Backcountry Skiing News Roundup – And Fourteener Skiing Ethics

Post by blogger | January 26, 2006      

It’s amusing to see yet another glisse sport attempt to mix with the mainstream. This time it’s a blow-up sled known as an “airboard.” A USA Today article does what appears to be a good job describing the thing, and even mentions an Aspen guide who takes clients backcountry airboarding. Looks like you do it while lying on your stomach, I wonder what that’s like with a 20 pound backpack? As long as the things stop and turn as quickly as skis or snowboards, I’m okay with it — but I think I’ll stick with skis as long as I can.

Are you anti gun? As an appreciator of firearms and shooting, I’ve always enjoyed watching biathlon ski racing (participants carry a gun and target shoot after their heart rate is amped to speed-metal levels). But folks uncomfortable with guns sometimes have a problem with the sport (ewwww, guns?), it’s expensive to participate in (guns are not cheap), and safety on the course can require extensive management and planning. Solution: ski/dart biathlon. Looks like fun. Just don’t fall on your darts.

Media frenzy of the week: Border crossing is big news, and I don’t mean what folks do down south — I’m talking ski area borders. In most areas where ski resorts abut public land, the question of access to backcountry through ski area boundaries has been answered for years — it is public land; go at your own risk; use backcountry gates if they’re provided; don’t cross closed areas within the ski area boundary. Yet for some unknown reason clueless journalists have this fascination with skiing past ski area boundaries, and if doing so is legal or not. You see the headlines everywhere in Google News: SKIING OUT OF BOUNDS – NOT A CRIME. Is this news? It’s public land. Get over it and cover something important like how many times the Heimlich Maneuver is used at wedding receptions, and if eating prime rib is legal or not.

And then there is the saga of THE PASS. Up in Wyoming, sparsely populated land of the free, Teton Pass is seeing so many backcountry skiers they’ve plum run out of parking. Oh those evil cars. Building a bigger parking area is to logical, instead they debate about providing skier shuttles, and talk about towing and ticketing. It comes back to my old sermon: build more trailheads and better parking, and you solve all kinds of problems. Concentrate all the use at one trailhead, deny the reality of automobiles, and the problems never end. But I’m just a voice preaching in the vast wilderness of bureaucracy and greenthought.

More on Loveland Pass urban scene:
I just got of the phone with Bob Berwin, the excellent journalist in Summit County who covers backcountry issues. Bob mentioned that when they had the parking and crowd problems up at Loveland Pass a few weeks ago, a USFS ranger confronted one of the ravers with questions about carrying an avalanche beacon. Their reply: “Jesus is my beacon.” As a Christian, I’d like to share with that guy that he needs to study his theology. While similarities exist, there is a big difference between Jesus and an avalanche beacon. That kind of statement reminds me of when I meet people skiing solo with dogs in the backcountry, and they claim fido will dig them out if they get buried. While I’m somewhat of a mystic and believe that spiritual forces operate in the natural realm, I’d say carry the beacon — and pray. As for dogs digging you out alive if you’re truly buried. Delusional at best.

Fourteener Backcountry Skiing Ethics
Over on the Couloir Magazine forums, an interesting discussion of ski ethics developed this week when Chris Davenport started reporting on his ski-the-fourteeners in one season project. (Chris reported on his own website, but it generated the talk). In question is exactly what does it mean to “ski a fourteener” if you’re making public claims about such? Further, if someone made the effort to ski “on” them all but didn’t get some of the traditionally skied summits or missed parts of routes, does their project still count as some sort of first?

The center of the debate is an individual named Jason Ivanic who skied on the peaks in one calendar year, but appears to have had a somewhat more relaxed definition of what “skiing a peak” means. Nonetheless, at least one friend of Jason’s is quite adamant about claiming Ivanic has some sort of record that supersedes what Davenport is attempting, or at least something that deserves a lot more publicity than it’s had so far.

While I’d like to find out more details about what Jason did before forming a firm opinion (he’s been reticent about providing such to the public), I can share that if the definition of “skiing a fourteener” is more relaxed then some of us believe it is, then perhaps someone else “skied” them all long before any of us? Perhaps in several weeks? I’m being fictitious, but trying to make the point that if you’re going to relax the standards of any endeavor, you open yourself up to some interesting questions, such as who came before, and perhaps they already did what you’re claiming to have done?

