The mountains have taken a lot from outdoors pioneer Lowell Skoog, but they always call him back.
LOWELL SKOOG WAS painting the house, as his wife had asked him to do, when they arrived to tell him she had died.
“Lowell, I think you should come down from that ladder,” neighbor Mike Gluck remembers saying before breaking the news.
Lowell’s wife, Stephanie Subak, had been trekking in the High Sierra near Bishop, Calif., with three girlfriends, including Gluck’s wife, Martha.
The women used a satellite-connected device to send emergency messages that were routed to first responders and relayed among anxious husbands at home in Seattle.
The first messages said there’d been an accident and asked for helicopter rescue. Hours later, another communication notified of a fatality. It didn’t immediately say which woman had died.
For nearly two hours, the husbands had been calling and searching for Lowell, playing the probabilities in their minds that it was their wives who had died.
Now, as night fell, they gathered in Lowell’s Maple Leaf home as he grappled with another message — that Steph, the woman who broke him out of his shell, became his partner and ordered his life, was gone.
HIS WIFE’S DEATH in 2015 was not tragedy’s first strike at Lowell Skoog.
“It’s been, unfortunately, a defining part of his life — death in the mountains,” says Tom Skoog, Lowell’s son. “Literally, I am named after … a family friend who died in the mountains.”
For more than four decades, Lowell has been a pioneer of Northwest mountains. The 61-year-old retired software engineer has climbed hundreds of peaks in the Cascades and skied off the summits of many.
When your social circle is a crowd of boundary-pushing outdoor lovers, tragedy tends to come with the terrain.
In Lowell’s computer, there’s a macabre list named fallenfriends.txt. There are 32 names on that list. It includes Mark Bebie, Tom Wiesmann, Doug Walker. Carl. Steph. Each died in an accident outdoors.
“It’s kind of spooky, I suppose. But I think it’s the name of the game,” Lowell said on a hike this fall near Mount Rainier. “If they all happened at once, you’d just quit. But stretched out over years, you recover from one, and time will go on.”
For all the mountains have taken from Lowell Skoog, they always call him back. They serve as both sanctuary and fate’s arbiter. They tie him to his past and preserve his legacy for the future. And so, he persists.
GROWING UP, the Skoogs were a family on skis.
Lowell remembers playing in the snow with his older brother Gordy at the foot of the Kongsberger ski club’s jumping hill near Snoqualmie Pass as his dad, Dick Skoog, a competitive jumper, took practice leaps.
Dick, a Boeing engineer, became a founding stockholder at Crystal Mountain, investing when it was merely a collection of hills.
Lowell didn’t take to the family hobby right away, Gordy says. As a young child, Lowell crashed a sled into a snow-packing machine at Snoqualmie Pass. The rope tow at Crystal Mountain, known to whip smaller riders off the ground, might also have left a scar.
Lowell was a quick study, though. In seventh grade, he took his only formal ski lessons at Bellevue Ski School (his older siblings were among the instructors), and was named the most proficient skier in the school. In high school, he became a teacher himself, which came with a modest allowance, but more importantly, a free lift ticket.
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Gordy, four years his senior, came home to find out the little brother who was always tagging along could shred.
“All of a sudden, he was a skilled, artful skier,” says Gordy, who in the mid-1970s toured the United States and Europe as a K2-sponsored “hot dog” skier who bashed moguls and performed aerials and ski ballet.
During ski season, Gordy lived in Sun Valley, Idaho, with fellow freestylers. Lowell, who was studying engineering at the University of Washington at the time, ditched winter quarter in 1975 to move in with Gordy. In winter 1976, Lowell returned to Sun Valley with friends of his own.
The Skoog brothers’ attentions wandered beyond the lifts. In summer 1974, Lowell, Gordy and others set out with wafflestomper boots, a rope fit for water skiing and homemade tube tents, on a traverse of the northern Picket Range, some of the wildest mountains in the North Cascades.
“That exploded our vision of the mountains,” Gordy says.
Soon, the brothers were practicing bouldering at UW’s new rock wall, rappelling off highway overpasses and reading famous Yosemite climber Royal Robbins’ manuals.
