Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Wonderland of Glaciers and Snow

Northwest ski historian Lowell Skoog recently posted some interesting facts about the history of skiing in the Cascades on the Northwest ski forum, Turns-All-Year. Lowell has done a great deal of research on the history of skiing in the Cascade range of Washington state. His post on Turns-All-Year indicates that the he believes that recreational skiing on Mount Rainier began with an expedition lead by Milnor Roberts on March 18, 1909.

Lowell posted on Turns-All-Year because he recognized that this March 18th marks the one-hundred year anniversary of skiing on Rainier. Lowell has also put together a centennial event to celebrate the anniversary which will take place on March 22nd in Mount Rainier National Park. To read more about the event, click here.

The following article was written by Milnor Roberts after the ski trip to Mount Rainier. This article recently moved into the public domain. As such, I have reprinted it here:

A Wonderland of Glaciers and Snow

By Milnor Roberts, University of Washington, Seattle
National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 20, 1909, pp. 530-537

The Editor of the National Geographic Society recently asked the members to name those articles in the last volume of the Society's Magazine which seemed most interesting. Opinions on such a question naturally would differ widely, but it must be admitted that in the remarkable array of subjects treated some of the most striking articles consisted of illustrated descriptions of snow-clad mountains and polar regions. The remoteness of these scenes may add to their charm, but it also lessens our chances of ever seeing them. The Mount Rainier National Park, a wonderland of glaciers and snow in our own country, is so easily reached in summer that it is becoming fairly well known to travelers. A recent visit to the park made by the writer and a party of friends has shown that the slopes of Mount Rainier may be reached even in winter without discomfort.

The Mount Rainier National Park, of 324 square miles area, includes the symmetrical, glacier-clad slopes of the mountain and a broad belt of magnificent forest land around its base. In 1883, Professor Zittel, the geologist, and Prof. James Bryce wrote of Rainier:

"The peak itself is as noble a mountain as we have ever seen in its lines and structure. ... The combination of ice scenery with woodland scenery of the grandest type is to be found nowhere in the Old World, unless it be in the Himalayas, and, so far as we know, nowhere else on the American Continent."

The altitude of Rainier has been reported between 14,394 feet and 14,526 feet, placing it either first or second among the peaks in the United States proper. A difference of a few feet, which can be determined only by accurate measurement, is of slight importance to the ordinary observer. The noteworthy facts are that Rainier stands absolutely alone, is snow-clad throughout the year, and may be seen in its entirety from sea-level at distances of forty to one hundred miles to the westward.

The Cascade Range, in its north-south course across the State of Washington, has a general summit elevation varying from five to seven thousand feet, above which tower the volcanic peaks of Mounts Adams, Saint Helens, Baker, and Rainier. Glaciers still linger on nearly all the higher peaks, as relics of the ice-sheet which once covered the whole range. Many cirques of former glaciers are occupied now by fields of snow and neve of great thickness. The snowfall is heavy throughout the mountains, due to the chilling of the warm, moist winds from the Pacific. In spite of the glaciers and snows, the winter climate of the Cascades is mild.

The railway station nearest to the Mount Rainier National Park is Ashford, on the southwest, fifty-five miles from Puget Sound by the Tacoma and Eastern Railway. Camping parties with wagons or automobiles must come in from the lower country by the county road passing through Ashford, but pack-trains can be driven into the park by four or five other routes. The county road from Ashford continues up the Nisqually River for six miles, to the western boundary of the park at which point it joins the government road. The latter has a maximum grade of 4 per cent, and extends to Paradise Park, a favorite camping ground near timber-line, between the Nisqually and Paradise glaciers.

In summer the Ashford stages run thirteen miles, to Longmire's Springs, where there are two hotels. The road is open however past Nisqually Glacier and Narada Falls several miles farther up.

During the season of 1909 a temporary road with steeper grades will be completed to Camp of the Clouds, at an altitude of 5,600 feet. Eventually the permanent road will reach 7,000 feet, where trails will branch off. An automobile party leaving Seattle or Tacoma in the morning can pitch its evening camp in one of the dense groves of stunted trees at timber-line in the shadow of the great peak, looking out upon the jagged pinnacles of the Tatoosh Range and the vast forest wilderness to the westward.

