“…as a single ball of snow would roll, that is the line I would ski.”
Rheinhold Messner called it the murder of the impossible. He was talking about technology and ethics, and how adventure sports such as rock climbing and Himalayan mountaineering are ruined by drilled rock anchors and siege tactics. I think Messner was also talking about how sports change. He was expressing the angst of an artistic athlete when a sport he helped create is altered by lazy imitators goaded by media exposure and gross ego.
Rock climbing has borne the brunt of this slaughter. What was once a sport of pure adventure has been lobotimized with a bolt-hole drilled in it’s temporal lobe. Rock climbing is still an elegant sport, and you can still find places where it’s done in the old style with regard for the rock’s natural features. Yet those are the exception; the way most rock climbing is now practiced, it’s an adventure sport no more.
Could ski mountaineering be destined for the same fate as rock climbing? Could we define our sport by the past, but change it so quickly and selfishly that it’s a mere shadow of former glory? Goaded by ego and media exposure, will we escalate our use of every available technological convenience? Could we take the mountaineering out of ski mountaineering?
I say yes; we should heed Messner’s warning. With that in mind, I’ll take a leap (or perhaps a cliff jump) and pen a few thoughts on the values and parameters that define our sport. Foremost, to avoid head planting down the same trail as rock climbing, we should try our best to leave the mountain as we found it — or to at least leave only ski tracks. On top of that, we should use mechanized transport with care and forethought. Automobiles are a standard means of trailhead access. The use of helicopters, snowmoibles or 4×4’s beyond that point is legitimate to a degree, but push it and you’re compromising the mountaineering aspect of your trip. Land aircraft at or near the summit, and you’re not mountaineering, you’re heli-skiing. Go for it with your sled and you’re not ski touring, you are snowmobiling. Are your chaining up a 4×4 truck and tearing up a muddy road just to avoid a mile of walking? Go for it with your mud-blaster tires and you’re ‘wheelin, not skiing. In a similar vein, are we building huts in appropriate numbers and places? Too much emphasis on huts and you’re merely hoteling (which is probably my worst fault, as I do like those huts!).
Let’s think about aesthetics and personal style: Are you skiing something that’s really a ski run? If the terrain is marginal, are you truly trying to push the limits of our sport? Or are you simply keeping your skis on for the sake of later chest beating?
What about that glorious expression of our craft, the “ski descent” of a mountain? What’s that quaint phrase mean? In Europe, you pick a line with at least a smidgen of snow, stay on your skis as much as possible, and you have what most agree is a ski descent. Rappelling, downclimbing, skiing on belay — they’re all legit. Even so, Europeans admire the skier who attacks a line with no ropes, perhaps solo, and stays clipped in their bindings the whole way down. We North Americans have followed suit; we’re doing descents that range from elegant solo adventures to roped encounters that are as much engineering problems as they are adventures.
When I talk of a perfect ski descent, I like to paraphrase Italian mountaineering pioneer Emilio Comici and say, “as a single ball of snow would roll, that is the line I would ski.” The irony of Comici is that while his ideal was a “true work of art,” he was a pioneer in the use of artificial climbing aids to achieve his goals. As Comici discovered, no matter your ideals it’s not a perfect world. So how imperfect can you be and still claim a “ski descent?” When I skied all 54 of Colorado’s fourteeners I was amazed how many peaks allowed unbroken descents from the exact summit. Improbables such as Mount Sneffels, Crestone Peak, and the Maroon Bells all yield lines “as snow would roll.” On the few exceptions, I and others have made a great effort to do what we felt were true “ski descents.” For example, Wetterhorn Peak, sports a cap with about 60 feet of wind scoured cliffs. You start below that for one of the classic ski descents of the fourteeners: The East Face of Wetterhorn; a steep line that splits a stupendous flatiron of shining firn, then leads to a series of bonus bowls that send you flying over dozens of rolls and hogbacks. Tell anyone who’s smoked that line that they haven’t “skied Wetterhorn,” and they’ll ask you what you’re loading in your pipe.
The key with making a “glisse-alpinism descent” of a peak is that you make an effort to ski or snowboard from as high as possible, preferably from the exact summit. The line should be logical and have enough snow to make turns all or most of the way down to an obvious finish. Moreover, you don’t step out of a helicopter, you don’t set up a web of ropes, and you leave the mountain without lasting damage such as bolt-holes and erosion.
