The tragic death last fall of Seattle mountaineer Carl Skoog has triggered a wave of fond remembrance from those who knew him, and memorial pieces in the magazines that so often featured his photography. On October 17, 2005, Skoog was killed in a ski-mountaineering accident in South America. Skoog, along with British Columbia's Rene Crawshaw, was attempting the first complete ski descent of the south face of Argentina's Cerro Mercedario when he fell.
The 46-year-old Skoog was best known as a photographer whose images adorned the covers of dozens of magazines and catalogs. But to those who knew him, it was Carl Skoog's skill in the mountains as a skier and alpine climber, his disarming friendliness, and his abiding love of mountaineering that truly defined him.
"His photography was amazing," said his brother, Gordy Skoog, "but he was not only a photographer. He had the goods to back it up. Climber, skier, alpine traveler--he could do it all. For Carl, his photography was not so much a career, or even a way to make a living. It was all about being in the mountains."
Together with his brothers Gordy, 53, and Lowell, 49, Carl (the youngest) made up a family of alpine climbers who posted so many important ascents and descents in the Cascades they arguably are the most successful climbing siblings since Fred and Helmy Beckey's exploits in the 1940s. All three brothers grew up in the Seattle area, where separately, and in pairs, and occasionally all together, the three made important first ascents, first descents and pioneering traverses in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. But it was Carl who continually sought to make his living in the mountains, first by guiding, then through photography.
Skoog had already made significant first descents such as the Mowich Face on Mount Rainier (via the Edmunds Headwall with Andrew Mclean, Armond DuBuque and Doug Ingersoll) and the North Ridge of Mount Baker (with Rene Crawshaw), and the North Ridge of Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades (with brother Lowell). Skoog was a frequent traveler to South America, a place he felt at home. And it was during his attempt to make the first complete descent of the south face of Argentina's 22,210 foot Cerro Mercadario with Canadian skier Rene Crawshaw when the fatal accident occurred.
The precise cause of the fall is not known. Crawshaw reported that he heard Carl, who was behind and above him, say "Whoa!" Crawshaw said Skoog fell, with little or no apparent attempt at self arrest, and then began to tumble. Skoog fell more than 4,500 vertical feet. By the time Crashaw reached his fallen friend at the bottom of the big slope, Skoog was dead. An autopsy performed by Argentine officials showed that among Skoog's traumatic injuries was a broken neck. That has led his brothers to deduce that Carl might have sustained a mortal injury soon after he lost control.
"We'll never really know for sure," said Carl's brother, Lowell. "I skied with Carl a lot on steep ground I know that on that kind of terrain he usually skied with a Whippet, and often carried an ice ax stuck in his harness, like a sword, so he could belay himself while taking photos. The fact that Rene said he saw little or even no effort to arrest the fall makes us think that at some point Carl was knocked unconscious or otherwise became unable to save himself."
The Skoog family learned of the tragic accident when the U.S. state department called Lowell Skoog in Seattle.
"I never had any illusions about the dangers of mountaineering," Lowell Skoog said later, "and I have lost many friends in the mountains. I knew it could happen. But it was frankly shocking for me to learn about Carl's accident by that telephone call from Buenos Aries. I was not even aware he was down there."
Gordy Skoog said that he met the news with outright disbelief. "I just thought, no, you can't be telling me this, this couldn't have happened to Carl."
Gordy and Lowell, along with two older brothers, their mother and their older sister, have had to face the untimely death of their kid brother, but the tragedy has touched many people. The accident triggered an outpouring of affection from Carl's many friends, and a desire to commemorate both the legacy of Carl Skoog's mountaineering accomplishments and his extensive body of work as a photographer.
"Even after his death," said Gordy Skoog, "we are learning that his photographs continue to be published. And his images are not always of skiers or climbers. Carl had a real love of the desert southwest, of South America, of the culture of many foreign countries where he climbed and skied. The breadth of subject matter in his library of images is pretty amazing. We're trying to figure out how to keep that alive."
"The thing that impresses me," said Lowell Skoog, "was even while he was doing pioneering traverses and first descents, Carl would be the guy taking the pictures. So besides having the skill and strength to accomplish the objective, Carl was packing all that photo gear, he was stopping to take pictures, he was thinking about the light and the composition. When you consider the remote places he went, the steep descents and long traverses he made, that's no small achievement."
"Carl could do something like the Mowich face on Rainier, but he'd also do things like ski the Ptarmigan Traverse in a day, just to see if he could. Together, Carl and I pioneered a network of routes linking the big icefields and glaciers of the Cascades from Glacier Peak almost to the Canadian Border, with extensions on either side of the Cascade Crest. Carl could go both steep and far, that's rare, and that really says it all."
"He was definitely the calm in the middle of the hurricane," said Andrew McLean, the Salt Lake City skier and author who skied the Fuhrer Finger route on Mount Rainier with Carl, and then went on to do the first ski descent of the Mowich Face with him as well.
