Old SC Seal

Ski Mountaineers Section -- A 66 Year Tradition
By Mark Goebel

The following article appeared in the Southern Sierran

The Ski Mountaineers Section has a long and active history. Beginning in the early 1930s, winter sports were being organized in the Sierra Club, both in northern and southern California. Skiing was in its infancy, there were no resorts or lifts. If you wanted to ski down a slope, you first had to climb it. The most popular forms of the sport were ski jumping and racing, but for some, it was the exploration of mountains in winter that fired their enthusiasm. One of these explorers was Dr. Walter Mosauer, a young zoology professor and ski team coach at UCLA. He learned to ski in his native Austria, and in southern California he was delighted to find mountains to climb, snow on which to ski, and students wanting to learn to ski. Although not initially within the Sierra Club, the Section had its beginning on November 7, 1934, when 14 enthusiastic skiers from UCLA and Pomona College met at Dr. Mosauer's home and organized the Ski Mountaineers of California. In describing his objective for organizing the club, Dr. Mosauer remarked, "The really beautiful ski slopes of southern California mountains offer unlimited opportunity for ski touring, but...one just can't ski alone in the high mountains." So it was then as today, the club was organized to bring skiers together to explore and enjoy the winter wilderness.

Continuing with Dr. Mosauer's leadership, the small group, many of whom were Sierra Club members, commenced outings to the high peaks of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino ranges, as well as to the Sierra. It was their desire to build a ski hut on the upper slopes of Mount San Antonio that brought the group into the Sierra Club. They decided that ski life would be a lot easier and more pleasant if they had a hut on the peak's southern bowl close to reliable snow. However, the Forest Service would not grant a permit to this small and unknown club. The problem was solved on September 26, 1935, when the Ski Mountaineers membership agreed to an invitation from Ernest Dawson, president of the Sierra Club, to become affiliated with the Sierra Club as its third section, but the first to elect its own officers. With this backing, a permit for the hut was granted.

Immediately, the building project was begun. Money was raised through donations, raffles and parties, but all materials, over 10 tons, were carried on the backs of workers up the steep, 3 mile trail to the 8200' building site. With help from Club members throughout the Chapter, and the driving force of George Bauwens, a tough old German engineer and outdoor enthusiast, the hut was ready for regular use by January 1936. They were sweeping away falling snow as the roof was applied. Alas, the hut only lasted one season. In September 1936 a fire of undetermined origin reduced it to ashes. The insurance adjuster finally arriving exhausted at the ruins, pantingly exclaimed, "If it burns again, I'll take your word for it!" The members immediately started reconstruction, this time with the help of burros to carry supplies. A new, larger hut was ready when snow arrived in December.

Membership within the Section continued to grow, activities were expanded to include organized skiing and mountaineering instruction and ski tests, and plans were made to build a second hut. The Section was also responsible for the annual San Antonio Downhill races. Then, in August 1937, while doing research in Mexico, Dr. Mosauer died of blood poisoning from possibly a plant or snake. His vision and enthusiasm had greatly influenced the Ski Mountaineers. He is remembered as the father of alpine skiing in southern California. Immediately, plans were made to build a ski hut in his memory on San Gorgonio. However, when the Forest Service denied the permit request, they acquired a leased site in Snow Valley, west of Big Bear Lake. Construction began on the Keller Peak Hut in July 1938. Initial construction costs were only $500, and with well attended work parties throughout the summer, it was ready by ski season. Its popularity was so great that an addition was added the following year.

January 1938 saw the birth of the Mugelnoos, the Ski Mountaineers Section newssheet. Its name comes from a German word mÜgel, meaning a small bump in the snow (hence the modern skiers' term "mogel") plus "news" with a German accent. Most of the Ski Mountaineers were also in the Rock Climbing Section (formed just prior to the Ski Mountaineers in 1934), so it soon became the official publication for both sections. The Mugelnoos was the first special activities section newsletter in the Sierra Club, and its early popularity came from not only timely news, but a lighthearted approach with cartoons, puns and other forms of wit. For most of its first 40 years, Ruth Dyar Mendenhall edited the ‘Noos and then managed the Mugelnoos Committee with a system of revolving editors. Joint meetings of the Ski Mountaineers and Rock Climbing Sections were known as Mugelnoos meetings, for besides business and programs, folding and stuffing the Mugelnoos for mailing was a primary event.

During these later years of the Great Depression, the Ski Mountaineers Section provided the opportunity for young people to meet, and combine fun, adventure and companionship. Besides the skiing, there were work parties and dances at the huts, and fund raising "ski rallies" in town. Some participants were not necessarily skiers, but gravitated to the company of the group. Within five years, membership had increased to 300.