Failure is a guiding principle. Without the possibility of failure we can’t have adventure or true success. In 1972 myself and eight other men skied up Denali, left our planks at Denali Pass, and cramponed skiable snow to and from the summit. We could have made the second or perhaps first ski descent of the peak; but we didn’t have the gumption or vision. Yet that failure has guided me for years of classic ski descents — and made them all the sweeter. A few years ago a friend and I skied Mount Rainier together. I was tempted to leave my skis below the summit rim, but something made me carry them to the bitter end, click in, and make a soaring descent from the apex. That day was an unforgettable experience, and making that extra effort for a “real” descent is what keeps it as sharp in my mind as a freshly honed edge. Have you ditched a trip because of slide danger — or you just couldn’t finish the trail breaking? As an extreme skier, have you climbed a route then given up on trying to ski it? Or have you done such a sloppy job you didn’t feel like you’d really skied it? When we fail we plug into our ethos and success is defined. When we return and nail the bugger, or succeed at another challenge, we can lift our glasses and toast with confidence, “we did it!”
How about a “first descent?” A true first glisse descent, especially one of a remote or difficult line and conforming somewhat to the ideals I’ve covered here, is a legitimate claim that epitomizes the exploratory nature of our sport. Again, Emilio Comici says it best: “The climber who is able to divine the most elegant way, disdaining the easy slopes, then follow that way… that climber is creating a true work of art.” We can say the same of of ski routes, and recognition for a first descent is credit where credit’s due. Politics intrude however, and some “firsts” are merely credited to the first person who reports their feat, while others may have been there before. In the climbing world, I’ve always found it hilarious when someone claims a first, then another climber pipes up and claims they did it first, usually in an indignant letter-to-the-editor. Those kind of sour grapes are the epitome of poor style. What’s more, the history of our sport is our heritage, and not reporting first descents could thus be construed as the height of selfishness.
One “first” concept I like is that of “personal first.” You can’t deny the joy of skiing a perfect line for your first time, on trackless snow, perhaps with few compadres or even solo. While you might know your line has felt a previous P-tex kiss, your personal first is a special and valuable experience.
While ski mountaineering has always emphasized summit ski descents, a current trend is to hit a specific “line” perhaps only several hundred vertical feet out of thousands. In this case, purity of style and a sense of purpose are of paramount importance. Let’s take a worst case scenario. Suppose you climb part way up a rock and ice filled couloir, turn around, set up a belay, ski a few hundred feet, then rappel back down the remainder? What have you done? Perhaps you’ve had a good time. Perhaps you’ve practiced your mountain craft. Perhaps you’ve even made a first descent of that few hundred feet. Fine. Yet for myself and many other backcountry skiers, complexities such as excessive rope work or skiing sections of a mountain only detract from our ultimate expression: Be it Alaska’s Denali or New England’s Greylock, you launch off a summit and make linked turns down a mountainside. No ropes, no helicopter, perhaps no witness but a cold sky. That’s the art of Comici in it’s purest form. Tyson and Bradly accomplished an amazing feat in 1994 when they stage skied the Wickersham Wall. Just as importantly, they had a valuable personal experience. Even so, I’m waiting for an artist to stand on Denali’s north summit, click in to ski bindings, and make a continuous 14,000-vertical-foot run down the Wickersham. That’s art I’ll worship.
What about rope work? On a ski descent of Pyramid Peak (another Colorado 14er), where you ski on 60 degree slopes above 600 foot cliffs, we skied on belay. Even that was shaky since the last guy down could have fallen 300 feet of those 600, but we did stay in our skis the whole way down. When Chris Landry made the first ski descent of Pyramid he took a more direct line down the east face. With the agility of a cat and cajones of iron, he made what is still a testpiece of North American extreme skiing. Interestingly, his descent has never been repeated; my guess is that he was so far ahead of the times that his feat was science fiction, and now it’s still too hard and too dangerous — or perhaps too tough to film. (Addendum, in 2006 Chris Davenport and partners did the second of Landry’s route.) Chris Landry had to rappel a short distance, but I’ve never heard anyone put down his accomplishment, nor deny that he made the first ski descent of Pyramid Peak. Of more recent note, we have Newcomb and Koch’s roped descent of the Black Ice Couloir on the Grand Teton. These two gentleman, who are among the finest glisse alpinists in the United States, never claimed to have made a first ski descent of the Black Ice. They merely tried their best and wrote about it — and I’m glad they were willing to share it with us. I like their sense of adventure, and they made me think hard about these style questions. Perhaps the key with ropework is degree. If you rappel, it should be a short distance to access worthwhile skiing. Use a rope occasionally to protect a skier, and you’ll get a nod from the style council. Yet set fixed lines that take away all the risk you’ve merely proved your engineering skills.
Above all, let’s let the mountains define our sport. Ski mountaineering is not what hut you ski to, but rather what mountain you ski from the hut. It’s not what gear you ski on, but rather what mountain you ski on. It’s not a line you forced with ropes, helicopters, or downclimbing — but rather a line that “allowed” itself to be skied. It’s not what kind of turn you make, but what memories you make. It’s certain the Young Turks will redefine our rules; but the hard-core with vision will feel our history as a glowing heat behind their backs — a fire that will guide them ahead. If that flame spoke it would say, “show us the impossible as a living, breathing, ever changing entity — don’t murder it.”
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.