(Last Updated On: January 14, 2015)
This is Part One of a two-part article.
Colorado’s fourteeners are highly revered both for their altitude and multitude. They come in all varieties – short and easy, to long and difficult. Most of you who have made your way to this blog probably know what defines a “fourteener”. But, for those who don’t a fourteener is a peak that is over 14,000 feet tall. Depending on which list you go by, there are approximately 54 fourteeners in Colorado. These peaks are most known for their hikes and climbs. But, some of them have classic ski lines – like Torreys, Sneffels, and South Maroon.
Still, it has only been in the last decade that many of the fourteeners have really opened up to backcountry skiers and snowboarders. We have pioneers like Chris Davenport (who completed all of Colorado’s fourteeners in one year), Sean Crossen, Chris Webster, Pam Rice, and others to thank for this. While not all of these pioneers have yet finished their fourteener-skiing goals, their efforts cannot go unnoticed.
As far as we know, there are a dozen people who have finished skiing or snowboarding all of Colorado’s fourteeners. Lou Dawson was the true pioneer, exploring the absolute unknown, and finishing in 1991 after a whole lot of effort. But, then the fourteener window seemed to close to wait for the gear to catch up. When it finally did, technology had unleashed the information superhighway and suddenly beta was much easier to obtain. The Internet allowed backcountry skiers to easily find out informtion on routes, weather, and avalanche danger. Chris Davenport was perhaps one of the first to really utilize all of these resources to their max, becoming the second person to ski all of Colorado’s fourteeners in 2006, paving the way for others behind him and ushering in a new generation of ski mountaineers. Davenport is considered by many to have set the standard for Colorado fourteener skiing.
There are more firsts – like Jarrett Luttrell, the first snowboarder; and Christy Sauer Mahon, the first woman. And there will be more firsts later on down the line, surely. I, personally, am awaiting completion by the first female snowboarder.
While the number of fourteener-skiing finishers continues to increase, there is no doubt that skiing all of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners takes a certain mindset, skill, athletics, careful planning, and a whole lot of commitment. Because of this, all of these fourteener-skiing finishers share a common thread.
That’s what this article is about. I was able to interview 11 of the Colorado fourteener-skiing and snowboarding finishers (including myself). I gave them each a half-dozen or so questions to answer and left the responses loosely up to them. I wanted to see what would happen. For some of the people who seemed more willing, I asked a couple more questions. The responses I received are included in this article.
The 11 people I was able to interview for this article are:
1) Marc Barella – the 2nd snowboarder and the 12th person overall. Marc took just under 6 years to finish his project, starting in May of 2008 and finishing on Culebra in April 2014.
2) Matt Kamper – 11th person overall. Matt was able to finish his 14er-skiing project in just 4 years, finishing in 2013 on Snowmass Mountain.
3) Carl Dowdy – 10th person overall. Carl finished in a little over 5 years, finishing in May 2013.
4) Brittany Walker Konsella – 2nd woman and 9th person overall. I began my project in April 2006, and finished in May 2011 – just over 5 years. I skied the majority of them in just two seasons, but then came to an abrupt halt. By 2008-9, I had only 9 left to go, and didn’t get to ski a single one because I tore my ACL which required reconstructive surgery.
5) Jarrett Luttrell – 1st snowboarder and 8th person overall, finishing on Capitol the same exact day that Christy Mahon finished. Jarrett states, “I started in 1998 but in 2000 I thought it would be a great project. I had no concept of ‘firsts’. That actually came a couple of years later through the literature I found at the college.”
6) Christy Sauer Mahon – 7th person overall and first woman. Christy finished in about 6 years and finished on Pyramid in 2010. Christy is married to Ted Mahon.
7) Joe Brannan – 6th person overall. 6th person overall. “The project took me a little over three years with a finish on Wetterhorn in May in 2009. I did tick one descent in 2005 on Mt Elbert but didn’t start the project until March 2006. I was lucky with conditions having to repeat just 3 summit-ski attempts on Grays (avalanche danger), Massive (avalanche!), and Crestone Needle (lack of snow).”
8) Jordan White – 5th person overall. Jordan was able to complete his 14er project in 3 years to the day, finishing in 2009. Jordan began his project not too long after being involved in a climbing accident on the Maroon Bells which resulted in the loss of his father. Jordan’s adventures can be followed on his blog at Elks and Beyond.
9) Frank Konsella – 4th person overall, my husband, and contributor to this blog 14erskiers.com. Frank began on Gray’s in 1995 and finished on Harvard in 2008.
