RIP Randy Udall – Big Backcountry Skier with the Big Heart

Post by blogger | July 7, 2013      
Randall Udall during one of his amazing California Sierra ski traverses.

Good morning world! Randall Udall popping out of his nightly snow hole during one of his amazing California Sierra ski traverses. Click image to enlarge.

“Randall was the same age as you and me,” I said to Randall’s good friend and early days ski partner John Issacs a few days ago, “But even back in our 20s his grace and wisdom made him seem ages older in spirit.”

“Yeah,” said Izzo, “He was born with more smarts than most of us will ever have. He had a knack for seeing the reality of a situation, whether he was mountaineering or talking about environmental matters. One thing I’ll always remember is him saying something like ‘A box of Cap’n Crunch cereal has more energy in it than three times its weight of oil shale.”

(A good example of Randy’s excellent expository writing can be found here.)

Indeed, that’s Randy the environmentalist in a nutshell. His insightful take made him famous in the environmental community — in his memory much will be said and written about his contributions to conservation: his writing; his speeches; his energetic correspondence with multiple individuals.

(Editor’s note: James Randall Udall, 1951-2013, passed away several weeks ago due to aparantly natural causes near the beginning of a multi-day solo backpacking trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. He was found July 3 after an exemplary wilderness search & rescue operation. More here.)

Yet the foundation of Randy the environmentalist is Randy the alpinist, the active climber, wilderness backpacker, outdoor educator — and most significantly in terms of contributing to mountain culture, creator of brutal wilderness ski traverses that lasted not hours, not days, but months. Randall’s ski treks have gone down in the history of North American backcountry skiing as feats we wilderness skiers might not care to suffer ourselves, but inspire us in our own goals both on and off the snow…

A few highlights (see below for a fairly complete list):
In 1976, Udall skied across Baffin Island for five weeks with Denny Hogan. Randy told me they encountered many polar bear tracks the size of dinner plates, and spent the whole trip “scared shitless.” Or how about 1980, when he and John Isaacs (Izzo, quoted above) spent two months skiing several hundred miles along the spine of the California Sierra!?

I got to know Randy first at a Colorado Outward Bound instructor training in 1978, then as a like minded friend in Crested Butte, Colorado when we both happened to live there in the late 1970s. Since then we continued the friendship with occasional spates of email correspondence, sometimes about local conservation controversy (which we didn’t always see eye to eye on). But more importantly in my own purview, I cherish the times Randall reverted back to his ski mountaineering mind, and dropped me pearls of wisdom about things such as modern avalanche safety procedures.

Last winter we had one of our worst Colorado avalanche accidents ever when five people died in a slide near Loveland Pass. In a few emails back and forth, Randy and I pondered things such as “is there such a thing as a ‘master’ of avalanche safety?’ And what about all the fancy gear we now have that supposedly makes us safer?

I make my living writing about that stuff. Is it not axiomatic: the more gear the better? Randall put the boot on that. His wisdom was harsh, funny and infuriatingly true:

“I’ve given it all up,” he wrote. “The only thing I carry now is a bear claw. A talisman. I’ve seen enough slides now to know that I never want to be in one. A bear claw might be better than a Pieps or whatever it is that you guys carry now. Makes you hug terrain features like your first lover.”

And Randall did hug the terrain. He learned that style back before we even had electronic avalanche beacons; when we were using incredibly high-tec devices known as “avalanche cords.” The idea was the fifty feet of string trailing behind you would enable your friends to dig you up alive. Fat chance. Better hug the safer terrain.

I didn’t have the personality for what I called Randy’s “monk” traverses, but we had mutual respect for each other’s style (I was more a ski alpinist in the European tradition of climbing mountains and skiing down.) So during Crested Butte days we joined up on occasion for various mountain endeavors; everything from working carpentry together on tract condos to being Outward Bound staff during some of the same courses.

February, avalanche danger. Randy and I are both 27 years old. We have the brilliant idea (which I’d like to blame on Randy, but that would be unfair) that instead of skiing the usual route through the Elk Mountains over Pearl Pass, dangerous enough, we’d head up Slate Creek, over Yule Pass, then down Yule Creek to the town of Marble. We make short work of it, but once in Yule Creek we realize we’ll have to pass below more than a hundred avalanche paths, many of which intersect in the bottom of the valley — not even a safe place to take a pee. We just look at each other and say something like “spread out, and keep moving!” or perhaps more accurately in the vernacular of two 20-something Colorado mountain boys “let’s get the f** out of here!”