The outdoors became a spiritual escape.
“That stuff [the stresses of city life] just goes away in the first 10 steps … It was like going to church every weekend,” Gordy says.
Younger brother Carl joined the adventure while still in high school, and the three siblings (of six, total) bonded in the mountains.
“We could sense what the other was thinking by the quivering of the rope,” Gordy says.
A ROTATING CAST of hard-charging adventurers orbited the brothers, whose climbing and skiing ambitions burned as brightly as the alpine sun.
The 1970s and ’80s were a busy time for mountaineers in the Northwest. The North Cascades Highway opened in 1972, and offered easier access to swaths of forbidding terrain.
The Skoogs put up their fair share of first climbing ascents, but became better known for stretching what was possible on skis in the Cascades, pioneering multiday traverses over glaciers and in tufts of high alpine snow.
Ultralight specialized gear is available now for alpine ski touring. Early on, the Skoogs made do with narrow skis and leather climbing boots.
“He [Lowell] and his brothers, they were ahead of their times in terms of what was possible on skis in the North Cascades,” says Martin Volken, owner of Pro Guiding Service in North Bend.
A teetotaler who doesn’t drink coffee and reserves his swearing for Seattle traffic, Lowell approaches the sport not as a hard-partying adrenaline-seeker, but as a meticulous planner and engineer.
Ever a problem-solver, he borrowed Steph’s sewing machine to manufacture his own lightweight emergency tent, and once sewed a nylon sack specifically for his camp silverware.
Lowell logged every outdoor trip, filling notebooks with details of his climbing and skiing exploits. His mountain life, measuring more than 2,700 pages, is organized to this day in nine binders in his home office. Someday, he’ll give it to his son.
“If you look over the landscape, we’ve climbed it all,” Gordy says on a recent climbing trip, arcing his hand over the horizon of the North Cascades. “And Lowell can name every peak.”
He had a geeky streak. In college. Lowell loved the “Lord of the Rings” and carved his name in Tolkien’s Elvish onto a ski pole.
Fashion has never been much of an interest.
“Nerdy is … how I describe my dad to my friends,” says his son, Tom, a 21-year-old UW student. “He is himself — cargo pants and fanny packs.”
With short-cropped hair more salt than pepper, Lowell’s lanky, fit frame reveals a slight curvature in his back, seemingly fit to a heavy pack.
He’s intensely calm.
Hiking over a rise of an alpine meadow on Mount Rainier this fall, we stumbled within a few dozen feet of a black bear casually chomping on some huckleberries.
“Oh look, there’s a black bear,” Lowell said, as if he’d found a quarter on the sidewalk.
During a 1998 trip to Thunder Peak in the North Cascades, climbing partner Silas Wild touched off a cascade of tumbling boulders and became entrapped. A 150-pound, briefcase-sized rock was perched on his chest.
“I was yelling for him, ‘Lowell, get this rock off my chest. I can’t breathe!’ ” remembers Wild.
Despite his partner’s screams, Lowell waited a bit — long enough for the rocks to stabilize — then scrambled over to Wild and helped him wriggle around so they could both get leverage to push away the boulder.
The rock slide had broken Wild’s wrist.
The two slept a few hundred feet from the slide that night. The next morning, Lowell lowered Wild down steep terrain on a rope, before hiking out 13 miles for help.
“Like a good engineer, he carefully figured out what the best action was,” Wild says. “Totally cool.”
AMONG FRIENDS AND family, Lowell is famous for one-word answers. Talk about skiing or climbing, and he lights up like a Christmas tree. But on other subjects, his attention can drift.
Steph, on the other hand, drew dinner-party introverts into conversation. When she went on trips, she’d return with thoughtful trinkets for her girlfriends — a gadget for the kitchen or the outdoors. She could carve powder as well as anyone, but was just as happy to socialize on mellow slopes with weaker skiers.
“She was just an outgoing, great person that would draw anybody in,” says Joe Catellani, who climbed with the couple. Steph always made his wife, who doesn’t climb, feel welcome at mountain gatherings.
