Washington Ski History article by Ron Judd

Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 8th, 2003, 3:56 am #1

Worth the read....

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/s ... ski20.html

A sense of adventure: When skiing was all about freedom


In the beginning, there was Paradise.

And it was, well, not very good.

In the world of Northwest skiing, of course, "good" is a relative word. The fact is that in the 1930s, when "modern" downhill skiing first burst onto the local scene, Mount Rainier's Paradise was about as good as it got.

Back then, it was one of few places in the West with the killer combination of plentiful snow and another marvel an automated rope tow to get you up the hill without climbing. It all happened fast after that: Day lodges with hot soup, battery-heated socks, metal edges, plastic boots and the Mahre brothers quickly followed.

A pursuit was born.

But it's all too easy to forget that the early days of the 1930s through 1950s, now romanticized by many as the pure, "golden age" of Northwest skiing, were in many ways flat-out calamitous.

Skiers and snowboarders heading for the hills in coming weeks and griping about frozen toes, long lift lines, crummy parking and high prices might take a moment to consider where Northwest snow sliding actually started. And just how far it has come.

Better then, or now?

The question: Was it better then, when skiing was still pure, uncommercialized and relatively affordable or now that it's high-tech, comfortable and pricey?

For a needed dose of the old-school perspective, we turned to West Seattle mountain legend Otto Lang, who literally brought modern skiing to the Northwest after arriving at Mount Rainier in 1936 to teach what would become the modern, parallel ski method.

Lang is a historic Northwest figure whose name probably doesn't strike a chord with youngsters, which is too bad: In a perfect world, he would be held in the same regard by cutting-edge powder hounds as Johnny Cash is by punk musicians. Lang was here to see it all, when downhill skiing was more about freedom and less about condo timeshares.

Lang put his last pair of skis away, for good, only recently when he was a nimble 94. Today, he is on the cusp of 96, and recalls vividly how local skiing was in the early days: Cold. And literally out of control.

When Lang, a striking young Austrian immigrant, took a train from the East Coast in search of the perfect place to film a ski-instruction movie, he kept going west until he got his first look at Mount Rainier.

"I thought: Now that is a mountain," he recalls, even though it was far less user-friendly than ski mountains he'd grown up on in Europe.

"As far as skiing is concerned, it was totally primitive, though not exactly virgin territory, because there were a lot of skiers around. It was wild and woolly. Everybody was on their own."

No ski patrol. No lift lines. No lifts. People could die out there. Sometimes, they did.

Lang arrived at Paradise just in time to witness the legendary spring Silver Skis Race an all-out, gang-skier plunge from Camp Muir to Paradise Lodge, 5,000 vertical feet below. Afterward, hundreds of battle-scarred skiers made their way from Paradise back down to what then was the closest parking lot, near Narada Falls.

"I tell you, it was like something I'd never seen," he says, chuckling at the memory. "People flying through the air, crossing their skis, falling, somersaulting. It was just unbelievable the mayhem and danger twisted knees and ankles and everything. So I said, well, this is a place they need a ski school very badly!"

He started one the next fall, followed by new schools at Mount Baker and Timberline at Mount Hood in succeeding winters. In 1938, Lang's second year at Rainier, ski enthusiast Webb Moffett and friends installed a new-fangled rope tow at Paradise.

It was a frozen rope spun by auto wheels powered by an old car engine "an awful contraption," Lang says with a laugh. "It got you to the top of the hill with your arm practically out of its socket. But it beat climbing to the top of Alta Vista."

Lift tickets were spendy a buck-fifty a day but worth every penny.
From power to grace

Northwest skiers back then had plenty of juice they just needed to know how to make it flow in the right direction. Many were hardy Norwegian immigrants, who brought their Nordic ski tradition along with steamer trunks full of wool sweaters. They were mostly cross-country skiers, although the ones with at least one screw loose the snowboarders of their day went into ski jumping.

Ski fashions of 1940 were on display at Milwaukee Road Ski Bowl, then owned by the Milwaukee Road Railroad, which ran a ski train from Seattle to the ski area on the east slopes of Snoqualmie Pass (later Hyak and now Summit East).

"They were all born skiers," Lang recalls. "They could ski down a hill, but it was with brute strength."

Lang's ski schools helped funnel those pioneering adrenaline freaks into classic alpine skiing, with graceful, linked parallel turns the "Arlberg" method Lang imported from Europe. This was no easy task with leather boots and heavy, 7.5-foot-long wood skis without metal edges.

