Another winter within the mountains and upon the mountain is upon us, and not a day too soon, thanks Ullr. The mountain of winter’s choice depends on the person, but for those of us whose lives in one way or another revolve around the practice of skiing in the small though growing mountain towns of western America November is the beginning of the best time of the year. Snow and cold temperatures and white upon those peaks gladdens the heart and quickens the pulse of those who ski and snowboard and snowshoe and skate and, truth be told, the even larger numbers of those who in some actively uninvolved way have an economic or sentimental interest in how glad are those hearts, how quick those pulses.
Not for us are the frigid, unaffectionate words of Victor Hugo: “Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.” One imagines poor old Victor, hunched like a glowering gargoyle over some small desk in a dank, chill Left Bank apartment with one tiny window looking out upon Notre Dame, contemplating his own considerable tragedies and the general sufferings of mankind, completely missing that air temperature is not responsible for turning the heart to stone and that when water is transformed to ice you are not required to cower upon the river’s bank waiting for spring to unthaw your heart of stone. Instead, you can put on a warm layer of clothes and get outside and breathe some cold, clean, invigorating air and learn the joys of sliding upon frozen water. In Hugo’s case, it would have been French, 19th century winter’s version of putting into action the pop wisdom adage, “If you are given a lemon, make lemonade.” Victor would have been better off getting out of the city with its famous, Gothic, man-made cathedral and taking a trip to Chamonix to cast his eyes upon nature’s own cathedrals, the Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc, among others, and walking up to Argentiere and checking out the Mer De Glace, the sight of which will thaw the stoniest heart. His spirits would surely have been raised if he had consulted Ullr instead of the deformed and definitely downer if good hearted Quasimodo and taken a walk in the Alps and breathed some clean, fresh, frigid air rather than holing up in Paris contemplating the dour, gargoylesque spirits spouting water off the flying buttresses of Notre Dame.
No, Victor Hugo’s dark view of winter is not for us who live in mountain town western America not by accident but by choice. We are more in tune with and the spirit of one of the most extraordinary skiers in the history of snow, Fridtjof Nansen. Indeed, Nansen, explorer, skier, scientist, statesman and humanitarian, was among the most amazing humans in the history of man, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his part in saving the lives of some 400,000 prisoners of war after World War I. Nansen exemplified the spirit of what Dick Munn, an adult skiing friend of my childhood who loved to ski and who had seen war and wanted nothing more to do with it, once said to me: “If everyone in the world skied, there would be no more wars.” Whether he was right or not in his idealism, I have always remembered it and the fact that Munn was inspired to think of it by the activity and place and season of skiing. Like Nansen, Dick Munn was warmed and made contemplative by skiing, the mountains and winter. A man for all seasons, Nansen wrote with a skier’s heart of skiing in the Arctic, “Tuesday, November 13. Thermometer –38 degrees C. (-36.4 degrees F)…..A delightful snowshoe (ski) run in the light of the full moon. Is life a vale of tears? Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind….through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snowshoes glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more, indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from another world, from a life to come.”
Yea, Fridtjof.
Yea, winter is here with its short days and long nights and brisk air that waken the body at first inhalation, putting it on full alert that this is the time to give complete attention to the smallest details of survival. It is a time to take note of those patches of ice on the sidewalk, the road, the ski hill and in the thoughts and hearts and intentions of those whose actions and decisions might make a difference in your life—the driver with cell phone at the ear coming around a glazed corner with an equally glazed look in the eye, the chattering of skis or snowboard coming up behind you with the sound of imperfect control, or someone who spins the truth with such icy determination that believing them could, indeed, turn the water of heaven and the heart of man into stone.


The following appeared as a letter to the editor in Powder Magazine last spring, in support of an article Porter Fox wrote in the online Powder Magazine at

November 15, 2016
Bozeman, Montana

To the editor:

Re: Those who support deniers of human caused climate change.

The world of skiing is a microcosm of the larger world. I am one of those fortunate enough to have spent my life in this privileged, tiny, dependent on snow sphere. My gratitude for a life in skiing includes some awareness that all things are connected, no matter how large or small one’s world of experience and attention, and that each of us are responsible for how the world is faring. That is, our actions and thoughts matter.

