The Greatest Ski Adventure

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written by Annemarie Hamilin


Carrying a tent, a sleeping bag and a heavy backpack, John Richard “Jack” Meissner strapped on his skis on a February afternoon in 1948 and began a 300-mile trek from Mt. Hood, in the northern part of the state, to Crater Lake in the south. He would be the first person to make the journey on cross-country skis. And no one has repeated the trip since, according to his daughter, Jane, a Central Oregon naturalist and retired ski and hiking instructor. Perhaps no one since then has been as equipped as Jack to take up the challenge.

 

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This original image appeared in The Oregonian and in Meissner’s scrapbook, “This Adventure Belongs to Jack Meissner” assembled by his mother.

Meissner grew up among people who taught him carpentry and mechanics, skills that complemented his natural resourcefulness and love of the outdoors. When he was a young boy, Jack watched his father build the family’s first house in Portland, and later learned mechanical skills from his stepfather, a mechanical genius who could fix anything. Even before he started high school, Jack earned money during the summers by cutting wood. He was also an athlete, strong in football and any other sport he decided to take up, according to his best friend from high school.

During World War II, Meissner served in the Air Force as an airplane mechanic in Europe and Northern Africa. Once home from the war, he and his parents bought the marina at Shelter Cove on Odell Lake. Jack spent his summers repairing boats and homes and his winters trapping and teaching himself to ski. He grew adept at building snow caves for shelter and fires for warmth, and he spent several weeks at a time trekking through the snowy backcountry near Odell Lake tending to his traps. Skiing had gained in popularity after the war, and Meissner discovered a particular talent for the sport and a yearning to explore.

“Every once in a while I’d pick up a squirrel some place, skin it and throw it in the pot and cook it for my dinner.”

Once Meissner announced his trip, the newspapers followed his story closely. Reports by The Oregonian and the Bend Bulletin that year, quote Meissner as naming several different motivations for making the trip. He wanted to bring attention to the sport of cross-country skiing, he wanted to place markers along the Skyline trail for other skiers to follow, and he just simply wanted to prove to himself that he could do it.

Sixty years later, Meissner’s memory of his motivation for making the trip was that he hoped to make some money. The financial goal didn’t work out, he said, shortly before his death November 15, 2008. “But I got a good wife out of it.”

A Slow Start

 

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After weeks of trekking, Meissner resupplied at the Willamette Pass Ski Area before facing the most challenging leg of his perilous solo journey. Photo from Meissner’s scrapbook

In 1948, a gallon of milk cost 86 cents. A ski parka cost $5. A Dodge DeLuxe cost $1,500, and a two-bedroom house in Portland, $9,500. Lil Abner and Dick Tracy held top spots on the comics page of The Oregonian, even as the front page carried daily headlines about the “Reds” taking over Eastern Europe and China. President Harry S. Truman had witnessed the establishment of the United Nations three years earlier, and was guiding the country through recovery from World War II.

On a much smaller stage—along a trail that snaked south along the backbone of the Cascade mountains in Oregon—a 28-year-old trapper set down tracks in another kind of history-making event.

Meissner announced his trip in early February of 1948 with plans to start from Timberline Lodge on Friday, Feb. 13. Once the Forest Service heard of his plans, however, officials discouraged him from traveling alone. Regional Forester, H. J. Andrews, told The Oregonian that the Forest Service wouldn’t even allow its own men to make such a trip alone, and that he hoped Meissner’s excursion would not encourage others to do the same. Mt. Hood Ski Patrol also issued a written warning to Meissner, calling the trip “foolhardy in the extreme.”

Meissner’s friends, however, knew he was up to the challenge. Longtime friend Bob Knoll recalled asking Meissner, just after he announced the trip, “Why would you want to do that?” But, Knoll admitted, “I also knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jack would make it.” Knoll described Meissner as hardworking, smart and skillful enough to do anything he set out to do. The two men had conducted snow surveys together at the McKenzie Pass, and Knoll knew Meissner was in good shape and an excellent skier.