10) Ted Mahon – 3rd person overall. Ted skied his first fourteener in March, 1997 and finished 11 years later, in April 2008. Ted and Christy’s adventures can be followed on their blog at stuckintherockies.com.
11) Lou Dawson – The father of fourteener-skiing, as he was the 1st to complete them all. Lou operates the famed blog and backcountry resource wildsnow.com and explains in his own words:
As most of you guys know, I was the first one to do it and the project took 13 years, started in 1978 and completed in 1991. (I wasn’t doing it as a goal till 1987). Most of the time I felt like one of those early deep-ocean solo sailors. We had no internet, no easy or accurate weather, no fat skis and no guidebooks that had any skiing information.
In the case of most peaks I didn’t have any concept of how they would ski, and some were thought to be impossible to make any kind of meaningful “ski descent” on, this especially true of Capitol Peak, which was actually pretty reasonable in terms of technicality and staying on skis for nearly everything, though still dangerous due to all the cliffs.
In the end, the difficulty of the project made it all the more special, but I have to say it was pretty tough. I didn’t race through it as I wasn’t trying to set a time record — it was just overall a very slow process. I’m sure out of all the other guys who came after me, I had the highest failure rate. I’ve lost count of all the returns and re-dos (just the money and time on the road were ridiculous), but wow what a way to experience Colorado. When it was done (1991), the joke on me was of course that my ego told me I’d done a cool thing, but when my intellect saw that nobody tried to be second so many years later, I had to wonder if it was just a lame project that wouldn’t catch the imagination of other ski mountaineers.
One of the intentions of my 14er guidebooks (two volumes published in the 1980s, now out of print) was to share how wonderful skiing the Fourteeners is. I’m sure the books helped spread the word, but again, I was surprised how slow the project caught on. I have to think perhaps it really was overly tough and technical until better skis, internet, etcetera helped make it less daunting (though it’s still plenty hard and I admire anyone who does it).
What made you start your Colorado 14er-skiing project?
Jarrett: I was riding up the Paradise lift one day with Dave Scheefer the mason. It was a windy shitty day. No accumulation. Just blowing snow. Young Travis, and Grand Traverse winner sat between us. I said congratulations. I told him I was trying to finish the fourteeners on splitboard.
The chair continued up out of that last patch of trees into the wind and total whiteout. I started to say something about idle time when he interrupted me, Travis still quiet.
NO ONE CAN EVER TAKE THAT AWAY FROM YOU!”
Dave Scheefer left me with a gift that no one could take away.
Validation – the oldest, dirtiest stamp of approval.
Frank: I’ve always been interested in climbing mountains, and I climbed all the 14ers in 1996 (for the first time). Half my library is mountaineering books. I was skiing the occasional 14er here and there before Brittany and I met. That’s when the fever struck. We were skiing a 14er every chance we could, and all of a sudden, the goal didn’t seem so daunting. So I really have Brittany to thank for pushing me over the edge.
Joe: A good question as my background wouldn’t suggest finding this path. My parents grew up in Iowa and moved to the suburbs of Denver to raise their three boys. As a family we camped and fished a couple times each summer and did some casual hiking to lakes around Green Mountain Reservoir. Mountaineering was not in our vocabulary and it would be pushing it to assume I had 25 ski days prior to getting my driver’s license. Sophomore year in college I got bored after breaking my hand pretty bad skateboarding and was looking for something to occupy my time. My Leadville native roommate Alex introduced me hiking 14ers and I got hooked, finishing the list in a couple years. Those same winters I discovered earn-your-turns skiing off of Berthoud Pass. Together those experiences introduced me to the joy of overcoming challenges in the mountains and the freedom of backcountry skiing. When I realized the two passions could be combined (by reading Lou’s 14er guidebooks) and had only been done once, I caught sight of a unique opportunity for adventure. An opportunity for adventure with a cutting edge element to it but at the same time goal which was approachable for a hack like me. What more could you want?
Brittany: I had been a former freestyle skier and was a coach. I loved skiing, but I was growing a bit weary of the freestyle scene. I needed a change of pace and a change of scene. Enter backcountry skiing, which renewed my passion for the sport which I’d loved since the age of 4. As a goal-oriented person, I am always searching for goals to bring structure and meaning to my life. Chris Davenport was skiing all the fourteeners at the time, and I thought that might be a pretty worthy thing to try. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But, I had a pretty good idea. And it turns out I wasn’t far off base.
Carl: The short answer is: I wanted to climb all the 14ers and didn’t feel like walking down.
