Old SC Seat!

The way it was

(Reprint from Mugelnoos #765, March 2001)

Ethel Van Degrift

Forword: This article first appeared in the February 1965 issue of Westways magazine. The author and her husband were active members of the Sierra Club and operated a sporting goods/ski shop located in downtown Los Angeles in the 1940s. Probably the only local shop in those days.

The article was reprinted in the Mugelnoos #765 (March 2001) and in Dec 2006 scanned and posted by webmaster Reiner Stenzel.


In these days of luxurious ski resorts, ski lifts of every variety, ski schools with bells that ring for classes every day at ten and two, man-made snow when nature fails, it is hard to believe that not so very long ago there were no lifts at all, and seldom were there more than half-a-dozen skiers on any slope.

It was all just beginning in the 'thirties. Changes came fast, but we had no way of knowing how big this new-old sport was going to be. It was a time of discovery and exploration and wonder in a new world, high, white and silent.

There were so few of us that everyone knew everyone else. Skis were our introduction. We learned to ski by trial and error, cheered each other on, applauding every passable turn and every no-fall run, brushed the snow off each other after spills, coached one another as well as we could, gleaned our rudiments of technique largely from books and pictures. Occasionally we received instruction from an Austrian, Swiss or Norwegian who had learned to ski in Europe.

Even before Alpine skiing-downhill running and turning such as we were trying to do-the Nordic type of skiing had been going on for some time in our mountains. A few Norwegians explored on their cross-country skis and built skljumps at Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear for competition. In the late thirties the largest jumping hill in the entire country was at Big Pines near Los Angeles. Once a year the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored a jumping tournament there which drew competitors, mostly Scandinavian, from distant places. Most of the spectators did not know there was any other way of skiing than flying through the air. The stock question we alwaxs heard when we mentioned we had been skiing was: 'How far can you jump?"

Our equipment was strictly makeshift. There were no ski shops, but we managed to find the essentials, and were gloriously happy wIth anything that would get us started. Clothing ranged from hiking breeches to fuzzy snow suits which picked up the snow when we tumbled and made us look like snowmen. We were not very chic or sleek, but we had enthusiasm.

Precious as our ski things were, we had no hesitation about leaving them unguarded anywhere. When we grew warm we hung our parkas and sweaters on a limb. Our knapsacks, cameras and all, were stashed under any tree. Times have changed in many ways.

At lunch-time, or when we were hungry, we sat on a log or rock and ate an orange, a chocolate bar, or some raIsins and nuts. Restaurants were few and far away, and who could take time out of a shining day to leave the slopes? We needed every moment for practice. Sometimes we kept on skiing until the moon came up and then skied by moonlight.

Since there were no lifts we had to climb for every foot of downhill running. It cost us perhaps twenty minutes of climbing for every minute of descent. It follows that we tried to make the most of the descent by squeezing in as many turns as possible. I, for one, have had difficulty overcoming thIS habit, even though reason tells me it is no longer sensible to be economical of elevation when there is a ski-lift waiting to whisk me back to the top-of the run.

We dIdn't confine ourselves to climbing practice slopes. We took on whole mountains. A great exponent of this kind of adventure was a Viennese professor at UCLA, Dr. Walter Mosauer, whose enthusiasm for skiing and mountains was infectious, and who exerted a tremendous influence on California skiing in the later thirties. He and a group of UCLA students, all experienced in summer climbing, banded together as the Ski Mountaineers, later becoming a section of the Sierra Club. They made winter ascents in the Sierra as well as in the local mountains. One of the mountains they climbed was called Mammoth. I wonder what Dr. Mosauer would think of Mammoth if he were alive today. He was Of posed to what he termed "mechanized skiing," but suspect he, too, would accept a "lift" now and then if he were here, though he would be likely to seek untracked snow on the other side of the mountain for his jubilant descent. I can hear him yet shouting, "Wonderful! Wonderful!," as the snow sprayed up around his waltzing skis.

There was good sport in climbing mountains like Mount Baldy, more respectfully known as Mount San Antonio. Inexpert as most of us were, we managed somehow to ski down anything we could climb. Gettmg down the mountain was a question of survival, not of style.

The toughest trip was Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in southern California. This was usually reserved for spring because the snow lingered there longer than elsewhere. There were no accommodations or shelters; we drove to the end of the dirt road and hiked several miles to the slopes, often carrying our skis two or three miles before reaching snow. It was a long, arduous trek, and one group solved the problem of remaining overnight near the best snowfields by building a rude, secret (and illegal) shelter which was invisible until you were almost upon it. It was tom down some years later. Others carried sleeping bags and camped near the snow. I remember sleepmg in a snowbank one chilly night high on San Gorgomo. Fully dressed, even to rruttens, I shIvered all through the night, scarcely daring to move lest a breath of icy air creep in some seam. But above me there was a bowl of stars, and at dawn, after a quick breakfast cooked over a Primus stove, I thawed out enough to continue the climb on skis.

I have another memory of San Gorgonio . . . the day I lost my face. It was June 5, and the combination of hot sun and reflection of the snow burned off the top layer of skin. In due time I emerged from layers of gauze with a face. Still, it was worth the pain.

It was a time of "firsts." We loved things as they were, but used to wonder, rather wistfully, whether we would ever have teleferiques such as we saw in pictures of the Alps, or whether there might some day be a string of huts through the Sierra so that we could tour from hut to hut as they did in Europe.

The Ski Mountaineers, with incredible labor and unquenchable enthusiasm, built a beautiful little hut at 6,500 feet on Mount Baldy, at the foot of their favorite skiing slope. On their own backs they carried all the material for the building up two miles of steep, rough trail. Only for the heaviest items like the stove were pack animals used. They were supervised by a stem but beloved European professor, one George Bauwens, whose "Get to work, you lazy loafers! " became a byword. Within a year the hut burned to the ground, but the group rebuilt It immediately, and there It stands today. I like to remember that I pounded a nail or two into it, however crookedly.

Before long ski lifts began to sprout on the most popular slopes. There was a rope tow at Snow Valley. Then a chair lift was built on Mount Waterman, the first in southern California. Ski schools were organized. Probably the oldest in California is at Yosemite, where a warrmng house was built at Badger Pass. There a contraption know as the "Up ski" transported ecstatic loads of skiers uI?, the hill on two boat-like sleds known as the "Leviathan' and the "Queen Mary." A blast from a whistle warned passengers when they were about to take off.

A rope tow was built on McGee Mountain, north of Bishop, and the first race ever held on the east side of the SIerra took place in the spring of 1937 under the sponsorship of Cortlandt Hill. There weren't many skiers but the event had class. Prizes were handed out by Claudette Colbert, who had just completed a picture in Sun V alley, then in its first season. One of the racers was a young man named Dave McCoy; another was a young lady named Roma Carriere. Dave married Roma, and began the long, hard task of building his ski empire on Mammoth Mountain.

Ski resorts are becoming more and more elaborate and luxurious. Not long ago I stood on top of June Mountain where a magmficent development has sprung up, and looked across to the slopes of Mammoth Mountain, only six air miles distant, where the patterns carved by skiers were plainly visible through the clear air. Here in the heart of the Sierra, once deserted in winter, thousands are skiing. And thousands more will come, and more and more lifts and hotels will be built. Great skiing complexes, like those in the Alps, are in the making. Perhaps today is still just the beginning.

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