Snow is the literal foundation of skiing and, as reservoir for the waters of spring and summer, the foundation of much larger spheres of life than are found in the corporate properties and offices of Vail Resorts, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley, Sugarloaf and others. Human caused climate change is and has been and will continue to decimate the world’s environment and ecology, including the foundation of the world of skiing. It is a crisis of unprecedented danger to all life on Earth, and its menace will be immeasurably compounded for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Skiers and other human beings who attempt to deny human caused climate change are absurd and shameful, and their futile attempts to deny reality are based on stupidity, ignorance or purposeful ignorance. Stupidity can sometimes be alleviated by experience. Ignorance can be cured by well-intentioned and thorough education. Purposeful ignorance—which afflicts those who are neither stupid nor ignorant but whose compassion, personal ethics and morality have been stunted and deformed into deception by greed, ideology, laziness or the illusion of disconnection from all things not serving their self-interest—can be coaxed into reality by honest, courageous journalism.

Thank you, Porter Fox and Powder Magazine, for being the first major skiing writer and publication to address this issue and shine some light on the dark deniers. Don’t stop now.


Dick Dorworth


The number of skiers and snowboarders who climb up on their own power in order to slide down snow covered backcountry slopes has grown significantly in recent years. Many of these climbing skiers/boarders also ride ski lifts and slide down groomed runs some of the time and others haven’t ridden a lift in years. A few have never been on a lift. This cultural/athletic phenomenon is as evident in the Wood River Valley as in the rest of the skiing world, and the reasons for this are varied and personal. One oft quoted explication came from Pepi Stiegler, Olympic gold and silver medal winner in alpine skiing who directed the Jackson Hole alpine ski school for many years. When asked why he and other alpine skiers are spending more and more time in the backcountry, he replied, “It’s like it was in the beginning. It’s pure. Skiing in the backcountry is like going home.”
Other motivations include economic (lift tickets are expensive), a search for solitude or at least quietude, the physical benefits of a good workout and the mental/emotional profits of a day away from the madding crowd(s) in a pristine environment. Going home, at least to those for whom skiing has been a foundation for rich, rewarding, healthful lives, is a return to the basics in much the same spirit as eating the fare from your own home grown organic garden. It costs less money and more effort to grow, but the results are healthier for body and mind than the less arduous and more expensive alternatives.
For several reasons beyond the scope of this writing there is more terrain easily accessible to Idaho’s Wood River Valley backcountry skiers/boarders and fewer people using it than in any other major ski area in western America. As a result the local backcountry skiing/board scene is relatively quiet, both in the hills and in the bars. In contrast, on a busy weekend the backcountry chaos on Teton Pass between Victor, Idaho and Wilson, Wyoming will see hundreds of people, feuds and dented fenders over the limited parking, lines of climbers on the way up and few lines left after 10 a.m. on the way down and recognizable as home only to those from very large families. Even the social media obsession of the Go Pro/Facebook generation has not (so far) brought such attention and congestion to the vast backcountry terrain surrounding the Wood River Valley.
Some (not all) zealous purists among local backcountry regulars can be tight-lipped about their favorite lines and peaks and how to get there, considering those of a more communicative nature déclassé. Such zealous purity inspires words not usually printed here to describe those who use helicopters to access their favorite backcountry lines, though, in truth, some of those same puritans have been known to use snowmobiles to cross the long, arduous and monotonous flats to approach those same lines.
Still, the word gets out about the best, most easily accessed backcountry areas, and anyone with enough interest in local backcountry pursuits to acquire the proper equipment, attire, attitude and energy to return to the basics will quickly discover enough skiing/boarding in the Wood River Valley to last a lifetime.
After all, it’s like going home and is where I live in winter.


1. A person who avoids work and sponges on others; loafer; idler.
2. A tramp, hobo, or derelict.
3.Informal. An enthusiast of a specific sport or recreational activity, especially one who gives it priority over work, family life, etc.: a ski bum; a tennis bum.