As if that isn’t enough, neither Randy nor I know the secret of getting out of Yule Creek by climbing a few hundred vertical feet up to the Anthracite Pass trail. Instead, we blunder down the creek until we’re clinging to tree branches while hanging over a hundred foot deep gorge. Map reading? What map?

Obviously we made it — the blow came later when we were stranded in a dive bar in Marble full of pool-shooting alcoholic miners, heated by an over-fired wood stove that melted the knees off my ski pants. We’d figured that somehow we’d get a ride to Aspen. Aspen? Most of the besotted pool sharks had never heard of the place. I had to call a friend who made the three hour round trip to retrieve us, royally pissed off.

We pick the classic Pearl Pass for our return. Only we make the classic mistake of thinking another, steeper and more avalanche prone col is the correct route. Indeed: Maps? What maps?

We realized our mistake once we were about halfway up the couloir running to the col. Obviously, even a Jeep trail wouldn’t fit — and the real Pearl Pass has a road over it. Nonetheless we figure we can top the “pass” and suss out a way down the other side. In this case, all roads did lead to Rome so long as we kept Aspen behind us. Only our road is quickly becomming a major avalanche danger zone as we wallow up to our chests in fearsome Colorado sugar snow.

Aha. Terrain will save us! Randy leads up and over to a rocky rib forming the side of the gully. Soon the “terrain hugging” is lower 5th class rock climbing where a rope would be an answered prayer. Our primitive touring skis strapped to equally neanderthal backpacks flip around and try to jackknife us off the rock as we claw for footholds with our clunky ski boots. At one point, Randy shares about how well his ice coated fleece jacket grips the rock during a belly crawl, as opposed to my fancy nylon windshell. I suppose that’s something he figured out during his last 2-month cloister in the Sierra. Once over the “pass,” we are amazed when we ski frozen south facing corn snow, down a few thousand vertical feet to a valley that leads into Crested Butte.

That was the terrain hugging, but what about the people hugging? Indeed, as many will share as Randy in remembrance of Randy, the man had a huge heart.

I first met Randy during an Outward Bound instructor certification course in June of 1978. I was limping through the mountains, coming off year of healing a leg broken like a matchstick. Being there was a big deal for me as I’d been unable to ski or climb for more than 12 months. Looking to enhance the alpine mood, I slept by myself on the ice in the geometric center of an alpine lake. I was thinking this was a spiritual nexus, or at least a pleasing rack for star gazing. I did feel a buzz, probably because the lake defile turned out to be a cold air sink; an experience in spiritual shivering due to my summer weight sleeping bag.

Randall and the other OB folks knew I was still healing, so the crew was not surprised to see me remain in my sleeping bag out on the lake, waiting for the sun as they cooked breakfast. Soon the the group was tromping by my bivouac on the way to a climb. Unasked by me, and unanticipated, Randy had carried his unzipped sleeping bag bundled in his arms, and threw it over me as he walked by. That was more than 30 years ago. I still vividly remember his gesture and the warmth of that quilt draping down on top of my cryogenic nest like a big warm hand.

Moonrise at Halfmoon, below shoulder of Mount Massive, 1979.

Another Randall connection I can share, actually two. This photo (click to enlarge) is camp at Halfmoon below the south shoulder of Mount Massive, a Colorado 14,000 foot peak. It's 1979 and I'm teaching a winter Outward Bound course. The students are on solo, so I'm taking a break and figured I'd ski Mt. Massive (which later turned out to be one of the early 14er descents that began my project to ski all 54 of them; there was just enough snow on the actual peak to ski from the top). Randy knew I was up there by myself, and showed up that evening and spent the night. The next day we climbed the peak together. Randy downclimbed while I skied (he was never a skier of the steeps). Thinking back on the occasion, I'm pretty sure Randy didn't want me up there doing mid-winter ski mountaineering by myself -- which yes, is definitely pushing the limit of what's socially acceptable in terms of risk taking. But more, Randy just knew that it would be better overall if he was there as an alpinist friend. See the dog in the photo? That's Princess, my husky companion at the time. Later, when Princess was killed by a car, Randy helped me bury her. Another precious memory of the big man with the big heart.

