The Outsider: Philosophy from backcountry guru Fritz Sperry
Earlier this week, I had the chance to summit Quandary Peak with two of the most experienced backcountry skiers this side of a Warren Miller flick: Bronx native Fritz Sperry, the guy who literally wrote the book on skiing the Tenmile Range, and Teague Holmes, a longtime Blue River local and all-around endurance machine. I was humbled to join them, and, by the time we skinned up and rode down, humbled to soak up their shared decades of backcountry knowledge.
First things first: those two worked me, and they worked me hard. At one of our water breaks — it must have been 50 degrees out there, with nothing but sun and hardly any wind — I asked Holmes about his winter schedule. How in the hell does he manage to stay so fit and so strong, to the point he practically runs up the side of 14ers?
Simple enough: He puts in the time. From December to February, Holmes spends hours training and racing with the U.S. ski-mountaineering team, all in preparation for the tasty backcountry lines he can see from his front porch. Come April and May, it pays off when he spends several days a week skiing some of the gnarliest terrain you’ve ever seen, as in the 40 and 50-degree couloirs you and I only ogle from afar.
Holmes and Sperry set a grueling pace, but as they flew and I slogged along the East Ridge, I tried my hardest to soak up everything they said. It started with nearby lines — the two have skied almost every last one — and soon turned to backcountry etiquette, knowledge and safety.
Like Holmes, Sperry has paid his dues in the backcountry. He spends the spring months driving from peak to peak across Colorado, sleeping in his car before heading out with a trusted partner, folks like Gary Fondl of Frisco. Sperry knows the lines like the back of his hand, but that doesn’t mean he treats them any differently than terrain he’s never seen.
Before the trip, Sperry called me to discuss an absolutely vital backcountry philosophy: goals vs. options. As he explained it, backcountry skiers and snowboarders should only have one goal, and that is to return home safely at the end of the day. From there, you can have dozens of options — the lines and routes and adrenaline-pumping excitement you work so hard to enjoy.
But, the thirst for those options should never override your goal. Take our Quandary trip: The original option was to ski the North Gullies, two of the steepest and burliest (yet easiest to access) lines in the county. Our other options were Cristo Couloir, a popular south-facing route, and the go-to East Slopes, the wide-open face most people ride. We had options A, B and C, and the entire group agreed to reassess those options when we reached the summit.
And so, even though we trekked for three hours with North Gullies ski porn in mind, when we reached the top we had to go with Plan B, the Cristo Couloir. Why? Two reasons: Our group summited about an hour later than expected, and, almost more importantly, Sperry had never before skied with Holmes or I. Sure, we could rant and rave about our qualifications, but that’s no substitute for seeing us in action.
“No mountain is worth dying for, right?” Sperry told me, a sentiment echoed by Holmes over burgers after the insanely fun couloir descent. “Chances are you’ll go back the next day or whenever and it’ll be better anyway. Don’t be afraid to back away from your options if the conditions don’t seem right.”
Words of wisdom from the gurus.
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