“Steph could recognize the quiet person, the wallflower like my wife, or Lowell … Steph could bring people out of their shell,” he says.
Lowell and Steph dated secretly at first.
The two met while both were working as engineers at Fluke, an Everett electronics manufacturing company.
Lowell, who hadn’t dated in college, asked for her phone number. When he called, she told him she had plans.
“She later told me she assumed I would never have the guts to ask her again, so she called me up and asked,” Lowell says. “She had me figured out right away.”
On their first date in 1981, they saw Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III” at the Seven Gables Theatre (they both hated the film), and then went to Dick’s Drive-In for burgers — a perfectly Seattle date they’d replicate for decades.
The couple took things fast. On her third hike with Lowell, Steph summited Mount Rainier.
They married in 1983, later trekking together in Peru and Nepal.
As Lowell continued his exploration of the Cascades, Steph provided structure that allowed him to pursue his skiing and mountaineering goals.
“My dad would probably still be living the college-dorm lifestyle without my mom. He’d be eating McDonald’s-style pancakes,” Tom says.
She was the primary breadwinner and tracked the couple’s finances. They were both caring, active parents, but Steph was the one “blowing up” Tom’s phone if he pushed the limits of his curfew.
In 2005, a call from the U.S. Embassy in Argentina shook the family. Lowell’s younger brother Carl, a renowned ski photographer who was his primary adventure partner, had plunged 4,500 feet to his death while skiing a steep slope on Cerro Mercedario in the Andes.
“When Lowell told me … I just screamed into the phone, ‘No … It can’t have happened,’ ” says Gordy. “It was disbelief.”
On the surface, in public, Lowell seemed fine. He did interviews. He emceed the memorial service. He wrote obituaries.
But, privately, he drifted in sorrow.
“That was the start, when Lowell was aloof,” Gordy says.
Months later, their mother, Ingrid, died. Lowell suspects heartache.
At the time, Steph wondered whether she had lost him forever, she told friends later.
“I was pretty depressed,” Lowell says.
“We’re Swedes — stoic Scandinavians,” Gordy says. “Lowell’s … good at putting things in boxes and setting it aside … he doesn’t like to display his emotion.”
The family bickered over Carl’s legacy, and his photographs.
The relationship between Gordy and Lowell, who once knew what the other was thinking by just the vibration of a climbing rope, frayed.
For a month, Lowell organized and indexed Carl’s photographs. He scattered some of Carl’s ashes on the summits of Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Eldorado and Black peaks.
Returning from Black Peak, Lowell realized he and Carl had nearly skied from Baker to Rainier.
In 2007, Lowell skied the links that remained between the two snowcapped anchors of the Cascades.
“It added a level of completeness to the adventures we had.”
HISTORY DOESN’T JUST fade; it disappears to attics or basements and then dumpsters and time, unless someone intervenes.
Perhaps it’s that impulse that convinced Lowell, outfitted in a vest, slacks and wool driving cap, to stand atop a snow-covered Mount Rainier slope in June on a pair of Depression-era hickory skis.
One hundred years ago, the Paradise Inn opened. That summer, early ski pioneers trekked up to Alta Vista, a now-famous viewpoint for Nisqually Glacier. They held a jumping competition. A 24-year-old Norwegian woman named Olga Bolstad beat all the men.
To mark the occasion, Lowell corralled friends and family for a re-enactment. From newspaper clippings, he identified the jump site.
With skis strapped to old leather climbing boots, to warm up, he crouched into a squat and sprang toward the sky. When the “all clear” sounded below, he pointed the hickory boards down the 75-foot runway toward the ramp they had constructed that morning out of packed snow, held up with ice axes and an old bedsheet.
Norwegian flags, an ode to Olga, graced the runway, popping in the wind like dish towels in adolescent hands.
Squatting the length of the runway, Lowell sprung off the ramp, soaring for a second, and then landing at the 30-foot measure, marked into the snow with cherry Kool-Aid.
He zipped around on the ancient skis, pausing occasionally to salt the runway or break out into WWII-era ski songs, an homage to the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which once trained in snow warfare on Rainier’s slopes.
