1931: Milana Jank shirts a crevasse on the Rainbow Glacier of Mount Baker during the June 28 ski-climb with Robert Hayes, Otto Strizek and Ben Thompson. Photo: Game & Gossip magazine, May 1932, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.
1931: Milana Jank shirts a crevasse on the Rainbow Glacier of Mount Baker during the June 28 ski-climb with Robert Hayes, Otto Strizek and Ben Thompson. Photo: Game & Gossip magazine, May 1932, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
The Ski Climbers
  Part 3  

T he Adventures of Miss Milana Jank

Interest in skiing Mount Baker grew after the first ski ascent. Ski mountaineers realized that unlike Mount Rainier, which was nearly 4,000ft taller, Mount Baker might offer reasonable ski conditions near the summit on a fairly regular basis. A Vancouver party made a ski ascent in the winter of 1931, and a party including Ed Loners’ brother Harry made another ascent that spring. Details of these and other early climbs are sketchy, but in 1933 Hans-Otto Giese and Don Fraser made a complete ascent and descent on skis, the first time that I’m confident a complete ski descent was made. Ski mountaineering in the Cascades had few participants in the 1930s, but those who wanted to ski a major peak headed for Mount Baker.

In the fall of 1926, the road was completed to Heather Meadows, site of today’s Mount Baker ski area. The following summer a magnificent lodge opened at the meadows. Costing half a million dollars, the Mount Baker Lodge was opulently designed and catered to the wealthy. The Mount Baker Development Company hired Ben Thompson as a mountaineering guide to work out of the lodge. Thompson specialized in climbs of rugged Mount Shuksan, and he pioneered the North Face route in 1927.

Milana Jank. Photo: Game & Gossip magazine, February 1932, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.
Milana Jank was mountain sports director at the Mount Baker Lodge in 1931. On June 28 she made a ski-climb of the volcano via the Park Glacier with three companions. On July 15 she repeated the ascent solo. Photo: Game & Gossip magazine, February 1932, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.
Milana Jank. Photo: Game & Gossip magazine, February 1932, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.

In 1930, Milana Jank, a ski instructor and accomplished alpinist, was sponsored by her native Germany to come to the United States as a goodwill ambassador of skiing. Jank had previously made a winter ski crossing of the main chain of the Alps from Vienna to Mont Blanc over a period of 146 days, covering some 1,300 miles. She was born in Bavaria in 1902 and learned to climb with her brothers as a teenager. She wrote in 1932: “Twelve years ago my friends in Europe called me ‘ski crazy.’ And they were right—still are.”

After arriving in America, Jank sought adventures in various parts of the United States in the company of local experts. In January 1931 she made a winter ski traverse of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range with Fritz Wiessner, topping several of the main peaks along the way. She wrote, “It proved to me the possibilities for advancing the white sport in the United States. And to which region in the West should I go later? To the Cascades of the Pacific, I decided. Soon various different mountains of the Cascade Range saw for the first time this modern weapon, the ski, conquering the steepest and most difficult approaches.”

Writing in a grandiloquent style, Jank tirelessly promoted the virtues of skiing. The ski, she wrote, is a “wing of wood” which “leads the adventuresome to thrilling victories over great white steeps high above the plains and plateaus where man has built his villages and cities.” She continued, “This fleet vehicle, which skims the vast expanses of mountain as the airplane traverses continents and oceans, should play a leading role in future expeditions to unexplored mountain regions.”

In the spring of 1931, Milana Jank came to Washington to become mountain sports director at the Mount Baker Lodge. She taught skiing and guided outings in the mountains around the lodge. Apparently, she made as strong an impression in person as she did in her writings. Hank Reasoner, who helped organize the Mount Baker ski patrol later in the 1930s, remembered her as a diminutive woman, very Teutonic, who made sure you knew who she was.

In early summer 1931, Jank joined Ben Thompson and others to attempt a ski ascent of Mount Baker from the lodge. This very scenic route travels above timberline for over ten miles, traversing Ptarmigan Ridge and passing through Epley Portal to the massive Rainbow and Park Glaciers. The route had been followed to the summit of Mount Baker by the Mazama summer outing of 1906, but had never been traversed on skis.

On June 21, Jank and Thompson, together with Robert Hayes of Seattle and Y. Kagami of Japan, skied to 9,000ft on the northeast side of Mount Baker, where they were turned back by high winds and sleet. A week later, on June 28, 1931, Jank, Thompson, Hayes and Dr. Otto Strizek completed the climb in 12-1/2 hours from the lodge. At the steep headwall of the Park Glacier, they abandoned their skis, crossed the bergschrund, and climbed to the summit on crampons.

