1939: Andy Hennig ascends the Coleman Glacier during the May 13, 1939 summit traverse of Mount Baker. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.
1939: Andy Hennig ascends the Coleman Glacier during the May 13, 1939 summit traverse of Mount Baker. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
The Ski Climbers
  Part 5  

 
 
A n Unlikely Partnership

On July 4, 1935, Hans-Otto Giese and Don Fraser tried to ski Glacier Peak, the most remote volcano in the Cascade Range. Photos in Giese family scrapbooks suggest that the two men approached the northeast side of the peak by the Gamma Ridge trail, a route seldom used today. The attempt was unsuccessful, for reasons that aren’t recorded. Three years later the first ski ascent was made by Dwight Watson and Sigurd Hall.

Watson and Hall were very different from each other, yet they formed a complementary pair. Nearly ten years older, Watson was born in Seattle in 1900. He briefly studied engineering at the University of Washington and became interested in the outdoors after working on a hydroelectric project near Mount Rainier. He began skiing relatively late in life. Descending from a snowshoeing trip at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground in 1926, he was passed by a pair of skiers. “They took off their skis and put on snowshoes!” he recalled with surprise. “There was probably fifteen inches fresh snow. THAT unsold me on skiing for a long time.” Watson apparently started skiing in his early thirties. He fell in love with the sport, especially skiing high, remote mountains. He was never much interested in the competitive or social aspects of the sport.

Watson was quietly but deeply religious. He strongly opposed the theory of evolution as taught in public schools. Yet as his friend Gino Picini later said, “He was not anybody to button-hole people or pound the pulpit. But if he found anyone who wanted to learn about God’s creation or the Bible, he would provide the information.” Watson was introduced to the North Cascades by pioneer climber Hermann Ulrichs, who was not a skier.

Sigurd Hall and an admirer, circa 1938. Photo: Dwight Watson Collection, The Mountaineers Archives.
Sigurd Hall and an admirer in about 1938. With his complete ski ascent of Mount Rainier in 1939, Hall became the first person to reach the summit of each of the Cascade volcanos on skis. Photo: Dwight Watson Collection, The Mountaineers Archives.
Sigurd Hall and an admirer, circa 1938. Photo: Dwight Watson Collection, The Mountaineers Archives.

Sigurd Hall (originally Hoel) was born in 1910 on his family’s farm in the Sunndal Valley of Norway. He was an outstanding athlete in skiing and soccer in his youth. As a farm boy, Sig never had a lot of fancy equipment. He was known to show up at ski competitions with poles made out of the farm’s curtain rods. When he was twelve, he broke one of his skis a few days before a competition. The family had no money to buy skis and there was no time to make another, so he patched the ski with a piece of sheet metal. The city boys teased him about his shabby equipment but he nevertheless won the event. His victories were the subject of many articles in the local newspaper.

Hall was a free spirit and an adventurer at a time when rural Norwegian society was quite conservative. He swam the Driva River in spring high water (both over and back) to the worry of his family. His young friends in the Sunndal Valley built a house for parties and gatherings, but one Constitution Day (May 17) the local fundamentalists tried to stop them from dancing. Sig said, “It's a damned thing when we can’t dance in our own house!”

As the oldest boy, Sigurd was in line to inherit the Hoel family farm. But times were hard, so in 1929, at age 19, he left for America. His intention was to stay a few years to earn money to help the farm financially. But he arrived in the U.S. at the start of the Great Depression and found hard times here as well. He found work as an electrician, a skill he had taught himself. His real passions were climbing and skiing. He met Dwight Watson through The Mountaineers. Watson’s knowledge of the local mountains and Hall’s passion for skiing led to an unusual yet complementary partnership for exploring the Cascade backcountry on skis.

Their ascent of Glacier Peak began on a cloudy afternoon at the end of the Suiattle River road. They hiked and carried skis a few hours up the Milk Creek trail, then camped under a tarp in light rain. The next day they continued to a campsite above Mica Lake, stashed equipment, and scouted the route ahead in clouds and fog. On the morning of July 4, 1938, they started early, skiing past Milk Lake and following a spiral route up the northeast side of Glacier Peak across the Ptarmigan, Vista, Ermine and Dusty Glaciers. Light rain fell at times during their climb.