The Forest Service, however, had other concerns. Storms and freezing temperatures in early February undoubtedly prompted their warnings, but so had a recent tragedy at Mt. Hood. On February 2, a 23-year-old newlywed died of exposure to the cold after wandering off the ski trail late that day. The man, Bert Suprenant, had removed his skis and taken shelter under a tree but was found dead the next morning. A February 3 editorial in The Oregonian characterized Suprenant as a novice skier and under-prepared for the cold. “The Cascades are merciless as they have always been to the overconfident and ill-prepared. Mr. Suprenant’s death is a grim warning to thousands of youngsters.” Suprenant, prepared only for a day of recreational skiing, wore light wool and cotton clothing with a leather jacket and gloves, and carried no survival equipment. The editorial writer lamented the skier’s “tragic disregard or ignorance of the rules for safe conduct in the snow.”

Unlike Suprenant, Meissner knew how to survive alone in the cold and snow. Although he learned to ski only since returning from the war, his experience as a trapper in the Cascades backcountry during snowy winters prepared him well for the weather as well as the terrain. Nevertheless, once warned against traveling alone, Meissner cast about for a traveling partner.

Accounts differ as to how he found one. The Oregonian reported that he signed up Ernst Pentheny, a ski instructor at Timberline Lodge. A few days later, however, Pentheny withdrew from the trip. Meissner’s own version of the story held that he and a friend, Stan Tonkin, devised the plan for the trip together, and when Stan couldn’t make the trip, Jack recruited Emery “Woody” Woodall, 21, a college student from Virginia doing odd-jobs in Government Camp. “He was a better skier,” Meissner said of Woodall, “but I had more experience.”

Meissner and Woodall skied away from Timberline Lodge around 1 p.m. on February 18, wearing bright red parkas and carrying 45-pound packs with a tent, sleeping bags, food and emergency supplies. Guided by contour maps, a compass, and Meissner’s knowledge of the Cascades, they pulled their jackets tight as they headed south in bracing winter cold to Skyline Trail, now known as the Pacific Crest Trail.

Government Camp to Santiam Pass

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“Jack Meissner of Cascade Summit points to a map of the route he hopes to follow on a projected ski trip from Mt. Hood to Crater Lake. He plans to make the journey alone.” –The Oregonian

The two men traveled about sixty miles in six days, past Ollalie Lake and into the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Meissner had pre-arranged with the Eugene civil air patrol to fly over and drop supplies periodically during the trip, and The Oregonian records the first sighting of the two on Feb. 24 on the north slope of Mt. Jefferson. Pilots saw no signs of distress and dropped food and two carrier pigeons, which would deliver messages from the travelers to Eugene. On the ground, though, Meissner and Woodall had been experiencing heavy storms and icy conditions that required frequent stops to scrape their skis.

Weather reports during February in Portland and Bend indicated lower temperatures and greater snowfall in the Cascades than the averages over the past four decades. By the time Meissner and Woodall left Government Camp, snow had blanketed the mountain passes, making travel hazardous. Meteorologists expected even colder weather to follow at high altitude, but for a few days, the lower elevations were deluged with rain.

The day after the Civil Air Patrol drop, Meissner and Woodall skied along the western slope of Mt. Jefferson, but near Russell Glacier, runoff and an impassable canyon forced them to take off their skis and climb lower. For several days, they tramped through swampy underbrush, skis strapped to their backs, hoping to find a stream crossing. Woodall developed painful blisters on his feet, so the men found a road, flagged down a car and got Woodall a ride into town. Eight days into the trip and now alone, Meissner didn’t hesitate to continue the journey. “He’s a glutton for punishment,” said Woodall on February 29, “and is holding up well.”

Remembering the trip decades later, Meissner recalled hitching a ride back up to Marion Forks, staying there one night and shoveling snow to earn the night’s lodging before pushing on. However, the Bend Bulletin reported on March 1 that Meissner got a ride to Hoodoo Lodge then backtracked northward in order to keep the journey continuous before returning to Santiam Pass.

On Sunday the 29th, Meissner recounted the details of his trip by loudspeaker to thousands of skiers at Hoodoo for an All-Oregon ski tournament. The crowd included his peers from the Obsidians, an outdoor club from Eugene. He was rested and reenergized two days later, so Meissner strapped on his skis and “headed into the ski area and over the hill.” Moving into elevations above 4,500 feet, he was about to face the most challenging portion of the trip.

