PHOTO: Jay Beyer
On a sunny day in May 2011, photographer Zach Clanton sat on his splitboard eating lunch above the closed Mount Baker Ski Area. Scanning the face of Mount Shuksan through his zoom lens, he saw a fresh skin track. It was like stumbling upon the tracks of a mythical animal--a Sasquatch or a spirit bear. He followed the track until he saw a lone figure near the top of the White Salmon Glacier. He settled in to wait, with his elbows on his knees. Whoever it was--whatever it was--would have to come down. When it did, Clanton would be there to get the shot.
He had a feeling who it might be. He'd seen the signature Toyota Santana camper in the parking lot. The one with the barking dog and plywood/12-pack cases for cushions over the seat springs. He'd heard the stories. Everyone who'd spent any time in the small and scattered tribe of Washington backcountry skiers had heard them. With dozens of hairball solo descents in the North Cascades--some of them previously unimaginable firsts--the man likely at the top of the skin track had become something of a legend.
"He just went out and skied one of the craziest lines by himself, with no back-up, just for the joy of it."
And this was a land of legends--Thunderbird, Seawolf, Fred Beckey, Steve Barnett, Carl Skoog. This particular legend didn't have sponsors. He wasn't tied to a steady job. He lived in his truck with his beloved dog, Sadie, who had long ago, during one of his frequent multi-day absences, eaten the dashboard and the upholstery from the seats.
Clanton sat there for over an hour, watching through his camera as the skier wrapped around the rocks on the ridge below the summit pyramid and then re-appeared above the Northwest Couloir. Clanton started firing his camera as the skier ripped through the opening of the Northwest and then, unbelievably, rolled out over the icefall, over thousands of feet of vertical exposure, and made a confident traverse to the Hanging Glacier. From Clanton's perspective, there was no way through. The stakes were ultimate. To fall was to die.
Clanton marveled at the spirit of it. As far as this guy knew, nobody was watching. "He didn't give a fuck," Clanton told me recently. "He just went out and skied one of the craziest lines by himself, with no back-up, just for the joy of it."
Clanton snapped a series of historic shots then hustled down to the parking lot. Expecting a grizzled old alpinist with a beard and big attitude, he was surprised to see a clean-shaven, sweet-natured fellow in his 20s sauntering up the road with his skis on his shoulder--grinning like he'd just raided the cookie jar. "Hey man," Clanton said, "did you just ski the Hanging Glacier solo?" The man nodded. Clanton was so inspired by what he'd seen that he went back to Salt Lake, packed up his things, bought a self-belay device, and embarked on an open-ended road trip to Alaska. He's been living out of his car ever since.
The man's name was Dan Helmstadter. He showed up in Washington sometime in 2007 from the Rockies and started ticking off one significant line after another, mostly by himself. He skied Rainier, Baker, J-Burg, and then, with increasing diligence, a series of creative variations across the steep faces of Shuksan. Over a period of five years--always posting snapshots and personable, matter-of-fact trip reports on Turns-All-Year and Summit Post--he went on to build one of the most impressive solo ski resumés of all time.
"Dan Helmstadter is definitely someone who's been a key contributor--he probably doubled the number of known lines on the Mount Baker Ski Area side of Mount Shuksan," Lowell Skoog, curator and author at Alpenglow, the definitive work-in-progress history of skiing in the Pacific Northwest, told me one bright spring day in northeast Seattle. "The solo component is not unprecendented," he added, citing by way of example Chris Landry on Liberty Ridge in 1980 (his partner Doug Robinson watched and took pictures) and Steve Lyford, who skied solo down many of the classic climbing routes on Mount Hood: "Though I can't think off the top of my head of too many other instances where the person was literally by himself."
On April 2, 2013, after helping a couple stranded with a dead battery and then skiing the Royal Basin in the Olympics, Helmstadter
dropped off the radar. “It was awesome,” he wrote of that final line on an unnamed east face. And that was it. Clean and simple. It wasn't that anything had happened to him. A couple of people knew where he was--roughly. But he stopped posting. He went dark. As far as anyone could tell, he stopped skiing altogether.