Section activities slowed during World War II, there was gas rationing, and the war scattered many members, yet printing of the Mugelnoos continued. Some of the skiers and climbers who saw action during the war were members of the Army's well known 10th Mountain Division. Section activities resumed following the war, with gradual changes in membership. Some were now older and had new interests, and ski touring became less popular for some with the development of lift served ski resorts. Over time, the Section evolved into a smaller group of mountaineer/skiers with strong passions for frequent trips to the mountains both summer and winter.

As the ski industry grew, equipment improved. In the years after the war, an Army surplus store was a frequent source for outdoor gear: the surplus baggy ski pants and shirts lifted the ski mountaineer to new heights of fashion! In 1947, Ski Mountaineer and chemist, Paul Flinchbaugh developed Faski a product to improve the glide of wooden and later plastic-based skis. It became very popular and was even used by national ski racing teams. By the 1960s, lighter backpacking gear was becoming available, and many ski mountaineers were climbing to the peaks with their skis lashed across a Kelty frame pack. Yet, it was the re-introduction of an old style ski turn in the late 1970s that brought on a major uproar within the Section.

With its characteristic drop-knee style, the telemark turn, executed on narrow, fiberglass, cross-country skis with free-heel bindings came sweeping across the ranges from Colorado. With lots of practice, it was possible to travel the same slopes skied by the Ski Mountaineers for years, but with greater flexibility and less weight. Yet some of the older and very active members were concerned that the new gear and its users might negatively impact a group's ability to travel safely together and enjoy outings. During this period, active membership within the Section was dwindling and attendance at meetings was low. What started out as a debate over ski technique became a question of the Section's survival. For months, the Mugelnoos carried letters pro and con about new vs. old ski equipment, the manner in which Section officers were elected, outings scheduled, and even the continuance of the group as a Section. There were supportive letters from members who had joined in the 1930s and 40s and deeply cared about the Section's survival. Finally, a special members meeting was held, and the headline in the October 1979 Mugelnoos declared, "SKIERS FORGE CHANGE". From this meeting came a consensus for proposed Bylaw changes, and a new course was set to present a broader base to attract new members and leaders.

Beginning the new decade, the January 1980 Mugelnoos reported on the membership's overwhelming vote of approval for the Bylaw changes. Riding the telemark skiing wave of popularity, the Section began to grow again and new outings, including training events soon appeared on the schedule. At the close of the year, the December issue reported on the miracle survival of the Baldy Ski Hut from a massive forest fire that had swept the area a few weeks before. Not so lucky, however, was the hut's outhouse. Its destruction closed the hut until a new structure could be built. Clearly, it was much easier in 1936. The County now required a building permit, which required that building plans be prepared, and then manpower had to be rounded up to carry the supplies. The project required a year before the hut could reopen, about 9 months longer than to build the hut originally!

November 1984 marked the 50th anniversary of both the Ski Mountaineers and Rock Climbing Sections, and this event was jointly celebrated over a weekend with a huge party at Harwood Lodge. For the 125 in attendance, it was truly a memorable and historical event that celebrated the comradeship fostered by generations of skiers and climbers. The largest group in attendance were members from the first decade, including Glen Dawson, the only charter member of both Sections. The people, activities and humor of both groups were well documented through movies, photos and personal accounts throughout the weekend. Four years later, the Rock Climbing Section fell victim to an insurance crisis within the Sierra Club and passed into history.

As the Ski Mountaineers traverse into the new Millennium, back-country skiing has never been more popular. While still a physically demanding sport, modern ski equipment has enabled many more to seek the adventure, thrill, and beauty of the mountains in winter. The choice of skiing with telemark or alpine touring gear still remains and both styles now utilize wide skis and plastic boots. It is also not uncommon to see a snowboarder's distinctive, single track on back-country slopes. What has not changed over the years is the attraction to the sport. A description in the January 1915, Sierra Club Bulletin still applies, "...go to the mountain top ... gather yourself together in a crouching position just as a bird does before it leaps into the air ... you, too, will fly over that white world, alighting gradually and upright (we hope) ... you have had the exhilaration of that wonderful downward movement, and after you have gathered yourself together again to reascend the slope, you have the pleasure in the climb of speculating as to 'what is beyond that ridge,' until you find yourself once more at the top, ready and impatient to try again your ski wings."

In 2001, the Ski Mountaineers have scheduled a variety of outings for novices to advanced skiers ranging from day tours and skiing at the Baldy Hut to weekend snowshelter and ski courses, more challenging peak climbs and descents, and multi-day ski traverses in the Sierra. Newcomers are always welcome, but should contact the leader for the level of skills and equipment required for each outing. Section meetings are the 3rd Tuesday, November – May, except Dec., 7:30 pm, Griffith Park Ranger Station Auditorium. For additional information, also check the SMS website: angeles.sierraclub.org/skimt/.

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