Aspen Untucked: Skiing legends share stories, advice on going into backcountry
The Highlands Ale House was filled to the brim Feb. 15. There were nearly 200 people in attendance. So many that most had to stand for the Aspen Historical Society’s event titled “Five Decades of Backcountry Skiing.”
At the front of the room were five men who are considered to be some of the pioneers of backcountry skiing in Aspen and beyond: Neal Beidleman, Art Burrows, Chris Davenport, Dick Jackson and Jordan White. Four out of the five panelists at the discussion are over 40 years old. The younger one of the group is White, who just turned 31. Don’t let their age deceive, though. Each of these guys could leave just about any capable skier in the dust without so much as breaking a sweat.
Chace Dillon, the board president for the Aspen Historical Society, who also is an avid backcountry skier, thought up this event, invited the panelists and moderated the discussion.
“It’s great to get the word out that Aspen is so uphill-driven. We have that history behind us, which makes for great discussion,” Dillon said after the occasion. “I think it was the ideal event for AHS, and they really helped get people in the door.”
The sport of backcountry skiing has grown in popularity enormously in the past 40 to 50 years. Those who live in cities or warmer climates probably still have little idea what a pair of skins are or what the difference is between alpine and telemark skiing. But, around these parts, adventuring past the lift lines and the groomed terrain is no longer considered a mysterious idea. Beidleman, who has been venturing into the backcountry since he was a child, said this is partially due to the Internet and social media.
“Some of the trepidation has really been taken out of the whole sport,” Beidleman said. “(The internet) makes it convenient, but it also makes it a lot easier.”
Burrows agreed that the approach to get to backcountry adventures has changed since they were in their 20s.
“You used to get all of your information from someone that had been there before,” he said. “Looking at a map was the primary guide, or you did a visual inspection by just going there.”
More exposure in the backcountry is not the only thing that’s changed in recent decades. Burrows and Beidleman said the type of skiing has also changed. When these guys started, they were looking to tour, to discover the undiscovered. It wasn’t necessarily about the downhill turns.
“Now the backcountry flow is really about going up and slaying powder,” Beidleman said.
Plus, the season is longer. People are getting into the backcountry for turns as early as November. It used to be more of a spring sport, according to Burrows.
He said skiers are taking much riskier lines today than they were a decade ago. However, the fatality rate has not changed much in the state since the ’70s. Burrows said that’s due to well-distributed information.
“It speaks to the education and communication about backcountry conditions,” he said.
With the changes in the sport and its increased popularity, safety is of the utmost importance. Each panelist recommended for anyone who is interested in getting into the backcountry to take at least a couple avalanche safety education courses first.
Talking about changing times and increased safety precautions was a large part of the discussion that evening. However, the skiers also shared past feats, adventures and scary moments. (Hint: Capitol Peak is one of the gnarliest descents in the area.) They talked about their ski idols and mentors over the years and how Aspen has such a strong skiing community. They also talked about the future and what is left to ski in the area. White is currently trying to climb and ski all the 13,000 feet peaks in Pitkin County and the Elk Mountains. There are around 88 and he’s almost halfway done.
Each of the guys has a list for what they hope to accomplish next, in the Elk Mountains and far beyond.
“There’s lots to do. We are still writing the history of skiing in Aspen. This is a linear thing,” Davenport said. “We will be doing this event 30 years from now, and hopefully our kids will be telling the stories.”
However, even with so many lines still left to be skied, White said he tries not to focus too much on lists. It’s important to remember why they’re all out there in the first place.
“The soul of skiing is doing it for what it is, and it’s supposed to be fun,” White said. “I have to remind myself of that way too often.”
For more on future historical discussions, go to aspenhistory.org.
Barbara Platts has to admit that she is a total backcountry newb, however she really looks up to all of the skiers who have paved the way for her to give it a try. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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