There was something extraordinary in the notion of someone--here in the busy, ineluctably lit, over-trammeled second decade of the 21st century--who could operate at such a high level so far beyond the fringe. And then simply opt out? I didn't quite believe it. By the time I started looking for him, in late January 2016, the trail was cold. Somebody had just started a thread to nowhere on the Cascade Climbers forum entitled "Whatever happened to Dan Helmstadter?" He'd moved to the coast, somebody reported, and was making chainsaw carvings of wild turkeys. He'd been spotted on Facebook surfing scary waves and rock climbing. Maybe he'd been sidelined by that old hip injury, someone suggested. Somebody else claimed to have seen him recently, nearly jogging up a skin track on the White Salmon. But no one knew anything for sure.
I reached out to Jason Hummel, a free-heeling ex-banker turned ski photographer who'd been on a handful of remarkably spicy missions with Helmstadter during those prime years. He thought he'd heard Helmstadter was in Oregon. Or maybe Anacortes. He agreed to make a few phone calls, do what he could to help track him down. But he warned me: He didn't figure Helmstadter would be all that keen to be profiled in a magazine. "He's an awesome guy," he told me. "But there's a reason he's solo."
His brother, Carl, had looked at it on a 35-millimeter slide he'd taken once upon a time and called it Wishful Thinking.
By the third week of March he'd talked to Helmstadter on the phone and had convinced him to answer my emails at the very least. It was clear Helmstadter was going through a rough patch, not the least of which was the recent loss of his dog after 14 years. He was pretty sure she'd been poisoned--whether by accident or with malice was uncertain. "I'm not sure I'm the person you're looking for," he wrote. And then he stopped writing me back. The only chance I might have to actually talk to the guy, I finally realized, would be to drive north to the Cascades, and see if I could track him down in person.
In Seattle, I stopped at Skoog's house to see if I could put Helmstadter in some historical context. We sat at the butcher-block kitchen island in his hilltop bungalow, three blocks from prolific climber and guidebook author Fred Beckey's house. In the wake of his wife's death in a hiking accident, Skoog now rattles around the house--as he puts it--and does his best to focus on his website. He had a vague sense that Helmstadter might've moved to Leavenworth. "I had the impression that maybe he had some physical issues that were limiting," he says, "but I don't know if that's true."
Skoog and his younger brother, Carl, pioneered a number of ambitious ski traverses and first descents in the North Cascades starting in the late 1970s. They were partly reformed mogul bashers on old demo K2s with Ramer bindings and strap-on skins in an era when telemarking reigned supreme in the backcountry. "We were the 'clown-hill' skiers," he told me. "We would quit where you had to put skis on your back." He talked about the beginnings of local steep skiing in the '90s, "the plucking of certain plums," as he put it: Stuart, Shuksan, Hood. One significant plum was the first descent of the Edmunds Headwall on the Mowich Face of Rainier, plucked in 1997 by a group that included Andrew McLean and Carl, who was by then a well-known ski photographer.
But the real boom--what Skoog calls the Second Golden Age of Northwest Ski Mountaineering, the boom that eventually lured Dan Helmstadter--started in the early 2000s. (The first Golden Age was in the 1930s, when people first started taking their skis up volcanoes: Baker, St. Helens, Adams, Rainier.) Fueled by a combination of new gear technology and the quick feedback loop provided by digital photography and the internet, there was a sudden explosion of activity. Rene Crawshaw, who had pioneered the White Salmon Headwall and the Northwest Couloir in the late '90s, bagged a ski descent of the North Ridge of Baker with Skoog in July 2000, with a single rappel. In 2003, Sky Sjue and Ben Manfredi laid surprising tracks down the Fisher Chimneys and the Price Glacier on Shuksan. And so it went. "In my day you wouldn't hear about stuff people had done until the American Alpine Journal came out every year," Skoog explained. "But now with these online forums, you'd see something on Tuesday morning that had happened over the weekend."
