Editor’s note: The edited and updated piece below was first published on WildSnow on April 14, 1992, (and a few years before that in Couloir Magazine). While that’s some time gone by, and Lou Dawson’s opinions have moderated and changed, his subject remains evergreen: A path, not rigid, yet guided by principle. Dawson’s original intro, in which he denounces some forms of bolting in rock climbing, alluded to a raging debate at the time. If you thought the main-streaming of bolting and sport climbing settled that score, that’s not exactly the case. The discussion still simmers. Currently, the bolting and chopping and adventure debate consumes the Pikes’ Peak climbing community.
Let the words below be a soul-setting warm-up in a three-part series looking into how we differentiate ski mountaineering from backcountry skiing, and if the debate matters at all.
But first, style matters.
Back in 1971, Rheinhold Messner called it the murder of the impossible. He talked about technology and ethics, and how drilled rock anchors and siege tactics can ruin adventure sports such as rock climbing and Himalayan mountaineering. In those ancient days I fully agreed with Messner, as I was much closer to my youthful career of risk-comfortable alpinism and extreme skiing. While I still tend to align with Rheinhold — I’m an idealist for sure — I see modern style bolting of free climbs (as opposed to the bolts we agonized over placing in the 1970s) as a legitimate part of rock climbing, but not always. There is still something in my climber heart — and maybe yours as well — for facing a chunk of rock in as natural a state as the day the earth cooked it into existence — still seemingly untouched: no drill holes, no chains or tat hanging like the weathered decorations on a neglected roadside shrine. Sure, you’ll still meet such rock with a modicum of technology, ropes and such, yet in the style of trad you will most definitely not be an accomplice in the murder of the impossible.
In my original op-ed, I made a strong — perhaps too strong — point about this “murder of the impossible” happening to ski alpinism. I wrote:
‘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?’
Since that hot-headed slug of rhetoric, I’ve seen ski alpinism do pretty well with keeping its spirit of soulful adventure. Look at what the European extremists are doing in the Alps. Or Chris Davenport’s stylish campaign when he seconded my first ski of all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks (not to mention he and his friends skiing Colorado’s hundred highest), and more recently, Cody Townsend’s “Fifty” project. In Townsend’s case, there’s maybe a little too much media hype. (Ghost edit ahead) It is here I had alluded to Cody using “guides” — see comments. But after Cody called me out on that, I realized it was too nuanced a statement for a single phrase within a 1,800-word op-ed, and besides, was perhaps an old-school concern on my part. Moreover, what is a “guide” exactly? A local? A friend? My picky meanderings aside, the main thing: As clearly portrayed in his films, Cody isn’t hopping out of a helicopter on the summits and claiming to be an extreme skier, he’s climbing, tackling stuff as a mountaineer, and the resulting uncertainty makes it obvious he’s fully embroiled in alpinism — perhaps at its finest.
So, below we republish an edited version of my original diatribe, attenuated (I hope) with my several decades of seasoning since I first set hands to keyboard.
When it comes to Messner’s warning, I’d still say that yes, we should keep such things in mind. Foremost, unlike bolted rock climbing, we ski mountaineers can leave the mountain as we found it — or at least leave only ski tracks. That’s easy. The hard part? With the explosion in skier numbers, we also need to consider the presence of our own bodies to be a factor in the mountain aesthetic. I’m a recreation advocate, so I don’t like to get too preachy about this. But at the least, we can make a difference by spreading out our use rather than packing ski-to-ski in those more popular places. (Guidebooks help with this, or do they? Comments open.)
Also, regarding our impact, we should use mechanized transport with care and forethought. Automobiles are a standard means of trailhead access — no problem there, though parking thoughtfully is appreciated. The use of helicopters, snowmobiles, or 4×4’s beyond that point is legitimate to a degree, but push it, and you’re compromising the mountaineering aspect of the sport. Land aircraft at or near the summit, and you’re not mountaineering; you’re heli-skiing. Go too far with your sled (you know who we are), and you’re not ski touring; you are snowmobiling. Are you tearing up a muddy road in your Jeep Rubicon to avoid a mile of walking? Maybe you’re 4-wheeling, 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 (yes I’m a sinner, as I do like those huts!).
Moving to the touchier subject matter. What exactly is a “ski descent” of a mountain? Today’s consensus seems to have evolved to this: Pick a line with at least a smidgen of snow, stay on your skis as much as possible. As far as definitions go, I’m pretty much okay with that. Rappelling, downclimbing, skiing on belay — they’re all legit. When I see this sort of stuff, I’m reminded of mixed rock/ice climbing, that sport involving ice tools though sometimes with very little ice.
Yet despite my enlightened comfort with “mixed skiing,” I still admire the athlete who attacks a line with no ropes, perhaps solo, and stays clipped in their bindings the entire way down an undeniably aesthetic line. In this, 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 climb was a “true work of art,” he was a pioneer in the use of artificial aids to achieve his goals. In today’s parlance, he was a “bolter,” or is it “manufacturer?” 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 was the first to ski 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 yielded lines “as snow would roll.” Nonetheless, there were exceptions. For example, Wetterhorn Peak is capped with about 60 feet of wind-scoured granite cliff. Conventional wisdom held that skiing from below the summit cap was a legitimate descent of the peak, so that’s what I did. A fourteener skiing progressed over the years hence, Jordan White downclimbed the Wetterhorn summit granite with his skis on. Did he actually make the first ski descent of Wetterhorn?
In my view, the key to a legit ski mountaineering “ski descent” of a peak has the following tenant: you ski or snowboard from as high as possible (based on previous descents), preferably but not always from the actual summit. Considering “ski descents” that don’t include a summit, the same principles apply. I also like to see plenty of snow and turns in the mix. But, as I stated above, I see the sport’s progression into “mixed” terrain. As for technology, you don’t step out of a helicopter at the top of the run, you keep rope work to a minimum, and you leave the mountain without lasting damage such as bolt-holes.
In a broad sense, the concept of failure works well as a guiding principle (see above concept: “murder of the impossible”). Without the possibility of failure, we can’t have an adventure or true success. In 1973 eight other men and I skied up Denali via the Muldrow Glacier, left our planks at Denali Pass, and cramponed perfectly skiable snow to and from the summit. We had the gear and skills for the second 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.
When I returned to Denali in 2010 with my son, our ski from the apex was, for me, a mystical experience.
Have you ditched a trip because of slide danger — or you simply 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 that concept of a “first descent?” A true first ski (or snowboard) 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, if not a fundamental part of human nature. 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 ski routes, and recognition for a first descent is credit where credit’s due.
However, politics intrude, and some “firsts” are merely credited to the first person who reports their feat, while others may have been there before. In the mountaineering world, I’ve always found it hilarious when someone claims a first, then another climber or skier pipes up via social media (or in the old days, a letter to the editor) and claims they did it first. I speak from experience, having been on both sides of this sort of exchange. In a less personal sense, the history of our sport is our heritage, and not reporting first descents could thus be construed as the height of selfishness.
I like the concept 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. Again, that’s what I caught on Denali a few years ago.
As for all the distractions: gear, free or fixed heel, on and on, 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 what kind of turn you make, but what memories you make. It’s certain the Young Turks will continue to 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.