Downplay- The Ups and Downs of First Descents
Ninety-nine point nine percent of skiers could care less about who skied any particular slope first. To their credit, skiers (and riders) are all about living in the moment – if a run is good and the snow is flying, that’s all that matters. Still, somebody somewhere had to ski the line first, and if it was good, word spread and the area became known as a ski destination, which in turn attracted even more pioneers, and thus ski meccas are born. The act of exploring, casting into the unknown and taking a chance on new terrain is part of what keeps things new and interesting in the world of backcountry skiing.
First descents come in a variety of flavors with the most common coming from people who don’t even know or care that they are skiing something first. These are the skiers who move to remote areas and start poking around out of necessity, or those who are bored with the established classics and start looking around corners and ridges to see what else there is. Skiing guidebooks are filled with unaccredited runs like these; lines that have seemingly always been there and are taken for granted.
The second category of first descentionists are those who discover new terrain as part of a bigger picture of exploration or commercialization. For example, a trip to China, Chile or Chalten that hits a vein of previously unknown skiable terrain. Or a new hut opening up in British Columbia that gives unprecedented access to huge new lines. Or an Alaskan heli skiing operation establishing more new lines in one year than any major ski resort has in total.
The third category is for pushing the envelope and bragging rights. The first to ski Chobolungo, the first to ski the Black Ribbon of Death, the first to snowboard Satan’s Anus, the first telemark descent of Triple Sisters. It’s a fun game with serious consequences and also where the most ski mountaineering penalty flags are thrown. Few people care if Segay Mistrov was the first Armenian to ski off of Manaslu, but for those who do, they REALLY care. This category contains both some of the most legitimate cutting edge descents in history and a sizeable pile of complete bullshit.
The idea of first descents is an outgrowth of climbing where who ascended what first, is of worldwide historical value. Most adults know that Tenzing Norgay (and Edmund Hillary) were the first to ascend Mt. Everest, but the most famous descent of all time is hardly a household name. Kammerlander? Karnicar? Most don’t or don’t care.
As with climbing, new ski descents are a reflection of their creator can be anything from fun & friendly to brutally difficult, dangerous, overly safe, short, classic or instantly forgotten. The sign of a classic is when a skier or climber can’t help but think how mind blowing it must have been to come across something like this first, such as Jeff and George Lowe climbing the Lowe route on Lone Peak or the first person to descend Mt. Superior in Little Cottonwood Canyon. When even the 10,000th descent is still special, the world owes a nod of acknowledgement to those who went first.
A common trait of first descentionists is the willingness to always want to look around the corners, see what is over the next ridge, or get to the peak to see what else there is. In practice, this often means shirking a powder day to go dink around in some scruffy runnel or hidden line which hopefully will have better skiing than it looks. Proximity to fresh terrain also plays a major part. In places like the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska, there may be five skiers for every two million acres, whereas in the Wasatch, it is more like two million skiers for every five acres. In the Wrangells, first descents are a given, whereas in the Wasatch you’d have to get very creative to find something new.
Anyone who has stood on top of an untracked slope about to score first tracks on a powder day can understand the excitement of a first descent. Both have the same feeling of excitement but with a first descent, the anticipation is magnified tenfold.
At the low end, scoring a first descent can be as easy as finding a scratchy road cut along a deserted stretch of a snowy road. Pull over, climb up, ski down, and voila, you are most likely the first person to have ever skied that. Name it something catchy (Roadkill Kouloir) add a photographer, some social media and perhaps a story in a magazine and you’ve got the beginnings of a professional ski mountaineering career. The fact that it’s insignificant is irrelevant as it is hard to say that anything to do with skiing is truly important, but a first descent like this is not doing much in terms of pushing the boundaries of the sport. Conversely, going to the heart of Radskiistan and quietly skiing a steep, burly, high altitude line is a great personal achievement but if nobody ever knows about it, it remains just that – a personal achievement. The measure of a truly great first descent is its ability to inspire and motivate people to either repeat it or lay down similar lines.
At the high end, steep first descents are a blend of artistic creation, physical stamina, skiing skills and mental warfare. Often a driving motivation for pursuing firsts is the desire to unearth a classic, but more often than not, most first descents are totally forgettable. French skier Pierre Tardival is credited with hundreds of first descents, many of which have been described with a backhanded compliment as containing “even a few worth repeating.” But, you never know until you go, and discovering a classic is what makes all of the other duds seem worthwhile. Tardival summed this philosophy up in an old Couloir Magazine quote by saying “The hard part is first having the idea.” In other words, having the vision to see a skiable line where others don’t and then following up with research, sweat and turns until every so often you hit the jackpot.
The idea of skiing steep slopes has been around since the invention of skis, but in the 1970’s a group of French skiers took it to a whole new level when they started making ski descents of popular alpine climbs. This was the birth of the original extreme skiing movement and included skiers like Patrick Vallencant, Sylvain Saudan, Jean-Marc Boivin, Anselme Baud and snowboarder Bruno Gouvy. Before three out of five of them died, the idea of first descents had become mainstream worldwide and the French have continued to lead the pack ever since.
One of the most influential first descents in the U.S. took place in 1971 when Bill Briggs skied off the summit of the Grand Teton, which up to that point wasn’t even remotely considered skiable. Following that in the mid to late 1970’s Chris Landry from Colorado established a series of first descents, which although some of them like the East Face of Pyramid Peak or the Mendel Couloir in California didn’t see second descents for years, they inspired people as to what was possible with skis on your feet. Suddenly climbing routes like Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainer were now seen as a whole new realm of potential skiing.
