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Skiing History (USPS No. 16-201, ISSN: 23293659) is published bimonthly by the International Skiing History Association, P.O. Box 1064, Manchester Center, VT 05255.
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Walter Mosauer: Father of Southern California Skiing
Photo: Walter Mosauer earned a medical degree, taught zoology and found planted seeds of a vibrant ski industry in Southern California.
Vacationers and adventurers have always flocked to Southern California’s famous sunshine and scenic shoreline. Walter Mosauer dreamed bigger. He saw the snowy high peaks of the region and asked: Why not skiers?
California skiing in the early 1930s was in its infancy, as was ski technique. Skiers descended steep slopes with long traverses, kick turns, and many falls. A downhill turn was unheard of. Mosauer, with his enthusiasm and exuberance for skiing, tackled both challenges, introducing a generation of skiers to ski mountaineering and, using the Arlberg technique, how to maneuver skis on any type of terrain.
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1905, Mosauer was a man of divergent interests. He earned a medical degree at the University of Vienna, but his life-long fascination with reptiles led him to a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Michigan. He became an instructor of zoology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1931 and was able to engage in his two passions—snakes and skiing.
Not long after arriving in Los Angeles, he began teaching at UCLA, where he soon developed and coached the ski team. One of his best athletes was Wolfgang Lert, an early member of ISHA.
On a trip to Washington in 1932 to speak at a scientific meeting, Mosauer and Pomona College student Sandy Lyon stopped and skied Garfield Peak at the rim of Crater Lake, Oregon. Two days later they skied to the summit of Mt. Hood. They then joined ski mountaineer Otto Strizek, with ski racers Hans-Otto Giese and Hans Grage, to make the first ski ascent and descent of 12,280-foot Mt. Adams.
In 1934, Walter and a dozen or so of his most enthusiastic skiers formed the Ski Mountaineers of California. The club was created to promote ski mountaineering throughout the state. They set out to provide instruction for beginners, build ski huts near popular snow fields and sponsor and publicize races. The Ski Mountaineers soon became a section of the Sierra Club, and the group is still active today.
Two of Mosauer’s favorite ski destinations were 10,046-foot Mount San Antonio, aka Mt. Baldy, located only 10 miles from Pomona College, and San Gorgonio Mountain, with an elevation of 11,503 feet, Southern California’s highest peak. Mosauer and his made numerous trips to both locales.
As ski coach, Mosauer understood how the allure of racing helped grow the sport. He established the San Antonio Downhill in March 1935, and started the race at the summit. The Ski Mountaineers completed construction of an alpine-style ski hut at the base of the downhill course in 1936. The ski hut is still in use today.
After frequently skiing the slopes below the summit, Walter and seven companions from the Lake Arrowhead Ski Club and the Sierra Club scaled San Gorgonio on skis in 1934. They camped at 6,000 feet on Saturday night and started their ascent before dawn on Sunday morning. They reached the summit at 10:00 a.m.
Mosauer, along with his students and members of the Ski Mountaineers, made a number of notable ski ascents in the eastern Sierra. In 1933, Glen Dawson, Louis Turner, Dick Jones and Mosauer skied to Kearsarge Pass on the Sierra Crest, elevation 11,709 feet. The next year, Mosauer’s group skied Bishop Pass with mountaineer Norman Clyde.
In 1935, incomplete ascents, due to weather, were made of Mount Emma and Dunderberg Peak. And after one failed attempt of Mammoth Mountain, the group was able to make a successful ascent of the peak. Mosauer and Ski Mountaineer Bob Brinton finally made a successful ski ascent of 12,379-foot Dunderberg Peak in 1936.
When Mosauer arrived in Los Angeles, there were no formal or organized ski schools in the region. He soon began teaching eager locals wanting to learn the sport and recognized the need for a pocket-sized instructional manual to complement what he was teaching. This led him to write On Skis Over The Mountains, the first instructional book published in California.
The first edition was published in 1934, the second in 1937. The small book was illustrated with line drawings taken from movies of Mosauer teaching on the slopes of Mt. Baldy. The second edition included two new chapters—one on ski touring and ski mountaineering, the other on the Tempo Style and Tempo Turn.
Mosauer acknowledged Hannes Schroll in the preface for turning him on to the tempo-turn style.
Mosauer’s summers were spent on his second love: zoology. He went on reptile hunting excursions to California, Arizona, and Mexican deserts. Sadly, on a month-long expedition to Mexico, he became ill and passed away on August 10, 1937, at the age of 32. His death has been attributed to acute leukemia, but the actual cause of death is still a mystery.
In his short life, he left a literary legacy, publishing 39 herpetological papers and 20 articles on skiing, in addition to his pioneering instruction book On Skis Over The Mountains.
Mosauer arrived in Southern California when skiing needed an enthusiastic trailblazer to reveal the undiscovered slopes so close to the burgeoning beach communities.
His frequent ski companion, Murray Kirkwood, wrote “this dynamic young Austrian rapidly surrounded himself with a band of followers from his own university, and its neighbor, Pomona College, who not only shared his love of snow-capped peaks, but his eagerness to spread the knowledge of how to negotiate them on skis.”
Mosauer’s pioneering work set the stage for today’s vibrant California ski scene, with dozens of resorts that regularly tally more than 7 million annual skiers visits between them. Through his efforts, Mosauer has rightly been named the “Father of Skiing in Southern California” and left his legacy through the Sierra Club Ski Mountaineers and the Sierra Club Ski Huts that are still in use today.
Ingrid Wicken, founder of the California Ski Library (skilibrary.com), has recently completed her fifth book on California ski history. Lost Ski Areas of Tahoe and Donner (History Press) is scheduled to be published in November.
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