Mount Shuksan (9,131ft) circa 1940. The 1941 ski ascent route followed the White Salmon Glacier, visible below the summit. Photo: Dwight Watson, The Mountaineers Archives.
Mount Shuksan (9,131ft) circa 1940. The 1941 ski ascent route followed the White Salmon Glacier, visible below the summit. 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 6  

 
 
D r. Trott’s Mountain

Otto Trott was born to art gallery owners in Berlin in 1911. During college he became an accomplished skier and climber, and he earned his medical degree at the University of Freiburg in 1936. In the mid-1930s, as the Nazis were coming to power in Germany, it was discovered that one of Otto’s father’s ancestors had a Jewish-sounding name. “This allowed the Nazis to stamp on his documents that he was not fully Aryan,” Otto later wrote. When Otto applied for his license as a practicing physician, he was told that unless he left the country and stipulated that he would never attempt to practice medicine in Germany he could never obtain a license. With great sadness, he realized that he had no future in his native land.

Trott left his family and immigrated to America in 1937. During a medical internship in New York he dreamed of finding a residency in Seattle, which German travel books had called “the most beautiful city in the United States.” In July 1939, he was accepted as a resident at King County Hospital in Seattle. At the end of a cross-country automobile trip, he drove over Snoqualmie Pass and descended the Sunset Highway toward Puget Sound. “As I emerged from the valleys and looked to the south,” he wrote, “I saw the full magnificence of Mount Rainier rising there with its glaciers and snow fields. Tears came to my eyes—I had reached alpine country again.”

Otto Trott and Dwight Watson in 1939. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 7, Vol. 2.
1939: Otto Trott (left) fled Germany before the outbreak of World War II. He was introduced to the North Cascades by Dwight Watson (right). Trott led the first ski ascent of Mount Shuksan, which he lovingly called “my mountain.” Photo: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 7, Vol. 2.
Otto Trott and Dwight Watson in 1939. Photo: UW Libraries, Special Collections, Dwight Watson Collection, Box 7, Vol. 2.

Soon after arriving in Seattle, Otto learned about The Mountaineers and visited their club room to join. There he met “a wiry-looking man” who introduced himself as Dwight Watson. Watson invited Trott to join him on a film-making climb of Mount Shuksan a few weeks later. During the climb, Otto later wrote: “I was simply overcome with this place and the beauty of this Mount Shuksan, which reminded me so much of my favorite mountain in the Alps, Piz Roseg.” Sigurd Hall and Andy Hennig, who had skied Mount Rainier just weeks before, were also on this climb. Trott and Hennig immediately made plans to climb Shuksan’s Hanging Glacier together. They made the first ascent of this route on September 3-4, 1939. It was the most advanced ice-and-rock climb done in the Cascades before World War II.

Dr. Trott fell in love with the Mount Baker area. During the winter of 1939-40 he joined the newly formed Mount Baker ski patrol as its first physician member. There he met Hank Reasoner, a founding member of the patrol who also operated the ski area’s only rope tow. While carrying out their duties the two men often admired Mount Shuksan and discussed whether it might be possible to ski it. Early in the spring of 1941 they decided to give it a try.

On the afternoon of March 27, Reasoner and Trott skied with friends Walt Dyke and Hans Ott from the Mount Baker Lodge along Shuksan Arm until they could go no farther. They bivouacked and at 1:30 a.m. the next morning began descending into White Salmon Basin. After dropping below cliffs, they started up again, zigzagging on skis up the White Salmon Glacier. Dyke and Ott realized that they could not complete the climb and return to work the next day, so they turned back. Reasoner and Trott removed their skis to climb the 45-degree slope of Winnies Slide then put them back on when they reached the Upper Curtis Glacier.

Seattle P-I story following the Mt Shuksan ski ascent. Clipping courtesy Nicholas Corff.
1941: Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports and local section, following the first ski ascent of Mount Shuksan by Otto Trott and Hank Reasoner, March 28-29, 1941. Clipping courtesy Nicholas Corff.
Seattle P-I story following the Mt Shuksan ski ascent. Clipping courtesy Nicholas Corff.

Hells Highway is an ice chute formed by high winds and massive snowfall high on Mount Shuksan. Reasoner later recalled that it resembled “the inside of a teacup.” The two men tied into their rope and climbed the chute on skis, using ice axe belays. “One man would dig his ice axe into the snow above him and nest his poles below,” Reasoner recalled. “He’d wrap the rope around the ice axe and his body. The other person traversed across the slope, secured by the other end of the rope.” Making delicate kick-turns on belay, the men climbed Hells Highway and skied to the base of the summit rocks, known in those days as the Angels Staircase. They scrambled to the summit at dusk and flashed a signal to their friend Gage Chetwood at the Mount Baker Lodge. Chetwood blinked his car’s headlights in response. They spent a comfortable night beneath the summit pyramid under a bivouac tent.

The morning of March 29 dawned clear with no wind. There was no need to hurry, since the snow needed time to soften in the sun. Reasoner and Trott skied Hells Highway to Winnies Slide and paused “to restore our blood sugar,” as Hank later recalled. Then they skied the 45-degree slope. High on the White Salmon Glacier they paused to send a message to Otto’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill. “HELLO GINNIE” they stomped in 30ft-high letters visible from the Mount Baker Lodge. By mid-afternoon they were back at the base.

Recalling their adventure many years later, Hank Reasoner said that the conditions were perfect during their climb. He and Otto had similar attitudes about safety, and they didn’t try to use skis where they weren’t appropriate. “I like to remember what an old Swiss once told me,” Hank said. “You climb the mountain in the mood it’s in, not in the mood you’re in. Otherwise, the mountain will kick your butt.” Otto Trott was more wistful. “I feel close to Mount Shuksan,” he said. “I’d heard about it while I was still in Germany, but from the first time I saw it, I could never move far away.”

Historic Films

Mount Shuksan Climb - 1939

This 16mm silent film was made by Dwight Watson in August 1939. It depicts his climb of the Fisher Chimney route on Mount Shuksan with Otto Trott, Andy Hennig, Sigurd Hall, Fred and Helmy Beckey, John James and Joe McGowan. Trott and Hennig climbed the historic Hanging Glacier route two weeks later. This film introduced 16-year-old Fred Beckey to the mountaineering world. Beckey would later become North America’s most prolific mountaineer.

Puyallup Glacier Ski - 1940

Made by Dwight Watson in June 1940, this 8mm silent film shows Otto Trott and Virginia Hill traversing the Puyallup Glacier of Mount Rainier on skis. Watson switched from 16mm to 8mm film around 1940. His early movies provide a unique glimpse of Northwest ski mountaineering before World War II.

Otto’s Way

Dr. Otto Trott died in 1999 at the age of 88. As a physician-climber, he was a co-founder of the Mountain Rescue Council in 1948. In recognition of his decades of service to the Mount Baker ski patrol, the ski area’s Ottobahn run bears his name.

Film clips courtesy of the Mountaineers Archives.

 
 
Continued
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