I’ll cut right to it. The new book, “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America,” could be to ski alpinists what a relic is to religious fanatics. Get this tome into your presence, and the 12 x 13 inch coffee table compilation of mind blowing photos and well written text will have you rubbing your hands over the cover in homage, and carrying it around cradled in your arms like something a priest tasked you to bring out of an icon repository.
While I wouldn’t use the word “worship” for my feelings about “Fifty Classics,” (I reserve that for the big guy upstairs), the concept does apply.
Ancient Hebrew and Greek biblical texts use a variety of words to describe worship. Hebrew word “segid” means showing respect or doing homage. Gonupeteo means bending the knee. And “sebo” means fear or reverence.
Take segid (respect and homage). Once you crack this tome, you have to respect the effort it took authors Burrows, Davenport and Newhard (BDN) to come up with a photography selection that is simply insane (50 photographers, no less!). Yes, the book does cover fifty ski descents and alpine ski traverses as the title implies, but each mountain and route is documented with numerous photos that go beyond anything you’ve ever seen in a skiing book. Different angles, different light. Action shots. Landscapes. Aerials. All processed with modern computerized technique by Photoshop master Burrows.
Randomly open to any page, and hope Obamacare covers pacemaker surgery as your heart skips. I’ll do it. Closing my eyes now. Bam, page 173, South Face of University Peak, Wrangell St. Elias, Alaska. Seven thousand vertical feet of Alaskan fury. Only been skied once. Might be the best line in the world.
Or how about sebo (fear and reverence). Closing my eyes again…. aha, page 121, Combatant Couloir on Mount Combatant, British Columbia. Read Mark Synott’s account of skiing, including an entrance that he downclimbed first because it was so steep, then climbed back up and glissed after he realized it was possible. Put yourself in his place as he self actualizes and substitutes steel edges for steel ice tools. Sebo.
Which brings me to how “Fifty Classics” is put together. Authors BDN give us introductions to each region, as well as the occasional intro style text for a given route. But they turn the actual blow-by-blow descriptions (for many but not all routes) over to sixteen contributors (and themselves, in the case of Davenport). And well they should, as a number of routes in the book have only had one descent, so the only way to get impressions of a trip down things like the North Face of Mount Robson would be to interview the practitioners, or simply get it written in their own words. With skillful editing and selection of contributors who are mostly published writers, doing so truly turned out fantastic. Sixteen excellent stories will keep the readers among us entertained — that is if you can quit staring at the photos. It’s sort of like “reading” Playboy magazine. Yeah, right. But you might get to the articles eventually. That’s not saying every one of the fifty routes has an I-was-there story. But you’ll find enough of that to grace many evenings of armchair skiing.
One of the best stories in “Fifty Classics” is Pete Costain’s tale of his first descent of Mount Stimson (Glacier National Park.) This is wilderness adventure skiing at its best, far different than most of what folks do in central Europe, and indeed a big part of what makes North American ski alpinism such a frontier — and what makes our brand of skiing have an ethos all its own. Costain and his partner have to canoe across a wild river, then make a ten mile valley approach to the base of the face. After that, if their weather prediction fails they’ll miss the one short window they’ll need in the face of Glacier’s notorious weather. They make it, but deproach in the rain and have to canoe back across the now swollen torrent — and option perhaps even more iffy than their ski route.
Which brings us to the the emotion of gonupeteo (bending the knee). I don’t think the Greeks meant telemarking, but rather humbling oneself in the presence of something (or someone) greater. No problem there. Unless you’ve got a mental case ego, you will be humbled by this book and the routes therein. I know I was. Indeed, the number of otherworldly lines could have easily reached absurd levels — luckily a number of “everyman” routes are larded in so the thing doesn’t quite come across as the brag-fest your first impression might indicate. Ergo, Andrew Mclean shares a beautiful line on Utah’s Mount Timpanogos, Lowell Skoog weighs in with a traverse of Mount Baker first done in 1939, and seeing that the book had potential of being a testosterone laced sausage party, I opted to share a mellow but beautiful Colorado line, Silver Couloir on Buffalo.
About my only true criticism of “50 Classics” is that several of what appear to be commonly heli summited peaks are included. While I see the point in the author’s stretching the definition of “classic,” including heli skiing in a book that so obviously celebrates ski mountaineering left a question mark in my head. Sure, any religious text has areas that are difficult to interpret, so perhaps that one is worth some discussion. I’ll start.
