“American Dave” Rosenbarger toes a dangerous line as one of the most skilled ski mountaineers in the world

PHOTO: Christian Pondella
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After a three-day storm, clouds parted at about 1 p.m. to reveal the twin granite towers of the 12,605-foot Aiguille du Midi and classic ski lines plastered in a couple feet of fresh snow. As the tram zipped up and over the famed north face of the Midi, Dave Rosenbarger zeroed in on his objective.

“It’s still not in shape,” he said to a friend, motioning toward the Mallory Route of the north face. Once off the tram, Rosenbarger, the loquacious American who has lived in the Chamonix Valley from December to May for consecutive winters since 2003, hurried down the arête—where a misstep could have you tumbling several thousand feet—to beat other skiers to the untracked classics.

We clicked in and I followed Rosenbarger, Kye Petersen, photographer Christian Pondella, and Swedish filmer Bjarne Salén down and around the Poubelle Gully toward Mont Blanc. After a quick bootpack, and to the chagrin of Rosenbarger, two groups beat us to the junction of the Cosmiques and SW Couloirs, the latter commonly referred to as the Glacier Rond. Rosenbarger, or American Dave, as most know him, quickly put his skis on and skated out to assess the conditions. Before this trip, friends of Rosenbarger’s told me his main goal on skis is to “never cross another track.” Due to that mantra, the 38-year-old, who has called Tahoe City home the last nine summers, incessantly refreshes Facebook and checks his iPhone for up-to-the-second conditions and updates. And sure enough, he received a text from a friend letting him know that he just skied the Exit Couloir of the Rond in “epic” conditions.

Rosenbarger made quick work of an exposed west-facing traverse until he arrived at a prow above the hanging glacier. He moved with exceptional speed and deftness, getting into position nearly as fast as he spoke. He crouched over his ski poles like he was waiting his turn on a town-hill GS course, looking comfortable, eager, and capable all at once, pointing out the lines and analyzing the routes with new snow.

“The top part looks to have slid to black ice,” he yelled back up to the group. “But it looks great after that.” Some misconstrue his speedy approach and zeal for steep descents as recklessness. Others say it’s simply a product of this wild environment. As I looked down at him, it’s clear that for Rosenbarger, one of the world’s most preeminent ski mountaineers, it’s just fun.

“Let’s go ski powder,” he said.

You’ve no doubt heard of Rosenbarger, or at least witnessed his influence. He mentored the late Arne Backstrom, as well as Seth Morrison, as seen in the 2011 Morrison biopic, The Ordinary Skier, which was largely filmed in Chamonix. Whether he was skiing for the camera or not (most times not), Rosenbarger stood and skied in the shadows while other times outshining the main act. But like any skilled ski mountaineer, especially of the Chamonix variety, that evolution took time.

Rosenbarger’s stern blue eyes belie his ebullience. He wears wire-rimmed glasses when he’s not skiing, and his curly brown hair folds outside of his hat. Raised in Gresham, Oregon, outside Portland, by an orthodontist father and mall-managing mother, Rosenbarger, who has a younger sister, ski raced at Mount Hood during high school before attending the University of Oregon. After earning a degree in biology and environmental science, he spent a year living in Bend and skiing Mount Bachelor before spending a good chunk of his 20s ski bumming in Whitefish, Montana, serving tables at various restaurants.

In college, he took up telemarking, which is why one of Chamonix’s most respected ski mountaineers has the word “Telewhacker” as part of his email address.

“Skiing got stagnant and I was hanging with a bunch of climbers, so I tried something new,” said Rosenbarger.

But Europe—specifically, Chamonix—came calling. “I headed out there to meet a friend from college and eventually ended up in Chamonix. ‘This is it,’ I remember saying. ‘This is what I’ve been looking for.’”

“The Midi webcam looks like a total whiteout,” said Rosenbarger, looking down at his iPhone. “And the Helbronner cam isn’t working. But with these clouds swirling, Italy has a better chance of being sunny.” It’s mid-March and spring arrived a week earlier, locals trading ski boots for sandals. But today, storms shrouded the high peaks, temperatures acted more seasonal.

We made the drive through the Mont Blanc Tunnel from Chamonix to Italy and entered a small café across from the Helbronner tram station to wait out the weather. Rosenbarger ordered a cappuccino while the barista emphatically yelled, “Ciao, prego!” and “Grazie mille!” to ski guides. Trail maps of the Mont Blanc massif and black-and-white photos honoring the rich mountaineering and engineering history of this renowned region lined the walls.

“Back in the day here, they would wait for late spring to ski the steep, hard snow ’cause they didn’t have the equipment to deal with slough,” said Rosenbarger, pointing at the old photos and the larger subject of the aggressive pursuit of classic Chamonix lines that’s a product of bigger, lighter gear. “Marginal conditions call for marginal style. I’m not interested in descending. I’m interested in skiing…untracked,” he continued. “But things are changing here. Before social media, only a few guys would open fresh, new lines. Now, people are just following bootpacks. There’s tons of bad etiquette…with people saying exactly where they skied. Facebook is destroying skiing.”

We laughed and took sips of espresso, acknowledging that the Internet, and social media to a lesser degree, have replaced guidebooks and local knowledge. With that comes responsibility and perspective.

