We at Watch newspapers will never forget essayist/mountaineer/freestyle ski pioneer/best-coach-in-the-world Andrew Sawyer, who died Monday, May 26, at a friend’s home in Mountain Village.
Andy, 43, who came to Telluride 25 years ago (and continued to come home to Telluride, and to the Watch offices, every few months, even though he traveled widely), battled depression valiantly for most of his life.
He fought the good fight, pitting himself and his demons against the rock and winning, most of the time – until he lost his longstanding his battle for survival Monday, May 26.
Our loss notwithstanding, Andy’s optimism and complete dedication to everything he did, from mountaineering to guiding to investigating (and suggesting) solutions to today’s mounting energy crisis changed us all; his shining face with its ear-to-ear smile will be with us forever.
But while he was a world-class mountaineer and freestyle skier, it was as a coach and teacher – he helped bring several generations of world-class Telluride freestylers to fruition – that Andy touched our lives most deeply. Working closely with his equally inspiring older brother, Hugh, Andy touched the lives of the Telluride region’s young skiers and climbers deeply and profoundly, as we see now with the outpouring of love and affection and heartbreak as news of his death spreads.
“Didn’t he know how much we all loved him?” asked one young freestyle skier, now in high school, who trained with Andy in her early years.
“All I wanted was to learn to ski like Andy,” says another champion skier, a college freshman.
Andy’s family – his parents, their grandchildren, his sisters and Hugh, who was key in creating (and in introducing his brilliant younger brother to) Telluride’s world-class freestyle ski program – will be in Telluride later this week. A service commemorating Andy’s short but action-packed life takes place Saturday at the Telluride Elks at 4 p.m. In the meantime, we have put together some samples of Andy’s recent writing for The Watch.
And hey, Andy, it’s not goin’ so good right now, because you’re not here.
A sampler of stories in the Telluride Watch over the years by Andrew Sawyer.Temptation Along the Thin Edge of Life
November 7, 2006 - Moving across the glacier, determined not to perish alone in an icy chamber, I made my way to the pass separating the basins. Here I found a sun-baked boulder to stretch out on while I rung the water from my socks and cotton sweat pants. Rising like a ship's prow from an ocean of boulders, the Swiss Arête split the sky. My vantage point now allowed a full view of the route by which to speculate my future. Though frosted white with snow, the line of ascent showed enough rock to lure me onto the precipice, despite the late hour of the day and fast approaching shadows.
The climbing began with moderate scrambling up various cracks upon the fractured slabs rising from the talus. Jamming and smearing I gained altitude quickly and it was not long before I felt the sensation of being exposed with hundreds of feet of air below. Many holds, cracks and ledges were filled with snow, which I swept away with my hands. Several hundred feet above the talus slopes it was becoming apparent that my only escape from the arête was up. Realizing my commitment I dug deep to remain solidly focused. Most of the climbing was easy and fun, blending a full array of smears, jams, jugs and edges and fulfilling the Swiss Arête's reputation as a mountaineer's fantasy route.
The arête became steeper and more slender half way up its height. On the large scale, route finding was obvious – follow the arête. But on a smaller scale, wise choices had to be made in order to find the path of least resistance. Several short headwalls, some with slightly higher grades of difficulty than others, were interspersed with ledges that allowed me a break as well as a chance to warm my hands and relax my mind from the demands of climbing un-roped in such an exposed place.
A heavy shade had descended onto the eastern ramparts of the range crest bringing with it a winter like atmosphere. Looking above, the summit still appeared to be a long ways off. I continued scrambling up into the sky and soon confronted the most difficult section of the climb. Standing on a sizable ledge I had the option of negotiating an ice-covered slab with only a few reasonable holds or stemming across a void to reach a hand crack hidden in a shallow corner.
In an attempt to dodge the more exposed and seemingly more committing option of getting into the crack I began working the icy slab. Too slick, too unsure, I failed to make it go. I dropped back to the ledge and moved to the right, inching to the very edge. From here I extended my leg across the gap and pressed my foot against the opposite corner. The traction was good, but it was still too far a reach to jam my hand in the crack. I backed off and looked again at the icy slab before trying a second time. Thwarted once again, I was beginning to think I had reached an impasse.
