Skiers at Paradise in the 1930s. Photo: Orville Borgersen, courtesy Giese Archives.
Skiers at Paradise in the 1930s. Photo: Orville Borgersen, courtesy Giese Archives.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
Faint Tracks
  Embarking on a journey through time  

T he mountains of the Pacific Northwest are famous for snowfall. Not the light, powdery snow of the Rockies or the sun bathed snow of the Sierras, but deep, heavy snow, heaped on glaciers and piled to the eaves of mountain lodges like Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn. There is no question that Washington receives some of the heaviest snowfalls on earth. The only argument among Northwest boosters is whether the snowfall crown belongs to Mount Baker in the north, Mount Rainier in the south, or Mount Olympus in the west. Since the late 1800s, men and women have ventured into these mountains on skis to eke out a living, appreciate nature, or seek recreation and adventure. Their story has been written in the snows—destined, until now, to fade with the passing of seasons and of generations.

As I struggled up the steep, forested slope, I realized that I had lost the trail. It was January and I was alone in the backcountry near Snoqualmie Pass. The snow was icy and pockmarked, difficult for climbing on skis. I stowed my skis, put on crampons, and started climbing on foot. When I found the trail again, I put the skis back on and began to make better progress.

Then I saw it—a small square of orange tin nailed high upon a tree.

This was what I’d been looking for, a marker from a long-forgotten ski race, last held during the Great Depression, over sixty years earlier. In the 1930s, skiers placed 500 tin markers along the Cascade Crest between Snoqualmie and Stampede Passes. For 18 miles, the markers guided ski racers through the woods, with at least one marker in each direction visible at all times. The race was held for over ten years before World War II, then abandoned. In the decades after the war, most of the old markers were cut down with the great trees that supported them.

As I continued along the trail, I spotted more markers. Since the route I was following is now part of the Pacific Crest Trail, the orange tin flags have probably been seen by thousands of hikers over the years. Gazing up at them, I wondered whether anyone who had seen them in recent years knew of their origin. Recalling the stories that had brought me to this place, I felt like I’d discovered a relic from a lost world.

My father had been part of that world. Born in 1920, Dick Skoog was the grandson of Swedish immigrants, a ski jumper and a downhill skier. Like my brothers and sister, I was introduced to skiing by my father when I was very young. Dad was a member of a ski jumping club in the 1950s and 1960s, and I remember accompanying him to the club’s tiny cabin near Snoqualmie Pass. After watching my dad and my uncle jump on the nearby hill, I would warm up in the crowded cabin amid the smells of boot leather, wool clothing, and pine tar. Dad’s club was founded by Norwegian ski jumpers, and I remember the lilt of their voices as they told stories around the wood stove.

My dad died suddenly in 1977 at age 56. I loved skiing by that time, but like most 20-year-olds I didn’t think there was much I could learn from my dad. My longing for what he might teach me came later, too late for me to ask him.

In the late 1970s, I took up backcountry skiing with my brothers and a few friends. We started mountain climbing, and we combined these two sports in ski mountaineering. I was captivated by using skis to reach the highest mountains and most remote wilderness in the Northwest. Ski mountaineering seemed to combine the best of mountaineering and skiing, two sports I already loved by themselves.

Mountaineering has a rich history. But unlike sports like baseball or horse racing, mountaineering is largely the domain of amateurs, people who enjoy the sport as a hobby, who have regular jobs and normal lives away from the mountains. In this sense, the story of mountaineering reflects the larger story of our region. Who mountaineers are, where they come from, and what inspires their adventures says something about who we are as Northwesterners.

Thinking about my father and his peers, I felt a growing desire to know their stories, and the stories of those who had come before them. There were no books that covered Northwest ski mountaineering beyond the most superficial level. I recognized that my father’s contemporaries were disappearing. My curiosity was infused with a sense of urgency.

So in 2000 I began a methodical study of Northwest skiing and mountaineering history. I visited libraries, museums, and government archives. I interviewed old-time skiers, men and women who were about the same age as my father. I felt that I was embarking on a trail that was faded but not yet lost.

As I retraced the story, I was surprised that many parts seemed familiar. It was as though I already knew it, without realizing what I knew. Perhaps I had absorbed the outlines of the story as a boy listening to Norwegians around a wood stove. Perhaps it has been integrated into our culture, becoming an unconscious part of our regional identity. Whatever the case, I have found following these faint tracks the most rewarding ski trip I’ve ever taken. The legends have emerged from the snows, and now they have names and faces and voices.