“When I moved to Chamonix, I took things very, very slow. I didn’t come here, day one, wanting to ski the gnarliest thing,” said Rosenbarger, who despite his decade-plus in Chamonix still doesn’t speak French. “I waited eight years to ski the north face of the Midi. Steep skiing requires patience and I’m an impatient person.”

A self-deprecating smile offset his earnestness. But it was true: Everything he did—from eating to talking to skiing—was prompt. Earlier that morning, he took issue with Petersen’s blithe morning pace.

“He is always a step ahead of everyone,” said Dusan Benes, Rosenbarger’s Czech ski partner. “He often puts tracks on faces and couloirs first and others follow. Dave doesn’t ski Chamonix steep descents just to tick it off the bucket list. He waits for perfect conditions and skis them in powder.”

Benes and Rosenbarger’s other main ski partner, Irishman John Minogue, a snowboarder, both recount tales of literally hearing Rosenbarger before getting to know him while waiting out weather atop the Midi. “He was the guy letting people know he was gonna go first. Pretty much the same now, but he doesn’t talk about it to everyone,” said Minogue.

Regardless of tempo, dangers, especially in such wild alpine environs, are omnipresent. An accepted risk is congruent with these places. In June 2010, while on an expedition in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca region, Rosenbarger, along with Kip Garre, watched close friend and ski partner Arne Backstrom slide on an icy face to his eventual death. Less than a year later, in April, Garre died in an avalanche in California’s Sierra backcountry. Rosenbarger, who used to paint Tahoe homes with Garre, was not with him.

Over another cappuccino, I asked him if losing two close friends has made him pull back or slow down in the mountains. “No, not really,” he said. “Their deaths haven’t affected my skiing. It’s made me more aware, but I already feel I was.”

Rosenbarger’s tone is matter of fact and honest, his energy unmoved, but his blue eyes reveal emotion. It’s easy to form presumptions and conjecture about this seemingly crazy lot of skiers. But those outside the circle can misunderstand an intense passion. We shake our heads at their seeming indifference to the reality of hanging off the edge of the world, but they operate in a different space than most.

“I don’t think anything is worth dying over. I expect myself and everyone I go out with to come home safe every night,” he said.

Rosenbarger’s passion extended beyond skiing when he met a Swedish woman in Chamonix named Rosanna Hughes, whom he later married in 2008. While Rosenbarger waits tables at Tahoe City’s River Grill from July to October (save for the week of Burning Man) to earn his yearly income, his wife works as a nurse. The two balance a relationship between varied work schedules and a transient lifestyle in Tahoe, Sweden, and Chamonix.

“Dave is extremely on and off…all or nothing kind of,” said Hughes. “When he’s around people that he can relate with, he’s extremely talkative and charming. Out of his element, he can be extremely introverted. But he’s powered by passion and can’t really do something he doesn’t believe in.”

We rappelled into the Cosmiques and found chest-deep powder on a spine that accumulated excess slough. With American Dave leading the group, we navigated the Glacier des Bossons and slowly made our way up to the non-glaciated Para face, a massive pow field underneath the Midi tram cables. My watch read 7 p.m. The fading sun picked up the fresh snow ice crystals and, soon enough, everything—the group, the Chamonix Valley, the Midi—appeared in an ethereal light. The moment reminded me of what Rosenbarger said about being a Chamonix skier:

“It wasn’t too long ago I thought I lived a normal life. And then I started looking around at my friends and was like, ‘God, he’s crazy. So is he.’ And then I realized all my friends are on the edge of nuts and then I ask the question where do I fit on that scale. I think a lot of people miss the point of Chamonix. Yes, it’s the steep skiing and alpinism. But, really, it’s the characters that make this town what it is. Ski bum is a term that someone sacrifices a lot in their life in order to achieve that sensation of skiing. And I think people that are willing to do that just have a lot of passion and energy. It’s amazing to be around.”

Back on slope, he’s smiling big. Any skier would be at this moment. He turns around, pushes off, and starts making graceful, smooth turns in untracked powder.

After this story published, “American Dave” died in an avalanche on January 23.

This story will appear in the February 2015 issue of POWDER (43.6). Look for it on newsstands on January 23.

For more POWDER digital features, click here. To watch the entire Patagonia Find_Away series, click here.

“I’ve probably pushed some limits more than others, but it’s how I learned as well,” says Rosenbarger. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
“Whenever you get a really steep line in good conditions…that’s what drives me,” says Rosenbarger. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
So much for dropping a knee. Rosenbarger, a former telemarker, flashes a turn that has allowed him to become proficient on steep descents. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
Rosenbarger looks on from the Aiguille du Midi bridge, preparing to pursue another classic line without tracks. PHOTO: Christian Pondella
“Dave is extremely on and off…all or nothing kind of,” says his wife, Rosanna Hughes. PHOTO: Adam Clark
An outspoken Rosenbarger used to be heard calling out his preferred routes to nearby skiers. Now, the restless powder seeker adheres to etiquette and moves with less noise. PHOTO: Adam Clark
Does it really mean more than simply finding powder snow to ski? Not to Dave Rosenbarger. PHOTO: Adam Clark
Into the void, Rosenbarger prefers the vagueness rather than explicit details and location of his run. PHOTO: Adam Clark
Born in Oregon, living in California, Rosenbarger has found a home in Chamonix. PHOTO: Adam Clark
Serenity now in the wild environ of Chamonix. PHOTO: Christian Pondella