Milana Jank, “Woman of Daring.” Argosy Weekly, March 31, 1934, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.
Originally from Germany, Milana Jank wrote magazine articles to inspire women toward vigorous living and was the subject of several published profiles, like this one in Argosy Weekly, March 31, 1934, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken.
Milana Jank, “Woman of Daring.” Argosy Weekly, March 31, 1934, courtesy of Ingrid Wicken (click image to enlarge).

On July 15, Jank repeated the climb solo. She left the Mount Baker Lodge shortly after midnight. She later wrote: “In the darkness, I heard only the majestic music of the mountains, the voice of the night storm, the roaring of avalanches, the thunder of a stone fall, the cry of the ptarmigans.” While ascending the Rainbow Glacier she tested for crevasses with her ice axe. “In my pockets I had a rosary as talisman,” she wrote, “blessed for me by the Pope—himself a very great pioneer for mountain life in his youth. Year by year it went with me, protecting me on difficult trips.” Stymied at a large crevasse, she spotted the fresh prints of a cougar. She followed the cat for an hour to the base of the final ice wall.

Leaving her skis below the headwall she cut footholds in the ice to climb to the summit. “When, after my victory, I descended the seven-hundred foot ice wall, there were my trusty skis waiting for me like restless chargers eager for the speedy race to the valley.” The Rainbow Glacier, which had required four hours to ascend, was descended in just twenty minutes. The approach and ascent from the lodge had taken her fifteen hours, but the return took only two. “Past was the first and only solo ski ascent made by a woman to a majestic peak in the United States,” she wrote. “Before me lay the snowy land which the ski had now to conquer.” Near Table Mountain she encountered her ski students, and they joined her on the final slopes back to the lodge. She later wrote: “Mount Baker has been the zenith of my ski experience.”

Early on the morning of August 5, 1931, the Mount Baker Lodge burned to the ground. The fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. Bert Huntoon, a key figure in developing the lodge, awoke Miss Jank in her room and she escaped safely with all 27 guests. It’s unknown exactly what she did after that, but during the following winter she was skiing in the Sierra Nevada of California. In March 1932 she completed the first ski crossing of Tioga Pass from Mono Lake to Yosemite Valley with Dennis Jones. A 1934 magazine profile stated: “Now her burning ambition is to be the first woman to climb Mount Everest.”

Milana Jank saw herself as a prophet of skiing, descending from the mountains to inspire American men and women to take up the sport in their own country. Of the mountains of the West Coast, she wrote: “I have tried and scaled them all with my skis, and I have sped down from their wind-swept summits to tell you who dwell in this amazing region that you have in your mountains one of the world’s grandest winter playgrounds.” To those who would follow her, she promised: “You all may see the majesty that with me is constant in memory, if you will learn to ski, and other benefits will be yours in measure as you turn your faces to your mountains.” She was one of a kind.

Writings of Milana Jank

On the allure of skiing

“Skis are the mountain vehicle with which the greatest heights and distances may be covered in the shortest space of time. They eliminate toilsome, painful hiking and climbing with the unwinged foot.”

“Even in my childhood skiing held for me an irresistible lure. It brought me great happiness—the happiness of blazing ski trails from peak to peak. Indeed, so powerful was this urge to travel on ‘wings of wood’ that no amount of ridicule could check or even lessen its force.”

“There is no form of physical effort that carries the exhilaration of high mountain skiing.”

Skiing for women

“It is one of the best things that can happen to any woman, to become a skier, for no sport or system of physical training in my opinion possesses equal value, benefits in health and well-being considered. [...] Skiing is a natural method of slenderization for women.”

“The feminine allurement of today is in the healthy body, the body trained by physical activity.”

“Learn this method of slenderizing the figure without diet or the monotonous ‘one, two, three, four’ or mechanical exercise. Know the joy of a vital body. Skiing develops bodies that are proportioned and beautiful in every line.”

On the mountains of the Northwest

“To me the primeval Pacific ranges are more intriguing than those European heights so redolent of the storied past. The snow conditions found in the mountains of the Pacific slope are better for skiing than those existing in ‘snow-poor’ Alps. In this respect the huge territory which includes Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan has every gradation from the facile to the difficult; it has something to offer both novice and expert.”

“My solo ascents to the ridges of the Cascades were just as thrilling as any I have made to the classical peaks of Europe. But Mount Baker has been the zenith of my ski experience.”

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