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Mountaineering master

Tim Mutrie

With turns down a couloir of Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristos on May 9, 1991, Lou Dawson carved out a mountaineering first ” skiing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. And he shoved off from each at the summit, save four due to unskiable blocks or cliffs.

Observers say the 53-year-old Carbondale resident established an exacting purist precedent. The feat that took Dawson 13 painstaking years to complete remains unrepeated today.

On Friday, April 16, Crested Butte’s Sean Crossen, the first Dawson “Ski the Fourteeners” disciple, skied from 13,900 feet off Pyramid Peak, about 100 feet short of the summit, after two aborted attempts on Capitol Peak earlier in the week. Sometime soon, the 33-year-old hopes to become the second skier ever to negotiate Capitol on skis, which would tick fourteener No. 54 off his list.

But Crossen makes it clear that he’s not “following exactly in Lou’s footsteps.”

“Nobody is. … What Lou did with his project will probably stand unmatched. I’m not trying to ski off each peak from the summit, just near the summit most times,” says Crossen, a painter of houses and canvases.

“And Lou’s still the only person to ski Capitol and there’s good reason for that,” Crossen continues. “But I’m gonna go back and do it. All the other peaks aren’t bad. There’s probably five or 10 extreme ones, but Capitol and Pyramid are in a different league. … You’re risking your life up there. I don’t know if anyone will ever accomplish what Lou managed to.”

Not that Dawson, the author of seven books on backcountry skiing and mountaineering, needs validation.

Following in their footsteps

In 1969, Dawson eschewed a diploma at Aspen High School to go climbing.

“That’s where my passion carried me,” shrugs Dawson, who later got his GED.

Dawson was born in New Jersey and raised in Texas. His family summered in Aspen and moved to the Roaring Fork Valley full time when Louis II was 13.

Curiosity already spiked by a family library of mountaineering classics, Dawson threw himself into the alpine arts in the “Ashcrofters,” a former mountaineering school up Castle Creek. Soon Dawson was scaling cutting-edge rock routes on Independence Pass and, later, first ascents on ice routes in Marble and Redstone.

Skiing came even later to Dawson’s quiver of mountain skills.

“I don’t consider myself a super-duper super-skier; I’m not,” Dawson says. “But I was pretty good at climbing.”

Running with a crew of ambitious Aspen climbers like Michael Kennedy, Larry Bruce and Steve Shea, and under the mentorship of legendary climber Harvey Carter, Dawson had seasoned mountaineers to look up to. In the early 1970s, Dawson and Kennedy made the second-ever winter ascent of the north face of Capitol Peak, following the lead of German athlete and Aspen transplant Fritz Stammberger.

“There’s a tradition of doing a lot of ski mountaineering in the spring in Aspen, and I got in on that with people like Fritz and Bil Dunaway [the former editor and publisher of The Aspen Times],” says Dawson. “They gave me the idea of doing it. … With that around, I knew exactly what was out there to do, and what could be done, and how to go about it. All I had to do was watch what Fritz was doing.”

A seasoned climber, Dawson didn’t need to go through an experimentation period when it came to tackling snow-covered fourteeners. In fact, he says, “Once I learned how to ski well, I was off and running, making hundreds and hundreds of ski descents a year.

“And I have to say that anything I’ve ever done was standing on the shoulders of these other guys,” Dawson says, referring to Stammberger, Dunaway and the like.

A calling, a career

On a cozy corner in old town Carbondale, behind a picket fence with skis substituted for wood at the gate, the 100-year-old Dawson house opens up to a great room offering views of Mount Sopris. In the entry hangs Dawson’s collection of 16 ” soon to be 17 ” different randonnee (or alpine touring) bindings, from antique to modern.

A passionate and thoughtful observer of climbing and skiing on Colorado’s fourteeners and extreme locales elsewhere, Dawson speaks candidly about the “Ski the Fourteener” project, his climbing and skiing career, and life with wife Lisa and son Louie. (Now 13, Louie has skied a few fourteeners with his father.)

As a “climbing bum,” Dawson worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound, then forsook the dirt wages to work as a carpenter. Climbing and skiing trips often took him to Yosemite, Utah, Wyoming’s Wind River and Teton ranges, mountains of the Pacific Northwest and all over Colorado’s fourteeners and ice features. Eventually he found his way to Alaska and Denali, the Canadian Rockies and South America.

But, in 1982, Dawson broke both legs in a backcountry avalanche in Highland Bowl, an experience that shaped him as a person and mountaineer.

“I learned a harsh lesson. I’d gotten to the point where I thought I could go and ski these things willy-nilly.” he says. “But in terms of my career, the avalanche was very important. I realized if I was going to keep doing the sport, I needed to do it in a less selfish way and be more involved with sharing it with other people, and be less inclined to take so many risks, just blatant risks that were irresponsible.”

At some point, Dawson resolved not to travel to the Himalayas.

“I learned I could achieve a lot of success by taking the risks … and I just thought, ‘You know, if I go over there, I’m probably not coming back.’ It wasn’t fear, though, it was more of a logical thing,” he says. “In a way, it was hedonistic ” whatever felt good, felt right. But later I realized there was some legitimacy to it: that you can stay in an area, get to know it really well, become known as the expert, say the fourteeners, and that that was an honorable pursuit.”