“When you are enthusiastic about what you do, you feel this positive energy. It’s very simple.”
Paulo Coelho

Informal is an apt description of most people I would consider ski bums. Their lives, at least while on skis and in many but not all cases off, are filled with enthusiasm, simplicity and positive energy. Except for a few fortunate trust-fund recipients, all the ski bums I know or know of work at least as much as their more formal, mainstream non-or even anti-ski bum brethren who do not ski as often as they might like. No ski bum is accurately portrayed with the more derogatory (formal?) definition of ‘bum’.
Au contraire.
The life of a ski bum both on the mountain and off is filled with effort and there is neither time nor space for loafing, idling or hopping trains, though in truth there are a few derelicts in the ranks. While the term ‘ski bum’ is of recent origin, it is inconceivable that the enthusiast who gave skiing priority over many other aspects of life has not existed since the invention of the ski sometime around 5000 BC. In modern ski culture there seems to be a perception that the ski bum is a recent phenomenon, but this is not true. In North America the first high profile ski bum was Snowshoe Thompson (1827-1876), though there were surely others. From 1856 to 1876 Thompson carried mail across the snowbound Sierra Nevada in winter on his homemade 10 foot long 25 pound oak skis. He made the 90 miles from Placerville, California to Genoa (then called Mormon Station), Nevada in 3 days and the return in 2 days. He made the journey 2 to 4 times a month for 20 years and was never paid for his efforts. Every ski bum reading this can relate to Snowshoe’s enthusiasm, positive energy and the simplicity of his solitary life in the mountains between Placerville and Genoa.
So, by the time I was old enough to determine my own priorities the lifestyle of the ski bum was a well established if unacknowledged tradition in North American skiing, and so it remains. In 1957 Ron Funk, Tony Perry and I lived together in one small room of a residential home in Aspen while we trained for alpine ski racing. I don’t remember the rent, but somehow $25 a month each sounds right. One of our (and others) money saving strategies involved daily lift tickets which cost around $10. At that time in Aspen lift tickets were attached to the ski pant zipper by a small, metal, detachable keychain. One of our group would buy a ticket each morning, attach it to the pant zipper, get on the lift, detach the ticket, insert it in a spare glove tucked inside the parka and drop the glove to a waiting fellow ski racer at the first lift tower who would then repeat the process. And repeat. It required a lot of effort, attention to detail, inconvenience and imagination to be a ski racing ski bum in the 1950s. We traveled together in full cars to share gas expenses and sometimes drove all night between races to save the cost of a bed. As I wrote in “Night Driving” about a 1959 (when gasoline sold for 25 cents a gallon) nonstop trip from upstate New York to Reno with Don Brooks, Redmond Wilcox, Gardner Smith and Renee Cox (later Gorsuch): “At around two in the morning we pulled up to the back entrance of my parents’ tiny Reno apartment. We had been on the road for sixty-five hours. We unloaded about twenty pairs of skis from the rack and stored them in a corner of the living room. My fellow passengers immediately crashed on the floor in sleeping bags, but my fatigue wouldn’t let me sleep. I showered, put on clean clothes and took a refreshing walk along the Truckee River. When I got back, I joined my mates on the floor, and I slept the sleep of colored dreams. In the morning I loaned Brooks enough money for a bus ride to Portland and saw him off. A week later he returned my money, paying me from his first check. Gardner hung around a couple of days, and when Reno made him nervous, he moved on down the line. Red stayed a bit longer and then just disappeared one day, driving off into the Northwest (I think) in his trusty black Oldsmobile. I got a job on a newspaper in Fallon, commuting 120 miles a day six days a week. Richard Nixon was going to try for the presidency in a year. It was a long summer.”
By the early 1960s Sun Valley had become my ski bum home. At that time Sun Valley was still owned by Union Pacific Railroad and many jobs within the company included room, board, a lift pass, some money for partying and other necessities and time to ski several hours a day. As a ski racer with friends in management I had the good fortune of some advantages, and I was able to work as a bus boy, pizza cook and bartender, prioritized according to training and ski racing schedules. One of my roommates in the Sun Valley dorms was the irrepressible Bobbie Burns who was in the process of revolutionizing freestyle skiing with his flamboyance, enthusiasm, energy and unbelievable skiing skills. Another year I lived for free with Funk in the small Ketchum home he owned in those days. One year Mike Brunetto and I rented a two bedroom basement apartment in Ketchum, though we both worked for Sun Valley, so we could have more personal space, privacy and comfort than the dorms allowed in those times between skiing and working. Mike later became one of the most respected ski designers and manufacturers (as did Burns) in the business. He worked for Head, Dura-Fiber, Lynx, The Ski and K2 before starting his own ski companies, RD and then Wolf Ski which were made in Sun Valley. Wolf Ski business hours were 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. until whenever the day’s work was done in order that the staff, including Brunetto, could ski.
In 1963 I took a job in La Parva, Chile as a ski instructor (and which taught me to teach skiing), included round trip transportation from the U.S., a few dollars and time off to train and join Funk and C.B.Vaughan for the speed runs in Portillo.
In 1964 I had the opportunity, which included a free plane ticket, to go to Europe and race for a month. I took it and at the end of the month decided I wanted to stay in Europe. I cashed in the return portion of the plane ticket and spent more than a year skiing and racing in Europe, working in the Kneissl ski factory in Austria, working for a spedition (moving company) in Germany and teaching skiing on my own in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
When ski racing ended for me in 1965 I returned to America and took my first real job as a ski coach in Heavenly. For most of the next 30 years I earned much of my living coaching and teaching skiing (and writing about it, of course). My enthusiasm for skiing has never waned and I still manage between 100 and 140 days a year on skis, some of them in the backcountry. The purpose of my priorities was always to stay on skis. That’s what ski bums do, stay on their skis.
It’s very simple.


