Mount Rainier summit crater and roped climbing teams. Photo courtesy Spring Trust for Trails (negative #52770).
Mount Rainier summit crater and roped climbing teams. Photo courtesy Spring Trust for Trails (negative #52770).
  Written in the Snows  
  Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest  
  By Lowell Skoog  
The Ski Climbers
  Part 7  

C oming Of Age

The pioneers of ski mountaineering in Washington were mostly members of The Mountaineers in Seattle. They planned and carried out their climbs as individuals, but reported their accomplishments in club journals. As interest in ski mountaineering grew, The Mountaineers began organizing ski tours and ascents on major Cascade peaks for any member who was capable. To support this trend, a committee led by Walt Little developed a ski mountaineering course to formalize the techniques needed to ski glaciers and high summits.

The course was launched in November 1941. A month later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor swept the United States into World War II. Walt Little kept the course going through that winter, and his friends took over the course in 1942-43 after Little joined the army. Despite the demands of war, about 20 men and women graduated from the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course during World War II. One of them was a young man named Chuck Welsh.

Chuck Welsh skiing in Austria in the early 1950s. Photo courtesy Chuck Welsh.
Chuck Welsh skiing in Austria in the early 1950s. On July 18, 1948, with Kermit Bengtson, Dave Roberts and Cliff Schmidtke, he made the first complete ski descent of Mount Rainier, building on 20 years of experience by Northwest ski mountaineers. Photo courtesy Chuck Welsh.
Chuck Welsh skiing in Austria in the early 1950s. Photo courtesy Chuck Welsh.

In August 1943, shortly after he graduated from both high school and the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course, Welsh received a notice from his draft board. He joined the army air corps and served during the final two years of the war. After discharge from the army he spent two summers guiding on Mount Rainier and competed in ski races during the winter. With several of his skiing and climbing friends, he revived the long-deferred dream of skiing Mount Rainier from its summit.

Commenting on Sigurd Hall’s 1939 ski ascent, Walt Little had written: “It is apparent that the feasibility of a ski ascent and descent of Mount Rainier has not yet been proved for, in spite of Sig Hall’s magnificent feat, the conditions were essentially unsuitable for skiing. It is also apparent that the real reason for skiing up a mountain is to make it possible to ski down! Carrying skis downhill would not encourage many to take up the sport!” So the issue remained unresolved. Could Mount Rainier really be skied from its summit? And, if so, who would be the first to do it?

Welsh and his friends applied to the Park Service for permission to ski Mount Rainier in 1946 and 1947. Both times their applications were rejected. When I interviewed him in 2001, Chuck recalled the prevailing attitude in those days. In the late 1940s, there was a ranger at Mount Rainier named Gordon Patterson. “To climb the mountain,” Chuck recalled, “you had to submit to an inspection by Gordon. He delighted in picking up a pair of those G.I. surplus crampons, putting them on the asphalt and stomping on them and they’d go “ppffthpp.” Or a G.I. surplus ice axe, he’d whack it on the end of a table and just break it. That sort of gives you an idea of what their attitude was. Their duty versus climbers was to keep us from hurting ourselves. They had some theory about ski mountaineering in the winter, and they weren’t going to let anyone even try it.”

In 1948 the Park Service finally granted permission on the condition that Chuck would write a report suggesting guidelines for future ski ascents. The game was finally on. Along with Chuck Welsh the party would include Kermit Bengtson, Dave Roberts, and Cliff Schmidtke. Their first attempt on the Emmons Glacier was to have been on Memorial Day, but a downpour canceled the trip. Two June attempts reached Glacier Basin, but both were rained out. Finally in July better weather allowed a serious attempt.

Chuck Welsh and fellow graduates of the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course, early 1940s. Photo courtesy Chuck Welsh.
1940s: From left to right: Chuck Welsh, Ken Prestrud and C. Montgomery (“Gummie”) Johnson were among the first graduates of The Mountaineers ski mountaineering course before World War II. Photo courtesy Chuck Welsh.
Chuck Welsh and fellow graduates of the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course, early 1940s. Photo courtesy Chuck Welsh.

Thunderstorms boomed around the mountain as the ski party approached Glacier Basin on July 17. They stopped at the old Storbo mining cabin instead of continuing to Steamboat Prow for the night. At 1 a.m. they noticed a few stars out, so they hurriedly packed their gear and started up the Inter Glacier. Unfortunately, none of the men took pictures. Chuck later recalled: “We were well above Steamboat Prow at sunrise and we climbed up through a lightning and thunder storm. There were still some residual lightning strikes below. And then a beautiful sunrise, and everything turning marvelous colors ranging from kind of a lavender to peach. It would have been—I don’t know how photographs would have caught that—but it was beautiful.”

