Pioneers of the Steeps Set Telluride Skiing Apart
by Andrew Sawyer
Mar 28, 2008 | 3935 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Andrew Sawyer making first descent of the Wire couloir circa 1991.
“Slide!” yelled his partner from above. He lunged to the side, stabbing the pick of his ice axe into the frozen snow surface in an effort to dodge the falling torrent of snow. It wasn’t enough – perhaps the skis strapped to his pack or a part of his body stuck out just far enough to be grabbed by the avalanche. The skier was pulled backwards, head over heels, past the rappel anchors he was climbing toward and then off the cliff that chokes the couloir where Little Wasatch’s Oblivion Bowl and Grand Dad routes converge.

Broken ribs, a brain contusion and numerous other injuries necessitated a difficult helicopter-supported rescue effort to evacuate the injured skier. He was now separated from his partner, who was above the cliff with no rope. Several hours later the injured skier lay in the ER, while his partner, who had been left behind on the mountain, was in the midst of a 12 hour self-evacuation effort. He had to climb Little Wasatch face and then descend into town in the dark. Meanwhile, the usual and inevitable critical commentary from the local peanut gallery had already begun.

Almost five years to the day, the same two skiers once again approached the steep and exposed ramp that connects Oblivion Bowl to Grand Dad. It was the same location where one had experienced a terrifying, near-fatal beating by the mountain on a similar warm spring day. Everything was the same, only this time the two ski-mountaineers successfully slid through the steeply slanted crevice to carve out smooth turns in the silky powder with no incident.

Some people would say the skiers’ second stab at the mountain was a bid for redemption, or an attempt for “closure” from a bad experience. Others may believe it is an irresponsible death wish. Ask the skier who was nearly killed and he’ll say it was simply another day and another quest for exciting, quality skiing.

Whatever the case, both descents were small bits of history in the ongoing progression of skiing. A history and progression that is rife with tales of near-death experiences, triumphs, rejection, reduction and redemption.

Skiing history and the sport’s progression in Telluride began with a handful of Scandinavian miners who strapped on long wooden planks – the skis of the day – in order to schuss down Tomboy road into town. It was a race to spend their meager wages on their favorite women, the best whiskey and other vices. Considered risky and reckless, these miners took their chances with avalanches and injuries, displaying enthusiasm and gusto. Those left behind to walk or ride a mule looked on with critical eyes, condemning such tactics as reckless.

Far more bold and exposed to risk were the mountain men who braved the elements while traveling between the new mining camps scattered about the western San Juan Mountains. In 1883, the San Juans claimed their first skier fatality when an avalanche killed Swan Nilson, Silverton’s mail carrier. Nilson’s death did not quell the ambitions of Telluride-based Pastor Hoag, whose solo ski traverses over Ophir Pass and many other routes connecting the settlements of the San Juan triangle turned heads. The lone traveling minister endured avalanches, blizzards and numerous other threats to deliver mail and the word of God to hundreds of people in the San Juan mining district.

Skiing with utilitarian purpose all but vanished following WWII and the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, after winning their efforts to defeat Nazi Germany. Many ambitious and impassioned 10th Mountain Division soldiers came back from the war and made their homes among the various mountain ranges of the U.S., going on to become integral figures in the development of ski areas and promoting the sport of skiing throughout the country. The industrialized world was entering what might be called the age of recreation. Skiing shifted from being a means to travel into a recreational activity, where skiers turned their interest to conquering ever-more difficult slopes and rugged terrain.

Ski areas began opening up at break-neck pace all across the country. In Telluride, while many residents dabbled in the sport by schussing down Kids’ Hill, ski resorts, from Sun Valley to St. Moritz and Chamonix, blossomed amidst growing popularity of the sport.

Ski fever inevitably struck the Telluride valley. One man used his passion for the sport to spearhead a small group of skiers, which he plucked from a few dormant mining families. They would become the pioneers of Telluride skiing.

Billy Mahoney Sr. was one of these men. He couldn’t get enough of the thrill of climbing a high peak to cut through virgin powder, or of the velvety smooth feel of spring corn- snow sliding under foot. Mahoney shared his enthusiasm with anyone who would join him on his numerous forays.

Mahoney led many midwinter trips up the mountain to explore what is now the Telluride Ski Area. His partners in skiing included Johnnie Stevens, Alan Ranta, his son Billy Mahoney Jr., and others. Natural slide paths and glades, such as Mammoth Slide and Zulu Queen, were considered serious undertakings at the time. Mahoney and his posse of ski heads accomplished many other first descents in the Telluride region, including Waterfall Canyon, Bridal Veil Basin, La Junta Basin, Mt. Sneffels, upper Bear Creek, and the popular Ophir-to-Telluride ski tour – all the time riding long wooden skis with bear trap bindings and leather ski boots.

“It wasn’t our objective to ski the couloirs like you guys are doing now, but we would explore new places and ski a few summits,” says Stevens. “We just loved to ski and, like you, we were always trying to take it a step further.” Mahoney’s enthusiasm and knowledge was instrumental in developing the Telluride ski resort and he remained a mentor and inspiration for Telluride’s first ski patrollers.

The Telluride ski area’s first decade was one of continued experimentation and exploration. Several runs at the area were skied for the first time by members of the ski patrol. Many of these bear the name of those who took risks to brave the unknown, including Sully’s Gully, Claude’s Couloir, Chongo’s – as well as many others not included on the regular trail map. Back then, today’s popular runs – Mammoth Slide, Bushwhacker, Dynamo, Electra – were untamed and considered deep backwoods-skiing.

