A Selected History of Ski Mountaineering in the West
“If you fall, you die!” This catchy, morbid phrase, popularized by Coloradan, Chris Landry, one of the sport’s foremost pioneers, defines the allure of steep skiing. Although people have perished, it is rare, and most never consider that dire possibility. Mountaineering skiers are driven by a passion to descend aesthetic, improbable, and challenging lines, and the reward is enormous, indefinite and personal.
In order to survive increasingly radical descents from high peaks, ski mountaineers learned from the mountains, and each other. As steep skiing pioneer, Rick Wyatt, points out, “Every first ski (or snowboard) descent stands on some previous skier’s shoulders. The current (growing) crowd of ski mountaineers operate at a high level. Most have great skiing, climbing, and avalanche skills and exhibit excellent mountain sense.” One no longer has to learn by the school of hard knocks. Mentors, instructors and guidebooks abound, and everything from routes and conditions to technique and gear advice is available on the web.
An evolution of equipment also fueled the rapid growth and progress. Sturdy, reliable AT and Telemark boots and bindings, snowboards, and wide, short, and early-rise tip skis have made gnarly snow and terrain, formerly skiable by only the few, the domain of everyman. Skiing big, steep lines is now easier, more fun, and increasingly popular. And the highest level of achievement has risen another notch.
Mt. Superior’s South Face epitomizes ski mountaineering in Utah. Standing tall right across from Alta and Snowbird, it has undeniable allure. As with many other now classic runs, it is hard to prove who was the FIRST to ski it, but that’s beside the point. The point is, early ski mountaineers overcame huge psychological barriers. They had a passion to ski big mountains. They lacked agents, Facebook pages, or video cameras to promote their feats. It was a natural extension of what people had been doing for years: seeking off-piste ski adventures on increasingly steep, serious, and wild terrain.
Some, like Mike Mendenhall, who toured up from Highland to ski the Lone Peak Wilderness, skied alone. Mendenhall used hockey skates (with the blades removed) as freeheel ski boots, bolting their toes to his skis. As longtime Snowbird and now Alta patroller, Jimmy Collinson points out, “It was hard to find partners for steep adventures. Most people wanted to tour for powder.” This is still true today.
Wyatt skied Superior for his first time in 1973, at age 17. Previously, George Hartlmaier, an Austrian based in Brian Head Utah, and Darwon Stoneman, who led Wasatch Powderbird Guides for decades, had skied it in good style and others had “gotten down it.” But it was considered “questionable” by the authorities to ski such an avalanche-prone shot above Highway 210.
On one occasion, the SL County Sherriff impounded Wyatt’s car and tried to arrest the party for making a dangerous and illegal ski descent. However, in the midst of this dispute, Alta’s first marshal, Eric Eliason, himself an accomplished skier and mountaineer, showed up. Upon learning of the Sherriff’s intent, he started laughing and said it was ridiculous because the avalanche hazard was low, and the skiers had only endangered themselves.
Further afield, steeps enthusiasts scaled the Pfeifferhorn, and skied its cliffbound Northwest Couloir. One of the earliest parties was Collinson and Ned Randolph, a transplant from Steamboat, Colo. Jimmy was on a brand-new (to him) alpine touring set-up and skiing for the first time after a spinal fracture. Ned, a champion telemark racer, was on Karhu Extreme freeheel skis and leather Asolo Extreme boots, common gear in 1986. “Extreme” was “in.”
Collinson liked to travel light and ski everything without a rope (or pack) when conditions were ideal. The pair capitalized on a phat snowpack in May of ’86. Jimmy went through the chimney first using his homemade ice-axe / ski pole to chop “steps” for their ski edges as they delicately down-climbed with skis on. Because so few people were into steep skiing, and the chute was so unusually phat, Ned and Jimmy thought they might be the only ones ever to ski the line. But OH, how times have changed!
The NW Couloir features 40-50-degree skiing, in a ski-length wide chute falling right from the summit. Bolts for a rappel anchor were added in 1993 by the late American alpinist-extraordinaire, Alex Lowe. He was a Utah Avalanche Center forecaster that winter, and linked up with Black Diamond Equipment designer, Andrew McLean, for ski adventures.