Skoog had mixed feelings about the kinds of risks people started to take. People died. Friends died. In 2005, Carl fell 4,500 feet to his death on Cerro Mercedario in Argentina. "I've seen the dark side," Skoog told me. "It turns my stomach." Nevertheless, as chief chronicler of ski mountaineering in the Northwest, it was a busy time with lots to report. By the mid-aughts it wasn't just plums anymore. There was fruit everywhere, it seemed. It wasn't easy to get to. You had to learn where and when to go after it. But there was a dedicated crew at work: Sjue, Manfredi, the Hummel brothers, Eric Wehrly, and others. They were smart--finance guys, engineers, Ph.D. students--accustomed to thinking outside the box. And at the height of it all, as if out of nowhere, the name Dan Helmstadter started to pop up.
Helmstadter grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. He learned to ski at Stowe and Sunday River. In high school, he was on the ski team at Blue Hills in Canton, with its one chairlift and 309 feet of vertical drop just 12 miles south of Boston's Fenway Park. In 2002 he showed up in Jackson Hole. The earliest entries on his Summit Post ski resumé include random shots in Montana in 2003 and 2004, and then, from 2005 to 2007, an increasingly ambitious exploration of lines in the Tetons and Colorado.
Sky Sjue connected with Helmstadter on the Turns-All-Year forum. He read one of his posts about skiing a line--Sjue can't remember which--and invited him to the North Cascades. Sjue was born in Hawaii. He went to high school in Portland, Oregon, spent more years than he cares to think about at college in Lubbock, Texas, then moved to Seattle in 2001 for grad school. He studied subatomic nuclear physics and started skiing big lines with Manfredi, a locally renowned tele skier who would later die in a kayaking accident on the Elwha.
As Sjue remembers, Helmstadter showed up in June 2007 in downhill boots and a pair of ancient crampons he'd bought at a thrift store. "I took him on some cool stuff," he told me over the phone from his lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Sjue started Helmstadter off on a 20-mile loop he calls the Magic S. The next day they took it up a notch and scored a hard-won first descent of the Kumquat (aka Cumshot) Couloir on the Triad (aka Three Dicks), which Sjue had already tried various times to no avail.
“He'd been living with some woman in Hood River saying he was smoking a lot of cigarettes and gained 50 pounds or something. I don't try to reckon on Dan. I feel lucky to know the guy."
Over the following years, Sjue managed to knock off a few more objectives with Helmstadter, who also skied with Hummel and Wehrly, and later Freeride World Tour Champion Drew Tabke. But Helmstadter was on his own program. "Solo was his M.O.," says Sjue. Other people just didn't have the same boundless time and freedom and commitment to being right there when something needed skiing.
"He was doing all kinds of super radical stuff," says Sjue. He still marvels at some of the routes Helmstadter put in, especially the ones on Shuksan between the north face and the Northwest Couloir. "Dan came along and did these things where he was putting in pins and rapping on a shoestring. Absolutely freakin' nuts."
For Skoog, there was one trip report in particular that stands out: a wild, ballsy, implausible line he'd dubbed the Curtis Glacier Headwall (Helmstadter called it Curtis Ridge), with a gnarly enchainment of off-kilter traverses and huge exposure across the northwest face. Skoog had wondered if anybody would ever try to ski it. His brother, Carl, had looked at it on a 35-millimeter slide he'd taken once upon a time and called it Wishful Thinking. In late March 2012, Helmstadter skied it solo.