Santiam Pass to Cascade Summit

 

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Meissner’s trek was covered closely in The Oregonian, which took a paternally dim view of the journey, and in the Bend Bulletin. A massive flood in Vanport, Oregon in May 1948 wiped out Meissner’s diary and photos leaving the newspapers’ accounts as the remaining records.

Meissner skied toward McKenzie Pass and traveled along the sides of volcanic peaks toward a shelter he remembered in the area. He and Knoll had previously done snow surveys for the Forest Service in this area. Storms slowed his progress this time, and he got stuck overnight in frigid weather, wind whistling through the lava cones. “I remember it was a miserable night,” said Meissner. It was one of the worst he spent on the trip. Equipment breakdowns also complicated the trip. While skiing through these rocky areas on the pass, he split his skis. Although The Oregonian reports indicated that he had aluminum tips for the skis in case this happened, Meissner recalled he filled the gash with pine tar and wax and kept moving south toward the shelter west of the Dee Wright Observatory.

Meissner’s original plan of traveling ten miles per day proved too grueling, especially in the foul weather and difficult ski conditions he encountered around Mt. Jefferson. Still, his two-person tent served him well, as did the wool and nylon pants provided to him by the White Stag company. As Meissner remembered it, White Stag had asked him to try out an experimental pair of trousers, with one leg made of wool and the other made of a wool-nylon blend. The blend proved to be the superior material as it was more water resistant and dried faster, he said.

Meissner also took daily precautions. He never traveled in the dark because, when not staying in travelers’ shelters, he needed enough light to make camp. Meissner stripped branches from a tree and laid them on the snow, pitched his two-person army surplus tent on top, then built a fire. During his time spent trapping, Meissner learned some very practical skills for backcountry survival. “Never build a fire on snow,” he said. “Instead, cut the trunk of a tree into sections and make a platform to build the fire on.” He also found some clever ways to manage his food needs.

Using his #10 tin cooking pot over an open fire, Meissner made simple meals from dried foods. For breakfast, he ate oatmeal and raisins before breaking camp. He never stopped for lunch, instead snacking on cheese and nuts while traveling. The Civil Air Patrol dropped fruit, vegetables, and even frozen meats to him. When he didn’t have such luxuries, he prepared dinners from dried foods, but his trapper skills again came in handy. “Every once in a while, I’d pick up a squirrel some place, skin it, and throw it in the pot and cook it for my dinner.”

Past the McKenzie pass area, Meissner traveled along the west side of the Three Sisters, where he found the terrain easy but the weather treacherous. “It was not too bad going, except around the buttes,” he said. At Mesa Creek, he ran into a heavy snowstorm, and by the next morning three feet of new snow had accumulated around his tent. He dug a snow cave to wait out the storm, but after a day, he realized, “I couldn’t stay any longer,” and he headed back out into the blowing snow.

Meissner traveled along the southwest side of the Sisters toward the Elk Lake Basin. He’d been alone for almost a week since his stop-over at Santiam Pass. At a snow-covered lake near Rock Mesa (south of Mesa Creek), he saw a phone line above him, the only sign of civilization for miles. He hit it with his skis, just to hear the sound. No one answered.

The unusually heavy snows that winter buried most of the Skyline Trail markers, so Meissner found his way using his compass, the sun, as a guide. He came in on Waldo Lake from the north, an area he had spent the previous winters trapping pine marten and bears. Sizing up the almost ten-square-mile lake, he said, “I’m not going to go around this lake.” Although Waldo is the second deepest lake in Oregon, there were no springs that might create holes in the ice, a friend had told Meissner. He eased out onto the frozen, snow-covered surface and traveled south for nearly five miles in the silence.

Traveling alone across a frozen lake invites additional risk, of course. Undoubtedly, this was one of those activities the Forest Service and others worried about when Meissner announced the trip. Whether confidence or arrogance propelled his choices, Meissner said he never had any close calls on the trip. “A close call is only when you’re going to get hurt,” Meissner judged, and clearly he did not plan on putting himself in danger.

By the time he skied across Waldo Lake, Meissner had been on the trail for about twenty days and had traveled almost 200 miles. On March 10, he was traveling through a valley southwest of South Sister, and a second supply drop from the Civil Air Patrol brought him “a swell bunch of food” and another carrier pigeon. Daughter Jane Meissner said, “He beat the pigeons back. [People] thought he ate them, but he just made it back first.” The subsequent arrival of the pigeons dispelled the rumors.