Sixty one years old is young to die when you’re active and healthy. In that sense Randy’s passing has been a much bigger blow than if we were all in our 80s or 90s, looking at each other and thinking “your turn next?” But Randy’s life was well lived, and his way of death so final and beautiful (apparently, he laid down on the trail and passed away, perhaps with his trekking poles still strapped to his hands), that after the grief you can’t help but feel a warm glow. Yes, in this world of violence against both man and nature, it is possible to live a noble, loving life.

Some of Randy’s wonderful ski treks:

– 1975, three weeks from Crested Butte to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with Bill Frame, Jerry Roberts and Dave Ranney

– 1976, Baffin Island with Denny Hogan 5 weeks, 200 miles from Broughton Island to Pangnirtung on Baffin Island. They encounter polar bear
tracks the size of dinner plates, and spend the whole trip “scared shitless,” said Udall.

– 1977, Colorado, Silverton to Monarch Pass, then to Crested Butte with Jerry Roberts, Frank Coffee (possibly Mark Udall).

– 1978, Wyoming, Wind River Mountains, late February ski traverse taking the complete mountain range south to north, from South Pass to Dubois, three
weeks, approximately 200 miles, with Mark Udall (now U.S. Senator) and John Isaacs

– 1979, California Sierra, John Muir Trail 230 miles. Four weeks in February. Randy skis with Brad Udall and Craig Grossman, Barb Eastman (Barb exited early to return to work, Brad exited after three weeks because of frostbite). Yosemite to Mount Whitney.

– 1980, California Sierra, two months with John Isaacs, Sonora Pass to Mount Whitney, Jan 4 to March 23 (year verified by Isaacs)

– 1981, California Sierra, Muir Trail on nordic racing gear with Brad Udall, 7 1/2 days

– 1983, Utah, March ski traverse of Uinta Mountains with Day DeLaHunt and Ben Dobbin

– 1993, Colorado, Denny Hogan and Randy ski the high line traverse from Silverton to Wolf Creek Colorado, 5 days, 80 miles

John Isaacs also related that at some point in the 1980’s Randall did a ski traverse of the Uinta Mountains in Utah with De DeLahunt. He also skied from Crested Butte to Silverton, date unknown, so that he had eventually skied the entire length of Colorado with the exception of some sagebrush to the North and desert to the South. Through the years he continued to do ski trips into the Sierras with Craig Grossman, Auden Schendler, daughter Tarn and other friends.

Randall’s ski partner Craig Grossman sent this in, condensed from his email:
“1979 We did the John Muir trail in February. It took the whole month, three caches. It was with Barb Eastman (she went out at Mammoth to get back to work) and with Brad, Randy’s brother, who had to go out with frostbite after 2-3 weeks. We were living out of Randy’s favorite snow cave design, parallel tunnels with food passing holes between, doors blocked in. Dug quickly with cut off grain shovels.

The last Sierra tour we did was in the Spring of 2011, Bishop Pass to Taboose Pass, high along the Western side of the Palisades. We had perfect weather and snow. It is a wonderful tour. We had hoped to do a similar 2012 trip but as you know snow conditions were minimal. Randy had moved up from his more comfortable leather boots to an old pair of Scarpa T3s he had cut up for weight reduction. He was on relatively narrow tele skis.

In the 90’s there was a base camp trip over Piute Pass and the Humphrey basin area and in the early 2000’s a short tour in the Broken Top area out of Bend Oregon and a short trip on Shasta. There were also 2 or 3 times in late March when I had gone into Tuolumne Meadows with my brother and Randy would hook up with us for a couple of days as he came through exploring on his own from the Yosemite or the East side and returning on the same. He loved to search maps and come up with new and varied route connections. His knowledge of the Sierras was incredible, especially for someone who did not live near there. It was amazing to hear him chat with locals and with some of the guides we ran into. He was so quick at processing their information along with what he already knew to come up with new possibilities. His mind along with his spirit was amazing.

