The path to unrestrained powder is paved with cold, sweaty discomfort. At least I convinced myself when I climbed up a wintry mountain slope and methodically put one ski ahead of the other for the umpteenth time, wondering why I thought it was such a great idea.
At least I have company. On a late April Saturday, professional extreme skier and mountain guide Chris Davenport takes me to the Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, Colo., The highest peak in the Tenmile Range, which at 14.265 feet is the highest peak. We are dressed for skiing, but first we have to get to the top, an attempt that we take step by step.
"Pity about the weather," Davenport tells me as we race through an uninterrupted blizzard, visibility near zero. "The view up here is a killer on a clear day."
He would know: Davenport is the first person to climb and ski all 54 of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado within a year, a feat he completed in January 2007. He has also twice won the World Extreme Skiing Championships (1996 and 2000) and Mount Everest, who has competed in nearly 30 ski films, making annual trips to Antarctica and looks almost as comfortable at extreme altitudes as the wildlife, who lives there.
I met Davenport through a mutual acquaintance, and he agreed to take me on an adventure. Dav, as he is known to friends, chose Quandary because it is one of the least technical 14's to climb. This is a nice feature if you can not see more than 20 meters. Sure, it's a huge part of the planet – the next highest Tenmile peak is 13,951 feet of Fletcher Mountain – but the standard summit attack on Quandary follows a well-protected route. Apart from a colossal miscalculation we can avoid the cliffs, slides and water avalanche prone terrain that makes high alpine skiing so dangerous. Our biggest challenge today is visibility. Davenport warned me during our two and a half day drive from Aspen, Colorado, where he lives, that the weather could force us to return before the summit.
At 9am, he parked his black Chevy Suburban at a Forest Service Gate just outside the starting point at 11,000 feet. If we sort out the equipment and fill our backpacks, I'm worried. I've done some backcountry tours, but not so ambitious. Am I dressed in the right layers? Will my feet hurt or my hands freeze or – let's face it; that's my main concern – if I'm going to ski with a pro, will I beat? I am a good, solid skier, but also a 50 year old city dweller from the middle Atlantic. I can not wait to roll into the Rocky Mountains and whistle a 14s.
On skis prepared for uphill riding (with convertible bindings and climbing skins, strips of cloth stuck to every ski surface with thousands of tiny hairs that prevent them from falling back), we start our way through a forest of pine and spruce trees. Here it is quiet apart from the occasional crunching of a windblown tree, and I am reminded why I love ski tourers so much: to hit mountains on their terms, without the crowds, the noise and the infrastructure that the environment means to the surroundings ,
Davenport sets a fast pace, skis and sticks flow efficiently forward and stretch out his limbs. With a height of almost 5 meters and a height of 175 pounds, he is not an imposing figure, but projected the control of his craft along with a contagious enthusiasm. If this is boring for him – a simple 14er on a dreary day with a flatlander – he hides it well. I think he's outside to be outside, although it's clear he has expectations of me. He quickly puts 50 feet between us.
Davenport does not take anyone on an adventure. He needs to know that you can ride up and down and that you will not be on a mountain or freaking out. (He had tested me the day before with a 3,200-foot attack on Aspen Mountain, which I had blown for five hours after arriving at 1:30 in the city.)
After 45 minutes we leave the trees behind and start the long shoulder of Quandary's East Ridge. We are steadily climbing through a ghostly bubble of weather that is becoming faintly thin, revealing the chestnut shoulders of hills that stand out in the distance, like whales that loll through the fog.
I feel strong, especially when we pass two boys – one in a bright orange cap and a parka from 1977 – who had formed halfway up the ridge from the fog. They take care of us with questions about the route, the time and the weather.
"They did not look exactly as if they knew what they were doing," Davenport says when we're out of earshot. At age 46, he still demands a lot from himself, with a summer training program where Aspen Mountain has to walk in a backpack with a full five-gallon water cooler. He spends hours on street and mountain bikes – the idea of driving all 14s on a bike ride in 2005 – and does much of what we're doing in the winter.
"I spent 20 years in the gym," he says. "I am at a point where I only want to train outdoors."
He also constantly pushes boundaries, a necessity in a niche that favors youth and audacity. Just prior to our trip, Davenport had undertaken an extensive ski and camping trip in the Alaska Kichatna Mountains – "some of the steepest lines I've ever driven," he says – and before that he had been in Bhutan and had himself in a client Jet is trying in vain to get the government to allow some of the kingdom's 20,000-foot summit to descend for the first time.