The Civil Air Patrol pilots spotted him traveling at 6,300 feet “in perfect weather conditions,” 50 miles south of Santiam Pass. Four days later, he arrived at his parents’ home in Cascade Summit at Odell Lake, only a few days later than he had originally planned. He stayed there just long enough to ride out a storm and to travel to Eugene to buy new skis, an expense of about $25 at the time. “Hendershots gave me a good discount,” he said, not recalling whether the skis he bought were Splitkins or Northlands. He also stopped at Willamette Pass Ski Area, where he met up with Lucille Gibson and Virginia Tompkins. Tompkins would become his wife the following year.

Cascade Summit to Crater Lake

For the final leg of the trip from Odell Lake to Crater Lake, two teen-age boys asked to join him. The Oregonian reported that a member of the Civil Air Patrol also traveled with them for a few days before splitting off. They started on March 18, but soon returned to Cascade Summit discouraged by a storm that gripped the mountains. As much as ten inches of snow fell in eight hours at Crater Lake and wiped out power to much of Klamath County.

The young men proved their strength in a side trip climbing Diamond Peak, but Meissner said that the boys, Don Temple and Gilbert Bissell, both 17, lacked some important skills for outdoorsmen. “I could see those kids making mistakes—the way they would chop wood and wanted to keep going and not stop before it got dark.” Meissner decided he needed to send them home, so he skied with them to Crescent Lake and put them on the train. He then went to the store at Crescent Lake, bought and ate a can of peaches, then headed back to the mountains.

Skiing south again, he traveled to Summit Lake and Windigo Pass. Navigating the open fields there proved especially difficult. “The snow on the road was too deep. There was no fall-off from the trees to pack it down, so I went back into the woods again.”

On April 2, Meissner skied into Diamond Lake Lodge, where he once again traded work for lodging. “I shoveled a lot of snow,” he said, recalling the work he did for the caretaker who gave him a room for the night.

Near-zero temperatures loomed and more snow blanketed the Cascades in the next few days as he headed south again. Not far from his destination, Meissner fell into a ditch and struggled to get out. Stuck in the snow, he thought for a while, then shoved the back end of one ski into the slope of the ditch, stood on it, and shoved the next ski in a little higher than the first. He stepped up on the second ski and reached down for the first. He put that one back into the snow above the other ski, and repeated the process several times, creating a ladder to climb until he reached the top. Finally, he scrambled out and laid on the flat ground to rest.

On April 8, in the midst of a severe snowstorm, Meissner arrived at Crater Lake Lodge. Exhausted, hungry, and covered in snow, he entered the lodge. “They gave me a pretty askance look,” he said. The staff and customers there had apparently not heard of his journey.

Meissner had skied 300 miles in thirty-three travel days, mostly alone, at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 feet and during one of the coldest, snowiest winters of the previous decade. He became the first to accomplish this on skis.

In an April 12 editorial titled “Ski Tracks Along the Cascades,” The Oregonian, which had earlier reported on his foolhardiness, praised Meissner’s success. “The achievement of having skied from northern mountain to the southern lake is a considerable one, and we congratulate Mr. Meissner on his fortitude and fitness … Money cannot buy such memories as Jack Meissner now keeps.”

Meissner returned to his home at Odell Lake, later married, and became the director of the Willamette Pass Ski Area for many years before moving to Bend and starting the ski school at Mt. Bachelor. Meissner and his wife, Virginia, ran the Mt. Bachelor school until 1973, after which he held ski instructor positions in Colorado and back at Willamette Pass until the late 1990s. In the summers, he did home repairs. He lived in Crescent until his death in 2008.

Sixty years later, Meissner’s memory of his motivation for making the trip was that he hoped to make some money. The financial goal didn’t work out, he said, “But I got a good wife out of it.”

Meissner kept a diary and took photos during the 1948 adventure, but he sent them to his sponsor, a manager with the White Stag company that provided his outerwear. The manager’s house, where the materials were kept, was destroyed by the Vanport, Oregon flood in May 1948. Only a few items remain of the trip, including a trophy created for Meissner by the Obsidians, the Civil Air Patrol of Eugene and the Oakridge Ski Club. At the time of his death, he also had the Army surplus tent that sheltered him at night, and a scrapbook that his wife and mother put together after the trip.