Most of Randall’s ski traverses are or will be included in the WildSnow Chronology.

Randall’s backcountry companions over the years, feel free to comment with stories from your trips.


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18 Responses to “RIP Randy Udall – Big Backcountry Skier with the Big Heart”

  1. biggb July 8th, 2013 12:04 am

    i would really like to hear much more (quantity and detail) about the amazing ski traverses he and his partners accomplished …

    … these accomplishments are borderline heroic in my book. Very interesting at least. Amazing person.

  2. Lou Dawson July 8th, 2013 6:31 am

    Biggb, I’ll keep adding more to this post as Randy’s partners relay their stories, then perhaps break the ski traverse details out into another post. Getting that kind of history on the record takes time. For my eulogy, I figured I’d stick with a more personal take and share some encounters. But mixing in the info about Randy’s big ski traverses seemed like it had to be done. Also, some magazine articles were written about the ski trips, we’re attempting to acquire copies and perhaps transcribe or write up condensed versions for the historical record.

    I did cover Randall a bit in my book, Wild Snow. But the book is more about ski _descents_ rather than traverses so the mention of him is brief. I’ve gotten some criticism over the years for Wild Snow not covering more about ski traverses. Valid, but when one writes about history a focus is required, otherwise you end up with an impossible project. Perhaps if we ever re-edition Wild Snow we can add more pages with traverse info. Or just keep getting this stuff up on the web.

    Thanks for reading the rather lengthy post!


  3. Jan Runge July 8th, 2013 9:50 am

    I am so sad, Randy was always a icon to this little Crested Butte girl. i always admired his travels and his stand for the environment. He will live on as the bigger than life person that he was, in my heart and imagination.

  4. Lou Dawson July 8th, 2013 9:58 am

    Thanks for dropping by Jan! Those days when Randy was in CB were cool, eh? Lou

  5. j roberts July 8th, 2013 11:15 am

    Hey Lou… just a few corrections on your Colo. ski traverse history… 75 was “Crazy Dave” Ranney not —–Ward… and the 76 trip I was on it with Coffee, Frame, Udall… don’t think Mark was present, but memories fade & it all becomes debatable… maybe see you Sat. in Marble. saludos, Jerry

  6. Lou Dawson July 8th, 2013 11:30 am

    Thanks Jerry, was hoping you’d chime in, was getting around to more contact with you today but you took care of it. I’ll edit right now. Lou

  7. Lou Dawson July 8th, 2013 11:37 am

    Ok, made some changes, am leaving the year spread as is due to feedback from some others. One way to ID years is look at dates on slide mounts, if you have any photos. Lou

  8. j roberts July 8th, 2013 1:25 pm

    Lou.. dove into the crawlspace and found a few photos/notes on the trips… second trip began with B. Frame, F. Coffee, R. Udall and Mark Udall then I showed up late from a climbing trip in Chile,
    then Mark dropped out to run for Mayor domo of Elktown.

  9. Lou Dawson July 8th, 2013 1:43 pm

    Verified year of second trip? 1976 or 77 or?

    Can you bring the photos to Marble? I can scan and mail them back to you. Or just mail them to me?

    Thanks, Lou

  10. j roberts July 8th, 2013 8:03 pm

    76 was the second journey.. 75 vacation took 19 days and 76 journey took 21 days… will bring slides….old Ectachrome so not in good shape… J.

  11. Lou Dawson July 8th, 2013 8:29 pm

    Super Jerry, thanks. I can handle the slides, though one has to be selective as restoration can be time consuming. Knowing you, I’ll bet you’ve got some winners in there. Am so looking forward to seeing you. Lou

  12. John Gloor July 8th, 2013 10:40 pm

    Lou, thanks for this short insight to Randy’s life. I met him once about 10 years ago, when he took a few us down the 4+,5 section of the South Platte known as the
    Bailey run. It was nice to have a seasoned veteran of that river guide us. Unfortunately, that was my only experience with him, and I had no idea of his ski touring background then

  13. Lou Dawson July 9th, 2013 6:38 am

    John, yeah, it was fun to write this in the “blog” style from a personal perspective, as there are plenty of obits out there that go into more detail of Randy’s later years, usually with emphasis on his environmental work. Thanks for enjoying. Lou

  14. Terry July 9th, 2013 9:10 pm

    This is really great to read, Lou. Am looking forward to more about Randy’s tours. Inspiring stories!!!