The shoulder above North Guardian Rock proved to be the crux of the route. “Now the ridge narrowed and steepened,” Watson wrote, “and ahead was a vertical pinnacle several hundred feet high. It looked like defeat for the fog lay thick and baffling and it is not socially correct to ski on steep slopes with visibility nil especially when terrain is new.” They removed their skis and jabbed them into the snow like ice axes to climb up and around rock walls to the saddle south of the Rabbit Ears. From there they skied easily to the summit.

When the clouds parted they noticed a route west of the Rabbit Ears that offered an easier descent. They skied onto the upper Kennedy Glacier, then removed their skis briefly to cross pumice and rocks to Kennedy Ridge, from which they could see their morning tracks. Watson took 16mm movies during the climb, and the descent was especially memorable. “I've got a beautiful shot of Sig,” he later told historian Harry Majors. “He must have been doing 60 miles an hour here. He went across, and made a turn, and went down there. It wasn’t exaggerated at all. The way he just scooted up the last bit, he was just going like... Oh, tremendous speed.”

Glacier Peak from Image Lake. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
1938: Glacier Peak (10,520ft+) from Image Lake. The 1938 ski ascent by Sigurd Hall and Dwight Watson roughly followed the right skyline of the peak. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
  Sigurd Hall climbs Glacier Peak. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
1938: Sigurd Hall traverses below seracs during the first ski ascent of Glacier Peak, July 4, 1938. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
  Sigurd Hall atop Glacier Peak. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 4, Folder 3.
1938: Sigurd Hall near the summit of Glacier Peak during the first ski ascent, July 4, 1938. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 4, Folder 3.
Glacier Peak from Image Lake. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.   Sigurd Hall climbs Glacier Peak. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.   Sigurd Hall atop Glacier Peak. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 4, Folder 3.

They packed up and began hiking out around 7 p.m. Darkness fell half-way down the ten-mile trail and they stumbled along with a single flashlight, arriving at their car after midnight. Hall passed out in the passenger seat, while Watson eased the car toward Seattle, stopping a couple of times to snooze. They arrived home at 5 a.m., cleaned up, and headed for work.

Watson and Hall had attempted to ski Mount Baker from the northeast (Milana Jank’s route) earlier in the spring of 1938. They turned back below the final headwall of the Park Glacier due to lack of time. A week after their Glacier Peak climb, they joined a Mountaineers party to ski Mount Baker by the Kulshan Cabin route. But the east side route continued to tantalize Watson, so he made another try from that side in April 1939. This time his party was turned back by bad weather.

After this trip, Watson had an inspiration. Rather than ski up and down Mount Baker by a single route, as every previous party had done, he realized that he could use his knowledge of both sides of the mountain to complete a summit ski traverse, something never before attempted on a major Cascade peak. The idea became an obsession. “From then on it was a watchful eye to the weather and to the weather map and to the weather man but all were adamant,” he wrote. “Finally a break occurred quite unexpected and we were off in the middle of the week.”

Watson’s partners on the trip were Erick Larson, a Swede who came to the United States as a youngster in the 1920s, and Andy Hennig, an alpinist who’d recently emigrated from Austria to become a ski instructor at Sun Valley. When I spoke to him sixty years later, Larson remembered that Watson had planned the trip meticulously. Dwight was known to telephone at midnight if a trip was in the works and conditions suddenly looked good. The three men left Graham’s Lodge at Glacier and had a leisurely hike to Kulshan Cabin. “The walk up the Glacier trail in the morning was more beautiful than ever and the sun was clear and warm,” Watson wrote. “We were in no hurry and the day was worth living to the full.”

The Kulshan Cabin door was buried by snow and they found a shovel to dig it out. Since the cabin was well supplied with blankets, they carried no sleeping bags. Rising early the next morning, they discovered that packrats had chewed through Larson’s rucksack and had eaten all the greens off his carrots. The rodents must have been craving vitamins after the long winter, Watson concluded, because “they passed up the cheese and the butter.”