AMIE ENGERBRETSON: More than a pretty face


Like every avid (addicted?) skier past a certain age, I am impressed, awed, mind-boggled, inspired, sometimes alarmed and always intrigued by the exploits, standards of skill and commitment and thin lines of error in the lives of today’s best skiers. (Note: not the best ski racers, a separate category.) Their lifestyle has evolved into a media savvy/GoPro/self-promotion culture whose members ski outrageous lines down unskiable mountain faces with a few unbelievable inverted aerials thrown (sic) in to keep the incomprehensible interesting. I don’t speak for all skiers past a certain age, but evolution of a lifestyle is fascinating—even if you not entirely facetiously refer to yourself within that culture as a dinosaur.

Last week this old ski dinosaur had the pleasure of coffee and conversation with one of today’s high profile professional skiers with sufficient sponsors to support her passion for skiing and its traveling demands in comfortable style. Amie Engerbretson is 28, began skiing at 3 in Squaw Valley and is pretty with a smile to melt glaciers. Her intelligence and demeanor of satisfaction and joy in the life she has chosen are obvious. We had never met, but I coached Amie’s mother, Nancy O’Connell, when she was a young ski racer in Squaw more than 35 years ago and knew Amie as one of those inspiring, mind-boggling skier/athletes who has made visible the continuous evolution of skiing and, thereby, skiers.

An hour with Amie eased my alarm and increased my respect and appreciation of the modern culture that skis so well along those thin lines of error. What we see in magazines and film is the edited version of considered thought, the judgment of experience, the skill of training and the on-going process of learning from mistakes. I’ve long maintained that skiing is a metaphor for life, and Amie was a reminder that life both on skis and off is a continuum. It is worth contemplating that the under 30 generation is expanding the limits of the possible, nourishing the culture with vision, hope and passion and are the group of eligible voters least likely to vote for Dinosaur Don the Trumpster.

On her website she writes in a blog post titled ‘Free Spirit or Homeless…, “My only master is Mother Nature and I am free to make moves completely at the whim of the NOAA forecast.” In another, ‘Blind Spot,’ she and an entire film crew overlooked the obvious and she was completely buried in an avalanche that could have easily killed her. “I knew that the accident report was going to be one that if I had read it about someone else I would have thought, ‘Wow. Those guys were idiots.’… I realized that I had just been a primary witness to the most dangerous aspect of backcountry travel—the human factor… I have always thought I was too smart to make that mistake, but I did. At some point we all have. I am truly grateful that the situation was not worse. Most importantly, I am grateful that this can be a wake up and a lesson in humility for me, and everyone like me, to stay smart, not forget to use our brains and to always check our blind spots.

The first words on her website are: “Amie Engerbretson is more than a pretty face.”