The construction paper book, bound with now-tarnished brads, holds newspaper clippings about the trip, a few black and white images of Jack on his stop at Willamette Pass, and some hand-painted backgrounds of skis, ski tracks and pine boughs. The hand-lettered title page of the scrapbook reads “This adventure belongs to Jack Meissner, Cascade Summit, Odell Lake, Oregon.” Six decades later, that adventure still belongs only to him.

The Meissner Legacy

Jack’s wife, Virginia Meissner, has a sno-park named for her along the Cascade Lakes Highway between Bend and Mt. Bachelor. Virginia, an outdoors-woman since childhood, spent much of her childhood around Salem, fishing and exploring the outdoors with her father. Virginia met Jack at Willamette Pass Ski Area during his trek, and they discovered a common love of outdoor life. After they married, they continued to ski and hike together in the Cascades. In the ’70s, Virginia began teaching cross-country skiing and hiking at Central Oregon Community College. In the ’80s, she wrote three books on skiing and hiking in Central Oregon: Cross Country Ski Tours in Central Oregon, Day Hikes in Central Oregon, and Hiking Central Oregon and Beyond. Virginia also spent many years lobbying local officials on behalf of cross-country skiers and marking trails for a sno-park that would be closed to motorized vehicles.

XC Groomers and Backcountry Touring

Groomed Nordic Skiing

Mt. Bachelor Nordic

The 56K trail network consists of a dozen trails at elevations between 5,750 and 6,400 feet. The Nordic Center offers rentals, apparel and gear sales, food and a lodge warmed by a wood-burning stove.

Teacup Lake

Off HWY 35 near the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area, Teacup Lake has 20K of groomed trails that meander through a thick pine forest and the cozy Ray Garey warming hut for shelter.

Anthony Lakes

Located in the powder-rich Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City, Anthony Lakes has a groomed 30K trail network located adjacent to the full-service alpine ski area.

Walt Haring Sno-park

A mile north of Chemult in southern Central Oregon, it has 15K of groomed trail and plenty of parking.

Virginia Meissner Sno-park

Midway between Bend and Mt. Bachelor on Cascade Lakes Highway, Meissner Sno-park is the starting point for a 40K trail system groomed four times weekly.

Hoodoo

Just off HWY 20 between Eugene and Sisters, the Hoodoo Ski Area has arguably the most beginner-friendly network of cross-country ski trails in the state. The 15K trail system is located close to the area’s expansive alpine ski lodge with full services.

Backcountry Touring

Mt. Hood Area

Easily the most accessible backcountry skiing close to an urban area in America, Mt. Hood offers a spectrum of backcountry possibilities from mountain steeps, to glacier skiing, to tours through old-growth forests.

Three Sisters Wilderness

Essentially next door to Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters Wilderness offers close, short skin-up turn-down runs on Tumalo Mountain to longer tours and ascents/descents on Broken Hand and Broken Top Crater. Come spring and early summer, skiers head into the Three Sisters (North, Middle and South)
accessed near the town of Sisters for big mountain, big glacier skiing.

Willamette Pass

To the north of the pass and the Willamette Pass Ski Area are endless day-tour possibilities in the vicinity of the Rosary Lakes. Across HWY 58 to the north are tours and ascent/decent outings in the Diamond Peak Wilderness.

Paulina Peak-Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Just south of Bend, the National Monument has plenty of backcountry touring options plus some steep and deep skiing off the summit of Paulina Peak.

Mt. Ashland/Siskiyous

Beyond the boundaries of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area in southern Oregon lay the vast skiable forests and peaks of the Siskiyou Mountains.

Steens Mountain

In spring, the slopes of 30-mile long Steens Mountain that range in the remote southeastern part of the state offer excellent corn snow skiing on slopes that range from easily rolling to 40 degrees steep.

1 Comment

  • I'm and 85 year old retired md who learned to ski from Jack and then skiied with him for many years at Bend. My family knew both he and Virginia well; they were great people and helped to provide my family with some of our most wonderful memories of winters in the Cascades. Thank you for your article.

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