Aspen ski mountaineers dive into details of climbing, skiing Colorado’s 100 highest peaks
The Potbelly Perspectives at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies features Roaring Fork Valley residents or visitors sharing accounts of world travel and adventure. The events will be held each Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Hallam Lake. They are free for ACES members and $5 for non-members.
Here’s the lineup:
Feb. 10 — WorldLoppet Nordic Skiing Around the Globe, Dawn Welles
Feb. 17 — Cycling Ethiopia, Ben and Nils Koons.
Feb. 24 — Biking Through Italy on a Budget, Peter Westcott and Kate Friesen
March 2 — Japanuary: Snowsurfing the Hills of Hokkaido, Jordan Curet
March 9 — 20 Peaks in 30 Days: Skiing and Sleeping on the Summits of the Cascade Volcanoes, Jon Kedrowski
Three Aspen ski mountaineers aren’t letting the pressure of our “what’s next?” society prevent them from soaking in the epic accomplishment they achieved last spring.
Chris Davenport and Ted and Christy Mahon completed their quest May 27 to climb and ski the 100 highest mountains in Colorado — the Centennial Peaks.
In today’s fast-paced society, there’s external pressure to immediately move on to the next great adventure, Davenport said.
“People are like, ‘That’s cool. What’s next?’” he said.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the trio is savoring their experience and sharing the sights they earned through incredible physical challenges, feats of endurance and occasional death-defying descents.
They wowed a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday night at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies with dazzling photos, videos and tales of true grit. It was the first presentation of the year in ACES’ annual Potbelly Perspectives series.
They revealed publicly for the first time that Christy suffered an injury while skiing down the 100th peak on their list, Jagged Mountain in the San Juan Range. She torqued her legs enough on an innocuous fall in a couloir that she “popped” an ACL, Davenport said. He was certain they would have to summon a rescue squad to the isolated spot, but Mahon “battled for seven hours” on the ski and hike out to the Durango and Silverton Railroad. As their pictures attested, she even maintained her trademark smile despite the ordeal.
The presentation focused on the 47 peaks they climbed and skied that top 13,000 feet in elevation. The fourteeners, they said, get plenty of scrutiny. There are more than 700 peaks higher than 13,000 feet and many of them are relatively obscure.
Davenport became the first person to ski the fourteeners in one year’s time in 2007. Ted completed skiing all of the biggest peaks in 2009. Christy became the first woman in 2010 to ski the fourteeners.
After skiing the 53 peaks higher than 14,000 feet, excluding two considered too close to another to be separate peaks, they set their sights on the thirteeners in April 2013.
“We didn’t have a lot of information on it,” Ted said. “We didn’t know if anyone had done it.”
Even their friends who were expert mountaineers weren’t aware of some of the thirteeners that comprise the Centennial Peaks list. If the Mahons and Davenport couldn’t get information about winter routes, which was frequent, they scouted the peaks by air. Local pilots Bruce Gordon and Hawk Greenway took them on scouting flights.
Sharing the knowledge
While some of the fourteeners are crowded, even during winters, the thirteeners offered solitude for the trio, who often invited a climbing-skiing partner or two on their trips.
“The nice thing about these thirteeners is there’s never people up there,” Ted said.
Some of the most magnificent thirteeners are in Aspen’s backyard, they said. Thunder Pyramid, next to the fourteener Pyramid Peak, boasts 4,000 feet of vertical gain. It comes in at 13,932 feet.
Grizzly Reservoir, up Lincoln Creek, is “definitely a classic” and just 12 feet shy of fourteener status, Ted said. It’s a popular spring skiing destination.
There’s no evidence some of the other thirteeners on the list have been skied. Christy said they are careful never to claim first-ski descents on the thirteeners in the Centennial Peaks, although evidence indicates otherwise. Dallas Peak is visible from Telluride, but they couldn’t find anyone who had summitted and skied it. The peak was the lowest of the Centennial Peaks at 13,809 feet, but it also was one of the toughest because it included a “spicy climb,” Christy said.
The legacy of the Centennial skiers will be the wealth of information they shared about their groundbreaking project. They started a website, http://centennialskiers.com, that features a blog, usually by Ted, on each trip involving a thirteener. The reports are often packed with photos, descriptions of what they encountered and maps of the routes they took.
Ted said they wanted to share the information to inspire and assist future explorers.
Required all skills
Not everything went smoothly during the project. The group was wind-buffeted trying to climb Mount Silverheels between Alma and Breckenridge. They abandoned that trip and approached from a different direction on a second try.
Stewart Peak in the San Juan Mountains didn’t have snow at the approach, so they had to ride bikes 16 miles one way on muddy forest roads before they could start hiking.
They frequently had to slog for miles with climbing skins and then put skis on their packs and plow through chest-deep snow when the slopes got steep. There were four or five peaks that required technical climbs to the summit. In those cases, they left their skis at the highest point where skiing was feasible.
They were often up at 4 a.m. so they could make summits and start down while the snowpack remained stable.
It wasn’t always the peaks with the most technically challenging routes that turned out to be the biggest challenges, Davenport said. They would have to cross runoff swollen streams and fight through willow thickets. They would often descend north faces, figuring the snow would run lowest on the side with the least sun exposure, only to be cut off by gorges or cliffs.
Despite the physical challenges, the endurance required, the crucial logistical planning and the necessity to ski lines that would make most people pucker, the trio said the experience of reaching the peaks always came with a sense of renewal of spirit.
“It’s the hardship that actually stands out in my memory,” Ted said.
For their efforts, they were nominated among the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year 2016.
Davenport, one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers in the world, said the project required all of their skills and the strength of the team. While the pictures and videos show them enjoying themselves, they took risk management very seriously, he said. They limited time in the “no-fall” zones of the peaks, where a fall would be deadly.
Limiting the risk, he said, makes the endeavor worthwhile.
“This is who I am,” Davenport said. “I absolutely love it with every inch of my soul.”
They learned something on virtually every trip. That made it true adventure.
“We’re in school for ski mountaineering, but we’re never going to graduate,” Davenport said.
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