After BD split from Patagonia and moved from Ventura, California to Salt Lake, Lowe, McLean and friends initiated the ongoing “Dawn Patrol” ritual, on winter mornings, for working Salt Lakers holding down 9-5 jobs. They were into “aid skiing,” choosing lines that required a rope. This opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. Some rejected these runs as “contrived” and not “natural ski lines,” but the NW Couloir is generally safer with a rope, and has become a Wasatch uber-classic.
The first time McLean skied Lisa Falls, a 5,000′ couloir falling south from the Salt Lake Twin Peaks, was with Alex in 1993. He recalls, “We went up Broads Fork and I had no idea what he had in mind. It had snowed quite a bit the day before and we (OK, Alex) were breaking trail through very light thigh-deep snow. For some reason we went way out on some rock faces to get to the top of Twin and I remember doing a full body- weight dry tool move on an old Alpamayo Piolet, which was business as usual with Alex.
When we got to the top of Lisa Falls, I was concerned about all the new snow, but Alex seemed to think it was OK as it was so light (probably in the 5% range). He center-punched the upper headwall. It was unreal. The snow was so deep that it was folding back in behind each skier, so it didn’t matter if you crossed tracks or not. I was blown away by the first headwall, then amazed at how far down the run kept going. It was an epic journey!” Skiing it in waist-deep powder, without getting avalanched, is only realistic about once a decade. Epic conditions, indeed!
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the “Chamonix of America,” has been at the forefront of steep skiing (and alpine climbing) since Paul Petzoldt and Glen Exum pioneered climbs and started guiding in the early 1930s. A ski descent of the Grand Teton redefined the possible in 1970. “Bill Briggs’ run was inspirational to me,” says Wyatt. “It was a wild line, but it was an act of control. It built upon the accomplishments of European skiers, like Sylvain Saudan.” Indeed, Briggs’ monumental first ski descent revolutionized ski mountaineering in the West. In ’82 Wyatt became the first to ski the Ford-Stettner route on (very lightweight) freeheel gear. Lorne Glick was the first to telemark down the Grand. Exum Guides, Doug Coombs, Bill Dyer and Mark Newcomb shepherded the first clients down the 1200 feet of steeps up to 55 degrees above cliffs. Below, 500′ of rappelling down the Chevy Couloir leads to a final bit of rockfall-prone runnel skiing in the Stettner Couloir, before you glisse for another 5,000′ to the valley floor. In recent years this rite of passage for aspiring steep skiers has become a veritable mogul run when conditions are right. Fifteen-year-old Sasha Johnstone set a new standard for youth by skiing the iconic line with his mom, dad (former Olympian and Exum Guide, Hans) and Greg Collins on May 25, 2014
Newcomb and extreme snowbaorder / mountaineer, Stephen Koch, descended the Black Ice Couloir on Skis / Snowboard (with rope aid) in ’94. Newcomb paired with Johnstone to hop-turn the insanely steep and rarely snowy Hossack-MacGowan route on the Grand’s Northeast Face a few years later. In 2013 Greg Collins, an unsung hero of American Alpinism, and high-end rock climber / endurance athlete, Brendan O’Neill, “skied” the North Face (with 10 rappels). Unfortunately, in lockstep with all the inspirational first descents, comes an inevitable rise in accidents. A sad string of avalanche fatalities has marred the Tetons, especially in recent years.
In 1976, Chris Landry, accompanied by Climbing Magazine editor Michael Kennedy, boggled American minds with the first ski descent of Pyramid Peak’s East Face in the Elk Range, near Aspen. By now all 54 “Fourteeners” in Colorado have been skied, many by extreme lines, but this route, situated 10 miles back in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, still reigns as a king-daddy descent. Thirty-five years ago it redefined the possible.
Kennedy down-climbed the face alongside, but couldn’t bear to watch as his partner hop-turned his way down 60-degree pitches above cliffs. Perhaps the most daunting moment for Landry was switching to crampons just above an ice bulge and down-climbing, before finishing the run. Landry’s descent was akin to the amazingly sheer lines being ticked in Chamonix by the French extremists.
In 1980, Landry hooked up with Yosemite climber, Doug Robinson, to nab a prime Northwest plum, Mt. Rainier’s dramatic Liberty Ridge. When I carved this line, visible from my dorm room on the UW campus in Seattle, on July 11, 1995, it was still a rare feat. Protruding between the calving ice cliffs of the Willis Wall and the Liberty Cap, it goes at 50+ degrees near the top, and remains 45 or steeper for 4,000′. A friend climbed 38 pitches of 2-tool ice there in May of 2008. Yet in 2010, with a huge late-season snowpack in the Cascades, the remote and foreboding Liberty was schussed by dozens of new-school ski mountaineers. Unfortunately, in 2014, it was the site of a horrendous tragedy, in which an entire party of 2 guides and 4 clients were swept to their death by avalanche.
