By Ron Watters
Things had been going well for the 28year-old Jack Meissner. He had been moving along, making good mileage on his wooden Splitkein skis. He liked being alone. He liked the freedom of making his own decisions. Camping when he was ready. Moving along at his own pace. And his pace was moving him closer and closer to his goal.
It was true that people on the outside had doubts about whether he would make it. He knew that. The Forest Service had even flown a plane over to check on him. But things were going well. By golly, with a little luck, he was going to make it.
Then, he halted abruptly.
His heart sank. Dropping straight down, directly in his path, was a ravine; a steep, icy slope plunging to a narrow bottom which harbored a frozen stream. On the other side, another slope pitched steeply back up to the top. To surmount it safely, he needed crampons and an ice axe. He had neither.
Somehow, he had to get across the ravine. It was either that or turn back. And for Jack Meissner there was no turning back.
It was 1948. Jack had been out of the Air Force for just three years when he started off on one of the most remarkable backcountry ski journeys ever undertaken in Oregon. His plan was to ski from Mt. Hood to Crater Lake along the crest of the Cascade Mountains. When his route is viewed on a map, it forms a vertical line that stretches from Oregon’s northern border nearly to its southern border. It was an impressive, bold plan, and it had never been attempted before.
Was this just a wild and crazy dream? After all, he had only been skiing for three years. By nearly all counts, a slip or fall into the ravine would be fatal. He was alone. If he injured himself — broke an ankle or leg or worse — there would be no one to come to his aid. He stared down the steep slope and pondered his options. Many more miles remained. Did he really have the experience and skill to make it?
For Meissner, skiing was born of a necessity brought by a passion for Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. He had been a mechanic in World War II, keeping fighter planes running. Moving with the advancing Allied forces, he shuttled in rapid succession from England, Ireland and Scotland to Northern Africa and Italy.
When the war was finally over, he returned to a nation in the throes of post-war euphoria. To returning servicemen and women, it was a time when all things seemed possible. Meissner knew his possibilities and he had his mind made up. “I told my mom and stepfather,” he recalled later, “that I was going back to the mountains.”
This was no fanciful plan on Meissner’s part. A practical and resourceful person, good with his hands, he had confidence that he could make a living in the mountains. His confidence was catching and together, son, mother and stepfather managed to buy a small repair shop (later to become a marina and resort) called Shelter Cove.
Shelter Cove is located on Lake Odell near the top of Willamette Pass, approximately 60 miles to the southeast of Eugene on the very crest of the Cascade Mountains. It is familiar to those who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, since the trail runs near the pass and Odell Lake.
During the summer, Meissner and his family ran the repair shop, but during the long winters he sought whatever work he could find: “Anything to make money,” he said. The strapping 185-pound Meissner did work for the railroad, helped with snow surveys, repaired vehicles, and kept the snow off of nearby homes.
The winter of 1945-46, he started cross country skiing, but not as a recreational activity, at least not at first. Rather, he skied because it was transportation. Shelter Cove was snowbound in the winter and it was two miles to the plowed Willamette Highway. Meissner obtained a pair of surplus army skis and used them to travel back and forth from the highway, ferrying food and supplies. It wasn’t too long before skiing became a natural way of getting around.
To help supplement the family’s winter income, he started a trap line. An old trapper that everyone called A.C. helped him get started. A.C. counseled him that snowshoes were the only way to get around in the winter, but Meissner quickly dispensed with the snowshoes. He found that, with skis, he could go farther and travel with less effort than with webs on his feet.
He also quickly learned the ways of the winter and how to keep himself alive in tough situations. Occasionally while on his trap lines, snow and weather conditions would conspire against him, forcing him to spend the night out. To get through the night, he would dig a snow hole. “I’d make a seat for myself, and a small shelf for candles and a door of pine bows and covered it with an army poncho,” he said. Though not the most comfortable, it sheltered him from the wind and cold.