"I'd describe Carl as a total gentleman. I mean, there was no drinking, no smoking, no swearing--believe me, most skiers are not like that. What made Carl so well liked, I think, was the fact he respected people, even if they were different than he was, or had bad habits. And people respected him. It's just tragic this happened to Carl. He was an incredibly nice guy, always talking about future trips in the mountains, very optimistic and always positive. I think all of us remember him for this: he was notorious for carrying a huge pack. He'd bring everything you did, but all his photo gear, too. So if you were bitching about this crushing 70-pound load in your pack, you can be sure Carl had 90 pounds in his."
In addition to his first descents on skis, Carl had done significant alpine mountaineering that "filled in the blanks" in remote corners of the Cascades. With brother Gordy he climbed the North Face of Graybeard and the East Ridge of Jack Mountain, and with brother Lowell climbed the North Ridge of Pyramid Peak, all in the North Cascades. Carl also had climbed British Columbia's Mt. Robson with Gordy in 1981, and Mount Waddington via the Bravo Glacier with Lowell in 1989. Carl also made the first ascent of the North Couloir of Katsuk Peak (next to Mesahchie Peak in the North Cascades.)
His first-hand experience in the mountains is what made Carl Skoog so effective as a gear designer. An engineer by education, Carl had worked in the 1980s and early '90s designing gear for Outdoor Research, Sundog and SMC. He had also worked as a mountain guide for operations such as Liberty Bell Alpine Tours, Cascade Alpine Guides and REI.
"We frequently guided together for Liberty Bell Alpine Tours,'' remembered Seattle climber and photographer Gary Brill. "It was because of his human skills that he was so good at guiding. Carl had a tremendous amount of patience, even with total rookies. He was a great communicator, and in a guiding situation he worked on that. I think that's why everybody who met him always liked him instantly. As a guide, he worked at it, he worked hard to develop a good client-guide relationship, which is a kind of friendship, really."
"Carl was obviously good at guiding," said his brother Gordy, "In fact, it was guiding that got him started traveling. Early trips guiding the Mexican volcanoes and other routes showed him how much fun seeing new places could be. Once he got going, he just never stopped. He had a special affinity for South America. He went down every chance he could, and he would stay for months. Carl loved to travel, and he could live cheap, I mean on a shoestring."
But it was through his photography that most people knew Carl Skoog, and his brothers credit Gary Brill with getting him started.
"I think it's more accurate to say that we developed together as photographers," said Brill. "I had a pretty good eye when we started out together, but the fact is I credit Carl for teaching me all the technical aspects of photography. Anything I know about that I owe to Carl. He just had it down. His later success as a professional photographer didn't surprise me at all. He was good at it because he loved it, and because it kept him in the mountains."
Back in the 1980s, Gary Brill took Carl and Lowell Skoog on some powder skiing trips on Shuksan Arm, just outside the Mt Baker ski area. This was before the Hemispheres chairlift was built. It was a wild, beautiful place hardly anybody went to in those days. Carl started returning regularly to the area with a great group of younger skiers that he'd met in the area.
"He started going up there regularly," said his brother Lowell. "He loved the unreal scenery. It made for great photographs. That's how he started meeting some of the young guys who hung around up there, guys who were pushing the limits of what was possible on skis at the time. They were young, they were great skiers, they made perfect models for his photography. And the Baker area made perfect backdrops. I think that was the moment when he realized, I can make a living doing this."
"I knew about Shuskan Arm before the lifts were in," remembers Brill, "and Carl was really blown away by the skiing. That turned him on to the area. He went back again and again, he just loved it."
One of the young Canadians Carl met up in the Mount Baker area was Rene Crawshaw. They became friends, and often went skiing and climbing together. It was Crawshaw who was skiing with Carl on Mercedario the day he died.
Brill's reaction to Carl Skoog's death mirrors that of other friends and associates:
"It was shocking news," said Gary Brill. "I think when you suffer a loss like that, one of the first things you feel is the selfish aspect: I'm not going to have this person to do stuff with. But then you start to focus on who this person was and how not only you, but others too, will miss the pleasure of his company."
"A couple of days after I learned about the accident, I got up in the middle of the night, just couldn't sleep. I looked through all my photos to find out how long I had been doing stuff with Carl--the first photo I found was 1975, first good one in 1976. Now, it's really hard to look at these photos. But in every one, Carl had this big smile on his face. That's the way I'll remember him."
Brill adds that, as good as Carl Skoog was at climbing and skiing, and as famous as his photography has become in the close knit world of the outdoors, it would be a big mistake to think of Carl in terms of his ascents or descents or his images.
"I don't think he should be remembered as a great photographer or a great climber or skilled skier," said Brill. "He should be remembered as a great human being. Carl had a very good attitude about life, and he was kind and considerate to others. I knew Carl for 30 years and I never saw him angry. He's a guy who tried to make the mountains his life, and he was more successful at that than anyone I know. And yes, he's a great photographer, but more remarkable was the kind of person he was."
A Partial List of First Ascents/Descents. Compiled by Lowell Skoog