Not a Book, It is an Icon — Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America

Post by blogger | November 11, 2010      

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.

Backcountry ski descents of North America.

Icon on the alter. I found the crampon compatible votive candles at Seriously, you will find this book to be life changing. At first you might weep with frustration, since few of us will ever do more than a handful of the selected routes. But after your grief subsides, you will bow in respect to what's been done in North America, and find yourself spending hours, perhaps even days, going over the photos and text. You might even quit your job.

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.

Shop for it here.

For you list makers out there, here is what’s included. Start with Denali or Robson and work your way down?

The East
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

Pacific Northwest
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

Columbia Mountains/Rockies
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


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


50 Responses to “Not a Book, It is an Icon — Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America”

  1. Mark W November 11th, 2010 10:23 am

    Stimson? Skied? Incredible! My buddy and I have eyed that one from not so far away, and there is ( I think) still a route or two unclimbed, and likely unskied as well. Didn’t Alex Lowe, Hans Saari, and Andrew McLean do the Patriarch? I know, JUST GET THE BOOK!! you’re yelling. I hear you, and I’ll be buying.

  2. Mark W November 11th, 2010 10:32 am

    I feel heli summits have their place, but primarily in TGR film extravaganzas.

  3. Smokey November 11th, 2010 11:23 am

    Coming from Montana…I wasn’t aware of Stimson being skied either. Maybe some info for us folks who can’t get the book?

    Mark W…see McLean, Saari, Lowe and I believe Kris Erickson skied the Patriarch on Glacier Peak.

  4. Mark W November 11th, 2010 11:38 am

    Kris Erickson was in the back of my mind. No slouch for sure, I believe he once skied from the summit of Cho Oyu.

  5. Matt Kinney November 11th, 2010 11:45 am

    Nice to see Valdez’s Meteorite Mountain included! Yahoo….

  6. Nick November 11th, 2010 1:28 pm

    I was going to start commenting on the route selection in the Sierra, but I want to avoid going down this “route.” I would just offer that the North Couloir on Red Slate Mountain is likely one of the most asthetic lines in the Sierra and should at least get an honorable mention.

  7. Penn November 11th, 2010 1:46 pm

    Thanks for the positive comments guys. FYI both Kris and Andrew – along with other contributors comment on what makes a classic and where the sport is going, in an informal interview section we called steep thoughts. We debated a long time over the heli vs. human powered aspect but ultimately went with the strength of line from a contemporary skiers perspective.

    As for choosing just 50 that was brutal and we could have easily included more. We relied on many close friends/skiers opinions. We’d love to hear more about great descents we overlooked. Add them to the list!

  8. Somewho November 11th, 2010 5:47 pm

    Where do we buy this book?

  9. John S November 11th, 2010 5:48 pm

    I spent last weekend staring at Mt. Robson’s Emperor and North Faces from the valley below. Amazing that anyone has climbed the former, and also amazing that someone has skied the latter.

  10. Ed C November 11th, 2010 6:27 pm

    Heli skiing is part of the sport (Skiing/snowboarding), and respect is due to the people who do first descents with helis.

    However, those people are not ski mountaineers. Tthe people who climb them and then ski them should get the most respect. A first descent accomplished by heli should get an asterisk and be placed under the first descent under human power.

    My two cents.

  11. Lou November 11th, 2010 6:36 pm

    Ed, and all, thanks for your thoughts!

    Buy link is down under the blog text, here it is in a comment:

    Everyone, let us know what you think about including helicopter peaks in a book of classic ski descents that are nearly all done in human powered style.

  12. Andrew November 11th, 2010 10:12 pm

    If heli assist doesn’t count then neither do snowmobiles.

