The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 72: History of Backcountry Skiing

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Backcountry skiing has a unique flavor in California, and next, we'll hear from a man who's seen most of the history of the sport. This week on The WildeBeat, a History of Backcountry Skiing.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number seventy two.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Getting into the wilderness on skis has a very long history. There's evidence that Russian hunters were using skis five thousand years ago. But some of the greatest changes in the sport of backcountry skiing have happened within the lifetimes of people still living, and still active. One of those skiers is Howard Weamer. For the last thirty three years, Howard has worked in Yosemite National Park as the keeper, or "hut master", of the Ostrander Lake backcountry ski hut. Howard's been around for enough of the history of backcountry skiing in California to be able to tell the almost whole story himself. I visited with Howard on the porch of his Bay Area home.

HOWARD WEAMER: My Dad was born in Dunsmuir, right underneath Mount Shasta. So he started skiing when he was a teenager. I mean literally using a rake handle... He was given a pair of skis by a touring Scandinavian jumper. So he started skiing downhill on jumping skis. Some of the ancients out there will remember it had a triple groove to keep them running straight. You couldn't turn the things. So he would go up on Shasta, and... would put a block of wood underneath his foot, put a strap over his boot, and stomp... his way up hill. He may have been the first people on skis to go into Horse Camp. ...But, I mean, my Dad jumped. He jumped sixty to eighty feet. Everybody jumped in the nineteen thirties. Jumping was how skiing was spread. I mean people jumped two hundred and fifty five feet into the Hollywood Bowl in a rain storm in like nineteen thirty two or thirty three... these were skiing exhibitions, that's what people thought, you know, skiing was. I mean, there were box cars of shaved ice hauled to Treasure Island in nineteen thirty nine for the World's Exhibition -- Exposition. My Dad saw it, and they were skiing off a ramp on Treasure Island and jumping.

STEVE: So backcountry skiing was in Howard's family background. But it was hardly a mainstream sport back then.

HOWARD WEAMER: So when we, you know, were old enough to... put on skis, I was about nine. We went up to Soda Springs, just off the current, I[nterstate] eighty, and we'd herringbone and side-step up the hill, and ski down. It was leather boots and steel edges on wood skis, and of course no grooming, so you were skiing around poholes and sitzmarks and there were some, just nasty snow... But it was, skiing was even then, and this was the early fifties, part touring. And we... always went off the tracks and trails because that was where the best un-skied snow was. So we'd go off in the woods and make turns in the less-tracked stuff. In high school I started going on Sierra Club trips... So I started touring in high school. I was the only person I knew in my high school that ever went out, you know, on an overnight with skis... So I, you know, through college I continued to do some ski mountaineering. And when I got into Yosemite, I just immediately started with a pair of my brothers old wooden downhill skis, and modified them to take a Ward's work boot in a toe-iron and cable type arrangement... It was a heavy, wood, steel-edged skis, with a modified hiking boot.

STEVE: The early backcountry skiers were do-it-yourself'ers. Most of the time, people just cobbled together whatever they thought would work.

HOWARD WEAMER: Wayne Mary, and Ned Gillette had -- well, Wayne first, had brought Nordic skiing into Yosemite. I mean he really started the nordic boom, in the West Coast, in the Sierra here, by bringing these lightweight, edgeless, lignestone edged skis, sold ski packages in Yosemite Valley for like thirty five or forty bucks you could buy skis, boots, and poles. The boots were these super-soft, light, plush-lined... that you could twist a hundred eighty degrees; just ring them out... you know, when I saw how people couldn't turn them, even the instructors at the Yosemite mountaineering school couldn't really turn them in the backcountry... They were for trucking along in tracks, and, you know, that was good. What we did, about nineteen eighty, I went out to the Clark Range with a friend from Coarsegold, and he had a pair of Atomic Mohair skis. They had two mohair strips that were set into the base of the ski underneath the foot... And he just motored along on those things. And we had looked at each other and said, "Wow! This is an idea." Well, we took a router and built a little ramp that went around the skis, ran the router down the ski, and put an indent in the base. That took the leading edge of a little mohair strip that we put on. So we were really the first people to do the short skins thing. And for years I skied on those... Now you can buy kicker skins with a stainless steel front that has a strap that goes over the top of the ski and keeps it on, and that's what I use... About that time in the early eighties we made a binding that was convertible. I started skiing on a Tempo, which was a Norwegian Army binding... So this particular binding had a cable that could be unhooked, so then we modified that with rivets on the side of a three-pin, so we could ski with a three-pin when we were flat tracking, and going in and out of the hut for instance, and then when we started doing downhill and wanted more control over the heel, and more rigidity, we'd put the cable on. Voile still makes that binding... So we just make our gear work for where we were.

STEVE: The pioneering backcountry skiers in California had to improvise their gear, but even more so, they had to make up their technique as they went along.

HOWARD WEAMER: I was always ...stemming or snow plowing and basically ramming things when I started just to stop. I mean, we had no style. It was nineteen seventy five before I saw my first Telemark turn. A guy named Bob Roney, he still works out in the park, demonstrated it on kind of a gentle downhill slope and we all just kind of said, "Wow! I mean you could turn one of these skis?" We couldn't believe it. Because people were doing everything, I mean they were step-turning, they were jump-turning, they were stemming in some way, some modified downhill move that you could make... In a way I would say people now are skiing more like some of the people were skiing in the forties with their setups for locking their heels down. They were using downhill gear then, and they were skiing in a downhill style. In between in the seventies and into the eighties when we had the nordic ski boom we had the much lighter gear, and people were more into flat-tracking. It was more just kind of getting in, and doing gentler tours along the ridge, instead of so much up-down, up-down, up-down. Now people are more into the alpine touring, the full-length skins, the cutting the steep up-track, and, you know, making runs and doing turns again... So, I would say we're closer to nineteen forty eight, probably, now than we have been in a while.

STEVE: So after a whole morning of conversation, what I really found myself wondering was, "just what is it that keeps Howard coming back to ski in the backcountry, year after year?"

HOWARD WEAMER: So, you know, I ski a lot with people, I mean being sixty two, many of the people that are in there skiing are almost half my age. And, I learn by watching them. I mean that's one of the reasons I keep coming back, I keep telling people, "I haven't learned to ski yet." Well, there are still a lot of slopes and moves that I have yet to make. And I go back every year and it always seems like I start right off, you know, kind of where I left off. I'm always pleased to find I'm doing new things, or old things better. Skiing slopes I didn't think I could really touch... I just always wanted to be in the backcountry. That's where I'm most comfortable, to be out in a landscape that doesn't have a track in it, no sound. It's just totally freeing kind of feeling. It's all yours, you just get that, that kind of silent openness that one -- it's just a wonderful peace.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experiences with backcountry skiing, and other winter wilderness travel. We'd like to hear your questions as well. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.

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STEVE: Next time --

NINA ROBERTS: I began to wonder, why aren't there people that look like me out here.

STEVE: Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications. This has been The WildeBeat, program number seventy two. Thank you for listening.

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