The long answer is: The first 14er summit I reached (on foot) was Mt. Yale in 2006, shortly after moving to Colorado. I had turned around on Yale in 1996 with Boy Scouts and was anxious to give it another go. In 2007 I hiked my second 14er and decided that climbing all of them would be a great way to explore the state. After a hiking a few more 14ers I realized that skiing down would be a whole lot more fun than walking down. I set out to ski most of them, but it wasn’t until I had skied maybe 40 of the 14ers that I decided Capitol and Pyramid seemed like a reasonable endeavor on skis (rightly so or not).
Matt: To begin with, I grew up in Colorado and always knew (or knew of) a few people who had hiked/climbed all the 14ers in summer. I had done some (12? 20?) but had no interest in pursuing it as a project. I had also done some ski mountaineering with my folks in the Indian Peaks and the Loveland Pass area when I was a kid.
Then in December of 2008 I tore a rotator cuff in a skiing fall at Beaver Creek and had to have surgery. That put me out for a long time and I developed a king-hell case of cabin fever. At the same time I realized that the prime ski mountaineering season coincides with the end of my busy season at work. (I had always ended the ski season a little disappointed because my job keeps me inside so much.) So I had plenty of time to think about it, study about it, and do some serious therapeutic gear shopping. I was cleared to ski in April of 2009, my first peak was Quandary on the 27th (after a couple of shorter outings to check out gear and fitness). Turned out to be the best thing I have ever done.
What was the 14er you’d like to go back to most and why?
Lou: I’ve had more than 30 years to “go back to” fourteeners. For a long time I enjoyed re-dos of ones that didn’t have good snow during my “official” project span. But as the years progressed I’ve changed my goals and like the easier peaks I can do with varied friends and family. If you want to be a lifelong skier, your approach will change over the years — it’s important to embrace that and not fight it. Elbert is of course at the top of the list, provided it has the rare coating of good spring snow. I’d love to horse-pack into Snowmass in the spring some day after a big winter and do a basecamp gig. I’ve done a lot of routes off the 14ers, but there are of course hundreds if not thousands I’ve not done. Thus, in all truth if I go back to any 14er and do a route that’s new to me, that’s another peak I’d like to go back to.
Ted: Actually, I’d like to go back to any of them that I experienced with bad snow. There’s nothing better than skiing a 14er with good snow. In particular I feel the need to get back to Antero, because that was the ski descent with the worst snow of all of them for me.
Frank: Pyramid. The Landry line is amazing and I could do it a hundred times and be happy. But Pyramid has other routes that I would like to get on as well, such as the west face.
Jordan: Pyramid and North Maroon. I try to ski them almost every year. Pyramid is the best of the best ski lines in the state from a technical, fall line, and aesthetic standpoint.
Joe: North Maroon, the feeling of skiing that North Face (with you Brittany!) in deep powder was something else. Pyramid in powder is a close second, but I’m not sure I will ever be on the Landry Line again.
Christy: We actually go back and ski 14ers fairly often. Going back to ski the Southwest Couloir on South Maroon was one of my favorite ‘re-visits’ and Missouri was such a fun ski the second time, I might consider going back for a third.
Jarrett: I like going back to Sneffels a lot. It’s just fun, the memories are fun, there are still runs to the North and west I haven’t done or seen. It is exemplary of the San Juans.
Brittany: I’ve been back to a few of the 14ers and have enjoyed trying out some other lines on them. The Snake on Sneffels was a goal I finally checked off the list last spring. But, I feel like I need to go back to Huron… I skied it so late in the year, and I think I’d like to go back and do it in better style and give that mountain some justice. That being said, I’d love to head back to the Landry Line on Pyramid too. The Landry is one line that is hard to top and Pyramid remains my most favorite of all the fourteeners.
Carl: North Maroon has everything. A sustained and aesthetic line, surrounded by gorgeous scenery, with a good bit of excitement without being over-the-top scary. On top of that it’s got a storied history among early ski mountaineers. I can’t wait to get back.
Matt: Pyramid was my favorite, I think that’s the most spectacular ski run I’ve ever done, although there are several I’d do again in a heartbeat.
Marc: I would like to go back and ride Pyramid the most. I thought it embodied a lot of the best parts of 14er ski mountaineering. The Landry Line is an incredibly steep and committing descent that has to be in to ride/ski it. It is a very aesthetic nice long continuous line with a solid approach. It was just one of those experiences where you look at the work you put in to get there (that day and through out your life) and the rewards are there. To me it was very fulfilling and the pinnacle of riding the 14ers.
What was your favorite 14er experience and why?