Tabke met Helmstadter at a ski shop in Fremont where Tabke was working after he moved to Seattle from Utah in 2008. Helmstader would stop in occasionally to chat. Tabke had quickly fallen in with the local crew, and in 2009, hit the North Peak of Hozomeen, just over the Canadian border, with Sjue and Andy Traslin. In 2011, soon after winning the Freeskiing World Championship at Snowbird, two years before winning the first consolidated Freeride World Tour, Tabke made a couple of quiet first descents with Helmstadter, including a pioneering variation of Shuksan's Hanging Glacier Headwall.
"He's tough to track down even if you live here," says Tabke. "Never did it seem like he was avoiding skiing with people. He was just a tough dude to find when his fucking phone doesn't work and he's in a truck and he's just chasing conditions."
"He went through cycles even while we were still getting wild," Sjue added. "I remember he disappeared for six months and came back. He'd been living with some woman in Hood River saying he was smoking a lot of cigarettes and gained 50 pounds or something. I don't try to reckon on Dan. I feel lucky to know the guy."
If Helmstadter was hard to reckon in those whirlwind years, it seemed unlikely that I would get a chance to unravel his inner truths. "His story is such that I don't think anyone's going to pin it down," says Tabke. "Maybe he scared himself enough times or rolled the dice enough times he figured he'd step back and not risk as much anymore." Or maybe, I couldn't help thinking, he just got to a place where he wanted to do something else.
By the first of April, exactly three years after Helmstadter's last posted ski descent, I found myself facing a dead end in Seattle. I went for an early morning paddleboard with a friend on Lake Washington. Then, when I couldn't postpone it any longer, I thumbed a final text to Helmstadter's number and pressed send: I'm in Seattle. You in Anacortes? Can I buy you coffee or lunch or something?
To my surprise, he texted right back: Welcome to the Northwest.
Helmstadter was living in Bellingham. He was busy that day, he wrote, but might have some time the following day. He gave me some info for a ski tour at the end of the Mount Baker Highway above the ski area. By mid-afternoon I was standing on my skis on the side of Table Mountain in a T-shirt, gazing across at the shining northwest face of Shuksan.
The next morning, sitting in my rental car on the streets of Bellingham, I got through to Wehrly. Helmstadter had agreed to meet me at 2 that afternoon, but it seemed entirely possible that he'd bug off. Wehrly was busy packing up his house in Seattle. He'd been a finance professor at Seattle University for nine years, an extension of a long-extended graduate career that began in Utah and which he wistfully characterized as "a subsidized alpinism program." Now he was moving to Bellingham for a tenure-track job at Western Washington University. He was hoping it would lead him back to more days in the mountains, and maybe even some overdue hang-out time with Helmstadter, whom he alternately described as a buddha, a ninja, and a nomadic mountain monk. We made tentative plans to ski in the morning with Jason Hummel. I offered to do what I could--if indeed I got the chance--to convince Helmstadter to join us.
Helmstadter and I met at a brewery across from the farmer's market. He had a rich black beard and eyes that even going on his 35th year reminded me of a young John Muir as Carleton Watkins photographed him--wise and ethereal and a little sad at the ways of the world. We took our pints outside, away from the happy crowd, and sat at picnic tables in the spring sunshine. Birds chattered in the arbors. The air smelled of the sea. We talked about our dogs--I'd lost mine recently as well, though to old age rather than poisoning. He let on that he'd also recently lost his mother. We talked about girls and their relative inaccessibility in various mountain towns across the West versus Seattle and Bellingham. He was soft-spoken and articulate and seemed happy to be at this particular table on this particular day.
We talked about the relative merits and safety considerations of going solo versus with a group. "It can be distracting when you're out with other people," he said. "Sometimes with a group you want to talk. Which is what should happen. But it slows things down. When you're out alone you can make quick decisions and not have the weight of responsibility. Maybe drop in, maybe reassess. It's a lot of gut feeling combined with critical thinking." He paused, sipped his beer, drifted into thought for a long moment, and then concluded: "It goes a lot smoother when I'm alone."