Concern and fear began to grow. Far below, the Owens Valley basked in warm sunshine perhaps taunting me as my predicament took on more serious proportions. Again I reached for the crack and again I could not quite reach a solid hand jam. There I stood on the ledge watching the shadow of the Sierra stretch across the Owens Valley, considering my limited options, one of which seemed to be waiting for hypothermia and a slow death sometime in the night. The other, attempting to make the reach for the crack, risking the chance that my foot could slip and lead me down through 500 feet of clean air to splatter on the rocks below. I've never been known for my patience and don't like the cold. Figuring it would be better to die trying, I stemmed my foot across the gap, planting my foot just above the space below. Summoning all my courage I leaned out further this time, leaving my other foothold behind.
This time I was able to slot my cold-numbed hand into the crack, and though I couldn't feel the rock very well, committed to it and pulled myself off the ledge and into the shallow corner. Ten feet of near vertical crack climbing brought me to easier climbing again and a chance to breathe a sigh of relief. The summit was now beginning to look close at hand, but up here the layer of snow was thicker, further limiting climbing options.
Confidence had replaced fear now, and though the snow eliminated several route options I was making good time again. Just below the summit another challenge presented itself, forcing me to tunnel through a tight slot formed by a jumble of boulders. Following a short snowy scramble I at last reached the summit. Fortunately the sun was still high enough in the sky to warm my hands and feet. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with the descent route and was unable to spend much time on top.
Fatigued physically and mentally, I ended the reprieve from immediate peril I was enjoying on the summit and headed south to reveal the mystery of the descent. There was no obvious way to leave the mountain's crest and I was reluctant to return to the snowy side of the ridge. I came upon a notch in the ridge and, relying on instinct, I began descending what offered me the best if not only chance to make it down before darkness arrived. I waded through the deep snow covering, a wide ramp angling across the nearly sheer east face of the ridge. Not knowing what lay beyond the point where the ramp ended, I continued on faith alone.
The ramp gave way to a steep gully at the top of which I found a rappel anchor made of faded webbing. This discovery was encouraging, though a few hundred feet of steep terrain still separated me from the basin and an easy walk out to the trailhead. I groveled down the snow filled gully dropping from boulders and ledges, sometimes with only partial control. Discovering another rappel anchor only a hundred feet or so above the base of the mountain wall, I knew at last that I would survive this spontaneous undertaking.
Out of food, out of water and now out of imminent danger, calmness and serenity replaced the high tension and intensity of being out on the edge. The walkout under the lavender sky of dusk was surreal, but every so often I would stub a toe as a reminder that the day had not been a dream and instead very real.
Into the Land of the Cloud People | Base Camp Telluride
August 30, 2007 – Tracking out El Colorado’s 2,500-acre volcanic cone with nearly 3,000 vertical feet of open bowls, we launch off from the numerous cornices, rocks and cat-tracks, nearly forgetting to stop for lunch. Stunning views of the treeless expanse of rugged Andean peaks – San Ramon, Cerro La Parva, and dozens of other summits surrounding the massive glaciated peak of El Plomo, where contemplating the Incan mummies that reside in the thin air, 17,815 feet above sea level inspires us to slow down and make few unexpected stops.
The first inhabitants of these mountains were the Chachapoya, also known as “the cloud people,” and judging by the foot of fresh light and dry powder left behind by a recent storm, their spirits were smiling on us. Back home in northern latitudes fine fragrant summer breezes blow, but here, we have no choice but to plunge into winter. The slopes of El Colorado are covered with bright white crystalline magic, reflecting deep blue skies; there are maybe a few hundred skiers on the entire mountain. On each run we choose where to cut fresh tracks across the smooth, powdery canvas, with no hidden moguls to interrupt the flow down the mountainside.
It seems that every turn in the road and every arcing of our skis bring a discovery. New terrain features, new friends, new cultures, new cocktails – the Pisco Sour, apparently the official cocktail of Chile, and many other new culinary experiences. But most intriguing of all are the numerous mummies that reside upon these mountain summits. The Chachapoya, who like many indigenous people of South America practiced human sacrifice, usually offering up young children that were mummified and placed along with gold and jewels on the high summits of the Andes to appease the mountain gods.
Time passes. The seemingly endless ski day drifts to a close at 5 p.m., when the lift shuts down….