Later, Gordy launched himself into the sky on his dad’s old jumping skis, flapping his arms in circles.
“Woohoo!” yelled Lowell. “Windmilling like Dad.”
“We have home movies,” Lowell explains. “My dad was an … enthusiastic jumper.”
Never mind their ages — they were kids again, soaring and jumping and laughing.
LOWELL WAS ALWAYS fond of history, but the 1998 book “Wild Snow” sent him tumbling headfirst into the past.
He felt the book, which chronicles ski-mountaineering history, gave short shrift to Northwest pioneers.
“It pissed me off,” Lowell says. “I felt he [the author] denigrated the Northwest.”
In 2000, Lowell set out to correct the record. He began to research and write his own history of Northwest skiing, first as a book project and then on his website, The Alpenglow Gallery.
Then, in 2004, he founded Northwest Mountaineering Journal, which featured essays and chronicled climbing and skiing firsts.
Research became an obsession. He tracked down childhood heroes and local mountaineering legends like Wolf Bauer, who in the 1930s taught a generation of climbers, including the late Fred Beckey, the Cascades’ master.
Years ago, a newspaper obituary of early ski pioneer Dwight Watson captured Lowell’s attention. The report said Watson had donated his films to The Mountaineers climbing club.
When Lowell inquired about viewing Watson’s footage, he learned the reels, which date to the 1930s, were stuffed away in a club member’s attic.
Soon, he found himself the president of the club’s history committee.
He searched for more materials.
As part of his book project, Lowell had interviewed legendary photographer Ira Spring, who documented decades of outdoor exploration with his brother, Bob. After Ira died, Lowell convinced his son to entrust him with their black-and-white archive before its donation to the University of Washington.
Lowell indexed and sorted some 50,000 prints and negatives for the UW collection.
“It was tedious, but I felt like it was buried treasure,” Lowell says. He recognized many of the places the Springs had photographed. His family vacations must have been inspired by the Springs’ images, he realized.
“This was my childhood … these were the photos of my youth.”
Lowell helped UW win a rare National Endowment of the Humanities grant to preserve these materials as a special collection, and donated hundreds of hours to identify peaks and people in photos.
“Without him … it [the collection] would have drifted out the door,” says Nicolette Bromberg, who curates visual material at UW.
STEPH DIED IN A FALL.
When the women reached Jigsaw Pass, they found a mess of mangled rock. It was supposed to have been fairly easy terrain, according to their guidebook. Earthquakes must have scrambled it since the book’s publication.
First, Steph descended the harrowing stretch without a pack, to see whether it was possible to navigate. Then, she took another woman’s bag down for her. On her third trip, a handhold popped loose. She tumbled about 80 feet, and died about an hour later, cradled in a companion’s lap.
Three weeks later, more than 400 people came to her memorial at The Mountaineers clubhouse in Seattle. Lowell narrated a slideshow chronicling more than three decades of their adventures together.
As therapy, he finished painting the house, using his climbing gear as an anchor for the hard-to-reach places. It was meticulous, his friend Mike Gluck says.
About a month after Steph died, Lowell hiked with his son, Tom, up to Ruby Mountain. The father and son didn’t say much, but hugged and cried and spread her ashes.
In her will, Steph asked that her ashes be given to friends and scattered anyplace she might have liked to go.
“I carry a little bit everywhere I go,” Lowell says. Family and friends have placed ashes in more than two dozen locations, including the summit of Mount Baker, Red Rocks in Nevada and her family home in Minneapolis.
With Steph gone, he had to learn to be the adult of the family, Lowell told friends.
He learned to cook. He spent a year “rattling around” the house, going through finances and paperwork.
He cataloged and organized Steph’s belongings, occasionally emailing friends with humorous or interesting finds.
“He approached it like he approached his research,” says neighbor Martha Gluck.
One artifact touched him. Digging through mementos and keepsakes Steph had filed away in a drawer in her sewing room, he found a ticket stub for “Richard III,” the film they’d hated so much. Written in her handwriting was, “April 29, 1981” — their first date.
Lowell Skoog knows well: We save — and preserve — what we love.