Skiing Rocky Mountain National Park

Coloradoan Austin Porzak on track to ski park’s 50 highest peaks

PHOTO: Jesse Levine

When Glenn Porzak set out in the 1970s to climb the 100 highest peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, his goal was to document the topography and difficult approaches to Colorado’s massive peaks. Forty-five years later, Austin Porzak, 35, is following in his father’s footsteps with his own objective: Ski from the summits of the 50 highest peaks in RMNP. So far, Porzak and his crew have crossed 25 off the list—posting a detailed trip report online after each accomplishment under the banner of Ski Rocky Mountain National Park.

Porzak’s team, which includes photographers Dan Sohner, John Dickey, and Jesse Levine, just resumed skiing in Colorado in October, bagging the Dalkes Couloir on the 13,000-foot Ogallala Peak after a successful two-day approach.

Glenn Porzak, Mike Browning and Ed Ramey during the first winter traverse of Trail Ridge Road in 1968.
Glenn Porzak, middle, during the first winter traverse of Trail Ridge Road in 1968. Expeditions like this inspired SkiRMNP. PHOTO: Courtesy of Austin Porzak.

SkiRMNP, however, has been hit with tough news as they gear up for another winter. Bill Johnsmiller, who helped Porzak launch this project, and whose photographs are included in this story, as well as Jim Detterline, a former park ranger and longtime friend of the Porzak family, both recently and unexpectedly passed away.

Our film “Monumental: Skiing Our National Parks,” is now on tour. Tickets available here.

POWDER caught up with Porzak to hear how he and his crew are ready to approach another season in the mountains.

Sam Taggart: How did you come up with the idea to start SkiRMNP?

Austin Porzak: I live in Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park is close to home. My dad is a big mountaineer, so growing up I’d always go on the weekends and climb a bit up there. After skiing all of the 14ers last year, I got together with some of my buddies and said: This is it. Let’s give this a shot. Let’s focus all of our efforts in one season to one range. We can be out there everyday, learn the snowpack, and ski the whole area.

SkiRMNP takes Porzak and his team into unforgiving territory. PHOTO: John Dickey
SkiRMNP takes Porzak and his team into variable and unforgiving territory. PHOTO: John Dickey

How have the recent deaths of Bill and Jim affected you in terms of this project?

Bill and Jim were such standup guys. I started climbing with Jim when I was 5 years old, as he and my dad were best friends. Jim taught me—and pushed me—on his beloved Longs Peak. It was my training ground, and still is today. Without his friendship, and his commitment to helping me progress my skills and grow as a man, I would not be where I am today.

Losing both of these guys in such a short timeframe really hammered home the importance of creating a strong backcountry community in RMNP and beyond.

Bill Johnsmiller, a keystone member of SkiRMNP captured this image of Porzak traversing Longs Peak last spring. Johnsmiller tragically passed away this October. PHOTO: Bill Johnsmiller
Bill Johnsmiller captured this image of Porzak traversing Longs Peak last spring. Johnsmiller passed away this October. PHOTO: Bill Johnsmiller
Another angle of Porzak's heart-racing traverse across Longs Peak. PHOTO: Dan Sohner
Another angle of Porzak’s heart-racing traverse. PHOTO: Dan Sohner

How did you find other skiers who were equally interested in this project?

Finding other skiers to come on missions has been pretty easy. Since you won’t find a lot of what we are doing in the guidebooks, people recognize this unique opportunity to come out and explore RMNP. Plus, growing up in Boulder means I have no shortage of really active friends.

What was your goal when starting this project last season?

The first goal was ski 10 peaks during the calendar winter—really get out there and grab some summits. It’s a spooky time out there; the snowpack is unstable. I thought that would be pretty demanding, and we just barely pulled that off. Come spring, once the snowpack settled, we were really able to get after it.

“There have been multiple summits this year that damned near brought me to tears.” —Austin Porzak

What are some of the themes you’re keeping in mind with this project?

“Wilderness Inherited” is the ethos by which we operate: No matter where we are in the park, what we’re doing, how isolated, how low we may feel, we can’t forget that there’s generations that have been there before—not necessarily skiers, but you’ve got to respect the old school generation. They were out there in hobnail boots, cotton and wool clothing, and I really appreciate that. What these guys did back in the day was really amazing, and in a lot ways, paved the way for us, not only just helping set aside national park land, but pioneering routes, and going and figuring out the approaches for these mountains when there was no Google Earth.

The way so many of them climbed and skied was pure—they weren’t doing it for followers online. That’s something we should all emulate ourselves.

A twilight descent in Rocky Mountain National Park. PHOTO: John Dickey
A twilight descent in Rocky Mountain National Park. PHOTO: John Dickey

How much of this project is skiing, compared to climbing and mountaineering?

This project really captures the best of all three worlds and blurs the lines at the same time. One of the things we have dealt with from the beginning is an incredibly diverse and dynamic landscape. We will go from steep snow climbs, to 4th and 5th Class summits, to being able to skin to summits of peaks. It’s amazing what you can find in the park—there really is something for everyone. It’s about the skiing, but you have to get to the top to get down.

What can you learn from setbacks you’ve experienced in the park?

We’ve had so many ups-and-downs…some failures, having to turn around because of suspect snowpack. But there was success in those failures.

“No matter where we are in the park, what we’re doing, how isolated, how low we may feel, we can’t forget that there’s generations that have been there before.” —Austin Porzak

We thought: Now we have the approach dialed-in, we’ve broken trail for six miles, we’ll give it a couple of days and come back and get it done. I told everyone all along there’s no rush. Let’s just do it safe, and have fun with it.

Meet anyone interesting out on the trails?

We had gone up earlier in the year to scout and this hardcore mountain man in a Carhartt one-piece, covered in oil, riding a 1980-era snowmobile comes up and says: Have you seen my axe?

His name is George, and we’ve gone back up a few times to hang out with him. He’s the gatekeeper for the Comanche Peak Wilderness, and he lives in this cabin all by himself in the middle of nowhere—and has for 34 years.

George, who lives in the shadow of Comanche Peak, takes a minute to chat. Special care must be taken when accessing several peaks in RMNP as the approaches often cross through private land. PHOTO: Dan Sohner.
George eventually found his axe. Special care must be taken accessing several peaks in RMNP as the approaches often cross through private land. PHOTO: Dan Sohner

On the summits, we haven’t run into anyone. It’s kind of incredible. We’re really out there on our own, and it’s so awesome, unique, and rare in today’s day and age. There have been multiple summits this year that damned near brought me to tears just because of the beauty, being so happy, and feeling so fortunate that this is my path.

Looking forward, what’s your plan this winter?

My main overall goal is to be safe and just have fun while pushing ourselves. I’m so excited to explore some of the really remote areas of RMNP this season.

Reaching the summit means you're halfway done. Porzak reaps the benefits of a day slogging uphill. PHOTO: John Dickey
Reaching the summit means you’re halfway done. Porzak finds freshies on the way down the Cheekbone on Chief’s Head Peak. PHOTO: John Dickey

In the short term, some of the best options are peaks that hold permanent snowfields such as the Rowes. They tend to fill in pretty fast and can have a window early on before they get too loaded and potentially become unstable. In terms of overall goals for this season, we really want to just work hard and do major peak linkups. A bunch of those will take place this spring once we get those sticky upslope storms that cake the Park.

What has been the biggest takeaway so far?

Be real, be humble, enjoy it, and appreciate it. Don’t take anything for granted.

More photos and stories on the unique freedom of skiing our national parks found here.