On March 18 our party found three feet of snow at the National Park Inn at Longmire's Springs. On the morning after our arrival a dense cloud-bank hung a few hundred feet overhead. Frequent flurries of snow came drifting down from it, now in matted bunches of moist flakes an inch wide, again as separate crystals, these in turn giving way to little rounded pellets like dry sago, which hopped from bough to bough down through the evergreens. Our skis settled silently through the fresh snow, as we trailed up the government road along the Nisqually River, intending to break a trail part way to Paradise Valley, the goal of our trip. During the midday thaw, masses of snow clung to the worn spots on the sole of a certain ski in the outfit. After many gyrations and contortions had been made by its fair owner in removing the burden, she announced piously, "My soul is ready for Paradise," and on we "mushed" again.

On the trail up the narrow valley of the Paradise River the snow was found to be a foot deeper for each two or three hundred feet of elevation gained. So quietly had the flakes fallen in the sheltered valleys that each stump and fallen tree was covered almost as deeply as the surrounding ground, as some of the photographs show. On the exposed ridges, however, the winds had piled huge drifts over the brow of every leeward slope.

Cornices of snow overhanging the crags of Eagle Peak had broken off and shot down its precipitous northern side, coming to rest on a long talus slope near the stream. There we reveled in ski sliding and jumping. Huge boulders in the talus beneath the seven-foot covering of snow had caused hummocks on the surface which served us in place of the artificial take-offs used in regular ski jumping.

Two divisions of our party made the ascent to Paradise Valley. The first group consisted of three men, including the writer. We followed the general course of the horse-trail, but made frequent cut-offs by crossing Paradise River on the snow bridges. The only toilsome part of the journey was at Narada Kails, where we were forced to navigate our skis sidewise, in crab fashion, up the steep slope. Half a mile farther upstream, on the second bridge of the government wagon road, the snow measured more than two ski-lengths in depth, at least fourteen feet, without a sign of drifting. Under the bridge was a pool of open water overhung on all sides by rounded cornices of soft snow. A few inky-bottomed wells marked the upper course of the stream for a short distance, until it disappeared entirely under the deepening load of snow.

The long, open meadow in Paradise Valley lay like a smooth floor of snow, rising slightly until it merged into the final slopes of Mount Rainier. The surrounding ridges, dotted with the tops of stunted trees, had been so rounded and smoothed by drifting that the small gulches and hillocks of ground were almost blotted out. Constant shifting of the dry snow had produced a fine, powdery surface everywhere. All appearances indicated that the snow in the open meadow of Paradise Valley was much deeper than at the bridge where we had neasured it. The difference in location and elevation of the two localities may be held accountable for such a condition. Some marks which we made on a tree trunk at the surface level of the snow will be interesting reading in summer.

Excellent views of Mount Rainier and its southern glaciers were had on a brilliant sunny day from the Ramparts, a long ridge covered with standing burnt timber, extending southward from the mountain. A series of cascades in the South Tahoma Glacier caused the ice to stand out in jagged blocks against the skyline. The surface of the Kautz Glacier was perfectly smooth with snow except at its cascades. From Gibraltar Rock a snow banner as large as the rock itself waved to the eastward.

On March 24, another cloudless day, two young ladies of our party, accompanied by James McCullough, watchman at the National Park Inn, made a ski trip to Sluiskin Falls, considerably beyond the point reached by the first party. As both the ladies had ascended Rainier in summer, they could enjoy to the utmost the wonderful view of the snow-clad range spread out before them.

The Cascade Range in its winter garb is just beginning to be appreciated. Hotels at several mountain resorts now remain more or less open throughout the winter. The great advantage of visiting the higher altitudes lies in the drier snow usually found there, with only a slightly lower temperature. The beauties of the forests and the snow-fields may be seen without hardship by any visitor, while experienced mountaineers have unlimited opportunities for climbing and exploring on trips of two or three days. The writer's experience, gained through mining work in various parts of the range at all seasons, has been that only the severest storms or the heaviest rains make the Cascades unpleasant. So far as ski sport is concerned, it would be difficult to imagine more perfect riding than can be had on the many miles of varied slopes in Paradise Park. Judging by the fresh tracks of snowshoe rabbit, weasel, marten, fox, wildcat, white goat, and bear which our party saw in a few days, it is safe to say that the Mount Rainier National Park offers good chances to the camera-hunter.

To see archival photos from this trip, check out the following links:

A Group with Skis and Snowshoes
A Woman Skiing Under a Log
A Group of Skiers in a Clearing
Skiers with Long Staffs instead of Poles
A Group of Skiers Pose for a Shot
A Skier with Castle and Pinnacle Peak in the Background

--Jason D. Martin

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