Five of Aspen’s best backcountry skiers discuss their motivations, the fear factor and what’s next
February 19, 2017
If you have ever wondered if Aspen's best and bravest backcountry skiers get scared on their adventures, the answer is "yes" — sort of.
When preparing to ski down pitches that would cause mere mortals' knees to buckle, Dick Jackson, Art Burrows, Neal Beidleman, Chris Davenport and Jordan White acknowledged they sometimes feel "anxious."
The elite ski mountaineers were featured last week in a panel discussion organized by the Aspen Historical Society in its never-ending quest to bring history to life in new ways. The society hit the motherlode with "Backcountry Skiing: History on Tap." It drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Ale House at Aspen Highlands on Thursday evening.
The discussion provided some revealing comments about what motivates these guys, how they've dealt with the danger and "what's next."
“Around here, to push the sport, you have to do what these guys left for you.”
— ski mountaineer Jordan White
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Host and Aspen Historical Society board of trustees Chairman Chace Dillon asked the skiers halfway through the conversation when they were most afraid.
Davenport, who became the first person to ski all of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in one year and has made first descents on mountain ranges throughout the world, told about a trip up Maroon Peak in February 2006. Both of his companions ended up bailing because they were in over their heads. Davenport forged up alone, reached the summit at 4 p.m., as the sun was close to setting, and prepared to ski a line that, to his knowledge, had only been skied once because of its difficulty.
"I was really pretty nervous," Davenport said. "It was pretty scary. Afraid wasn't the word, but just, whoof, pushing too far."
He concluded that he wouldn't recommend a solo winter mission.
Beidleman has numerous incredible mountaineering feats to his credit, but he will forever be known as a guide who helped prevent the Mount Everest disaster of 1996 from being even worse. Eight climbers were killed.
After pondering Dillon's question for a moment, Beidleman quipped, "I'm always scared."
Then he got serious.
"If I'm afraid, really, truly afraid of something, I quit because I'm kind of a pansy. I'm out of there," he said.
Burrows has done a lot of groundbreaking ski touring in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen and spends a lot of time skiing in Canada. The first turn is the toughest, he said.
"Every time you're on a summit and you're skiing something steep, the first few turns are terrifying," Burrows said. "There's a lot of anxiety until you get that comfort of the first few turns under your belt."
Jackson, owner of Aspen Expeditions and an internationally renowned alpine guide, concurred.
White, the youngest of the crew at age 31, said two descents on the north face of Capitol Peak were up there as "most anxious." His party had little information to tap into.
But his most nerve-racking experience was on Alaska's Mount Hunter. Their ascent included a patch of black ice. After they reached the ridge and White put on his skis, he realized he was facing the wrong direction. He had to pull off a jump turn.
"It was just knowing if I messed that one turn up, it was like, game over," White said.
What motivates them?
Given that their lives are sometimes on the line, what motivates them to explore the great white expanses? In one form or another, each of the skier's answers distilled down to accomplishing something with people you like.
Jackson said he is no longer motivated by first descents.
"If I'm up on top of something and it's my first time, as far as I'm concerned, it's the first (descent)," he said, drawing a cheer from the crowd.
For him, it's more about spending time with friends. "That's what it's really about — who you are with and having fun skiing," Jackson said.
Davenport said he enjoys plotting out a trip by looking at a map and using whatever intelligence is available. He doesn't spend every day looking for a first descent, but sometimes a desired route is groundbreaking.
"It's not what motivates me," Davenport said, "but when you find a line that speaks to you and draws you in and maybe it hasn't been skied before, it's a rare experience, a rare opportunity."
Burrows said he dreams of skiing some lines in Canada that haven't been skied. Nevertheless, first descents are "less and less important as you get older," he said.
White addressed being part of a younger generation who gets to draw on the experience of the other accomplished ski mountaineers, but also has to dig to find first descents.
"Around here, to push the sport, you have to do what these guys left for you," he said. "I've had to get annoyingly creative because they've skied all the good ones already."
Beidleman had an interesting perspective on doing what hasn't been done. Skiing is unique, he said, because the conditions vary so widely from season to season. An ample snowpack like the one this season, opens opportunities that won't exist during low snow years.
"It's not so much about the line," Beidleman said. "It's also about the condition and when you ski it. There are so many ways to slice that pie."
Passion pushes adventure
White said Davenport and Carbondale's Lou Dawson, the first person to ski all the fourteeners, inspired him to get into the backcountry. White has skied all the fourteeners and is looking for new adventure in the Elk Mountains. He said there is so much opportunity in Aspen's backyard.
"What I figured out last year was every time I got to a new summit, I would just look out and say, 'Well, tomorrow I'm going to go ski that peak,'" White said. "Then I'd go back at night and grab a map and try to figure out how to get to said peak."
His goal is to ski all 88 peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation in Pitkin County and throughout the Elk Mountains.
"I'm almost halfway done," he said.
The effort will be interrupted, with luck, by a trip to western Mongolia this spring.
As extensively as he has skied, Burrows never has run out of ideas for his next adventure.
"Every time I go ski touring, I see five or six more things to ski," Burrows said. "People have either not been there or they've been there rarely.
"There's a lot out there," he added.
Davenport urged skiers to seek their adventure, particularly when the snowpack stabilizes this spring.
"I'm a really big fan of waiting until Mother Nature sends you that Evite and you get it in your inbox and it says, 'Conditions are good, let's go,'" Davenport said.
There are a lot of great adventures out there, he said, even if they aren't knee-bucklers or first descents.
"We're still writing the history of skiing in Aspen," Davenport concluded.
Photos on bottom of A1 taken by Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times.