  13. Colin November 12th, 2010 2:34 am


    The only thing on that list I might sub for Red Slate is Bloody. But Bloody is still arguably more “classic.” It definitely gets hit more, you can see it from 395, etc. Avalanche Gulch is a no-brainer. As is The Mountaineers Route. Giant Steps and Split are somewhat debatable, but still. There are a ton of others too… Scheelite Chute, Elderberry Canyon, the U-Notch, NE Couloir on Langley, etc. > N. Couloir Red Slate is for sure one of the most aesthetic lines that I’ve ever seen (let alone in the Sierra), but when you’re forced to limit yourself, it may not be the most “classic.”

    It’s all ultimately arbitrary. I’m sure they had their reasons. I’ll find out when I buy the book. 🙂

  14. Ptor November 12th, 2010 2:50 am

    There’s a BIG difference between accessing the zone by heli, plane or sled and actually stepping out of a machine at the summit (which to my personal semantics is heli-skiiing not heli-assist).

    Regarding the book, it’s understandable that some heli-descents were included as it’s a big part of the thing we generally call skiing but at the same time it’s a shame that it was sooooo close to purity and didn’t go all the way there. In the same logic, why aren’t there any lift access classics?

    Personally, I never even mention the “first descents” I’ve done with a heli because to me they don’t count and it doesn’t register anywhere on my pride scale. It’s just heli-skiing and in a sense it doesn’t matter what peak you get out of the heli on. I’m definately NOT against heli-skiing and I’ll do it now and again because it’s fun, but ultimately it has to be taken for what it is…half-skiing.

  15. Lou November 12th, 2010 7:04 am

    What Ptor said.

  16. Lou November 12th, 2010 7:55 am

    I should clarify, that when I bring up the issue of mechanized transport, I draw a very distinct line between using mechanized tools for access (be they automobiles, snomobiles, ATVs, helicopters or ski lifts) and using mechanized to virtually eliminate human powered ascension. That seems to be the common wisdom on the subject, (though some purists draw the line at getting out of your car at the trailhead and will climb up ski resorts instead of riding lifts, and then there are those who ride a bicycle from peak to peak, while dressed in bark.)

  17. gringo November 12th, 2010 7:58 am

    Being a mere mortal I would say I am for sure proud of my two ticks on this list….and even happier that i climbed them myself.
    To beat Ptors’ dead horse, the heli lines are fun, but the sense of accomplishment is just not there.

  18. Njord November 12th, 2010 9:20 am


    Helicopter definately make you “hipper” and possibly even “downright sexy”, but have nothing to do with ski mountaineering… they are simply a way to get to the top without having to put some serious efffort and skill to work! It’s just another form of a ski lift…

    (This from a helicopter pilot)


  19. Andrew November 12th, 2010 10:53 am

    What is the magic line where “access” stops and cheating begins? 200′ below the summit?

  20. AMskier November 12th, 2010 10:57 am

    I agree with the general theme of heli accessed summits not being included under the umbrella of “ski mountaineering.” Of course, however, using machines to access zones IS included. If it were not, then the Wildsnow team did not “climb” Denali this past spring, they simply flew to it. But that is absurd. Virtually everyone who has climbed Denali would agree they climbed it.
    Personally, I am not a huge fan of heli-skiing; I have simply had too many experiences of skinning for a couple hours with a destination in mind only to have found it laced with tracks in the wake of a helicopter. Then again, maybe that’s just because I can’t afford a flight up….

  21. AMskier November 12th, 2010 11:00 am

    Andrew – I would say the approach is fair game, the climb is not. I suppose there does exist a grey area where the approach ends and the climb begins. Given a margin of forgiveness dependent on the climb, most folks I think would recognize where that is. Just too many variables to nail down one set rule for all different climbs and descents.

  22. Lou November 12th, 2010 11:23 am

    Andrew, I think it’s totally a moving target, kind of like definition of the word “classic.” Things like that really are just built on consensus of community, and people’s feelings about their own actions based on what personal rewards they get from what they’re doing. I’d add that the lack of a cut and dried definition doesn’t invalidate the concept of “access” vs “summit” when it comes to mechanized skiing.

