In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the October 2003 issue (Volume 32, Issue 2).
IT’S THE IMAGE that endures, the one of the sun rising over the horizon, the sky black and thin above 6,000 meters. There is the red creeping up the flank of the mountain, chasing your group who marches along side a dangling rope. They walk in front, they have been there since the first day, and the higher you go and closer you approach the edge, the more you believe they belong there.
There is a peace about these men. That’s the first thing you notice. In the mountains, in the midst of danger. While the group argues over plans, they quietly adjust their crampons or file their edges. When the team is gripped in the final crux, these characters crack jokes. They wield an awesome sense of confidence—of cooperation, not contention—with the mountain. They are meant to be there.
In fact, their strength and endurance are inhuman; their knowledge of alpine technique unending; their sense of snow and weather conditions interminable. They are an intense crowd, and after spending time with these people, you begin to realize that perhaps the mountains are the only place they are at peace.
This compilation of the best ski mountaineers in North America is a work in progress. How do you determine the best of the best in a sport with such a wide scope? There are different styles, hundreds of ranges, and no two mountains are alike. No two skiers are the same. What’s more, the oldest test of a ski mountaineer’s integrity is measured in his humbleness, in his attention to the mountain, not to the media. Right now there are solitary souls climbing the hills who belong on this list, but thankfully—for them—will never appear here.
There were others as well. There was the supreme skill of Alex Lowe; the unshakable confidence of Hans Saari; the wit and spirit of Allan Bard; the legacy of Trevor Petersen; the gentle nature of Aaron Martin. If nothing else, these fallen brethren define the line pioneering ski mountaineers walk, and this piece would not be complete without their mention.
It is the image that endures and the best know it well—the one of the alpine sunrise, of the 60-degree slope several miles up in the sky and thousands from home. But theirs is a little different. For the grandfather of North American ski mountaineering, Bill Briggs, and modern day icons such as Andrew McLean, the slope is a little steeper, the line more exposed. The tales of what it looks and feels like on the edge are as hair-raising as they are important, because in their telling, one sees the history of modern ski alpinism. Likewise, the men listed here are significant because they are the only ones who can accurately describe it. As with pioneers of any discipline, they’re the only ones who have seen it unfold.
Name: ANDREW McLEAN
Home: Park City, Utah
Home mountains: Wasatch Range
Work: Product Designer, Black Diamond Equipment
Firsts: Messner Couloir on Denali (Alaska); Mowich Face on Mt. Rainier (Washington); Mt. Mohl (Antarctica); 19 firsts in Baffin Island; Mount Hunter (Alaska)
I’ll wait until the time is right and then go light and fast.
I’m not afraid of turning around and have had to try many descents multiple times before skiing them, such as the Hossack-McGowan on the Grand Teton.
Ski mountaineering has a very long apprenticeship to it that can’t be rushed. There’s a huge variety of skills that need to be learned—avalanche, winter survival, steep skiing, glacier travel—before you can start pushing it.
It’s important to get in over your head on occasion, but not so often that you get hurt or hurt someone else.
I would like to ski Mount Foraker, Alaska, to round out the trifecta: Denali, Foraker, and Hunter.
I want to ski all seven continents. The next is the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
For years my mom confused backcountry skiing with cross-country skiing.
I started out racing at Alpental, Washington, where I got a good taste for the steeps.
When I started working at Black Diamond Equipment, I met Alex Lowe, who was an incredible ski mountaineer. He turned me on to blending the arts of alpine climbing with backcountry skiing.
The only thing threatening ski mountaineering today is Mark Newcomb. He’s snagging all of the best lines.
The sport is moving toward steep, huge descents in places like Greenland, Baffin Island, Antarctica, and Patagonia that require major efforts to get to.
Busting out huge vertical (20,000 to 40,000 feet of self- propelled backcountry skiing with traction kites or other gear) in a day is catching on and the newer, lighter equipment is making it possible.
I do it because I’m a slow learner.
I think the rewards are worth the risk, but always try to keep both of those in mind when attempting something big.
If I could die in the mountains on my 100th birthday with a close group of friends while skiing deep powder on a clear day, that would be okay.
I think it’s good to have some fear of dying in the mountains—it helps keep you alive.
Name: PTOR SPRICENIEKS
Home: Mount Currie, British Columbia
Home mountains: Coast Mountains, British Columbia
Work: Civilization surfer
Firsts: North Face of Mount Robson (British Columbia); Southeast Face of Artesonraju (Peru); West Face of Mount Monarch (British Columbia)
The first ski mountaineering story I tell is the one about playing tennis in the dark and meeting Don Cherry while on peyote.
