Take 5: Gary Fondl hasn’t missed a month of skiing in 78 months
March 28, 2017
In September 2011, Gary Fondl did something odd: For the first time in nearly two years, he didn't go skiing once.
"People ask, 'Why do you do it?'" Fondl said of his nearly unbroken streak of ski days. "I say, 'I'm hiking through fields of wildflowers and these high-alpine lakes, and then at the end I get a ski run.' Sure, you're carrying your gear a long way, but it's about the journey, you know?"
Since 2011, the longtime Frisco local and native of Pennsylvania (@friscopowderaddict) hasn't missed a single month of skiing. That adds up to 78 consecutive months on the snow, plus another 21 months before he broke the streak for about 100 months of skiing. (What did he do instead that fateful September? He went backpacking in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.)
And you'd better believe Fondl gets most of those turns in the backcountry, far away from crowds and lift lines and slopeside bars. Alpine touring is his preferred mode of travel, from Mount Victoria in his backyard to 14ers in the remote high alpine, but still: Why does he do it? He simply prefers it that way.
"It's my main passion, you know?" said Fondl, who moved from the East Coast to Colorado in 1994 and has spent all 23 seasons in Summit County since then. "When I moved here I realized how beautiful the summers are and got into climbing and mountaineering, and it was only natural to get into that because without mountains, we wouldn't have skiing."
As Fondl explains it, skiing will always be his first love in the great outdoors, but mountaineering and alpine touring are now close seconds. On March 21 — smack-dab in the middle of a long and unseasonably dry spring — he and a trusted partner made the three-hour, one-way trip to Pacific Peak. Their objective for the day was a steep, north-facing couloir, but when they arrived after nearly 3,500 vertical feet of climbing, they found it was already skied out. Conditions were far from prime, and so the two opted for an alternative route. So it goes in the high alpine.
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"We didn't get to ski our line yesterday, but holy cow, the climb was amazing," Fondl told me after the Pacific Peak ascent. The peak, found just south of Breckenridge on the southern edge of the Tenmile Range, is one of dozens he has climbed, summited and then skied over the years. He knows the surrounding peaks and lines better than just about anyone, and that intimate knowledge traces back to his unending love of the mountains: spend enough time in the woods and they become a second home.
"I'm home — I found where I want to be," Fondl said, remembering the first time he set foot on Main Street Frisco. "It's busier than it used to be but I still love it."
In late March, the Summit Daily sports desk caught Fondl between ski tours and contract work with his company, Summit Drywall Interiors, to talk about spring AT travel, his favorite summer lines and why he'll keep the streak alive.
Summit Daily News: Pickings have been slim in the backcountry this spring. Where do you go when snow conditions aren't perfect?
Gary Fondl: Every season is different — you pretty much have to adjust to what the conditions give you. We had an exceptional January though, and that was pretty awesome. Then the winds came and stripped pretty much every west-facing slope, but in turn all the east-facing stuff is pretty well covered, and it's still pretty good now. We have great skiing out there and every ski day depends on weather. It depends on the weather of the days that's coming up and the weather that happened before you went skiing, so a lot of times our ski lines aren't checked out until the day before, or even that morning. A lot of my ski partners are well seasoned, so we're open to adjusting for conditions.
SDN: Just yesterday you went on a tour to Pacific Peak. How was it out there?
GF: We went after that steep, north-facing couloir, and that's a pretty solid line. The trick about that one is that after the very steep, north-facing section, it takes a right turn and becomes east-facing. We started Spruce Creek a little before 5 a.m., got up to about 13,500 feet at 8 a.m., and things were already warm on the east-facing aspect. But as soon as we turned the corner to the north, it was pretty rock solid.
It looked like someone was in there a couple days before us and side-slipped the whole couloir, so we opted not to ski it. That's a hard choice when you put that much time into something, but it was a wise decision. As we stood on the peak, we knew the line was in, but it wasn't the condition we wanted it to be in. We opted for a nice little line on the other side instead.
SDN: Talk about the line: Why did you pick that north-facing couloir? Right time of year?
GF: Picking that line is all dependent on the weather. If you adjust to the parameters of what's happening, it's always great skiing. But you can't be too set on skiing a specific line. Things come together with weather and timing and everything else — there's a lot that goes into it — and here, in Colorado, Plans A, B, C and D are all awesome.