California’s Range of Light, the High Sierra, sports great corn snow and impressive vertical drops from peaks over 14,000’. Early skiers found it possible to get an edge on insanely steep angles despite their flimsy gear, owing to the consistent, granular spring snow. Most parties focused on gnarly gullies like Mendel, Parachute, V-Notch and Schlichter, or traverses across the range.
The highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney, lacks a steep, continuous line to match its mountaineering stature. But runner-up, Mt. Williamson (14, 375′), may have the premier skiable North Face in the Sierras. In the phat spring of 1998, NASA-JPL “Rocket Scientist” and accomplished ski mountaineer, Dave Braun, rallied up from LA four times, mostly solo, to work out the details, and connect an unlikely line.
From the Owens Valley, 10,000 below, “The Giants’ Steps” appears to be a straight chute, but it actually involves four collinear couloirs, each ending in cliffs. They run diagonally across the steep face and are connected by short climbing sections. Braun, a U. of Utah grad who simultaneously studied steep skiing in the Wasatch, overcame all manner of setbacks and bad luck, but ultimately fulfilled a worthy obsession by pioneering the committing line with Eric MrGrath in tow for the first descent day.
The enormity of Alaska and staggering number of skiable lines makes it hard to identify the most historically significant glisse descents. From Aleutian Volcanoes in the west to Mt. Fairweather in the southeast, (and also the high point of British Columbia) the state has been ripped by motivated shredders. The Chugach Range around Valdez has witnessed dozens of outrageous descents, but most were done with helicopters, and perhaps that is a separate category.
Maybe what sets Alaska apart is the sheer vertical relief, but it also has the steeps. Canadian Mountain Holidays guide, Dave Gauley, skied the 3,200 foot, 50+ degree West Face of Mt. Deborah in the remote Eastern Alaska Range in 2000, and it was hailed in Rock and Ice Magazine as the “Steepest, most committing line in North America.”
University Peak, in the Wrangell Mountains, was skied by Lorne Glick and John Whedon in 2001, and is one of the consistently steepest American descents. More recently, John Chilton and Lisa Korthals also climbed high on this face and skied down. Chilton attests to its impressive angle, “I read my inclinometer eight times that day, and every time it was between 48 and 52 degrees, for over 7,000 vertical feet.” Former extreme skier, and now celebrated Colorado ski mountaineer, Chris Davenport, graced the cover of his recent book 50 Classic Ski Descents in North America, with University’s jaw-dropping South Face, which is visually about the most classic ski line imaginable.
Being the highest point in North America has made Denali, and the surrounding Alaska Range, a magnet for skiers and climbers. Its 14,500-foot Wickersham Wall may be the longest fall-line in the world, and it has been skied at least 3 times. The West Rib has up to 12,000 feet of drop, and its top has been heavily schralped. However, the lower portion is steeper and icier, and Landry ended his “extreme” career after surviving a 1500-foot “slide-for-life” there. Adam Fabrikant and Aaron Mainer, on a day off from guiding in 2013, sketched down that same icy portion during their complete ski descent of the Rib, and negotiated a harrowing icefall in the infamous “Valley of Death” leading back out to the Kahiltna Glacier. The fit pair then skinned back up to their camp at 14,200 to complete a 26-hour endurance odyssey.
The neighboring Orient Express is the most popular of the 5 major couloirs falling steeply west off the summit plateau to ski, owing to its better aspect and easier access from the 14,200-foot “medical camp.” Yet the most imposing line above the tent city, which holds up to 400 people in the height of a busy season, is the Messner Couloir, first skied by Saudan, the Swiss master, in 1972. When he nailed this classic, 5,000-foot, 50-degree hourglass, it was given his name. His ski feats in the Alps and Himalaya were on the cutting edge. But somehow, after famed mountaineer (and non-skier) Reinhold Messner climbed it in 1977 with only a movie camera and an ice axe, it became the Messner.