Like many older people I find in recent years that I learn more from those younger than from my peers. I recently gained a new sliver of insight into the matter of risk tolerance from my youngest son, Jason, who lives in Santa Cruz, California and is an avid surfer. Several years ago I heard about Mavericks, the famous, big, dangerous wave an hour north of Santa Cruz. I asked Jason if he knew about and had been to Mavericks. “I don’t do that kind of thing, Dad,” he replied. As a parent I was understandably relieved. A couple of  years ago the fine biographical film “Chasing Mavericks,” about two Mavericks icons, was released. It is, in my view, a superior film about the human quality of risk tolerance and much more. After I saw it I asked Jason if he had seen it. He knows some of the people portrayed in the film but his busy life as a parent, husband, firefighter, surfer and mountain bike rider had left him no time for the film. But he said something that resonates with lessons for those willing to learn them. He said, “You know, there are only a handful of surfers in the world capable of riding Mavericks, and within that handful there are only a few who want to.”

About 20 years ago I was talking about the latest casualty of the mountains with a friend, a fellow climbing guide. It is a theme that people who live, work and play in mountains return to all too often. Our discussion that day veered away from the specific most recent death of a climber we knew to all the people we had known who had died in the mountains over the period of our lives. Some of them had been friends, a few close ones. For reasons I’ve forgotten, we decided that we would search our memories and each make a list of all the people we knew who had died in the mountains. The next day we resumed our conversation with our respective lists which totaled more than 70.
We were both surprised. We should not have been.
There are more names on those lists 20 years later, but neither of us have kept track, nor shall we. People die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and it is both easy and practical for mountain people to acknowledge the inevitability and constancy of such events. It is not nearly so painless to move beyond acknowledgement to acceptance. Death and injury, untimely or not, and the questions and diverse answers that arise from them are often neither common nor sensible to everyone, and they are never painless.
Nor are they limited to people and activities of the mountains. They are integral to human life, regardless of where or how lived. There is a usually accepted perception (belief?) that people who engage in such mountainous activities as climbing, skiing, hang gliding, paraponting, kayaking, snowmobiling, snowboarding and the like put themselves at more risk than the general public. A physician I know who views climbing and, I suspect, climbers with jaundiced eye once showed me an article in a medical journal claiming that, statistically, a climber on Denali was more likely to be injured or die than a soldier in combat. I have no idea what data was used to determine that statistic, but that it appeared in a mainstream medical journal illuminates the aforementioned perception. When confronted with such a factual overview of an aspect of life you care about, it is always good to keep in mind the Disraeli adage “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” For me, conflating the unnecessary degradation and horror that war brings to humans with the fundamental beauty, pleasure and spiritual uplifting that mountains instill in them is tasteless in the extreme and a disservice to human understanding of the process of the life, which, inevitably, encompasses death to skier, climber, soldier, housewife and spy alike. I don’t know how to determine such a thing, but I suspect that, statistically, physicians who have climbed on Denali lead healthier, happier, and more creative and perhaps even longer lives than do battlefield and more mainstream physicians. And, yes, it is tasteless and an impediment to both understanding and appreciating life to conflate the two, a risk and a choice I am not willing to take. My suspicion is neither a certainty nor a statistic, only an affirmation of the integrity of each person’s preference of how to live and of the individual tolerance for risk that choice entails, whether in mountains, cities, battlefields or industrial farms.
I am reminded of Tom Patey’s well known verse:

“Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow
And sow your wild oats while ye may.
For the toothless old tykes of tomorrow,
Were the tigers of yesterday.”

