Warren Miller: Remembering The Washington Slush Cup
After personally narrating my fourth annual feature-length ski film in Seattle in October, 1953, my sponsor, Scott Osborne, suggested I come up and film the Slush Cup on Mount Baker during the Fourth of July weekend the following summer.
I certainly was not prepared for what the Northwest had to offer in photo opportunities with the first-of-its-kind in the world, Slush Cup. This was no build-a-pond with a bulldozer and a sheet of plastic and then fill it with water, but rather a genuine glacial pond full of 34-degree melted snow and floating icebergs that by the end of the day would also see many barely floating but really freezing skiers full of anti-freeze.
In those days there were very few drugs available, but the lack of drugs was more than made up for in the abundance of beer and wine available, giving the skiers plenty of antifreeze.
A skier had to climb quite a ways up the hill to get enough speed to coast across this freezing cold, waist-deep, iceberg-choked pond.
The only prize for the winner of this event was some sort of bragging rights that had something to do with starting farther up the hill or actually getting all the way across the lake that it was now being called. The combination of high-altitude, hot July sun, high blood-alcohol content, and wobbly legs offered some fantastic, never before seen crashes for my next year’s feature-length ski film audiences.
Midway through the contest someone asked me how hard it was to run my camera. I sized up his four University of Washington football-playing friends and decided they would try and take pictures of throwing me in the water. I wisely told him the camera was almost at the end of a roll of film and I would have to reload it before I could take any more pictures. Another bullet dodged because I stayed dry all day long.
By 2 p.m., the in-run to the glacial pond was melted slush and icy ruts and hardly anybody was getting across the pond but instead, crashing eloquently. That problem, together with the amounts of consumption of the remaining amount of beer and wine in everybody’s rucksacks, was now almost gone.
In the 60 years since my showing of that 1954 slush Cup at Mt Baker, this has become a tradition at almost every ski resort in the world to try and replicate what happened that day.
Unfortunately with only one camera, I could only do my best to show how much fun freedom and stupidity can happen when the snow melts in the spring. And also unfortunately, with success sometimes comes abundance and it became easier to transport lightweight drugs to the slush cup than heavyweight bottles of beer and wine.
As a result a few years ago they closed the road to the pond and it became a very long hike with skis and paraphernalia for a big-time Fourth of July weekend so it hasn’t been very well attended.
Scott Osborne and his partner Olaf Ulland went on to become the largest ski dealer in the Pacific Northwest with ski shops stretching from Portland, Oregon to Bellingham, Washington.
Unfortunately many of those wobbly-kneed skiers half full of too much beer and wine are no longer with us. There’s a good chance that that instant immersion in 34-degree water when they didn’t make it across the glacial pond certainly didn’t add any days to their longevity.
Mount Baker is right in the way of almost every storm that comes roaring in from the Northern Pacific. The storm clouds are tripped on the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island and Mount Baker. As a result about a decade or so ago, Mount Baker had 99 feet of snow on the ski hill. I repeat that number, 99 feet of snow. Try and imagine that amount of snow where you go skiing.
Houses would cave in because there would not be enough people to shovel the roofs, not to mention there wouldn’t be any place to put the snow. If it happened in Colorado, the Eisenhower tunnel would be completely shut, and telephone and power lines everywhere would be 50 and 60 feet under the snow and have to be shut down in all the towns.
Plumbing in all the towns on the I-70 corridor would freeze. If snow at that depth happened to Lake Tahoe, we would lose Squaw Valley, Heavenly Valley, Kirkwood, the Sugar Bowl and Northstar to mention a few places. Transcontinental rail and truck traffic would be shut down on Donner Summit. It’s a stretch to find a tree in your neighborhood that is 99 feet tall just to use to imagine the snow depth of that magnitude surrounding your house wherever it is in snow country! Just be glad it was at Mount Baker the year they had the 99 feet of snow.
Some friends of mine went up there for that Fourth of July weekend to try a little spring skiing. The snow banks in the parking lot were still 35 feet high. You ask how then can they handle that deep snow? They put a bulldozer up on the snow level and then push it over the edge into the parking lot where a rotary snowplow blows it into a truck. Then they haul it away so that when you drive up from the low lands 30 or 40 miles away where there is no snow, there is a guaranteed level place to park your car.
You ride up on the chairlift with a tunnel dug to allow the chair to get through, until you burst out at the top. You’ll know that as long as your lift ticket money holds out you’ll be able to ski until the following November when the snow starts falling once again.
Yes, the Pacific Northwest is a very unusual part of the world. I know that for a fact because Laurie and I live on a small island in the San Juan’s eight miles from Canada.
Whenever we go for a boat ride to another island, Mount Baker looms above the horizon, snow covered 365 days a year. With my memories, my perception of Mount Baker is different than most people’s. The chairlifts run in February and March when there’s 60 plus feet of snow and sometimes they are still running in July with only 35 feet of snow and a glacial lake left.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)