I consider the self-powered, fair-means approach to be the essence of ski mountaineering, but at the same time I believe in profiting from technology to maximize performance, safety, efficiency, and opportunity, while preserving challenge and holistic living. I am also working on wing-suit designs for skiing.
Difficulty and engagement will always be advancing as skill, experience, and technical aspects keep evolving, but I think that the media must focus on higher values to nourish the romantic hunger of the youth.
I started by taking my Level I CAA [Canadian Avalanche Association] course. Then I listened to my elders as well as learning the hard way from my mistakes. Expanding my skills and refining my mind-body-spirit connection were also a part of my process as was engineering a lifestyle to nourish my passions.
I see “flying” in between mountain features and “ski waga” as the next levels of performance.
I’d like to do some more cool traverses, spend a year or two in the Himalaya, ski from 8,000 meters, and work on the development of ski-flying.
I love donkeys and I love helicopters, but I don’t include heli descents among my achievements.
I love soloing fast without sleeping and I like expedition-style with a group, but I prefer alpine style with a partner.
Name: DOUG COOMBS
Home: Jackson, Wyoming
Home mountains: Teton Range, Chugach, Alps
Work: UIAGM ski guide, Doug Coombs Steep Skiing Camps, Valdez Heli Ski Guides, Exum Mountain Guides
Firsts: Otter Body of the Grand Teton (Wyoming); Super Spines in the Chugach (Alaska); Wyatt Peak in Tien Shan (Kyrgyzstan); over 220 heli-assisted first descents in the Chugach.
It all started in the Bozeman days at MSU. We would hump all the way in, with army surplus axes and shitty crampons, which were all we could afford. We made skins with 6-mil rope tied around the tips and tails. We were famous for postholing—thigh-deep slogs through crap snow to get to these couloirs in the Bridgers, the Fairy Lake region.
I love the Tetons, but they’re not that steep. Tien Shan: awe- some. Chugach: awesome. Las Lenas: for some reason, snow sticks pretty well there. The Alps as well.
At 45 degrees, it’s not doing it for me. Now, at 55 degrees, I’m starting to get that buzz.
I’m not that hyped on powder skiing; I think that it’s boring and overrated. Grippy, packed pow that’s hard and smooth on 50 degrees, now that’s a dream run.
There’s hardcore ski mountaineering and softcore ski moun- taineering. I do tons of both.
My favorite runs in ’03: North Face of the Tour Ronde; Girvasutti Couloir with Miles Smart; Aiguille du Plan; Enfernet (Inferno) Couloir outside Grenoble; Middle Teton East Ridge; CMC Route on Moran; Bubble Fun Couloir in the Tetons (Tommy Moe said it was scarier than the Hahnenkamm); the “Sickle” couloir off the North Face of Mount Moran; North Face of La Meije with Ptor.
Ski mountaineering used to be about who could suffer the most.
It’s all about transitions, and that used to take too much time.
Click-go. Strip-go. Slap-go.
The technology has become more efficient, allowing you to ski quicker and easier. You can get in and get out faster.
We’re skiing ice and rock climbing routes now that were undoable in the past.
“Enchainments” are where it’s going. Linking up radical ski descents.
I want to see someone ski three of the hardest lines in the Tetons in one day: the Otter Body on the Grand, the Chouinard Couloir on the Middle, and the Southeast Couloir of the South Teton.
I love skiing runs that have no names, and keeping it that way.
Where people traditionally get into trouble is when they take
too much time and they get stuffed.
Overconfidence weeds itself out eventually.
Mark Newcomb and I looked at the Otter Body for five years, and two days after we did it, it was unskiable.
I do it because I always have done it. I’d quit skiing if I didn’t do it. It’s the final frontier of skiing.
Name: LORNE GLICK
Home: Ophir, Colorado
Home mountains: San Juan Range
Work: Timber framer; Ski patroller
Firsts: Mount Saint Elias (Alaska); Mount Hunter (Alaska)
Part of the draw in ski mountaineering is where it takes me, and the lighter I go, the more I get to see.
Ski mountaineering doesn’t have to be radical. It doesn’t necessarily mean getting to a summit.
You’ve got to pay your dues. Take an avie course and a first-aid course first; go rock climbing and ice climbing; backcountry ski your ass off.
Cultivate solid partners who are committed to developing their skills and have the same vision of where it can take you.
If you dream of clicking into skis on some out-there summit, what choice do you have?
I’ve always seen so much beauty in the act of skiing. It’s a personal adventure.
For me, skiing has little to do with what the corporate ski marketers and glossy hype tell me.
It wouldn’t be very fun to be out there doing it if I was thinking of dying in the mountains.
Kites are the future. In the next five years, our minds will be blown away by what ski mountaineers will do with traction kites. Not only for covering vast distances quickly but for ascending mountain faces in previously unfathomable times.