At 13,300 feet, my fitness evaporates. Suddenly I'm windy, shaky and dehydrated. The hill gets steeper, my hands are cold, my thoughts are dull and I feel excelled by this environment. On the positive side there is a foot of soft, fresh snow and I know we are at the top. Davenport puts a tight zig-zag skin track on the left side of a wide gutter – eight steps in one direction, turning eight steps in the other direction. The snow becomes more intense, whips around us and cools the sweat against my skin. I close my eyes a few meters in front of my skis and will move my legs forward.
Davenport started skiing near North Conway, North Carolina, where he grew up. After graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder (my alma mater), he won his passion in 1994 by winning the US Extreme Ski Championships in Crested Butte. "I fell in love with this competitive format and realized that I was really good. "He tells me after his 1996 World Champion title in Valdez, Alaska," I thought, "I can make a living out of it." So I wrote a business plan for the flight home. "
Knowing he could win sponsors, Davenport knew he needed more than just free gear and plane tickets to build a business. "I turned to these companies and said: 'Here I can do something for you, and that's what I want in return," he says. "Much of it was, frankly, just presentable" – that is, in contrast to the hard parties of many young snow sports.
He made his achievements, including an introduction to the 2014 US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, available to commentators on ABC, ESPN and Outside TV. He's a part owner of skimaker Kästle and his small sponsorship army includes Red Bull, Spyder, Aspen Snowmass and Scarpa boots. He also throws a television program about hunting for powder and has other projects at various stages of development.
"I see that I have been doing this for a long time," he says, "and become an ambassador for this sport, as Billy Kidd and Stein Eriksen", two former alpinists who have enjoyed a long career as sports figureheads.
I imagine the gorge and imagine myself eating five hours in the future, eating pizza in a warm hotel and drinking beer. (Yes, the infrastructure!) I am dizzy and experience the strong pressure on the height for the first time in my life. I hiked at higher elevations, but this is the highest I've ever had on skis, and I'm wondering what it takes to feel physically endangered on a hairy spot – ice ax on a slide, say, or a knife navigate edge in a storm. I'm lost in that thought, lumbering uphill and staring at the ground as I almost hit Dav.
"Man, you did it!" He shouts. I look around, and it's true: every molecule of Quandary is now below us. I'm still cold and tired, but euphoria takes these symptoms aside.
A few meters further we grab a selfie on the highest point of the mountain and assess our next step. The snow has subsided, but we are still in the persistent cloud.
Davenport pivots his focus between the ground and the sky and within a minute sums up his verdict: "We drive along the route we drove up", d. H. No sick line (steep, aggressive runway) he mentioned earlier, a descent that includes 2,500 altitude differences at 40 degrees.
We take off the climbing skins, click into our bindings and take a break. As with any summit, Dav resorts to his 10-second rule – a hyperfocused review of zippers, clips, packs, and bindings to make sure everything in the backcountry is as it should be. We skid over the windswept summit back to the top of the gorge.
"Okay," says Davenport, "stay with me and hopefully we can see something soon."
Within a few turns in the butter powder, I relax with the realization that the hard work is over, I can not compete against gravity anymore and as a bonus I probably will not die today. I would like to stop to see the legendary ski, but I would not see much of it anyway. Therefore, I continue to drive through the weightless snow and laced every curve with extra caution, which is necessary in an environment where a binding bump or a slight injury can turn into adventure into disaster.
At the bottom of the gutter, we cut to the right to avoid a cliff and exposed boulders – a zone known as "gnarnia" on a Quandary chat board – and finally cross into a decent view and another snow slope.
I hardly notice when we pass the first tree and only 35 minutes after leaving the summit signal the beginning of the end. Davenport asks me to follow him in search of a last shot of powder. But we have pushed our luck too far and are on a slope that is diabolically covered by a few inches of snow.
Ah great. Mountains have no guarantees and should not We go down and jerk with every scratch of ski on rock, before we slip past the trailhead to the car.
Our ascent and descent at a height of 3,300 feet – about the equivalent of a road run in Snowbird, Utah – had taken nearly four hours. (When I press it, Davenport says he could have done it alone in that half-time.) During my darker ascension moments, I persisted in a mantra: You'll never have to do that again. "
Davenport obviously sees it differently. As we move down the paved facades of Breckenridge Interstate 70 turns to me. "One down," he says. "Fifty-three still."
Briley is a writer from Takoma Park. His website is johnbriley.com.
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