The Pacific Northwest has a rich history of skiing and mountaineering. Ski enthusiast and historian Lowell Skoog provides an extensive review of this history in his new book, “Written in the Snows: Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest.”
This was no easy undertaking; Skoog has spent years researching the evolution of the area’s mountain activities, beginning with the introduction of skiing in the late 1800s to the extreme skiing challenges pursued by today’s elite skiers. Skoog’s stories are interspersed with 150 photographs, which match faces to names and give a true sense of the sport’s evolution. The stories of the Northwest’s pioneer skiers “have been written in the snows – destined to fade with the passing of seasons and of generations.” In his book, Skoog seeks to document these stories before they melt away.
Skoog tells how Scandinavian immigrants brought skiing with them as they pursued a better life in America. Whereas skiing and snowshoeing were common in Norway and Sweden, they were unknown to most early settlers of the Pacific Northwest.
The idea of heading to the mountains for winter recreation was considered unthinkable a hundred years ago. Enthusiasm grew very slowly, since mountain highways were closed in winter and getting up to the slopes was a challenge in itself. As transportation improved, so did the popularity of skiing. Gradually, skis replaced snowshoes in popularity, especially as the quality of skis improved from “sledders on boards” to today’s modern equipment.
Skoog describes the development of most of the ski areas in the region, including Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Snoqualmie Pass, Steven’s Pass, Crystal Mountain, the Olympics, Glacier Peak and the North Cascades. Each area has its unique story, as local enthusiasts endeavored to establish their own winter playland. Skoog also includes how Mt. Rainier and the North Cascades became national parks.
With roads staying open longer in winter, Skoog states, “the year 1934 marked an inflection point in Northwest skiing: the beginning of mass appeal of the sport.” The development of Paradise on Mt. Rainier encouraged many to brave the snowy journey up the mountain; “by the early 1930s, Paradise would become the premier ski resort in the Northwest.” The book’s photographs of annual tournaments and their competitors provide the reader with a sense of the joy people were experiencing in the mountains.
Important to the growth of skiing was the establishment of multiple ski clubs. The Mountaineers, founded in Seattle in 1906, became one of the largest. Clubs built mountain huts and lodges and often held ski competitions.
Skoog provides the history of many of these competitions, including the “Patrol Race,” which was established in the early 1930s by the Mountaineers. Five hundred orange tin shingles high on trees between Snoqualmie and Stampede Passes marked the relay route run by teams of three skiers. Although the original Patrol Race ended in the 1940s, it has been reestablished in recent times. This theme is present throughout the book: Skoog describes classic events, and then how current enthusiasts have reestablished them.
As a native Seattleite, I found the story of Seattle’s “Big Snow” in 1916 especially fun. Roughly 30 inches of snow fell in Seattle over three days; surprisingly, Green Lake completely froze over, providing locals with a large ice-skating rink. A ski jump was constructed on the north side of Queen Anne, above the current Fremont bridge, and a ski jumping competition was held. Entrants were largely Norwegian immigrants. This event received front-page coverage in the city’s main newspaper.
In 1927, an attempt to climb Mt. Rainier on skis introduced the sport of ski mountaineering to the Pacific Northwest. With the advents in ski lifts, climbing to ski fell out of popularity, but many still pursued it. Over the decades, a counterculture developed around back- and cross-country skiing. Skoog tells how these trends evolved to high-country skiing. Skoog describes many classic alpine treks and long-distance ski traverses, and also covers extreme skiing, where “if you fall you die.”
Extreme skiing has grown in recent years, including popular movies of extreme skiers doing unbelievable stuff. However, the risks are real. In 2005, Skoog shares, his younger brother died in Argentina after a fall of 4,500 vertical feet. Not surprisingly, this tragedy led Skoog to lose his own interest in what he calls “steep ski descents.”
Although Skoog briefly quotes an early settler describing how his Native guides used a rough form of glissading to travel down a snowy slope, it was a bit disappointing that, given how robust Skoog’s research is, he didn’t dedicate time to the winter experience of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest.
The book’s epilogue is about climate change and how, going forward, “we can expect shorter ski seasons and more frequent poor snow years.” Skoog emphasizes that although it remains important for all of us to work to reduce our own emissions, at this point we need “a worldwide effort to replace an energy system based on fossil fuels with one based on sun and wind.” Skoog’s closing line is very appropriate: “The future of skiing will be written in the statehouses as much as in the snows.”
Throughout the book, the pure joy people have experienced being in the mountains comes through. If you are a history buff, a skier, a mountaineer or just enjoy the mountains, you will likely appreciate this book.
Read more of the Jan. 5-11, 2022 issue.