After high school, Helmstadter was working at a hardware store. He got away for a weekend at Stowe and realized that what he wanted to do was ski. He knew it would take him to a good place. He packed a bag and flew to Jackson. He got a job shoveling snow off condo roofs. He bought some used equipment and spent a lot of time bootpacking and skiing Teton Pass. He learned to peel logs and sharpen knives. Later, he did a stint in Bozeman, met a girl on a trail crew in Yellowstone, followed her to Fort Collins. He mostly lived out of an old E-150 Econoline, cooked canned chili over canned Sterno. He learned about avalanches, rode chairlifts on a student pass at A-Basin, skied some 14ers, learned about the brutal spiritual power of the cold and wind. After finishing community college, he went to Mexico and, by himself, skied blue ice off the summit of 18,491-foot Orizaba. Then he traded his van for a little four-banger Toyota pickup with a camper shell and relatively better gas mileage (but too little room for even just him and Sadie to stretch out in). He broke it off with the girl and drove north to ski Shasta.
He was hooked. "The quality of the corn blew me away," he told me. "I got what the West Coast snowpack was all about." Then he went to the North Cascades, met Sky Sjue, traded the pickup for a beat-up, rusted-out Toyota Santana, and got to work. "I feel more comfortable being alone in the mountains than I do being in a town," he told me. "Being alone in the mountains, there's no weird vibe. You're just part of nature making your way through the day."
But he couldn't live in the mountains forever. He decided it was time to at least try to settle into the rhythms of other people, to consider the world from a different vantage, maybe to find a girl. It had been a slow process. He did lawn care for a while, honed his wood-carving skills, eventually started taking on more work as an arborist. Mostly he worked alone. He liked the exposure and the mindfulness that's required for working high up in a tree with a big chainsaw. Yes, he missed the mountains. But things were looking up. He had a date that night. And she was cooking for him.
The next day I followed Wehrly and Hummel on a classic sortie into the hinterlands of the North Cascades. We met in the pre-dawn dark at the end of Cascade River Road. They wouldn't have been surprised if Helmstadter rolled up out of the night, they said. They wouldn't be surprised if he didn't, either.
We crossed downed trees over the river, climbed with our skis and boots on our backs through 1,700 vertical feet of bird-screeching jungle, ditched our muddy shoes at snow's edge, and skinned up into the bright sky. Wehrly and Hummel bantered the whole way, angling for the north side of a peak called Torment. It was solid entertainment: tales of epic bushwhacks, river crossings, fog, mythical Douglas firs, 36-hour marches ending with raw feet in ski boots in downtown Seattle.
Later, over the crest, the conversation grew quiet. Wehrly led the way across a particularly spicy, particularly high-consequence traverse, with precise footwork, to a hanging snowfield. I stood for a while, on the points of borrowed crampons that didn't quite fit my boots, trying to enjoy the view while Hummel spent a long, scary series of minutes searching the back corridors of his mind for faith in minimal friction over maximal gravity. Axe in one hand, whippet in the other, he clung as best he could to mixed sugar and wet rock. Beneath him was a skittering, bouncing, open-air, yawning, ignominious ending. There wasn't a damn thing either Wehrly or I could do for him. Other than to feed him encouraging words. A rope would've been nice. Or a beer garden in Bellingham.
Hummel pulled it together, transferred his weight, made it work. Solo. And before I had a chance to think any further about it, I followed. Then, with the snow in the couloir as hard as old dog shit and glaciers calving across the valley, we plotted our retreat. Back to sunset corn and slush, to shoes, mud, a lukewarm can of beer at the cars, and a long drive back to the land of traffic and Thai food and motels.
I thought about Helmstadter on the way home. His isolation, focus, endurance, and fearlessness. We could've gone on chatting for hours that afternoon at the brewpub if I hadn't reminded him that he was going to be late for his date. "Why don't you come out touring with us tomorrow?" I asked him near the end of our conversation. He appreciated the offer. If the date went well, he said, he might just take us up on it. "I need to get skiing soon," he said, thoughtfully. "I need to get on that."