Andy Hennig and Dwight Watson, 1939. Photo: O.P. Dickert, The Mountaineers Archives.
1939: Andy Hennig and Dwight Watson. Photo: Othello Phillip Dickert, The Mountaineers Archives.
  Larson and Hennig climb Mt Baker. Photo: UW Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.
1939: Erick Larson (left) and Andy Hennig climb Mount Baker during the first summit ski traverse, May 13, 1939. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.
  Watson and Hennig atop Mt Baker. Photo: UW Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.
1939: Dwight Watson (left) and Andy Hennig atop Mount Baker during the first summit ski traverse, May 13, 1939. Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.
Andy Hennig and Dwight Watson, 1939. Photo: O.P. Dickert, The Mountaineers Archives.   Larson and Hennig climb Mt Baker. Photo: UW Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.   Watson and Hennig atop Mt Baker. Photo: UW Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 6, Folder 4.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on May 13, 1939, the men began their ascent, climbing hard snow on the Coleman Glacier. Their climbing skins often slipped, so when they reached the saddle next to the Black Buttes they simply shouldered their skis and walked to the summit plateau on foot. Watson carried a 16mm movie camera and filmed scenes of the climb. Skiing to the summit around noon, he theatrically unfurled an American flag for the camera. Then they began descending the opposite side of the mountain. After skiing along the ridge toward the Cockscomb, they roped up and down-climbed to the bergschrund. They belayed each other across the gap and finally Andy jumped over it.

In Watson’s film of the Park Glacier descent, Andy Hennig makes stem christies with his ski poles in one hand and his long ice axe in the other. The practice of skiing with a tool for self-arrest is something ski mountaineers have rediscovered in recent years. The men skied through Epley Portal, traversed the north side of Coleman Pinnacle, and reached the Mount Baker Lodge a little after 8 p.m. Watson recalled: “Andy’s most famous accomplishment was finding the lodge manager and persuading him to drive us 22 miles to our car at Glacier creek, a delightful and friendly gesture which we all appreciated but most of all Erick who had to be at work next day.”

The Mount Baker ski traverse was a magnificent success, but Watson, Hall and their friends had bigger plans in mind. They realized that the 1928 ski-climb of Mount Rainier by Giese, Strizek and Best had been a partial triumph. Skis had not yet reached the summit of Rainier, and they hoped to be the first to ski all the way to or from the top.

In the 1939 Mountaineer, Sigurd Hall wrote that only three routes on the mountain were worth considering on skis—the Tahoma Glacier on the west side, the Ingraham Glacier on the east, and the Emmons Glacier on the northeast. The Tahoma and Ingraham Glaciers were more difficult to reach and probably too steep to be practical, he thought, so the Emmons, the route of the original ski attempts, remained the best choice. “On several weekends in the fore part of the summer we had had a party ready for the assault,” Hall wrote, “but Saturday would come with dark clouds and rain, calling off the trip.”

On June 28, Watson, Larson and Hennig made a mid-week attempt on the mountain, but they were turned back around 12,000ft by gathering clouds. Just three days later, Hennig returned with Sigurd Hall for another try. With Watson and Larson unable to go, the two skiers joined forces with a climbing party led by Larry Penberthy. “When we checked in at the White River Ranger Station at 10:30 Saturday morning, the ranger looked with some distrust at our skis,” Hall wrote. “However, as we also had crampons and ice axes, he checked us through.”

After a four-mile hike to Glacier Basin, they skied up the Inter Glacier using klister wax. Hall was a cross-country skiing champion and thus an expert waxer. At Camp Curtis they changed to skare wax, anticipating hard crust in the morning. A gale was blowing off the mountain, and they went to bed with doubts about the climb.

Seattle Times story following the 1939 Mt Rainier ski ascent. Clipping courtesy Matt C. Broze.
1939: Seattle Times sports column on July 17, following the first complete ski ascent of Mount Rainier by Sigurd Hall with Andy Hennig, July 2, 1939. Clipping courtesy Matt C. Broze.
Seattle Times story following the 1939 Mt Rainier ski ascent. Clipping courtesy Matt C. Broze.