Of course the definition of “skiing” a fourteener is not as easy to agree on as that of climbing one, since snow cover varies and several are not traditionally skied from the summit, but there is somewhat of a consensus within the ski mountaineering community. It’s this:

Common wisdom holds that if you make public claims of “skiing a Colorado fourteener” you mean you have skied “the best (most often the longest) continuous descent available on an average snow year, almost always from the exact summit, with the exception being the few fourteeners (such as Wetterhorn) that have rocky summit blocks or boulder caps that have never been known to be in skiable condition. More, the definition of a descent is based on who came before and what they did. If it’s commonly known a peak has been skied in it’s entirety during an average snow year, then the definition of “skiing” that fourteener would match the style of that previous descent.

My own detailed take on this is here. And let it be known that if Jason did indeed have an epic journey and skied most of the fourteeners in one season (winter/spring) I admire him as an athlete and mountaineer. But his friends need to realize that if they wish to go public with claims about what Jason did, they need to address the ethics of the endeavor in a specific way (not with a shrug of the shoulders, not with an “it doesn’t matter, everyone is too heavy about this,” and not by attacking myself or others with anonymous posts on public forums). What’s more, anyone making public claims about mountaineering feats needs to be VERY clear about what they’re claiming. Lastly, it would probably be better if Jason did this himself, instead of by proxy involving anonymous forum posts, and not by reacting to reports of Chris Davenport’s project with posts like “that’s already been done,” which as far as I know is not true.

More, in many of the posts about Ivanic and Davenport, people have implied they felt Ivanic’s project was somehow more significant or better because he didn’t have sponsors. Different, yes. More significant? Rediculous. When I skied all the fourteeners I didn’t have sponsors (other than a free backpack and some ski bindings). Davenport has sponsors. Sean Crossen (who’s skied most) has a few, but they’re probably just gear sponsors. Does this really matter? If anything, it shows how good at this stuff Davenport is (he can ski peaks – and get paid to do it), and I respect that.

We’re headed for Utah now, look for reports on Outdoor Retailer trade show starting sometime tomorrow. And THANKS ALL for the excellent comments! Keep ’em coming!


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9 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Roundup – And Fourteener Skiing Ethics”

  1. Tom January 26th, 2006 10:10 pm

    I guess my approach to mountaineering is different than most people’s (and I am by no means an expert), but every time I see a discussion like this I can’t help but think of it as a little trivial. Lou, I respect you as a role model in ski mountaineering and would never question the immensity of what you accomplished by being the first to ski all the 14ers. Your guidebooks have helped me tremendously. I also agree with your criteria for a true descent of a peak. But, ultimately, who really cares whether you ski from the summit or not? Are you having fun? Isn’t that why we go? For me mountaineering is about connecting with the power of the mountains, not about competing with other people to win some sort of contest. I look forward to the day when there are no more “firsts” and we won’t have to split hairs over public claims driven by a need for ego justification.

  2. Paul January 27th, 2006 12:58 am

    Hello Tom,
    I think what you are saying is that you don’t care, and you think these discussions are trivial. Great.

    I want to say that I don’t think the discussion is trivial.
    If you read the Couloir form discussion on this topic you will read that people are mainly taking issue with the fact that Jason has ‘sort of’ made a claim (in a published news brief about his adventure), and his ‘friend’ reiterates, or furthers, the claim on the forum.
    The problem is, there are no details coming from Jason about what he is claiming in terms of ethic. For all I know, he is only claiming to have climbed all of the 14ers in one calendar year and at some point put his skis on and slid on some snow on the way down. The reality is most likely, somewhere between that, and having skied all of them from top to bottom, exact summit to parking lot. The problem is, we don’t know. For the people who care, it does matter. People like being first, second, third, etc. It is human nature, check out the olympics coming up in Italy.

    Tom, it sounds like I ski and climb for the same reasons you do.
    However, the fact that Jason does a magazine article about the quest, and now has friends (maybe without his permission), fortifying his claim, whatever it is, goes to show that he cares about; being first or second to do something, and the noteriety that comes with it. Unfortunately he is leaving the details of the accomplishment and the ‘ethic’ by which it was accomplished un-stated. Leaving it up in the air is not fair to anyone who will be 2nd or 3rd or whatever. He started it, so he should finish it.
    The pessimist in me could say that he isn’t making any claims now because then he won’t have to back them up or be subject to scrutiny, but continues to enjoy (I don’t know) the publicity being spoken of as someone who might have done it.
    The optimist in me thinks he did what he did for himself and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. For this to be true, he must have been kidnapped and photographed, or the article in the magazine was done without his permission. I don’t know.