  15. biggb July 9th, 2013 11:24 pm

    Thanks for the Response Lou … actually i purchased your book this summer (i’m new to ski mountaineering, great book btw) and it’s the first i’d heard of the Udall Brothers and their ski traverses … amazing stuff. I look forward to reading more when it’s ready. Wild Snow 2.0 sounds like a very good idea.

  16. MVA July 9th, 2013 11:32 pm

    massive props to a brother of the mountains. thanks for sharing his adventurous spirit.

  17. Jake Katz October 15th, 2013 7:32 am

    I was fortunate enough to be close to Randy during the Prescott College and early COBS years. I was, and still am, a newbie compared to him, but he took all the care and support I needed to get through what were to me extremely difficult and memorable trips.

    I first saw Randy when I was a freshman at Prescott College. I remember being introduced to him and Kent Madin and a few others as our instructors for the famous Prescott College Orientation. (Remember the “Institute”). What struck me right away was his independence and strength, and I knew I wanted to be around that. I had an epic adventure in and around the Maze in Canyonlands National Park on fall before school, perhaps in our second year at Prescott College. Randy and Nancy Neiley were waiting for me inside the Maze; I came in a few days behind them, got lost and ran out of water. Ran into some Rangers on their last trip of the year through the park – they brought me to the entrance to the Maze and I climbed down the old footsteps carved into the canyon’s walls. I was scared s******* but Randy, who was at that point like an older brother, nursed me back to health with soup and noodles.

    Years later in our Prescott time we traversed the Grand Canyon from one of Harvey Butcher’s books about the place. I remember Jimbo Buickerood and Day DeLahunt being on the trip, but I could be wrong. One of us had the idea to read to each other before turning in each night in the canyon – and the book Randy chose was “Winnie the Pooh”. Later we shared the “Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand; I always thought that Randy was so much like Howard Roark in the book. I believe my last trip was with Randy, Tom (I think) and Nancy Neiley in the Wind Rivers, Wyoming. I remember Randy teaching me about the area and challenging me to technical climbs that always stretched me and taught me that I could do more than I thought. I feel blessed to have been there with him, fishing and telling jokes around a campfire.

    I suppose a prequel to Randy sleeping in a snow cave with a stick of butter was his sleeping in a closet at Jim Stuckey’s house – I think Stuckey even charged him nominal rent for the closet from which he would tumble every morning.

    We once took a flight, with Randy flying his Dad’s plane, to Hereford, Texas to visit the late Steve McQueen – a man at PC that Randy was close to. Randy and Steve went to Patagonia around this time and Steve was lost in a climbing accident. Randy took it hard, but he somehow made himself a better person and buried his feelings about Steve. It was always such a simple solution to his life, needing only the most basic of comforts.

    He was best man at my first wedding in Santa Fe, NM. Randy introduced me to his sisters and Mark and Brad and we had some fun times BEFORE Randy would be leaving for an adventure somewhere on the globe. I even was a friend of Tom Udall while living in Santa Fe during his first congressional run (which he lost to Bill Richardson of all people). Thankfully Tom went on to bigger and better things, Congress, the Senate and Attorney General in NM.

    I was so blessed to have known Randy during those early Prescott College and OB years. He was aware of my limitations, mostly due to fear of things that were so foreign to my New York City upbringing. But the ultimate kindness was his slowing down to help me and support me. I am so sorry that we lost contact around 1975-1976 and that I never met his children or wife. They sound like incredible children, raised by him and his wife. I imagine that he was every bit as good a parent as a husband and that his kids had the best of all worlds having him as a loving, gentle, supportive and challenging father.

    I am afraid that this blurb does not capture how fortunate I was to have him as a friend, nor does it capture the fact that this man was quite a man when we were supposed to be boys. RIP Randy, and thank you for teaching me and never embarrassing me. I was a better person for having known you.

    Jake (aka Jamie) Katz

  18. Lou Dawson October 15th, 2013 9:55 am

    Jake, thanks thanks thanks! I broke it out into some paragraphs for easier reading, hope you don’t mind. Take care. Lou

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