They left their bivouac at 3 a.m. on July 2, 1939. The weather was unchanged, and they set out hoping for the best. Around 12,000ft, Hennig had trouble with one of his bindings, so he removed his skis and switched to crampons. This left Hall as the only skier. “The last two thousand feet were the most difficult,” Hall wrote. “The slope was too steep and the snow too hard to use the climbing surface of the ski. I had to jab in the steel edge two or three times, take a step and do it all over again. However, the edges proved their usability. Not once did they slip.” Near the summit the surface was hard ice with a trace of new snow on top. Hall wrote: “Progress was very slow the last three hundred feet, but finally we arrived at the rim and looked over the crater. The mountain had been conquered on skis!”

As they rested and ate lunch near a steam vent in the crater, a cloud cap began forming over the summit. Recognizing this as a warning sign, they soon began their descent on crampons. The snow was rock-hard, making skiing impossible. “Even metal edges wouldn’t hold,” Hall later said. The cloud cap grew and descended toward them, preventing the snow from softening as they had hoped. They descended to about 12,000ft before exchanging crampons for skis. Visibility was near zero and they reached Camp Curtis in driving rain. “In spite of the weather we had a fine run down Inter Glacier to Storbo,” Hall later wrote. “We waited for the rest of the party and reached the cars at White River Camp—tired but happy.”

Dwight Watson Films

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Dwight Watson made a remarkable series of 8mm and 16mm silent films of his trips in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Watson occasionally showed these films to members of The Mountaineers and the general public. Following his death in 1996, Watson’s films were donated to The Mountaineers.

Skiing Mount St. Helens - 1938

This movie was filmed by Dwight Watson on June 5, 1938 with Sigurd Hall, Ralph Eskenazi and John James. The film begins with a scene of Ralph Eskenazi rowing a boat across Spirit Lake the day before their climb. On the mountain, Eskenazi wears a white hat, James wears a black hat, and Hall wears no hat. The men climb the mountain on foot, carrying skis. Near the summit they enjoy views of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier then begin their ski descent. The film includes unique scenes of roped skiing near yawning crevasses. Lower the skiers remove the rope and ski open slopes below the Dogs Head to timberline.

Skiing Glacier Peak - 1938

Dwight Watson and Sigurd Hall made the first ski ascent of Glacier Peak on July 4, 1938, approaching from the north. This movie was filmed by Dwight Watson during their climb. The climb was made in fog and the men emerged from the clouds near the summit. Sigurd Hall is the skier in most scenes, but there is a brief shot of Dwight Watson with his back to the camera, wearing a pack. During the descent Sigurd Hall skis above the Rabbit Ears (a rock formation) and zooms down snowfields at high speed.

Mount Baker Ski Traverse - 1939

On May 13, 1939, Dwight Watson, Andy Hennig and Erick Larson completed the first ski traverse over the summit of Mount Baker from Kulshan Cabin to the Mount Baker Lodge. Dwight Watson made this movie during their trip. In most scenes, Hennig wears a Tyrolean hat and carries a long ice axe. Larson wears a light colored jacket and has no ice axe.

The men hike to Kulshan Cabin and shovel out the door. They ski up the Coleman Glacier to the Coleman-Deming saddle, then carry their skis up Roman Wall to the summit. They descend toward the Cockscomb and rope up to down-climb the headwall of the Park Glacier. They ski the Park and Rainbow Glaciers to Epley Portal and traverse to Table Mountain near the Mount Baker Lodge.

Mount Rainier Ski Attempt - 1939

This movie of an attempt to ski Mount Rainier was made by Dwight Watson just four days before the first ski ascent by Sigurd Hall on July 2, 1939. The film opens with a scene of Erick Larson and Andy Hennig at their bivouac, probably at Camp Curtis. In most scenes, Hennig wears a Tyrolian hat and Larson wears white-framed sunglasses. A few scenes show the skiers ascending the mountain with swirling clouds. Around 12,000ft, the men turn back. They ski down the Emmons Glacier around gaping crevasses with Little Tahoma and Steamboat Prow in the background. They descend the Inter Glacier to Glacier Basin and look back at the mountain shrouded in clouds.

Film clips courtesy of the Mountaineers Archives.

 
 
Continued
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