To the top and back with Chris Davenport
December 26, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoA little more than a week ago I called Chris Davenport with the idea of knocking off a fourteener with him in the name of journalism. I just learned how to telemark last year, and I realized this was a little like asking Lance Armstrong if he wouldn’t mind someone tagging along for a leg of the Tour.Davenport is the undisputed king of big-mountain skiing in Colorado. He’s nearly done with his quest to be the first to ski all 54 of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000-feet in a 12-month span.Not surprisingly, his first response was: No.I shot back that I recently ran a marathon and regularly skin up Aspen Mountain. I felt I could keep up.”How does six o’clock tomorrow morning sound?” He asked. “Nick DeVore and I are doing Princeton.”He had called my bluff. And, if the offer of skiing with him wasn’t intimidating enough, he was doing Princeton with DeVore, a telemark phenom. I swallowed hard and said, “OK.”That night, I was at The Aspen Times until 9:30 p.m. working on a story about the deadly avalanche at Snowmass. With that in mind, I got my stuff together and set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. When I called a few friends, they gently asked if, perhaps, I was a little out of my league. I responded with gusto and typical bluster. They quietly laughed and commenced worrying.
On the roadAt 6 a.m. I was waiting at the Snowmass Conoco. As the minutes ticked past the appointed meeting time, I thought maybe Davenport and DeVore thought better of taking a greenhorn on a slayfest, but then they pulled into the parking lot.Davenport explained they had gotten a flat on the trailer with the snowmobile, then we were on our way. I followed them as we cruised out toward Leadville for the first glimpse of the mountain. After a quick coffee stop, we pulled in at the access road to check out Mt. Princeton (14,197 feet) with binoculars. This was Davenport’s fourth trip to the mountain and the first time there was enough snow. Since he and DeVore had already done peaks like Pyramid (14,018 feet) and Maroon (14,156 feet), the descent from Princeton probably looked like a cake walk. To me, not so much. We cruised up to the parking lot and got a none-to-early 9:30 a.m. start at the trailhead. By 10 a.m. we had snowmobiled up to about 10,800 feet with me hanging onto Davenport while DeVore was towed behind.From there, we started skinning. The early part was easy going with stunning views down into the valley where Buena Vista lay. Before long we hit a bare patch, took off the skins and started a long slog.It didn’t take very long before we were post-holing up snow drifts that alternated between being ankle deep and knee deep. I hadn’t ever attempted to climb on snow-covered rocks in my ski boots and was not surprised to find it… hard.
The slogFor the most part, Davenport and DeVore didn’t say much. They mostly cruised along at a rapid pace, heading for the summit. “Just put one foot in front of the other,” said Davenport, a few times. And that was about it. Though there were a few places on the climb where I felt a bit afraid, for the most part it was just keepin’ on, keepin’ on.It occurred to me on the hike that the fourteeners project is more about endurance than anything else. It’s easy to be appalled at the danger of skiing something like the Crestone Needle, but it’s very hard to imagine the strength it takes for a 13-hour roundtrip.We were about halfway up when Davenport asked me, “Ever done something like this?”
“Nope,” I said. Then we kept going. By the time we re-skinned, then de-skinned and booted it up a ridge to the summit, it was 2:30 in the afternoon and I was tired.The view from the top and the nearly breathless wind made for a stunning winter peak experience. We could see most of the state and Davenport knew the names of everything in a 360-degree circle. A few times it occurred to me that Davenport was sponsored by Red Bull, Black Diamond and others to do… this. Just hike up mountains, then ski down. When I asked him about it, he concurred. In fact, he gushed.”I get out in mountains like this, I’ve done descents everywhere in the world, own a house in Aspen,” he said, “and it’s all because of skiing.”We signed in to the registry and chowed down on some snacks before getting set for the descent. But nothing could have prepared us for what came next.Worst ski run, everIt was rocky on top. While Davenport clicked into his skis on the summit, I hiked down 30 feet to where the snow began. There’s a certain amount of excitement to skiing down a fourteener, so we all tried to show off with good turns at the top. But after I face-planted, Davenport ate it and Nick caught his edge, we were somewhat humbled by the breakable crust with rocks inches underneath.
It was, I thought to myself, the lamest skiing I have ever had done. I looked at these two extreme skiers forced into doing wide-legged GS turns and realized everyone – even the world’s best – would look clumsy on that snow. The pitch was probably somewhere between 35 and 40 degrees at the steepest and at numerous points we had to sidestep through rocks. This was not glamorous. In fact, it was the worst ski run I’ve ever had. That includes sun-cupped summer runs and 800-foot descents down East Coast ice. When we got down to the bottom my legs hurt from the chair-sitting position I had remained in throughout the run, and neither Chris or Nick looked much better. “In 48 fourteeners I’ve climbed this year, that was by far the worst skiing,” Davenport said. “That was terrible.”DeVore and I nodded. My skis were trashed from the rocks. Perhaps the only thing left intact were the memories of the views and the supreme bragging rights of skiing one of the famed fourteeners with Davenport. Cruiser
After sitting there, shaking our heads and trying to figure out something positive to say about the descent, we flung a few epithets at the mountain and re-skinned at the bottom of the long, rocky bowl.From there, it was a lovely traverse, mostly over rocks, back to where we first took off our skins. Then it was all downhill. Princeton has a summer road and it was snow-covered back down to the car, so DeVore and I didn’t even stop at the snowmobile. Davenport got on it and passed us a little farther down. When we got to the bottom around 5 p.m., it was just starting to get dark. Davenport and DeVore found they had another flat and I remembered I had a three-hour drive back to Aspen. Now, perhaps the reason Davenport and DeVore earn the big bucks is because they got up the next day, after fixing the flat the night before, and knocked Humbolt Peak (14,064 feet) off the list as well. Some of the fourteeners project is about hitting lines that very few skiers would ever consider sober. The descents Davenport skied off Pyramid, the Bells, Crestone Peak and others are, quite simply, amazing feats. The other side to the project is what I witnessed on Princeton. It’s about finding the day with just enough snow to get down and say you skied it. And it’s about long slogs for ski runs that aren’t necessarily rewarding. Timing everything perfectly around 54 peaks is an amazing feat in and of itself. The awe factor is easy when looking at North Maroon with a furrowed brow. The other side is not as easy to consider. Unless you get out there, do one of the easiest peaks on the list and feel like it was the most hardcore thing you’ve ever done. Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org