The forbidden zone of Bear Creek, where a series of complex bowls, chutes and gullies make up what is possibly the best lift-served terrain (and some of the most dangerous) in North America was also explored. One of the earliest descents into Bear Creek from the ski area was made by Bill Sands and Tom Taylor, who skied Temptation Chute. Today, despite a federal closure of Bear Creek terrain adjacent the ski area, some ski routes are actually bumped from frequent skiing.

While the fledging Telluride Ski Area was just beginning to blossom, skiers from other areas were taking their skiing to new levels. French skiers Sylvain Saudan and Patrick Vallencant led the charge into the world’s steepest couloirs and most exposed faces where any mistakes could be fatal. Here in Colorado, Fritz Stamberg made skiing history in Aspen when he descended North Maroon Peak’s North Face in June, 1974.

Skiing had entered a new era and the limits of what was considered possible were being broken on mountains across the world. Aspen and Summit County were home to Colorado’s most ambitious ski pioneers of the time. Notable descents of many of the state’s high peaks and most prominent and accessible lines, including Arapahoe Basin’s Shit For Brains and Dog Shit Couloirs, are still considered some of Colorado’s most difficult ski routes.

The new era of skiing high peaks and difficult lines was introduced to Telluride in May of 1982, when Hugh Sawyer, Kevin Green and Dennis Green made the first descent of the San Joaquin Couloir (an unsubstantiated rumor of a previous descent as early as 1968 persists, but several skeptics argue persuasively that it is a far-fetched claim). This trio of ski pioneers had set out for a more casual day, planning to ski Ophir to Telluride by way of peak T-14 ( this is the San Juan Mountaineers’ original designation of the summit known to many by the misnomer K-12 ), but ended up climbing the wrong ridge line out of Ophir. Once on top, Sawyer realized their mistake but decided to go ahead and venture out the rocky ridge. In the spirit of Willie Rusty Einspar, AKA “Turbo” (a 1970s, ahead-of-his-time, Colorado ski pioneer that left his mark across many peaks and chutes in the Rockies), Sawyer dropped into the couloir, taking with him a new realm in Telluride skiing.

Sawyer’s and the Greens’ descent of San Joaquin blew the lid off steep backcountry skiing – and then the pot boiled over. The early 1980s saw numerous first descents of more obvious lines by a growing number of ski pioneers. Patrollers Greg Henzie and Jeff Campbell climbed and skied Palmyra Peak, and Baker Steve and partners made an inspired descent of Wilson Peak’s North Face what became the Baker Steve chute on La Junta Peak. Sheep Chute and several routes on Mount Sneffels became regular ventures, as well.

By the end of the 1980s, Telluride’s steep skiing was fully energized by a group of ski-bum - climbers and mountaineers who challenged a new level of steep technical skiing. As the Sawyer-Green descent of San Joaquin changed what people considered possible in 1982, a 1992 descent of The Wire on Silver Mountain opened the door to ever-more difficult ski routes. Rolling Mountain’s North Face, Chute Spectacular on Sheep Mountain’s cliff bound north wall, Dallas Peak’s Southeast Couloir, and dozens of other peaks yielded numerous severe ski descents.

In March 1990, after several years of intense examination and patience, the impossible looking Little Wasatch Face was skied by its easiest route the “Why.” Four years later, an unlikely, unplanned descent of Heaven’s Eleven stunned the local ski community. Within a week of the first descent of Heaven’s Eleven, Brian O’Neil, Lance McDonald and Neil Ringstad continued the push on Little Wasatch Face, making first descents of the Grand Daddy, Oblivion Bowl and the North Why, establishing prominent lines and a few variations on the showcase face.

After several seasons of below-average snowfall and raunchy backcountry skiing conditions, this season has brought deep snows and good conditions to Telluride, prompting an onslaught of steep skiers to visit the Little Wasatch Face. Josh Geeter’s and Gabe Wright’s recent accomplishments have expanded the limits of skiing and boarding. This winter, Wright made the first snowboard descent, as well as the first unaided descent (no rope, no rappel), of the Little Wasatch Face by way of the Oblivion Bowl. Geeter has skied the Little Wasatch Face over ten times during the past month, making the round trip from Telluride in less than four hours. Meanwhile, several others have made repeated descents of Little Wasatch, bringing it a step closer to becoming a regular occurrence.

This spring has promise of another boom in the expansion of Telluride steep skiing. There are more capable skiers than ever with their eyes on evermore obscure lines. Just in the past week there have been at least three new worthy routes skied in Bear Creek alone. None of these undertakings, recent or historic, were done without caution and respect or without high-stakes risk – most require a full set of mountain skills and careful planning.

Over the years there have been numerous close calls with avalanches, slides-for-life and other hazards inherent to the peak bagging game. There have been a few deaths and a few rescues, and as the number of backcountry ski mountaineers grows there will undoubtedly be more. Despite the risks there will always be an unquenchable pioneering spirit in someone somewhere that will lead us past new boundaries. And even those of us who have faced death eye-to-eye are likely to be there, stepping out into the unknown.

Over the years there have been numerous close calls with avalanches, slides-for-life and other hazards inherent to the game, yet more skiers and boarders than ever before are skiing beyond the ski area boundaries. Exploring new terrain or enjoying well known classics and in the words of Jeff Campbell, 30 year Telluride ski patrol member, “We’ve always been looking for expansion opportunities and it is just great to see what is happening here now. It has been the dream of a lot of us since 1972. We got it started and now it’s time to fill in the blanks.” There have been a few deaths and a few rescues and as the number of backcountry ski mountaineers grows, there will undoubtedly be more. Despite the risks there will always be an unquenchable pioneering spirit in someone somewhere that will lead us past new boundaries, and even those of us who have faced death eye-to-eye are likely to be there, stepping out into the unknown.

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