  23. Brad November 12th, 2010 11:38 am

    What Ptor said x2.

    And to Andrew’s point on determining line purity, I relate it to Supreme Court Justice Potters description of obscenity:

    I know it when I see it.

  24. Lou November 12th, 2010 12:06 pm

    Brad, you’ll also see that old line used in the book. Old but good.

  25. Derek November 12th, 2010 12:15 pm

    I can’t wait to buy/read this book, thanks for the good review of it. As far as heli descents I have no problem including them in this book as the book is named “Fifty Classic Ski Descents” and not something different.

    I’ve been up to AK to heli on 3 separate trips and as I fully support man powered conquering of the mountains. However, you can learn a lot, very fast, taking that many runs in a week on terrain of that ability. I can personally say heli skiing has taken my abilities to a whole new level and have then inspired me more and more to hike/ski to find myself on terrain of that level.

  26. Matt Kinney November 12th, 2010 12:24 pm


    Meteorite was first climbed solo by Valdezean Pat Levy who skied to within 1500′ of the peak and bagged it at sunrise for a “winter ascent” on cold Feb day.(the rest of the party was sleeping in their tents) That was 1987, years before the “brat pack” arrived. Surely the book adds that historic event about the history of the mountain. It’s one of great mountaineering events in Valdez.

    Meteorite’s Ramp is climbed and skied numerous times each year (mainly by tarheads to lazy to ski an extra 2 miles) so I hope that was the emphasis in the book, not the heli descents. BTW they don’t do the Ramp from the true summit which is a bit higher and difficult to to get at from the top of the Ramp. Skiing from the true summit of Meteorite clean has not been done yet as far as I know.

  27. Smokey November 12th, 2010 2:17 pm

    I don’t care about heli’s…I want to know who skied Stimson.

  28. Lee Lau November 12th, 2010 4:08 pm

    What Ptor said x3

    Now i have to buy the book just to figure out what “Spearhead traverse” and “Rogers to bugaboos” means.

  29. Lou November 12th, 2010 4:20 pm

    Smokey, Pete Costain and Andy Zimet are credited with the first descent.

  30. Smokey November 12th, 2010 4:44 pm

    Thanks Lou!

  31. Rob November 12th, 2010 5:07 pm

    Lou, hope I wan’t the only knuckle-dragging teleflector to catch your use of the words “bending the knee” that wasn’t also accompanied by some sort of tongue-in-cheek insult. A first? Sorry for the off topic — the book looks great and heli’s suck unless you can afford them.

  32. Lou November 12th, 2010 5:59 pm

    Once stereotyped…

  33. Darrell Finlayson November 12th, 2010 7:03 pm

    Wow. Anyone skied them all? What a quest…
    Helicopters or cats or lifts definitely take the mountaineering out of ski mountaineering. Mechanization has it’s place and has advanced the sport, just as metal edges, plastic ski boots, synthetic clothes, radios and gps and beacons. As long as all the descents were done at one point or another with a human powered ascent I have no problem with including them in a book such as this.
    How about a book about mountains and routes that have seen only one decsent ever, or have seen only incomplete descents? THAT would be cool.
    BTW I’ve got 10 of the list ticked off. Took me 20 years to get this far…I wonder if I will live long enough…

  34. Darrell Finlayson November 12th, 2010 7:06 pm

    Oh…All most forgot. I engage in gonupeteo all the time.

  35. Lou November 12th, 2010 7:25 pm

    Darell, 10, that’s pretty good!

  36. Darrell Finlayson November 12th, 2010 8:11 pm

    Maybe…1/5th of the way done or 4/5ths to go. It’s been a wild ride so far!

    Actually it’s 9 descents.

    Checked my guidebooks and notes and I skied the Cooper Spur route and not the headwall above the Newton Clark glacier. I need to get this book and check it out. It never occurred to me to look for a descent over there.