It is an intimidating run. After 800′, it rolls over to 48-degrees, and you can see the base camp 4000′ below. The angle remains 45+ for the next 3,000 feet. Upon my first return to Denali this spring after a decade away, I was shocked at how much ice was gone from the line. The narrows were barely wide enough to ski, and the bergschrund at the base is now a maze of many crevasses. When I skied it in 1994, which may have been the second freeheel descent, the 200 odd residents of the 14-camp were cheering as I wearily skidded into home base. Being watched and celebrated in the act is an uplifting, and rare experience in the ignominious world of big peak and extreme skiing.
I had acclimatized for my solo of the Messner, when the scariest part was crossing THE ONLY crevasse, during a 22-day first descent of the Wickersham Wall on Denali’s north face. This became my (fleeting) claim to fame. It was hailed as the biggest ski descent on the planet. French extreme superstar, Patrick Vallencant, had been thwarted in his 1981 attempt to ski the Canadian Spur on this 4-mile-wide mega wall when he broke his ankle in a small crevasse while skiing blue ice.
Complete unknowns, John Montecucco and I were much luckier with conditions on the Spur, which can mean more than experience. When we turned the corner from the Peters Glacier and came to a vantage point above the enormous Tluna Icefall, I pulled out my monocular for a look at the objective. It was like 5 South Faces of Mt. Superior stacked upon one another. Awe-inspiring. But the key observation was the COLOR of the snow. It was WHITE, not blue. We were destined for success!
Rick Wyatt, in addition to skiing on Nanga Parbat, Everest, etc., attempted the Wickersham in 1983. Along with renowned photographer, Chris Noble, and his wife, Evelyn Lees, now a senior forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center, he summited and began skiing.
Unfortunately Evelyn, who was walking down using ski poles rather than an axe on the flat, windy summit plateau, slipped on blue ice as she changed aspect, and slid 1,100 feet, breaking her hip. The parties mission turned to rescue. They descended to the upper Peters Glacier and climbed 2,000′ up, with Rick lifting her broken leg up each step, to join the West Buttress route at 16,200′.
Our 1994 descent stood on their shoulders in many ways. Their rescue route became our escape off the Wall after skiing it in pieces from the bottom up. This conservative, but controversial method of acclimatizing while skiing unencumbered, worked perfectly. We also used most of the same camps they had and benefited greatly from a “beta” session where Rick imparted many of the keys to success on the monstrous wall.
The very next year a French pair climbed and skied the Wickersham in just two sections. But the more interesting repeat was by Adrian (Nature) Popovici, aka “Adrian the Romanian.” He survived the persecutions of Ceausescu before escaping his homeland to become a ski instructor in Utah. He had a passion for the Wick Wall, and came to Denali every year for a decade seeking his prize. We asked him to join us in ’94, but he was a loner and shunned the invitation. He would spend weeks at the 14,000 camp, skiing the couloirs to acclimatize, waiting for the right conditions on the Wall, and surviving on food and fuel donated by descending parties.
Finally in ‘98 he climbed to the 19,470-foot North Summit and dropped straight down the never repeated, objectively deadly, 1964 Harvard Route. Knowing the wall like the back of his hand, he jettisoned his pack and let it slide to a plateau, just above cliffs, 4,000′ below. Upon recovering it, he began a 2-mile traverse to the Canadian Spur across impossibly steep, broken glacial terrain. Somehow he reached the spur, but his troubles had only just begun.
Finding a pocket of unstable snow, he got avalanched but survived the ride. Sobered, he proceeded down the wall only to have a crevasse bridge collapse under him on the Jeffrey Glacier. Carrying speed, he pulled himself to safety on the other side! Escaping the snow and glaciers, he met a hungry Grizzly bear, fresh from his winter den. Crossing the mile-wide, mega-braided McKinley River is the final crux. Sure enough, he lost his footing in one of the deep holes and got swept downriver. Again his will to live prevailed, and he swam to safety. Finally, 56 hours after leaving the 14 camp, Adrian arrived at Wonder Lake having realized a life-long dream and survived an Alaskan journey of epic proportions.
Southeast Alaska is the realm of ski-to-the-sea big lines, loads of snow and few sunny days. Mt. Fairweather rises to over 15,000 feet within 15 miles of the open sea, but it actually sees very little fair weather. When I made the first ski descent in 1996, we were stoked to hear the forecast for high pressure coming on Saturday. We waited 5 days for it as 6 feet of snow fell. Luckily we were perched on a precipice over the Pacific and could just push the snow off the edge!