Helicoptering to a summit totally (and some say irredeemably) changes the game of skiing a mountain. Without the muscle powered climb, you might as well have a ski lift to the top as a helicopter. Only differences: helicopters are more expensive and perhaps more dangerous than ski lifts (and hipper, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing). Ever since doing my own writing about ski alpinism, I’ve gotten the feeling that helicopter skiers constantly seek to be considered ski mountaineers, but in my opinion they simply-are-not. (To be fair, the authors told me the included heli peaks are also climbed from bottom up. And the book IS called “descents,” so I suppose that implies helicopters are okay so long as you don’t fly down, only up.) At any rate, WildSnowers, you need to weigh in on this!
Another minor issue, but one the authors felt compelled to cover in their introduction (so fair game for a blog post): The “Fifty Classic” authors admit they stretched the meaning of the word “classic” by including a host of routes that only elite ski alpinists could ever accomplish safely (if ever). Even so, due to the incredible content of this book (as well as plenty of more moderate descents and traverses), you don’t get the impression the authors are pandering or reaching. They are obviously passionate about what they present, and their strong feelings come through loud and clear.
Thus, while you may at first be tempted to a “say what?” about their use of the word “classic,” for routes such as Skyladder on Mount Andromeda (which even the authors state is “morphing into a classic,” rather than IS a classic), you find yourself looking beyond mere semantics and just taking it all in.
Really, in the case of authors Burrows, Davenport, and Newhard “classic” just means the coolest, biggest, baddest ski descent — with some historical or mellow choices thrown in for balance. As such — it works. SEGID. Get the book, and bow down to what North America has to offer. Ultimate Christmas present.
For you list makers out there, here is what’s included. Start with Denali or Robson and work your way down?
Polar Star Couloir, Mt. Beluga, Baffin Island
Tuckerman Ravine, Mt. Washington, NH
Huntington Ravine, Mt. Washington, NH
Landry Line, Pyramid Peak
North Maroon Peak, North Face
Cross Couloir, Mt. of the Holy Cross
Wilson Peak, Northeast Face
Silver Couloir, Buffalo Mountain
Mt. Superior, South Face
Hypodermic Needle, Thunder Ridge
Cold Fusion, Mt. Timpanogos
Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, La Sals
Ford-Stettner Couloir, Grand Teton
The Skillet, Mt. Moran
East Face Glacier Route, Middle Teton
The Sickle, Horstmann Peak, ID
Devil’s Bedstead, North Face, ID
Castle Peak, South Face, ID
North Couloir, McGowan Peak, ID
Mt. Stimson, Southwest Face, MT
The Patriarch, Glacier Peak, MT
Mt. Whitney, Mountaineer’s Route, CA
Mt. Williamson, Stair Steps Couloir, CA
Split Mountain, Split Couloir, CA
Bloody Couloir, Bloody Mountain, CA
Mt. Shasta, Avalanche Gulch, CA
Terminal Cancer, Ruby Mountains, NV
Northwest Route, Mt. Shuksan, WA
Watson’s Traverse, Mt. Baker, WA
Führer Finger, Mt. Rainier, WA
Newton-Clark Headwall, Mt. Hood, OR
Eldorado Peak, Eldorado Glacier, WA
Canada Coast Mountains
Combatant Couloir, Mt. Combatant
Mt. Currie, Pencil & Central Couloirs
Joffre Peak, Northwest Face
Spearhead Traverse, Whistler
Mt. Robson/Yuh Hai Has Kun, North Face, BC
Aemmer Couloir, Mt. Temple, AB
Mt. Columbia, Southeast Face, AB
Skyladder, Mt. Andromeda, AB
Comstock Couloir, Mt. Dawson, BC
Seven Steps to Paradise, Youngs Peak, BC
Rogers/Swiss Peaks, Über Tour, BC
Rogers Pass to Bugaboos Traverse, BC
University Peak, South Face
Mira Face, Mt. Saint Elias
Pontoon Peak, Southeast Ridge
The Sphinx, Southeast Ridge
The Ramp, Meteorite Mountain
Messner Couloir, Denali
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.