Best of 2015: An interview with big-mountain skier Chris Davenport
Editor’s note: This is an extended version of an interview printed in the Sept. 23, 2015 edition of the Summit Daily.
Consider Chris Davenport a pioneer of ski mountaineering.
Beginning in 1993, long before skiers were obsessed with skinning and alpine touring, the New Hampshire native came to Colorado and started exploring the peaks, chutes and cornices of his adopted home state.
“I quickly fell in love with the enormity and the grandeur of the Rockies,” says Davenport, now 44 years old. “The mountains here have so much to offer a young mountain kid. I was obsessed with climbing and skiing and everything else you can do around here.”
And his sights had always been set on Colorado. He earned a spot on the University of Colorado-Boulder ski team as a teen, when he was more inclined to race giant slalom and Super G than charge big-mountain lines. Racing was in his blood: His two sisters — Kate and Ashley Davenport — raced on the World Cup circuit for the U.S. Ski Team in the early ‘90s.
But Davenport soon left the Front Range — and gate skiing — behind. He moved to Aspen after college and quickly left a mark on the freeski world, filming with everyone from Warren Miller to Crested Butte’s Matchstick Productions. With time, he moved away from filming and dug into high-risk, high-reward expeditions — and the bread-and-butter of modern freeskiing.
On May 26, he and two fellow skiers completed the Centennial Peaks project, a challenge to ski Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks. The project officially began in earnest around 2006, the same year he set his sights on skiing all 54 14ers in less than a year. It had been done before but never so quickly, and now, he’s the unofficial ski king of Colorado.
Along with coaching, filming and announcing for ESPN, he now travels the country giving presentations on the Centennial Peaks project. Before coming to Breckenridge for a lunchtime talk, the Summit Daily sports desk spoke with him to get the details on his big-mountain camp in Chile, the evolution of ski mountaineering and why this year was the perfect time to finally complete the Centennial Project.
Summit Daily News: You spent a few weeks in Chile this August for a big-mountain camp. Are you like the majority of big-mountain pros these days and chase the snow, wherever it takes you?
Chris Davenport: Oh, that’s totally what I do. I’ve been going to Chile for 15 years in a row now, just working and skiing as much as I can. I probably ski 240 or 250 days per year. It sounds like a lot, but it’s like, how many days do you go to work? This is what I do — it’s a business and I’m passionate about it. Nothing makes me happier than when there’s great skiing right here in Colorado, but I also love the fact skiing is such an international community of people. You can go to these incredible places in the mountain and discover something totally new.
SDN: And the Chile camp was part of your coaching business. If someone wants to be a better and bolder big-mountain skier, where do they start? Should they consider a summer camp?
CD: The cool thing about skiing is we’re never as good as we want to be. It’s like surfing or golf or tennis — you can always get better. You spend your entire life trying to get better, trying to improve. What we do with coaching is work with a client’s speific skill set, find out what they’re good at and where they need improvement and then help them move forward. And that’s not just general skills. That’s also mountain awareness — looking at avalanche risk, how to read lines, how to manage risk. We really promote that mountain awareness.
I think of it like ski school. People start with lessons, then they stop and start skiing by themselves when they reach a certain level. They might learn from a friend or someone else, but, really, they start teaching themselves. What the camp does is give you access to these pros, guys who are the best in the world and everything they know. Lots of people head out and just ski without thinking about the risks or how to stay safe.
SDN: Did alpine racing as a kid make you a better big-mountain skier? Was it your ski school, in a way?
CD: There’s no question that the hard work and training and discipline ski racing athletes put into their career helps them become a disciplined, more technically-sound skier. They have the ability to turn, that sense of where they are on the snow and those are the attributes you need with big-mountain skiing, with freeskiing. You need the confidence you get from training hard early.
SDN: Think back on your career. When was the first time you realized you were pushing your personal boundaries and the sport’s boundaries, just going bigger than ever before?
CD: That’s a good question. So much of my early career was spent competing and doing film work. That was fun and all, but I didn’t have a sense in those early years that I was making a difference, moving a needle in the sport. One thing that comes to mind is climbing and skiing the 14ers, which I finished in January 2007. I became the first person to ski them quickly — I skied them in under a year — and I feel like that moved the needle.
Things were just moving in the right direction: The equipment was changing every year, the backcountry was more accessible, ski mountaineering was more accessible and that project had a substantial impact on the movement of the sport. The timing of that project was coincidental, but it turned out to be fortuitous. It just all happened at the perfect time. The sport in general was looking for something new and it turned at that ski mountaineering was it.
SDN: What kind of research went into skiing Colorado’s Centennial Peaks? I can’t imagine you just pointed at a map and blindly headed out.
CD: Certainly there’s lots of planning that goes into it. When you set a goal like that, you can’t just jump into it. You need to plan to do it safely, do it efficiently and we did. We spend quite a bit of time discussing the different ranges and the peaks themselves, where we could knock off numerous peaks or just do one at a time. That’s a skill I’ve developed over years and years in the mountains, understanding logistics. You just do an honest assessment of where you’re at and what you can do.
My partners, Ted and Christy Mahon, we spent lots of time in the mountains and we wanted to raise the bar. We like to find challenges and set high goals. Christy was the first woman to ski all the 14ers, Ted was one of the first to do it right after me, so it became this perfect partnership to kind of finish a challenge no one had done.
SDN: You’ve parlayed skiing into a speaking career. Why take that route instead of becoming a filmmaker or team manager or another industry job? Have you always had a knack for presenting?
CD: It’s something I’ve always had a knack for. I’ve been a television broadcaster for 16 years, been a World Cup ski race announcer for just as long, so I’m good at talking. (Laughs.) I enjoy sharing my passion — my love for the sport, what I’ve done because of it — with others. It just comes from a desire to share my love of the sport and challenge others to find what they’re capable of. I like being an ambassador for the sport of skiing.
SDN: What’s your go-to distraction when you aren’t on skis?
CD: Most definitely my bikes. I do a lot of trail running as well, but, since I was a little kid, I’ve been in love with mountain biking, just trying to spend as much time on the bike as I can. But, like I said, I’m spending most of the year on skis these days. In fact, I think the only time I wasn’t on skis was this June, when I was surfing in Costa Rica. It’s one of those sports you just can’t do one week out of the year.
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