A night full of red-wine dreams of the red-rock country of Utah ends as a crystal clear cold morning dawns. Today La Parva is on the ski menu. The little one surpasses all expectation. Several surface lifts, along with a few chair lifts, surreptitiously line numerous gullies, small bowls and steeper faces mixed into a landscape of boulder and rockfields, some dangerously hidden by veils of new snow. Short hikes from La Parva’s highest lifts lead into the backcountry, where some of the best skiing is found. A quick jaunt takes us onto a high ridge and across to the top of “Chiminera,” a 600-foot tall couloir leading into the large bowls of La Parva’s lower slopes, where endless powder fields lay in wait. Sloughing powder accompanies our glide down the chute; we pass towering rock walls before the chute gives way to a sun-filled bowl. We spend the rest of the day exploring the many nooks and crannies of La Parva, still finding miles of untracked snow and exciting terrain right up until the 5 p.m. end of the ski day that’s standard here. By now, a cloud cap has formed over El Plomo’s summit. The Cloud People are brewing another storm.
On Baboquivari Peak, a Close Encounter With I’itoi | Base Camp Telluride
October 4, 2007 - Ascents of Baboquivari Peak begin 90 miles southwest of Tucson. The most common approach is from the southeast, but there are also good trails from the south and west. Visitors with good timing may spot one or more of the wild peacocks that live around the base of the mountain. Today, I have chosen to climb the peak from the west with aspirations of soloing the southeast arête. The drive from Tucson to the western flanks of the peak is dark and lonely, and my only company is a tall cup of strong coffee. These January days are short and it seems like forever before dawn cracks the horizon in the east.
The growing light gives definition to the jagged skylines and ragged mountaintops surrounding the expansive Sonoran valleys. Baboquivari and I’itoi are calling; anticipation grows as I scan the horizon for a glimpse of this day’s quest, but despite the prominence of this legendary peak it remains hidden.
A short way south from Sells, Baboquivari Peak comes into view. The mountain has an essence that makes it seem alive in some peculiar way. To this solo climber, the appearance of Baboquivari is daunting, although even more alluring. Questions and doubt race across my mind as I make the final preparations to my pack and clothing. How big is it? Will I have time to make summit and return before nightfall? Will I get hopelessly lost and spend a day thrashing about the unforgiving desert? What sort of epic awaits my visit to the realm of I’itoi?
A dirt road leads from the highway to its terminus at what looks like a neglected if not abandoned park. Dilapidated picnic tables and a bathhouse sit among a tangled grove of thorny trees and shrubs, weeds and cactus. A quick reconnoiter reveals two trails climbing away from the park. The trail leads up and onto the western portions of Baboquivari. Great enthusiasm energizes my being and I am able to make good time, hoping to reach higher ground before the sun strikes – even in January, the southern Arizona sun can sear and scorch. In my haste, I miss the inconspicuous unmarked climber’s trail forking to the right, and continue along the more worn trail of the two. I must be on the right trail, I tell myself, as the trail begins climbing more steeply.
After almost an hour of fast-paced hiking, I am wondering if in fact I am on the right trail, as it has led a ways to the north, away from Baboquivari. Sipping water while resting on a trailside boulder, I begin weighing my options: Return to the base of the mountain to find the right trail, or continue up the trail I have been following. Losing elevation is counter-intuitive; besides, the trail is so well-worn that it must continue for some distance. Follow the trail up a bit further, I finally decide.
Ten minutes later I have reached the trail’s end. Colored streamers and a variety of ornamental offerings and decoration sparkle in the morning sunlight that has now poured over Baboquivari’s high ridges. Curiosity draws me to closer inspection where I discover that the streamers and other ornaments have been placed around the mouth of a small cave. Standing at the cave’s entrance, I feel a cold breeze emitting from the depths of the earth. It occurs to me that this cave is probably extremely deep; I am sensing an unexplainable eerie feeling standing here. This must be the “children’s cave,” the passage through which I’itoi rose and then later descended, where the Tohono-O’odham carried out their rituals of worship, making offerings to appease their mountain god and creator, I’itoi.
Lore has it that I’itoi is always willing to teach a few lessons regarding the path of life; there are no shortcuts, there are no dead ends and the path must be followed to its end to complete the journey. It doesn’t take long before my shoes and socks are full of goat-heads and thorns. I am certainly not taking a shortcut, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I were headed for a dead end in one of thickets ahead. Pressing on over the torturous terrain, I consider turning back, but perhaps with the help of I’itoi, choose to continue the thrashing hike, instead.