Patey, a fine climber (and doctor), made a simple, human mistake and died in a rappelling accident at the age of 48.
Like all people who have spent a significant amount of their lives engaged in mountainous pursuits, I have dealt with, thought about, observed, engaged in and been affected by the risks and the simple human mistakes inherent to that life. The operational human quality in dealing with those activities I choose to call, for a reason that will soon be clear, ‘risk tolerance.’ Personally, I am more comfortable (and, I will argue, safer) pursuing a day of any mountainous endeavor with which I am familiar than, say, driving the congested freeways of southern California, walking the streets of many neighborhoods of any large city on earth, dining regularly in the best known fast/junk food restaurants or, needless to say, engaging in violence, whether personally or patriotically inspired. This implies that people are more comfortable (and safer) with the familiar than with the exotic and unrecognizable, but even that does not insulate them from death and injury. Every year more than 30,000 people are killed in car wrecks in America (in 1972 it was 54,000). Every year more than 2500 people are killed in house fires, almost all of them caused by nothing more complicated, risky or unusual than cooking a meal, and more than 13,000 are injured in these fires. In 1978 more than 6,000 people were killed and more than 20,000 injured in house fires. These statistics do not include the firefighters killed and injured trying to save the lives and homes of American people engaged in an activity no more exotic or exposed to risk than cooking dinner for their families. Cooking a meal and driving to the store are not considered high risk activities, at least not statistically, but every day people die and are injured in their pursuit because something went wrong.
And after nearly every accident in the mountains and elsewhere there is a search for answers to why it happened, seeking lessons to be learned to prevent the same mistakes being repeated, sometime assigning blame, always striving to make tidy and comprehensible the complex and often inconceivable. And more often than not those searches turn up human error as a primary factor, sometimes incomprehensible error, sometimes completely conceivable. That the lessons are not learned is self-evident. As mentioned, people die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and so they will continue to be.
That people often act like sheep and will follow the herd even when knowing they are walking toward the wolves is well established. There are enough well-publicized avalanches that resulted in multiple deaths to illustrate this. In instances like these, personal tolerance for risk, personal judgment and personal integrity itself are sacrificed (sic) to herd bravura. This dynamic can be observed every day from small groups in every walk of life to entire counties including but not limited to our own. This does not imply that the herd is always wrong just because it is a herd. Sometimes the herd avoids the wolves while one of the sheep goes to them.
Four experienced, competent, knowledgeable backcountry skiers were at the top of a steep bowl covered with a foot and a half of fresh snow draining into a long gully with a couple of flat spots along the way. Three of them skied, one at a time, down skier’s right of the bowl, into the gully and to the bottom where the snow ran out and they were safe. The fourth skier waited for them before moving left to the center of the bowl and jumped off a fifteen foot cliff to land on the steepest part of the bowl covered with new snow. Naturally, predictably even, the slope avalanched immediately and took the skier for a 1500 foot ride that temporarily buried him in one of the flat spots before a second wave of the slide pushed him along until he wound up at the bottom partially buried, a bit beat up, but very lucky and alive. His friends dug him out and they all went on with their lives. Nice story that easily could have ended not so agreeably. At the end of the official report of this incident was a section titled ‘lessons learned.’ Not included in those lessons was what seemed to me the obvious one of avoiding jumping off cliffs onto steep, freshly snow loaded terrain. When I queried the writer of the report about this exclusion he replied, “Some people have a higher tolerance for risk than others.”
While the statement is true, it seems to me in this and other instances it sidesteps the onerous task of learning the lesson which, as human history illustrates, is quintessential human behavior. This dynamic is succinctly summed up by Kurt Vonnegut’s response to the well known George Santayana insight, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
As a species, as a culture, as a lifestyle, as members of communities of mountaineers, skiers, firemen, housewives, school teachers, politicians, writers, sky divers, bartenders, bankers, clergy, drug addicts and thieves we are, as the great Vonnegut noted, doomed to repeat the past. That is what it is to be alive. The silver lining in being alive is that as individuals we are sometimes capable of learning, sometimes without even remembering the past, much less having to repeat its mistakes. As a group, any group—-any group—-that capability is not so evident.