I was just reading a trip report from a guy this morning who was turned around from a line on Pyramid Peak (14er in the Elk Mountains), and he had to ditch out. That's the thing — you go after these serious lines and the consequences are serious. You've got to do the old BCA ad: "Go big and go home." Even if you don't ski a line, it can be a successful mission because you got home.
SDN: Were you always into mountain climbing, or did that start to grow when you spent more time in the backcountry for skiing?
GF: For me it's all about the skiing, but when there isn't skiing, the hiking and climbing is almost as good. I get great enjoyment from the climbing these days. I'm pretty much self-taught when it comes to that, learning from others, but I did take two climbing classes at CMC a couple years ago. That was more for the rope work and all that.
I had the fear of god instilled in me when I got off-route (on a past climb) and was clinging to a stretch of rock some 1,000 feet up. I wanted to teach myself the skills I needed, and I've found that if you climb anything in Colorado — if you've climbed in the Elk Mountains — winter is better. Mountains fall apart, and as soon as you step onto a mountain it's crumbling beneath you.
SDN: You've spent decades in the Summit County backcountry. What sets our terrain apart from other places you've skied?
GF: There is so much great skiing in other zones, like Utah and California and Jackson (Hole). They're all great, but the thing that I love about living here is the elevation and length of season. I've skied 78 consecutive months here in Colorado — I only missed one month in the last 100. September is the hardest one. It's a labor of love to find a good line, and when I put it off that month I was hiking and backpacking in the San Juans. Now I try to get that day in as early as I can. The skiing doesn't get any better the longer you wait.
SDN: What does local backcountry offer in summer that you just don't find in winter? Like, what keeps you coming back?
GF: People ask, "Why do you do it?" I say, "I'm hiking through fields of wildflowers and these high-alpine lakes, and then at the end I get a ski run." Sure, you're carrying your gear a long way, but it's about the journey, you know? As long as you do anything and focus on the journey, it's pretty awesome.
When September comes along, I go to Rollins Pass outside of Winter Park. You take this dirt road like 13 miles, then go to Skyscraper Glacier. You can ski down to this beautiful lake, hike back to your truck through the wildflowers — it's awesome. Here in the county, I usually ski though August. Some years I've been able to get all 12 months here in Summit, but it has to be exceptional. I'll go up Peru Creek, or after work in the summer you can drive up to the Wheeler Trail near Peak 9 and you can be on the summit in 15 minutes. It's a short run, but the sun stays on it and the sunset is awesome.
SDN: On the flip side, is Summit missing anything that you can only find in those other zones?
GF: I don't know, dude. I really enjoy it here. Utah gets those big dumps, where they have 20 to 30 inches at a time. That's pretty awesome. When I skied with Aaron Rice — the guy who just set the record for vertical feet in one calendar year (with 2.5 million in 2015-16) — the thing I found is how quick you can gain 2,000 vertical feet. Here, we have long approaches. There, he can bang out 10-12,000 vert in a day.
My biggest day with him (Rice) was 8,500 vertical. He came here in late May because the season was finished in Utah, and he skied through July 5 before heading to South America. There's that length of season again — he came to Colorado because he knew the conditions would be great. We ended up skiing Emperor Couloir of Torreys, then re-ascended and did Tuning Fork, and then we ended with Golden Bear by the tunnel. It's actually part of Loveland Ski Area, but we ascend from the west side and that's a great run.
SDN: What's your biggest advice for newbies, or even veterans, who want to explore everything Summit has to offer for AT skiers and splitboarders?
GF: Fritz Sperry, his book ("MakingTurns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range"), is a great tool to get you into certain zones. One thing I'd say right now is don't jump into those big lines right away. Ease into it. It's the same thing as assessing the snowpack, where you have to take 60 nibbles before you take a bite. It's about gaining that experience, going out with experienced partners so you can pick their brains. When I take out guys who are newer to the sport, I explain what's going on: Why I'm standing here, what I'm looking at, why I'm traveling the way I do.
The tourists say, "Isn't it dangerous out there?" And I say, "Hell yeah." The idea is to assess the danger so you can mitigate it. If you recognize the danger and how to mitigate it, that's important. The skin up is the most dangerous part: your heels are up and your skins are on. When I'm skinning in, I'm constantly seeing what's above me. I like to skin until I can see the tundra, or the ground, showing, and keep less amounts of snow above me as I'm ascending. When you get on a loaded slope, you have to be pretty darn sure about the stability. That's half the battle right there: is traveling up the mountain. People who climb a mountain think they're done, but you still have to get back down.
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