Passing through an area of numerous rock outcrops and boulders, I come upon the first javelina. The small-sized boars with their tusks and surly attitude can be dangerous, but these scamper away as I keep hiking. I pass over another mound of stone, and there, below my feet, a few steps away, a dozen or more javelina graze in the early morning light. My sudden appearance startles them and they scamper downhill, beginning what within a few seconds becomes a stampede of javelina. Surrounded by a stream of wild pigs charging downhill I am stunned, and as I stand there taking in the spectacle, I am confronted by three of the herd’s larger members. With their gnarly tusks and aggressive stance they put the fear of I’itoi in me. With no other defense I go primal and pick up two large rocks – one for each hand.
The standoff ends with no bloodshed as the javelinas make their way into the cover of nearby trees. I must be getting used to the thorns poking my feet and the tearing sensation of stiff branches raking across my arms and face as I continue bushwhacking towards the rocky pinnacle. Out of water and out of food I finally reach Lion’s Ledge, a narrow shelf that circles Baboquivari’s summit pyramid. I consider climbing the Forbes route an easier and from this point more direct line to the summit. “There are no short cuts,” I’itoi reminds me, and I set off along Lion’s Ledge towards the southeast arête.
After some tedious footwork and more bushwhacking I am standing at the base of the arête, exhausted. My first attempts at starting the climb are thwarted by more difficult than expected moves on crumbly rock. But persistence prevails and now, thirty feet above Lion’s Ledge, I am committed to the route. The day has been one of high intensity, and it is far from over. The remainder of the climb proves to be an enjoyable romp along an exposed ridge with huge views of the desert and faraway peaks.
I lie on the summit contemplating the day’s journey thus far and, more importantly, my immediate future. A shrill winter wind cuts through my sweat-filled garments urging me to vacate this prominence. A cautious scramble down Forbes’ route and I am back on Lion’s Ledge, where I have found an actual trail leading down the west side of the mountain. The sun descends the western sky as I make my way down. The sky is lighting up with an assortment of pink and lavender hues, bouncing off the clouds, reflecting from Baboquivari.
I’itoi must surely be dancing in the ethereal color show.
Brown Cloud Engulfs Colorado As Rampant Growth of Region Continues Unchecked
September 8, 2006 – The non-diversified fuel mix that we rely on to power chairlifts, drive to the post office and even heat our homes is at the center of the Telluride region's most serious public health and environmental problems. Currently, just 1 percent of our region's power needs are generated by wind, solar and biomass resources (or any other alternative energies).
U.S. space agency climate expert James Hansen, one of the first scientists to warn of global warming in the 1980s, says the world is nearing a point in time where the damage to the ozone can never be reversed. "We're getting very close to a tipping point in the climate system," he maintains. "If we don't get out of our business-as-usual scenarios and begin to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we are going to get big climate change." Natural buffers will only last so long and eventually the toxins that we are responsible for creating will reach humans through the food chain, air and water.
We must acknowledge the interconnectedness of the universe, or we will perish in our own filth. Plant and animal species are being forced higher while localized extirpation of pikas, marmots, ptarmigan, and other tundra dwellers is occurring. No ecosystem will escape these ravaging changes. According to the Mountain Studies Institute, in Silverton, here in Colorado we are on the tipping point of major shifts in both terrestrial and aquatic alpine ecosystems. There will be an increase of insect infestations and a greater expansion of invasive species' ranges (can anyone say "beetle kill" or "tent caterpillar?"). Winter's duration – and its snowfall – is shrinking already. Marmots are emerging from hibernation 23 days earlier, on average, than 20 years ago, coinciding with an increase in average May temperatures of almost 2 degrees. Recorded data from a station near Aspen at an elevation of 10,600 feet shows that there are now 20 more frost-free days per year than 20 years ago – and that precipitation has decreased by 17 percent.
Pioneers of the Steeps Set Telluride Skiing Apart
March 28, 2008 - “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 his son, Billy Mahoney, Jr.; Johnnie Stevens, Alan Ranta 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. 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-bums - 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 Geetter’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 game, yet more skiers and boarders than ever before are skiing beyond the ski area boundaries. 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.