Then on Friday the weather radio computer voice described a “moist maritime high pressure” that was building; so moist it dumped 18 inches on our summit day. The visibility nearly killed one of our party, but at least it was calm and two of us succeeded.
One hundred miles northwest stands another sentinel above the sea, whose numbers are even more impressive. At 18,008 feet and 12 miles from tidewater, Mt. St. Elias, the second-highest peak in the 49th state, is the most prominent mountain in the world. It rises to 18,008 feet, within 10 miles of the sea. It has a drop of 17,000′ on the south side to foothills near the Pacific Ocean, probably the longest on the planet. This Harvard Route has been the site of failed attempts, tragedy, hype, and just recently, a successful glisse descent with virtually no publicity.
Jim Hopkins, Julie Faure, and I tried the Duke of Abbruzzi’s 1897 first ascent route on its 100th anniversary, but got turned back below 14,000’ on this north ridge by deadly snow conditions. Lorne Glick, a Colorado-based ski mountaineer, who I know from his time in Alta, got the first descent of the peak, along with Andy Ward and James Bracken, via a 40-50-degree chute, known as the Mira Face in 2000. The party, which also included Doug Byerly, suffered frostbite as they traversed the long, high West Ridge to the summit after also making the second ascent of the remote and radical line.
Two years later, Aaron Martin, Reid Sanders and Greg Van Doersten, got flown onto the Mt. Hayden plateau, an extremely Short Take off and Landing spot at 11,500′ on St. Elias’ SW flank, by celebrated Wrangell-St. Elias bush pilot Paul Claus in his tiny Supercub. Photographer Doersten remained in camp the first day after arrival to acclimatize. The others, eager to ski, intended a “short acclimatizing foray,” but got carried away with good weather and smooth climbing, and soon they were near the summit. Turning around to descend, and taking a different line, the ultimate disaster occurred. Both skiers disappeared down the monstrous South Face, never to be seen again.
In 2007, a super-hyped, high-dollar attempt on the south side mega-route, was made by an Austrian team sponsored by Red Bull. Axel Naglich descended the upper portion in April and the lower mountain on a second attempt with a helicopter assist, in July, but the tactics were as controversial as the result was disjointed.
Finally, in 2010, Telluride skier Peter Inglis joined with Canadians, Marcus Warring and Ryan Bougie to make a complete descent of the full line in one continuous, human-powered expedition, interrupted only by storms and adverse conditions. In contrast to most big mountain ascents, Inglis, an unassuming veteran mountain guide, found reaching the sea more important than summiting. He insists it was not a complete ski descent in that they down climbed about one-third of the route. Different portions were deemed too sketchy for a variety of reasons: ice, deadly exposure, or no snow. Yet given the mountain’s history, and the unlikelihood that it will ever be in skiable condition from top to bottom, their tactics were as smart as their seldom-shared tale is captivating.
Like others before, they got landed by Paul Claus on the shoulder of Mt Hayden (at 9,750 feet). Four days later, they summited and descended, two-thirds of the upper mountain on skis, to their base. They spent a week waiting for the cloud sandwich to lift. On June 18, they made a break for it, and attempted to ski to the sea. They followed the Harvard Route, including the unskiable loose shale ridge, to a wonderful grassy camp at 3,500′. At 1,500′ the snow ran out and they abandoned skis. After considerable bushwhacking, they finally scrambled down steep, rocky slopes to Icy Bay.
With the Tyndall Glacier calving in front of them, bear prints in the sand, and no humans for miles, it was idyllic wilderness at its best. They spent three hours at Icy Bay, making a big fire from an endless supply of driftwood and roasting NY strip steaks and marshmallows.
On the ascent back to base camp, while ascending the shale ridge at 6,000′, Pete touched a loose rock and rag-dolled backward for 100′. A flap of skin hung open under his left eye and he sustained a compression fracture of his L2 vertebra. A broken back in this location was not good! The Canadians took part of his load and they continued up. Above the shale ridge at 7,800′ they made camp and waited for flyable weather. On June 23, the weather improved and they ascended to their base camp and flew out. It was a rugged adventure on the frontier of ski mountaineering; a death-defying experience of a lifetime, and a fitting finale to the saga of skiing and climbing the world’s longest vertical rise.
Tyson is passionate about ski mountaineering in Utah, Washington and Alaska and has lived, listened and learned its history. He is the lead guide at Utah Mountain Adventures in Salt Lake City