There are always those individuals in every adventure and aspect of life who stand out from the group by their ability to learn the lesson, gain the insight, raise the standard and in some small or large way expand the limits of the possible by example. Sometimes these individuals learn from their own egregious mistakes, sometimes they learn without them. (The skier mentioned earlier who jumped off the cliff onto a loaded steep slope reportedly told a good friend, “That will never happen again.” Good for him, the individual who learned.) Usually, those who raise the standards become the stars, the leaders, the ones to emulate and, eventually, exceed. They become the beacon and the authority, and they do not last long. It has been only 60 years since Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans to climb Everest, a milestone in mountaineering and human endeavor. Now any person with $60,000, a modicum of fitness and the desire for a piece of the action can climb Everest. My old friend Yuishiro Miura, who climbed Everest when he was 70 years old and again when he was 75, climbed it again at the age of 80. Ueli Steck, arguably the finest climber in the world at the time, and his two climbing partners were attacked by an angry mob of a hundred Sherpas whose profession involves getting those $60,000 clients up the mountain. The Sherpas were angered by a perceived violation of ‘etiquette’ on the part of the climbers.
Risk tolerance and etiquette delineate boundaries and, like fences, create good neighbors. When they are crossed some of the dynamics of accidents and high achievement in the mountains and elsewhere come a bit more into focus. I will argue (admittedly without having been there) that Steck’s personal experience, focus, knowledge and unusual skill provide him a risk tolerance and security for both himself and those around him not available to any of the professional Sherpas who were so offended by and, according to reports, violent toward him and his climbing mates. But the Sherpas do not and should not be expected to understand that. Unlike the intention of etiquette, risk tolerance is not democratic. For the Sherpas, Everest is for clients, not climbers, and one ignores that cultural reality according to one’s own tolerance for risk. Ho ho.
In an age when personal and professional spraying and promotion via films, I phones, the internet, GoPros, You Tube and Facebook are both immediate and endemic to the mountain culture, the latest exploit of the standard bearers, the super stars and the icons of the edge is immediately known and available to the world. The levels of achievement and risk tolerance of every super star of the mountains, seas, plains and cities in history are connected to and built upon the efforts of their respective communities. But those levels, no matter how well sprayed and promoted to the general populace, are only available to a few. Just because one sees a film of someone jumping off a cliff onto a steep slope and carving great turns in powder does not mean that every other similar mountain slope will not slide. Every slope, like very person, is different. The reasons for this are complex and obvious and, for some, difficult to accept and impossible to learn. As the good Kurt observed, we are as a species doomed to repeat the past. As individuals we can make some progress.
The level of risk tolerance for, say, Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Hayden Kennedy, Shaun White, Kristen Ulmer, Will Gadd and others who came before and more who will follow, is different in both kind and degree from those of less commitment and effort, mountain intelligence and instinct, attention to detail and that indefinable quality that some are born with and most are not that can be polished and enhanced but never earned. It can be called ‘genius’ but might be nothing more than having been born with better vision or hand/foot-eye coordination than others. However one chooses to define it, that quality keeps some alive in mountains where others perish. As standards move up so do expectations, personal and cultural, but in all things there are only a few who are capable of living on or close to the edge. And none of them can live there for very long, time being as relative as levels of risk tolerance. And when the many push to where only the few can, with luck, survive there will be accidents remarkably similar to those in the past.
Jason’s insight is always worth keeping in mind. That is, always listen to yourself—not the herd, not the promotion, not the cameraman, not the super star, not the comparison, certainly not the expert or authority—just yourself, your trusted friend who is the only one who can differentiate between wanting and thinking you should want to. Only you know what a tolerable risk is for you, and usually, not always, that risk is made more dangerous to the degree that it is comparative.