Not far away on the pass was the Willamette Ski Area and Meissner quickly became a regular. The area was only open on weekends, which fit his schedule perfectly. He could run his trap line and do other odds and ends of work during the week, then look forward to skiing for fun on Saturday and Sunday. Since he was skiing nearly every day, he became an informal instructor, helping friends and acquaintances with their snowplow and other ski techniques. He found that he had a knack for teaching.
As alpine skiing became more and more popular, eventually he was able to make a living from his teaching. Gradually he expanded his range, living and teaching at such ski areas as Bachelor Mountain, Bogus Basin, Keystone and others. In April, when the skiing began to peter out, he returned to the Cascades, shoveled the snow off the cabins at Shelter Cove and prepared for another summer season.
Meissner was a skier in the full sense of the word. He was an alpine skier, a Nordic skier and a backcountry skier. He also did a fair amount of cross country racing. Early on, he competed in a number of cross country races in Oregon and California. He did “all right” in his racing career, he told me in our interview, but “I got floorboarded when I got hooked up with those Norwegians and Swedes!”
There was no floorboarding for Jack on his 1948 Cascade Crest journey. Of all of his ski experiences, the Mt Hood to Crater Lake ski undertaking stands out as the most fascinating.
His reasons for tackling the long journey are equally fascinating. Was it the quest of adventure that attracted him? Not really, he freely admits. Was it satisfaction of doing something that no one else had ever done before? No, it wasn’t that either. His motivation? Money.
Yep. I said that right. He had a friend about his same age, Stan Tonkin, who lived farther down Willamette Pass at a hot springs. Tonkin had done some impressive skiing, having climbed and skied Mt. Shasta a couple of times.
“Jack,” he proposed one time while they were together, “Why don’t you and I do something and make some money off it.”
“That sounds pretty good,” Jack replied. Meissner was always interested in ways of supplementing his income. In the late 40s, it wasn’t easy scrapping enough money to get through the winter. What exactly did Tonkin have in mind?
Tonkin laid out his idea. He proposed that they ski the length of what was called in those days the Skyline Trail. First blazed in 1919 from Mt Hood to Crater Lake, the Skyline Trail had been gradually improved and was touted as an Oregon backcountry attraction. Now, half a century later, it’s an even bigger attraction. Although it has been re-routed in places, the Skyline Trail has now been incorporated into the Pacific Crest Trail.
All in all, the trip would cover somewhere between 250 to 300 miles. One of the old maps of the Skyline Trail shows the mileage at 260. The mileage on the present Pacific Crest Trail maps stands at 303 miles. The exact mileage was a little hard to pin down for the two men since they would be forging a route in the winter when the trail wouldn’t be visible. Nonetheless, it was clearly a long way. What Tonkin was proposing was a major expedition on skis.
Where was all of the money to come from? Tonkin figured that ski and clothing companies might sponsor them, or, at the very least, provide equipment for the journey. And since a north-to-south ski journey across Oregon was a “first,” they would attract attention and make money from the resulting publicity.
In the 1940s expecting a winter trip to generate financial windfall was probably a bit on the naïve side but, nonetheless, it sounded like it had possibilities to Meissner — and Jack embraced possibilities. He told Tonkin to count him in and began assembling his equipment.
What an assemblage it was. From the appearance of the equipment, Meissner might have been preparing to go back into the military. On the trail, he would be a walking surplus Army store: olive green mummy sleeping bag, olive-drab pup tent, green Army frame backpack and various other assorted surplus items.
In fact, Meissner’s was the sort of outfit that most backcountry skiers used in those days. There was plenty of surplus military gear available then and the equipment could be had for a song. Surplus military gear continued to be popular for outdoor activities until the ‘60s, when it was supplanted by gear produced by upstarts that sprang into existence as interest in outdoor activities soared.
Jack’s wardrobe wasn’t all green and drab. There was one very conspicuous flash of color: an orange jacket provided by a clothing company by the name of White Stag. Tonkin was making good on his promise to find sponsorship.