But many people proved quite adept, and they weren't all strapping young mountain dudes. One of Lang's early pupils was Gretchen Kunigk, who later would marry Don Fraser, an early winner of that legendary Silver Skis race. In the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics, Gretchen Fraser became the first American skier ever to win an Olympic gold medal.

In 1939, Otto Lang was wooed away to found a similar ski school at Idaho's Sun Valley Resort, which had revolutionized snow sports by introducing the first modern chairlift three years earlier.

Lang's Sun Valley ski school catered to the rich and famous, a social circle that eventually plugged him into a long career in Hollywood (including stints directing TV shows such as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and producing the 1970 war movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!").

In Sun Valley, he eventually would rub parkas with Warren Miller, a young ski bum who lived in a travel trailer in the parking lot and would soon begin making ski films of his own.

Some things never change

Miller's historic film career his 54th annual ski film just finished its Seattle run would take him to nearly every ski resort on the globe over the next six decades. As the sport developed, a lot of the technological advances were revolutionary, Miller says. He points most fondly to the 1950s boom of tight ski stretch pants, the thing that finally made skiing sexy.

"In those days, skiing was far away from home, dangerous, expensive and freezing," quips Miller, who now makes his home on Orcas Island. "All of those things still apply today. There's still 3 inches of water in the basement at Snoqualmie Pass lodge when you try to have lunch. Some things never change. For me, that's part of the charm of it."

Organized skiing had existed near Cle Elum as early as 1921, but died out during the Depression and later gave way to Snoqualmie Pass, where the Northwest ski revolution settled after the advent of powered tows in the late 1930s. The rope-tow-equipped area, a comfortable train ride from Seattle, grew immensely popular with Seattle skiers. After a respite during World War II, Snoqualmie flourished. The area's first single chairlift popped up in 1948; Thunderbird, Washington's first "modern" double chairlift, was built in 1954.

Most of the major ski areas still operating in the Cascades also got their first rope tows in the late 1930s, their first chairlifts in the '50s. By 1960, Mount Baker, Stevens Pass (both originating in 1936) and White Pass (1952) had grown into reasonable facsimiles of their current selves. Crystal Mountain near Rainier opened in 1962 (lift ticket: $4.50); Alpental was built near Snoqualmie Summit in 1967 even after famed mountaineers Jim and Lou Whittaker opined that it was too steep for skiing. Some people to this day insist they were correct.
Faded memories

But the "golden-age" ski boom of the 1940s and 1950s went a lot deeper than the ski areas remaining on the map today. During skiing's heyday, dozens of small, community ski hills with not much more than a rope tow and warming hut popped up around Washington.

Some remain open today (see accompanying article), but most closed and faded from memory, victims of modern lifts and economics.

Today, only true graybeards will remember bundling up in itchy wool at Salmon La Sac or Kiwanis Ski Hill, both near Cle Elum; Deer Park in the Olympic Mountains; Chinook Pass near Mount Rainier; or Yodelin on the east side of Stevens Pass, the latter crushed by a killer avalanche in 1971.

Paradise, too, would fade as a commercial ski enterprise, with development channeled to nearby Crystal instead. But for backcountry skiers and other purists of the sport, the hulking mountain still holds the same allure that drew Lang there nearly seven decades ago.

A lot of that sense of adventure clearly has been lost in the modern age, where ski resorts are studded by multimillion-dollar vacation homes. But outside the door of even the most modern snow-country manse, the forces of nature are just as forceful.

Miller recalls standing, in 1947, on top of Mount Baldy at Sun Valley, watching Gary Cooper and Groucho Marx take ski lessons from Otto Lang. In the summertime, Miller knew, he never could have gotten within a half-mile of either guy.

"But when we all started down hill," he says, "everybody was the same. Gravity was the equalizer."

And so it remains, even after seven decades of "innovation." Kids rounding the bend for their first ski day at Stevens Pass this winter, Miller and Lang agree, with some delight, will get the same butterflies felt by their grandparents. And the memories will be every bit as lasting.

"You will remember that first day," Miller says. "You remember everything about it. That first turn you make on skis is that first taste of freedom. That really is what it's all about."

Ron C. Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com
Last edited by hyak on March 27th, 2009, 9:22 am, edited 1 time in total.

Jeff Huffman
Jeff Huffman

January 7th, 2009, 11:52 pm #2

It has been archived so the link is no longer good.