High on the mountain, a chill breeze “turned the beautiful corn snow into a surface which had the appearance of frosted glass,” Chuck later wrote. Three of the four men removed their skis and continued upward on crampons. “Dave, to whom I was roped, was still able to make his skis climb, so he kept them on, and did so all the way to the top,” Chuck recalled. “He was a strong sucker. On the way down of course you’d use your edges, but we had those old canvas G.I. surplus climbers. The straps went over your edges, and you couldn’t get much use out of them.”

In early afternoon, the four men reached the crater rim. They dropped their skis and staggered to the register box around 2 p.m. As they began their ski descent, they tied in two on a rope, with each man carrying a ski pole in one hand and an ice axe in the other. The first 2,000ft were icy and cut by two large bergschrunds, so they moved one man per rope at a time, the stationary man giving a running ice-axe pick belay. Chuck later recalled that belayed skiing was something he had practiced in the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course. “There was nothing spectacular about it,” he said. “You just put an ice axe in. The trick is to let the rope out fast enough so you don’t pull the guy ahead of you down.” When the snow softened lower on the mountain, they were able to move together and descend much more quickly.

He later wrote: “It was generally believed beforehand that a ski party would have an extremely small chance of experiencing good skiing conditions all the way from the summit to the base. Our experience certainly did not accomplish anything toward weakening that belief. We had ice on the upper section, trap crust in the middle section, slush most of the way past that, and good summer snow only on the lower half of Inter Glacier, so we cannot very well claim that the downhill run alone justifies the use of skis to the summit, at least under such conditions. However the excellent practice in roped skiing and other ski-mountaineering techniques, and the enjoyable portion of the run, combined to more than sufficiently justify their use.”

Chuck Welsh completed his report to the Park Service, saying that as long as summit ski parties were of proven experience and capability they’d probably make less trouble for the park than climbing parties on foot. He never attempted to ski Mount Rainier again, so he didn’t know how the Park Service implemented his recommendations. But the basic question had been resolved. The Northwest’s greatest mountain had been skied from top to bottom. The vast majority of skiers during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s focused on lift skiing, but a few followed the tracks of Maxwell, Giese, Hall and Welsh to the summit of Mount Rainier and other high peaks. Eventually they would discover challenges that the pioneers had never dreamed of. Ski mountaineering in the Northwest had come of age.

Glacier Skiing
“Ski-ing on a rope,” from Alpine Ski-ing At All Heights and Seasons by Arnold Lunn, published in 1921.
“Ski-ing on a rope,” from Alpine Ski-ing At All Heights and Seasons by Arnold Lunn, published in 1921.

Arnold Lunn of Great Britain was one of the first to write extensively about ski mountaineering and to offer advice about glacier skiing. In his 1921 book, Alpine Ski-ing At All Heights and Seasons, Lunn wrote about tying into the rope:

“The rope must be worn on the level and on the ascent. This is admitted by all in theory, though in practice ski-runners have been much too slack about roping on the ascent...”

Lunn’s advice for descending a glacier was more casual:

“Those ski-runners who are prepared to take the risk of a free descent must be allowed to do so without reproach, and, should an accident befall, their guides must be held absolved from blame. [...] The risk of neglecting the rope on the descent is rather less than that of crossing Paris in a taxi.”

When Walt Little and friends developed the Mountaineers ski mountaineering course in the early 1940s, they took a different stance. Little argued that a ski mountaineer should nearly always ski roped on a glacier and should learn to get good at it. His ski mountaineering handbook cautioned that “only an expert who knows what he is doing should accept even a small risk.”

The Mountaineers recommended long ropes: 40 to 100ft between skiers on the ascent and 60 to 100ft between skiers on the descent. The longer rope provided more friction during a crevasse fall, making it easier for a roped skier to stop his falling partner. The fundamental principle of glacier skiing was to keep slack out of the rope to limit possible falls to three or four feet. Once the rope was put on, it was for safety. “Don’t nullify the safety angle by skiing at high speed,” Little wrote.

For both ascent and descent on easy terrain, Little recommended that roped skiers make turns simultaneously whenever possible, to avoid slack in the rope and resultant jerking. On the descent, the best skier should go last and call out when to turn, stop, or slow down. In dangerous terrain, both uphill and downhill, skiers should move one at a time, with the other skiers on the rope anchored and providing a belay.

These guidelines are more conservative than most ski mountaineering textbooks advise today. Walt Little and his collaborators rejected a hand-waving approach to safety and thought hard about what techniques actually work in common ski mountaineering situations. The result was an admirable safety record during a period when ski mountaineering in the Northwest was just emerging from infancy.

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