  3. Mark Worley January 27th, 2006 1:53 am

    When Jerzy Kukuczka finished the fourteen 8000 meter peaks, he was congratulated by the first to do so, Reinhold Messner, because they agreed on what it is to summit a peak. Woudn’t it similarly be appropriate that the second to ski the CO fourteeners would look to the first for clarity on what criteria actually make the project valid? I doubt too many would have said that Messner had no say in the defining criteria as has been said about Lou regarding the skiing of Colorado’s fourteeners.


  4. Andrew Kennett January 27th, 2006 2:33 am

    My opinion and feeling regarding this discussion is – I used to care what other people were accomplishing and also, I cared and counted my accomplishments. After becoming a father and my time in the backcountry becoming extremely reduced in the past few years, although I do still get excited and happy for people doing things like “skiing” all of the 14ers in colorado – my thoughts are simply, if they really make the attempt to get to the top and ski the mtn right on for them – but on the other hand, if the CAN climb to 14+ and ski the mtn but only choose to climb to 12 and ski it while still claiming to ski a 14er as in the attempt to say “I summited and skiied a 14er” they are short changing themselves and no one else… I guess my point it – while its cool for people to publish their works, those publishings no longer drive me to be who I am. Mountaineering is extremely personal for me as it should be for most – if the drive to go to the mountains is to be on a poster and impress people, go find something else that actually drives you…

  5. John Rosendahl January 27th, 2006 3:59 am

    I used to want to do something for the books, maybe a first decent somewhere. It would not have to be the hardest, or most amazing decent, just some route on some mountain I could point to and say, “I was the first person down that.�

    Reading your blog and about this whole 14er saga has made one thing clear. I have no desire to be involved in such an ego driven and petty community. Instead, I am going to be skining up, looking for a perfect line, and skiing down – while smiling. I’ll leave the record books for you to maintain.

  6. Lou January 27th, 2006 8:47 am

    And as I’ve said before, I’m indeed interested in who does what up on the fourteeners, and I do keep notes since I’m a writer, but the ethic should be the result of consensus on the part of the mountaineering community. If I give the impression of being too bombastic about that, please realize I’m just writing opinion. If the opinion matches the feelings of the community, then great, if not, I’m listening.

  7. AKBC January 26th, 2006 11:47 pm

    I think Tom is pointing to a problem with publicized “missions” such as Davenport’s – they need an audience to justify themselves. And when the hype is so high that it seems the ONLY people it is important to are the audience, we pause and wonder what the point of all of it is. Further, we get into the quandry presented: How to define what this “achievement” really is if its not just about a guy and his skis (and dog).

    Lou, I think back in your day (using the term with the highest respect) the question was more about what the individual could achieve. The fact that you published guidebooks I would suspect is less commercial and more about helping others get out into the wild. But when I read that Davenport has to take the week off to commentate on the X-games, I am reminded of the world we are in now. This is an old saw, but our world it is more corporate than ever, more dollar oriented than ever. I guess to answer Tom, the reason it cannot just be about fun is because someone figured out you can also make a buck off of it.

  8. Jarrett Luttrell January 28th, 2006 12:48 am

    I believe that the issue of firsts has always been, and will forever be, a prevalent issue in the mountaineering world simply because storytelling is an integral part of adventure, as evidenced by the huge amount of literature on the subject. It is how we track the history of our craft. I remember some good discussion on the issue of first as they apply to the climbing world in the book “The Games Climbers Play”. Essentially, those whoe preceeded set the precedent, while those who follow are challenged to meet those standards. I have done my best to uphold those standards, not only to get more turns, but because I want to bring snowboaring to that level in solid style. If you want the whole enchelada, you gotta be patient.

  9. Jason McGowin January 28th, 2006 2:23 am

    The thing that I find interesting is that in my ski mountaineering pursuits I look for the “best” line on a mountain to ski whether it is from the summit or not. If there’s 2 possible routes from a peak, one being from the direct summit, but not continuous, aesthetic or of high quality, and the other not being from the summit but that is an awesome line, I would say that the true ski mountaineer would choose the latter every time. The Cable Route versus the Trough on Longs might be good examples.

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