On winter weekends in the late 1950s and 1960s, a young Lowell Skoog tagged along with his father and brother to the Kongsberger Ski Club on the eastern end of Snoqualmie Pass, where the Skoogs joined other families with Scandinavian roots for a day of ski jumping. His childhood experience planted a seed that sprouted some 60 years later with the region’s first book-length ski history.
“After a morning of sledding and watching the jumpers, I’d squeeze into the cabin to warm up, surrounded by the smell of leather boots and wet wool, entranced by the jumpers’ stories, often told in Norwegian- or Swedish-accented English,” he writes in “Written in the Snows: Across Time on Skis in the Pacific Northwest.” “I understood intuitively that skiing was older and richer than what a kid from Seattle experienced riding the rope tows. That feeling has stuck with me ever since.”
Delving into the stories of this region’s early alpine adventurers who pioneered wintertime exploration on two planks (and later snowboards) lies at the heart of Skoog’s encyclopedic local history, the result of decades of research. Those characters, from European men and women lured from the Alps to the terra incognita of the Cascade Range to University of Washington undergraduates exploring the mountains on breaks from classroom time, will come alive Nov. 18, when the author will speak at The Mountaineers’ Seattle Program Center.
Northwest residents who relish Skoog’s tales — cataloging a century of skiing feats completed with primitive gear — can thank an unlikely source. “I was working for a dotcom and lost my job in the early 2000s bust. My wife and I agreed that I should spend six months [working on ski history],” Skoog said in his home office in North Seattle’s Cedar Park neighborhood, surrounded by mementos like a circa-1930s wooden ski tip recovered by guides on Mount Rainier. “That six months stretched into a much longer time.”
Skoog began interviewing skiers from the region’s early-20th-century heyday. He immersed himself in the archives of mountaineering journals and local books like Dee Molenaar’s “The Challenge of Rainier” and Fred Beckey’s “Challenge of the North Cascades.” With the decline of traditional journals, Skoog began to worry.
Skoog responded by starting Northwest Mountaineering Journal, which ran from 2004 to 2010 and became a valuable compendium of stories for the book. But tragedy struck along the way. Skoog’s brother Carl died in 2005 while attempting a descent of Cerro Mercedario in the Argentine Andes. Together, the brothers had pioneered hundreds of miles of alpine ski traverse in the Cascades. Ten years later, his wife Stephanie Subak died in a hiking accident in the High Sierra near Bishop, California. (Skoog married Nancy Mattheiss in February on a bluebird day at Mount Baker.)
Yet another loss brought the book to fruition. Skoog served on the memorial committee for Beckey, the seminal Cascades climber who passed away in 2017, putting Skoog in contact with Mountaineers Books. Then, Skoog winnowed down his research into the book. “I had a good pandemic project,” he said.
The history that results is wide-ranging, as it covers the Pacific Northwest’s evolution — from ski jumping to human-powered skiing (today known as backcountry skiing), from the proliferation of tow ropes and later chairlifts at established ski areas to today’s backcountry resurgence. Skoog recounts 19th-century Scandinavian-born miners and loggers passing idle winter time constructing ski jumps. The “Big Snow” of February 1916 buried Seattle in 30 inches of powder and led to an impromptu exhibition that sparked a movement to establish ski jumping hills in the mountains. The 1910s and 1920s saw a surge in ski clubs in big cities and small mountain towns across the region, from Seattle to Bend, Oregon. Meanwhile, trappers eked out a subsistence winter lifestyle in Methow Valley cabins into the 1930s, the same decade the Seattle Park Board established the Seattle Municipal Ski Hill at Snoqualmie Pass.
While Skoog covers the known history of skiing in every Cascades (and Olympic) access point north to Mount Baker and south to Mount Hood, Mount Rainier looms large. In the 1930s, Paradise was a winter resort destination with some 100 cabins, plus rooms at the Paradise Inn, available for rent. That’s more lodging than you’ll find today at our ski areas.
Ski racing was a major draw at Paradise, most notably the Silver Skis race from Camp Muir to Paradise. Tragically, local skier Sigurd Hall died in the daredevil event in 1940. The area hosted the first U.S. National Alpine Championships in 1935, which served as trials for the Winter Olympic Games held the next year in Germany. In light of this history, Skoog argues, “The Northwest deserves to be recognized as a significant center for skiing.”
While Skoog’s book ends with a grim assessment of climate change’s likely impact on the future of snow in the Cascades — “I go through waves of depression,” he said of the subject — his volume is a history first and foremost, with a goal of looking backward more than forward. While skiers may crave fresh tracks on a powder day, Skoog relishes the sense of knowing who paved the way before he lays down his own marks in the snow: “We were bound by curiosity and a shared admiration for the pioneers whose tracks we hoped to follow.”