Almost every range in the world has a short list of dream lines that are awaiting first descents. Many of these have been ticked off over the years (with quite a few asterisks thrown in), but one that sticks out is Andreas Frannson’s descent of the South Face of Denali. This highly visible line was talked about for years and had a few aborted attempts, but in 2011, Frannson not only skied it from the summit, but did it solo and had the wherewithal to shoot photos and video on the way down. The line involved 12,000’ of skiing at high altitude with subzero temperatures, steeps and a section of rappelling before ending up on a crevassed glacier. At one point rock and ice started raining down from above, so he pulled over, set an anchor and waited through part of the night until the slope froze back into shape. South facing Alaska slopes are notorious for being tricky to ski (such as University Peak), but to ski such a huge one in uncompromised style is a historically notable achievement.
Some areas keep better track of first descents than others. Places like the Tetons have a small, tight-knit climbing and skiing community where news of a new first descent not only gets around quickly, but is documented in guidebooks. Other areas, like the Wasatch Mountains and Sierra, are much more diffused with no central hub for sharing information. The slopes still get skied, but not necessarily recorded.
Backcountry skiing and societal rules don’t mix, but there are a few established conventions pertaining to first descents. The first is that laying claim to a first off of a peak (Shasta, Denali, Superior, Rainier, K2, Everest, etc.) means that you started on the summit, not in the lower flowery meadows. The second is laying claim to an independent line or couloir means skiing the whole thing, not just the fun fluffy part. Through no fault of their own, some lines may never be entirely skiable and the crux of the issue is honesty in reporting.
Stupid Rope Tricks
Nothing gets skiing traditionalists riled up more than using a rope to rappel during a ski descent. The purists decry this as cheating or “not skiing” and the enthusiasts can’t get enough of it. Like all things ski related, it depends. A short rappel in the middle of a classic line can oftentimes be the only way to safely navigate a certain slope and in many cases it adds to the thrill of the descent. Conversely, rappelling 2,000’ of a 2,500’ run can seem ridiculous, but it can also deliver 500’ of totally out there skiing in the middle of nowhere. Context and honesty in reporting is everything.
Rappelling, roped skiing or down climbing may not be not pure skiing, but it does serve as a starting point. Within rock climbing, it is common for a route to first be done with “direct aid” which means that in thin sections, a climber might place and pull on gear instead of only using his/her hands and feet for upward progress. Eventually, if the route is popular, the aided sections are free climbed until at some point the entire route can be done without any aid climbing. This was the case with The Nose route on El Capitan, which started with a mix of aid and free climbing, but has now been done entirely free. In many cases, the eventual free climbing achievements wouldn’t have been possible without the prior aid climbing efforts and the same thing applies to contrived rope descents with skiing. In the right year with the right skier, sections that were previously rappelled may be skied, until eventually, the entire line can be done without ropes or downclimbing. A classic case of this is the Grand Teton in Wyoming, which as far as I know has come close, but has yet to see a completely unaided ski descent from top to bottom. Regardless, skiing off of the summit is still an incredible experience and when it is done without ropes or down climbing, it will be even better yet.
With climbing, cataloging a first ascent often has as much to do with documenting the route with a topo so that subsequent climbers know where to go, what kind of gear they might need, where the belays are and how hard it is, which is all useful information. With a ski descent, there is usually no gear left behind and the tracks get covered up with the next storm, so keeping records isn’t nearly as easy or important. In a way, this is a blessing as unbeknownst to each other; multiple parties can all experience the thrill of being the first to descend the same line. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Like many first ascents, many first descents are accidental. In a conversation with Renny Jackson, who co-authored “A Climbers Guide to the Teton Range,” he said “I’m not including any more new routes where people accidently got lost trying to find some other route.” The same thing happens with skiing all the time, including at least one, if not more, accidental first descents on The Grand.
During the initial boom of sport climbing in the US, there was a humorous T-shirt that read: “Ethics are for Easy Climbs.” The underlying joke was that although bolted sport routes allowed people to climb much harder ratings, it came at the expense of violating old climbing ethics such as not over bolting, hang-dogging, chipping, gluing or endlessly working a 30’ route. The same joke applies to skiing, especially when it comes to high altitude or highly visible first descents where ethics easily get confused. It may be high altitude hypoxia, but skiing from a “personal summit” is not the same thing as skiing from the actual summit, or for that matter, turning around far from the top and calling it close enough. Catching a big peak in the right conditions and off the summit is often an even bigger part of the game than the actual turns. Skiing the lower flanks and then coming back weeks or months later to complete the upper part when conditions are better qualifies for a big fat asterisk in the history books. Forgetting to mention huge chunks of down-climbing or rappels are common ethical lapses and although none of this is going to cure cancer, it does deprive a future first descentionist of getting credit where credit is due. And not only that, but it creates a dangerous scenario for subsequent descents when skiers/riders think the line was done entirely on skis in one shot.
From big peaks to cutting new glade lines, first descents are happening all the time. Part of the beauty of a new line is that they seldom, if ever actually belong to anyone and as soon as a new storm comes along, they’ll be there for the next skier to discover as well. The thrill of the new never gets old.