Lobbyists backed by gobs of corporate money are at work right now trying to convince Congress to let them manage public lands.
They want to tell us how to recreate. Fight the fee demonstration program. Write your congressman. Find out where your public land fees really go, what they support, where they lead. Get involved.
Name: JOHNNY “FOON” CHILTON
Home: Mount Currie, British Columbia
Home mountains: Coast Mountains, British Columbia
Work: Cat driver, Blackcomb Mountain
Firsts: West Face of Mount Deborah (Alaska); West Face of Mount Aspiring (New Zealand); East Face of Mount Tantalus (British Columbia)
When you’re on a really big face, one that’s really steep and really remote, the whole thing is so intense. I guess, in the fewest amount of words, the definition would be “the moment.” That moment is all that matters in the whole world when you’re really out there. And it just wipes your mind clean. All the bullshit you get uptight about in today’s world is gone for that moment, that time you’re on the mountain. All that matters is getting down and achieving your goal and surviving the day. Everything else is just bullshit.
When Trevor Petersen was really starting to go off, he inspired me to push it to the next level.
You have to have intimate knowledge of the mountain and the face and what you’re going to find on the way down. If it’s between 60 and 70 degrees, there’s going to be patches there that aren’t skiable that you don’t know about and you have to be able to work your way around and through them.
As far as the steepness goes, there’s a physical limit to what’s skiable, so the future is definitely on bigger slopes—pushing that line of ski-ability and the endurance of climbing.
I think the future will go with bigger, higher altitude lines in the Himalaya. There’s lines in the Himalaya that are 5,000-foot walls of 60 degrees.
It’s a really crucial thing for ski mountaineering to keep developing light, bomber gear. And right now, it doesn’t really exist. There’s one or the other. And every ski mountaineer has to make this compromise between the full bomb and having to carry that weight around.
For me, it is the ultimate human communication with nature. It’s like taking the intensity of mountaineering and throwing your ropes away and putting gravity into the equation. Instead of fighting it, you’re using it.
Ski mountaineering is like a drug or even a disease. It’s an addiction. Once you’ve been there, there’s a drive to be there again.
That addiction is something that’s hard to explain. I think that the more you hang it out, the more you feel that pull of nature. You’re opening yourself up more, because in a way you’re getting closer to nature—if you make a mistake and you don’t return, then you go back to nature, right? You’re dead, that’s what happens…compost.
I think it’s easy to die, so you have to live.
Name: MARK NEWCOMB
Home: Jackson, Wyoming
Home mountains: Teton Range
Work: Exum Mountain Guides Senior Guide, Valdez Heli Ski Guides Operations Manager, Marmot Pro Athlete and Design Team Leader, Life Link Pro Athlete
Firsts: Hossack-MacGowan Couloir on the North Face of the Grand Teton—one day from the valley; Otter Body Snowfield on the Grand Teton; Wunsch Couloir on the North Face of Shishapangma (not from the summit); combined Grand, Middle, and South Tetons in a day from the valley.
Traveling through the mountains on skis with the intention of going down something from the summit is a very loose definition [of ski mountaineering] for me. It doesn’t have to be extreme, involve ropes or gear…just a peak and some skis and some snow. It should, however, include a summit and an attempt to ski from a summit.
Gasherbrum 4 is the mountain by which all others should be measured.
Not waiting for truly optimal conditions, or not knowing how to know when the conditions are optimal is the biggest mistake people make. It requires true observational skills, and most young people are only good at observing pop culture, not natural phenomena.
I started ski mountaineering, at a basic level, by simply hiking up Glory Bowl above my parents’ house outside of Wilson, Wyoming, to ski corn in spring before school.
No one wants to die. I’ve accepted that I could die if I’m not calculated and methodical and careful in selecting the right conditions.
Like everything else, each aspect of ski mountaineering is getting taken to a new level. In big mountain descents, there are more tricks being thrown that were born and honed in terrain parks. In non-motorized ski mountaineering, there’s more being done at altitude (a truly committing and risky aspect of the sport);
there’s more exploratory stuff being done.
The rewards are worth the risk.
It’s extremely exciting to watch and be a part of the evolution. It’s only frustrating when favorite lines become more and more popular, making it harder to have remote, solitary experiences.
I’m not too talkative.
Technology is making it easier for more people to pursue any outdoor activity, whether it’s mountain biking, skiing, climbing, whatever. As for ski mountaineering, randonnee equipment is improving by leaps and bounds, snow machines are more powerful and can access more remote areas, training and diets are more scientific than ever before, attitudes are evolving and making big things seem little.
There are many great ski traverses left to do in the world that are hampered by political realities.
Being alone in the mountains, making life and death decisions on my own, has been integral to the ski mountaineering.