But that was about all Tonkin was able to come up with. The jacket and a pair of pants, also provide by White Stag, were the only equipment donations obtained for the trip. Nonetheless, Meissner consoled himself in the fact that there was still the money they would make from the publicity.
Then came another setback, and this one nearly doomed the trip.
“Jack,” Tonkin said dropping a bomb, “I can’t go. Slim just doesn’t want me go.” Slim was Tonkin’s girlfriend and they were talking marriage. Slim wasn’t keen on her fiancé heading off on trip from which he might not return.
That was it. No changing Tonkin’s mind. Meissner thought things over. He had already invested a considerable amount of time. The project was well underway now and he didn’t like leaving things half finished.
Explaining his decision 60 years later, he said in his taciturn way, “Okay. Tonkin couldn’t go. So I went anyway.”
His date of departure: February 14, Valentine’s Day, 1948.
Catching wind of the trip, the Forest Service contacted Meissner. They were concerned, they told him. They didn’t want Meissner to go alone. Eventually, Emory Woodall was called upon to join him. With a companion on board, and the Forest Service a little less edgy, the trip got underway.
Woodall didn’t last long. “He was a good kid and everything,” said Meissner, “but he didn’t know how to take care of himself.” Near Mt Jefferson, Meissner helped lead Woodall, limping with blistered feet, down to a plowed highway. Woodall hitched a ride and rode out of Meissner’s life. “I never did see or hear from him again,” Meissner said.
For Meissner, the journey continued. The country through which he was passing can only be described as extraordinarily scenic. The Oregon Cascades are part of one of the world’s great volcanic mountain ranges. Majestic snow-capped, conical volcanoes rise up out of forested lowlands. His path stayed very close to the crest, routing around the west sides of such lovely peaks as Mt Jefferson, Three-Fingered Jack, Mt. Washington, and the Three Sisters (North, Middle and South).
Although, his general route was the Skyline Trail, he really couldn’t follow it. Any sign of the trail was well under the deep Cascade snow pack. Once in while, he might see a blaze on a tree or a trail sign, but Meissner largely had to find his way by other means. “I had a map,” he said. “You could see the mountains, and I’d pretty much keep myself in a line between and alongside them — and go that way.”
The prominent summits of the Cascades helped Meissner find his way, but he couldn’t always depend on seeing them. The Cascade Range forms a great barrier to storm systems moving inland off the Pacific. Large amounts of precipitation fall on the west slope of the range, allowing forests to grow thick and valleys to stay moist and green. But it defrauds eastern Oregon of its share of rain, creating a high, sagebrush-covered desert.
That means the crest, where the Cascades rise to their highest, receives generous amounts of snow — exceedingly generous amounts of snow. Jack remembers one year when 22 feet of snow fell on Willamette Pass. Crater Lake to the south, Meissner’s destination, was inundated one winter season with an incredible 879 inches. That’s over 70 feet of snow! As you could imagine, winter weather in the Cascades is marked by one storm after another.
In fact, when Meissner reached Mesa Creek alongside of the South Sister, he found himself in one particularly prolific storm. It started in the evening and it continued all the next day; snow and more snow pouring from the heavens. “I figured that it was two-and-half to three feet of snow out of that one storm,” he recalled.
Not able to travel, he spent the day packing down snow and keeping his tent clear. He had been moving well up to this point and was frustrated by the delay. “I was getting itchy to get a-going again.” Finally the snow stopped, and the next morning, he said to himself, “I’m getting out of here whether it snows again or not.” It did, but that was the last of the big storms.
Jack’s trip was, indeed, generating publicity, and now that Meissner was alone, the Forest Service was nervous again. On two occasions, they sent out a plane to check on him. They even dropped some extra supplies. Along with the supplies were two carrier pigeons that he could use to send out a note on his progress. The Forest Service waited and waited, but there was no sign of carrier pigeons.