The “Ski the Fourteeners” project ” a mission to ski all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a continuos line from the highest possible point ” became a reality in 1987, after Dawson and a buddy loaded up a Jeep and set out for a couple of weeks to see what they could accomplish.

“When I started I didn’t even know if some of the peaks were skiable,” says Dawson, who made his first ski descent of a fourteener on nearby Castle Peak in November 1978. “I didn’t know how to get ’em, I didn’t know which routes to do, I didn’t know if some other guys were out there doing it too. … It’s so easy to assume that the way things are now is the way they were 20 years ago, but we didn’t even know which trailheads to go to, and there was no way to find out except just going.”

After John Quinn and Dawson skied nine peaks in rapid succession, Quinn planted the seed. “He said, ‘Lou, you oughta try skiing all the fourteeners,'” Dawson recalls, “‘You oughta be the first guy to do that.'”

With that, Dawson decided to make skiing Colorado’s fourteeners his life goal in mountaineering. “Consequently, as you might imagine, it became a major project,” he says.

Four years later, complete with harrowing descents of Capitol and Pyramid ” “Let’s call it the toughest,” he says of the latter ” Dawson felt good enough about each descent to call his list complete.

“I’m such a stickler for the ethics of it,” he says. “I like to feel like I really skied the peak. So on quite of few of them, we’d get up on them and there wouldn’t be any snow. It’d be all blown off. So I’d go back and do it again, and because of that, there’s a few I’ve climbed five or six times before I got that solid ski descent.

“A big crux of doing these is finding the peak in condition, and that’s one of the great problems of alpinism. You’ve just got to suss it out.”

The Hall of Fame

Many of Dawson’s “sussings” are documented in “Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners,” his most popular series of books published in the mid-1990s. The guidebooks paved the way for Crossen, the Crested Butte skier, as well as Aspen mountaineer Aron Ralston, who has a project under way to climb solo all the fourteeners in winter.

Said Crossen: “Lou’s books inspired me to go out and try. The difference between his guidebooks and other people’s guidebooks is that he has climbing routes and skiing routes. I’m so into skiing that just looking at all these incredibly rad routes in his books, I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta do that.'”

Ralston, who learned that climbing fourteeners in winter conditions was plausible by reading the fineprint of one of Dawson’s books, said: “It was totally a Dawson seedling; the inspiration. It showed me how it just might be done.”

Kennedy, the former editor and publisher of Climbing magazine who went on to acclaimed climbs in the Himalayas and Alaska, wrote a letter supporting Dawson’s candidacy for the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

In part, Kennedy wrote: “Lou took his own path by exploring and documenting his home ranges in Colorado … He is uncompromising in the demands he places on himself, imaginative in his thinking and energetic beyond belief in pursuing that which he believes in. … Lou has done more than anyone I know to inspire and educate several generations of Colorado skiers.”

With more than 150 members, the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame includes Aspenites like Walter Paepcke, Fred Iselin, D.R.C. Brown, Friedl Pfeifer, Dick Durrance, Bob Beattie, Klaus Obermeyer, Kiki Cutter and, as of last year, Max Marolt.

Max’s son, Mike, a ski mountaineer from Aspen, was asked by the hall of fame earlier this year to nominate a ski mountaineer.

“Immediately I said, ‘It’s gotta be Lou,'” said Marolt, who skied from 25,000 feet on Everest last spring with an expedition of fellow Aspenites. “He really deserves to be in there.”

But Klaus Obermeyer, the 80-something Aspen Mountain local and skiwear icon, wasn’t so sure. When asked about Dawson, Obermeyer was apologetic. He said he’d already faxed in his ballot, without voting for, or knowing much about, Dawson.

Bill Marolt, Mike Marolt’s uncle and the president and CEO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, was more democratic when asked about Dawson’s candidacy. Bill Marolt was inducted in 1986 with Beattie and Billy Kidd.

“The hall has finally tried to take a broader perspective, outside the ski industry point of view, manufacturing point of view, retail point of view ” the categories that you think of normally,” said Marolt. “Our sport continues to grow, continues to change and evolve ” years ago from nordic skiing to alpine skiing to snowboarding, and now we’re seeing all kinds of different things. And it’s important to recognize those who helped it grow, those who are part of the fabric and foundation of that growth.

“And I’ve gotta say, Lou’s contributions stand out.”

Dawson’s name is one of seven added to the 24-name ballot this spring after an earlier nominating vote. In addition to Kennedy’s letter of support, Dawson’s resume includes more than a dozen seconding letters.

Dawson says while he’s honored to nominated for the hall of fame, it’s not his life goal to be inducted.

“It would just help me further my goal of being able to share the sport. It was always a very evolutionary thing for me,” he says. “Really, there was no single point where I decided I’d be a ski mountaineer. It just evolved, and my skills evolved with my motivation, and I started getting pretty good because I was out all the time doing it. That’s what I try to impress on people about having these experiences. … I was skiing steeper and steeper stuff, I wasn’t falling at all, I was feeling as good on skis as I was on foot or crampons. It started to become a no-brainer: If I’m gonna go up a mountain with snow on it, I’m gonna bring skis. It’s easier than walking.

“I’ve always felt compelled to share that with people, and I think it’s because I’ve gotten so much out of it. The same way that if you hit the lottery, you’d share with your friends. You’ve also got to lend a shoulder, a hand up, for someone else to stand on.”


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