Lou: I’d have to say that skiing South Maroon with my son and some special alpinist friends is at the top of the list. Family, again, so special. But crawling over Broken Hand Pass in 100mph winds with my face getting cut from gravel also stands out (didn’t ski it that day). That’s a good example of how non existent the weather reports were in those days. Can you believe I drove all the way down there from Aspen for that experience? And since this question isn’t specific to “Colorado,” I’d add that skiing “14er” Denali from the summit in 2010 when I was 58 years old, again with my son, was one of the amazing experiences of my life. I couldn’t have done that without his help, what an experience to switch roles.
Ted: Skiing Pyramid with Chris Davenport and Neal (Beidleman) in 2006. It just seemed so unlikely— one of those “Wow, I can’t believe that just happened” moments that stick with you.
Frank: Skiing the line looker’s left of the Landry Line on Pyramid. Lou Dawson mentioned the line in his 14er guidebook as a possible first descent, so I really wanted to do it. It took several tries before I skied it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Aspen guys had already skied it, but maybe it was a first. And of course the East face of Castle as well- that’s the first peak that Brittany and I skied together.
Jordan: Hard to beat the day Joe and Andy and I skied the Snake Couloir on Sneffels in 20 inches of blower pow. But, man was it a long way back up and over to the car after.
Joe: Definitely two responses here… the first is about an attempt on Mount Massive. Jordan White and I had a bit too much youthful enthusiasm in December and got halfway up the southwest slopes before bailing due to heavy snow and wind. We had nearly skied back to the safety of the trees when a giant natural avalanche took us out from above. We miraculously both survived and self-evacuated. I broke a leg and lost a ski, Jordan lost both skis. What I remember most about that event is fighting my way out of a partial burial and looking downhill for Jordan. It was incredible! I watched him bust out of a debris pile from his own burial while at the same time pulling his beacon out to start the search for me. We learned a powerful lesson about natural avalanches that day.
The second experience was also with Jordan, this day on Capitol Peak. We saw a window open for the first calendar winter descent (as far as we know) and went for it in a daytrip. We were both in great shape and found good conditions on the Green Line. I vividly remember to this day the first wet-slides of the season pouring over the big cliffs as we made big turns past Pierre Lakes. Threading the needle on that one was awesome!
Christy: One of my best 14er experiences was skiing the Maroon Bells – also two of my favorite peaks. It was the beginning of June 2008, we’d had an incredible season, Ted had just finished skiing the 14ers, and we were still skiing. We went for North Maroon on Saturday and had so much fun, we went back and skied South Maroon the next day – it was a good weekend!
Jarrett: The East Face Wilson Peak with powder snow.
Brittany: This is really a tough question because there’s a “small picture” answer, and a large picture answer.
For the small picture, the Landry Line on Pyramid was my favorite fourteener experience. After two previous attempts, it felt great to have it go smoothly. The climb is fun and challenging enough to get you amped. And the ski is steep and long. Over 4000′-vertical of fun skiing is hard to find in Colorado, and the Landry Line has it. Maybe it was that it was my second to last fourteener, and the only one I had to try more than twice. But, the sense of accomplishment I felt after finishing Pyramid was wonderful.
For the larger picture, my favorite 14er experience was being able to connect with like-minded people and travel to ski throughout the state. The fourteeners gave me a reason to go to places that were unknown to me, to discover new mountains and new lines to ski. Through that, I met a network of amazing people who have become some of my greatest friends. I even met Frank, my now husband 🙂
Carl: Perhaps it’s just because it’s fresh in my mind, but my favorite 14er experience on skis came after I finished skiing them. A dozen good friends skied Torreys this past June followed by a cookout in the parking lot. We didn’t have the adventure of exploring a new line, but we also weren’t hustling to try to gain the summit to check it off the list, dealing with route finding issues, or as concerned about snowpack analysis given the current conditions. We took our time, sharing stories and heckling each other on the climb, skied a fun line, and generally enjoyed a relaxing day with great company. On the other end of the spectrum, Capitol is a close second.
Matt: Again, Pyramid pops into mind, though I had so many outstanding experiences that it would be hard to pick just one. Here are a few to choose from:
– Ben Conners and I had a perfect day on Huron, when everything just clicked into place
– Meeting Brittany, Frank, and Pam on Little Bear and skiing Baby Thunder
– Crestone Needle (Carl’s finisher) – perfect example of teamwork on a peak, plus we had all worked really hard and made multiple attempts so it was especially sweet to succeed
– The Chicago Basin 14ers trip was a true multimedia adventure, with the steam train ride, igloo camping in the basin, great climbing and skiing
More to Come
As stated at the beginning, this is the first part in a two part series of articles that focuses on interviewing those skiers and snowboarders who have completed descents of all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. We still have more questions to ask our fourteener finishers. Check back Wednesday morning for Part Two 🙂