough friction to stop a fall. They spent weekends experimenting at Paradise on Mount Rainier. They would send a hardy skier like Jack Hossack plunging over the cornice in Edith Creek Basin then practice stopping his fall and performing a rescue.

About 100 people registered for the first ski mountaineering course during the 1941-42 ski season. In spite of World War II, which engulfed the U.S. midway through the course, 31 people took the final exam and eight graduated, including Walt Little. The second year of the course saw 18-year-old Chuck Welsh graduate. Welsh and three friends would make the first complete ski descent of Mount Rainier in 1948, using techniques learned in the Mountaineers’ ski mountaineering course.

When he launched the course in 1941, Walt Little wrote: “The Pacific Northwest is probably the best of all potential ski-mountaineering country in the United States, providing a very long snow season lasting at higher altitudes from November to July, fine peaks and the only possibility for glacier skiing.” It’s unknown whether formal instruction in ski mountaineering existed anywhere else in the United States at that time. But it’s likely that Walt Little and his Mountaineer friends were the first to teach North American mountaineers how to ski on glaciers in safety.

 
 
Continued
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