  37. Mark W November 12th, 2010 11:28 pm

    Darrell, good work skiing Cooper Spur. Challenging in terms of face-value difficulty, but the exposure creates a LOAD of mental strain for sure! Don’t fall on that one.

  38. Rob November 13th, 2010 1:28 am

    In a sport with no scoring, is it possible there are only two ways to compete: do your accomplishments inspire you to reach higher? And if you’re lucky, do your accomplishments cause others to reach higher? Seems like a win win with the right mindsight.

    To me the difference is that heli’s just make me jealous. Details (even if only one well-taken photo) of a climb make me want to get out there.

  39. Darrell Finlayson November 13th, 2010 2:08 am

    Right on Rob. Everybody who makes it home alive and in good health wins.
    As for the Spur… I was inspired by seeing Mt. Hood from HWY 84. The profile against a bright blue sky epitomized the ultimate ski mountaineering objective. ( at least it did to me at the time) The Spur taught me and my partner some hard lessons that stick with me to this day.

  40. Frank K November 14th, 2010 9:38 am

    Darrell F- “The Spur taught me and my partner some hard lessons that stick with me to this day.”

    I think you inadvertently stumbled upon a good definition of what makes a classic with that statement. Looking at the list, and the 9 or so I’ve been able to ski, I’m struck by how many of those descents are exceptionally memorable in my mind. Shasta- 1st time I’d skied anything with that kind of relief. Moran- 1st time I paddled a canoe in the middle of the night to go skiing. Currie- 1st heli ride. And so on…

    Anyway, great list in what looks like a great book.

  41. Lou November 14th, 2010 5:07 pm

    Frank, that’s an excellent concept… if we’re going to go post-modern with the definition of a classic, it might as well be something that stuns the psyche. I the book Wild Snow, I concentrated as much on the peaks as the lines, and that’s still valid as well. For example, first time on Denali, whatever you ski up there is going to be a seminal experience. My first time up there defined my whole life as a winter alpinist, even though I didn’t get it from the summit that time.

  42. Barrows November 14th, 2010 6:38 pm

    To me a “Classic” would be a line/peak which inspires one to contemplate his or her own existence, and relationship to the world at large. This concept is, of course, quite subjective, but I believe the mental/spiritual states which accompany the finest descents are the real reward of “Classic” descents.
    disclaimer: I splitboard mountaineer…

  43. Oli November 15th, 2010 5:16 am

    Heading straight to Amazon now to get this, looks like an epic coffee table book (I’m sure all my house guests will pick it up!)

  44. Lou November 15th, 2010 7:59 am

    Oli, Amazon probably doesn’t have it yet. The shipment of fresh printed books got held up in customs. The authors say they have them now and are working on shipping and storage. The distributor has them:

  45. Joel Bernier November 20th, 2010 3:55 pm

    Mine just showed up. Absolute breathtaking. Beyond ski porn — art.

    Good motivation for training… Time to hit the gym and think of the snow that is accumulating in the Sierras as I type this.

  46. Caleb November 22nd, 2010 10:01 am

    I just got my copy. Absolutely stunning…just wow.

  47. Trevor November 25th, 2010 8:13 pm

    Great to finally see the Landry line . . . inspiring. Being from Whistler though, Trevor laying it out on the 1st descent of Fitzsimmons is a highlight. Love the vintage shots!

    From a B.C. coastal perspective: no Johnny Foon article?!?!? Random ski shots taken around Joffre DO NOT do the N Face justice . . . sorry.

    Great effort overall!

  48. Mikey May 15th, 2011 6:41 am

    Did anyone manage to get this in europe ?
    Struggling to find it.
    Looks superb.

  49. Lou May 15th, 2011 6:57 am

    Mikey, can you just order it from Amazon? Or is it not on there yet?

  50. brian h May 15th, 2011 9:06 am

    Mikey- Marias Bookshop in Durango, Co had a copy just a few weeks back. They are way pro and could get it to wherever you need.

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