Mountain guide association honors Aspen alpinist |

Mountain guide association honors Aspen alpinist

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Courtesy Dick JacksonDick Jackson takes a break on the top of Independence Pass on a trip during a prior ski season. Jackson, owner of Aspen Expeditions, received the Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this month from the American Mountain Guides Association.

ASPEN – Aspen adventurer Dick Jackson has an interesting take on receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this month from the American Mountain Guides Association.

Jackson is appreciative of the honor from an organization he wholeheartedly supports: “It’s the only association that truly represents mountain guiding in the U.S.,” he said.

But recognition for lifetime achievements also sometimes connotes that “you’re done,” he chuckled. The 61-year-old, who still is recovering from injuries he suffered last year in a paragliding crash on Mount Sopris, insists he is far from done.

Jackson is owner of Aspen Expeditions, which offers guide services for everything from paragliding off Aspen Mountain to climbing expeditions in the Himalayas. He was engaged in extreme sports long before ESPN made it all the rage, and he’s been making his living sharing his expertise for the last 35 years.

Jackson attended the University of Colorado in the late 1960s and embraced the Boulder rock climbing scene. He moved to Aspen in 1977 and “inherited” the Rocky Mountain Climbing School by paying $200.

He thought he overpaid.

“Nothing was happening with the business yet,” he said. “At first, it was just me. There wasn’t that much business. I’d go to Chamonix in summers and just climb.”

Jackson had a hunch that it could be successful. There were a lot of people like him, yearning to be out in the backcountry for skiing and scaling the rocks of Independence Pass during summers.

His business initially was located in a trolley car at Rubey Park before the development of the bus station. He soon gained the visibility of a storefront in the commercial core, then settled into a home above the Butcher’s Block for 14 years. He changed the name of the business to Aspen Expeditions in the early 1980s and set up shop at the base of Aspen Highlands about five years ago.

He was among the early promoters of telemark skiing at the resorts. He also helped a certain segment of Aspen residents and visitors catch the bug for paragliding.

Jackson traveled the world to satisfy his own quest for adventure. He was on numerous expeditions in the Himalayas before there were even good maps. He skied the wilds of Alaska. He climbed and paraglided in Ecuador. He hiked the high routes to the huts in the Alps.

“When well-traveled, there’s a natural affinity toward turning people on to it,” Jackson said.

International guiding became a bigger part of his business: That’s why the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) was so important. There is no guiding certification required in the U.S.; mountain guides who operate on public lands only need a special-use permit from the Forest Service. Not all guide services embrace getting the training and certification that AMGA provides.

Jackson absorbed all the training he could in rock climbing, alpine climbing and ski mountaineering – three disciplines with a lot of overlap, he noted. Association members attend challenging courses and take tough exams. “Ultimately, it’s like a Ph.D. in mountain guiding,” he said.

The certification from the AMGA opened important doors for Jackson and his ambitions to guide overseas. AMGA got accepted into the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations in 1997; soon after, Jackson became just the 15th American guide to earn individual certification by the international association. That allows him to guide legally in places such as Europe.

Jackson was unable to attend the AMGA award ceremony in New York state the first weekend of November, but he prepared a speech that a friend read. He noted the changes that have swept alpine adventure and mountain guiding during his career.

“Fortunately, our mountain environment has endured the high-tech age of [satellite] phones, real-time links to ‘Merica, base camp cyber-cafes complete with flat screens and brasserie plats des jours … la-de-da-de-da,” his speech notes. “Yet our world’s great mountain ranges are unfortunately showing the effects of mankind’s abuse and negligence through dramatic global warming – certainly so evident in my limited time amidst their glacially receding features!”

In an interview, Jackson said he is delighted that he spent a lot of his time going on expeditions “when you’re really on your own.” On the other hand, he’s not stuck in the past. He knows modern technology is often a life saver.

“You’d have to be out of your mind not to tap into that,” Jackson said.

Aspenite and talented mountaineer Raoul Wille, 45, died of altitude sickness in Jackson’s hands while climbing in Nepal in 1998. Jackson said Wille’s life probably could have been saved under similar circumstances with the technology available today.

Jackson said he has seen a lot of friends and colleagues get killed on adventure trips. “It’s tough,” he said, adding that it drives home the point that the consequences can be big from a small mistake.

“If you spend enough time in the high mountains, you’re going to see that dark side,” he said.

Jackson had avoided major injuries until his paragliding accident in 2010. He suffered a torn ACL once, and has been “patched up” here and there over the years, he said. His Oct. 2 paragliding accident resulted in injuries that threatened his life: He suffered a compression fracture of his lower back, broken ribs, a collapsed lung and nerve damage in his left leg. And a staph infection interrupted his rehabilitation.

Jackson was paragliding on Sopris – a journey he had completed numerous times – during a day with perfect conditions. He encountered a headwind that forced him to land short of the parking lot at the Thomas Lakes trailhead. He wasn’t able to clear a tall spruce tree.

“I blew it,” he simply said.

After hooking a wing, Jackson crashed violently to the ground. He was able to call his wife, Paulina Vander Noordaa, and she summoned help.

Jackson is far enough along in his recovery that he might try to do some guiding by midwinter. He still doesn’t have feeling in his left foot, but his dexterity and strength are returning. Rock climbing will be most difficult; his balance isn’t sufficient yet.

“The pressure is off of me as far as guiding,” Jackson said. “I’ve got a great staff.”

While he recovers, Jackson is concentrating on the business side of his company. Social media is as important for the business today as a good storefront was in Aspen in the late 1970s and 1980s, he said. There also will be a restructuring of the business and recruitment of new investors.

After 35 years in business, Jackson has a good feel for what it takes to make it as a mountain guide company. The domestic growth is marginal, he said, despite the popularity of lift-served, backcountry skiing in places such as Highlands Ridge.

The greatest potential for growth is worldwide adventure travel, he said. Aspen Expeditions’ website,, touts trips to “key mountain destinations and greater ranges of the globe: Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; the Central Alps of Switzerland; the volcanoes of South America; and the Himalaya in Nepal and Bhutan.”

Jackson has accomplished so many adventures that returning to guiding or the types of expeditions he once undertook is no longer his goal. Instead, he wants to enjoy the outdoors with Paulina and their daughter, Tashi, as well as their friends. He doesn’t have anything to prove as a guide anymore.

“I’m looking at it as another challenge,” he said, referring to his recovery. “I’ve already peaked out in every way possible.”