The first recorded speed skiing record was in 1867 in La Porte, California by a woman with the provocative name of Lottie Joy, who traveled 48.9 mph/79.003 kph. The length of her run and the method of timing are unknown, making hers one of several unofficial but significant world speed skiing records. The second was also in La Porte by Tommy Todd who traveled down a 1230 foot track in an average speed of 87.7 mph/141.001kph in 1874. If Todd’s timing was anywhere near accurate, it is not unreasonable to speculate that he was traveling near 100 mph during that last part of his run. Joy and Todd were part of sizeable ski crowd in northern California in the 19th century, many of them Norwegian gold miners who introduced skiing to the area and who passed the long Sierra winters organizing social and competitive events around skiing. They used hand crafted wooden skis up to 12 feet long and one long pole for balance. Each racer’s secret formula for wax in these races was closely guarded, but persistent reports indicated that human sperm was a key ingredient of the best recipes. These concoctions were called “dope.”
It needs mentioning that while Joy was the first speed queen and Todd the first speed king, they are only the first we know about. People have been skiing for thousands of years, and it is inconceivable that they have not always pursued pure speed for the sake of the speed. It is in the nature of man to do so, and that we do not have speed skiing records prior to 1867 only indicates the relative and incomplete scope of recorded history itself. It is not too much to imagine that buried in some obscure ancient Scandinavian piece of writing is a description of skiers schussing the steepest, longest hill hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago, just to see how fast they could go; their ‘time’ perhaps measured by some method we have forgotten.
As it is, the first official speed skiing record was set by Gustav Lantschner in 1930 in St. Moritz. He was timed at 65.588 mph/105.675 kph. The following year Leo Gasperl moved the speed up considerably by going 84.692 mph/136.600 kph also in St. Moritz. Gasperl accomplished this by attaching hay hooks to the front of his skis which he held onto with his hands and having a rudimentary aerodynamic cone strapped to his butt.
Gasperl’s record held until 1947 when the great Italian skier, Zeno Colo, who would be World and Olympic champion in the next few years, went 98.761 mph/159.292 kph in Cervinia. This record maintained until 1959 when Edoardo Agraiter went 99.307 mph/160.174 kph in Sestriere.
In between these two records, a significant and seminal and extremely bold speed skiing event took place in Portillo, Chile. Under the guidance of Emile Allais, and with the participation of American racers Ron Funk (who fell at nearly 100 mph with bear trap bindings and long thongs and was seriously injured), Bud Werner and Marvin Melville, the American Ralph Miller went 108.7 mph/175.402 in Portillo. Miller was timed by Allais over 50 meters with a hand held stop watch. At 100 mph a tenth of a second difference over 50 meters is about 18 mph, and anyone who has ever used a hand stop watch knows that two timers timing the same thing will always have a tenth of a second or more difference. For that reason Miller’s run is considered unofficial. He may have only gone 99 mph, but it is just as likely he went 112 mph. People who have raced on the Portillo track and know where he started tend to believe Miller was the first to go over 100 mph.
But officially that distinction goes to Luigi DiMarco who in 1960 traveled 101.224 mph/163.265 kph in Cervinia. DiMarco, the dominant speedster of the early ‘60s, set another record of 108.349 mph/174.757 kph in 1964, also in Cervinia. In between, however, in July 1963 Alfred Plangger went 104.298 mph/168.224 kph in Cervinia, and two months later Americans C.B.Vaughan and Dick Dorworth tied for a record of 106.520 mph/171.428 kph in Portillo in an event organized by Ron Funk.
The ‘60s saw the first real technological breaks (and breakthroughs) from those of traditional downhill skiing, starting an evolution of speed skiing technology and techniques that continues to this day. Some of these found their way back into traditional ski racing. The first bent ski poles designed to fit around the body of a skier in a tuck were bent to form in a Cervinia blacksmith shop. The first non-porous speed suits were developed; these suits are now made of polyurethane coated polypropylene, a long way from Lottie Joy’s woolen skirts. The first silver dollar size ski pole baskets and the first low profile, flat tip skis were made. Cervinia’s annual Kilometro Lanciato was the premier speed event in the world from which came most of the world records from the early ’60 until the late ’70 when it was discontinued because it was held on a glacier on the Plateau Rosa and its crevasses grew too large to safely bridge.
Eighty nine years after Lottie Joy raced in California, the first official women’s record was set by Emanuel Spreafico in 1963 in Cervinia at 78.82 mph/127.138 kph. The following year Kristl Staffner pushed it up to 88.802 mph/143.230 kph, also in Cervinia.
Japan’s first speed skier, Yuichiro Miura, competed in the KL in 1964. He had trained for the event on Mt. Fuji, using a parachute to slow down in place of the run out Mt. Fuji lacks. Though he never held the speed record, Miura finished seventh with 172.084 kph, more than respectable. He fell eight times that week while traveling over 100 mph and walked away from every fall, bruised but unbowed. The experience inspired him to go to Mt. Everest a few years later to take advantage of less air resistance at higher altitudes and attempt a world speed record on the tallest mountain on earth. Though finding terrain and building a track on Mt. Everest suitable for skiing over 100 mph is unreasonable and the actual skiing he accomplished there was minimal, Miura did make a name for himself as “The Man Who Skied Down Everest,” and the documentary film of that expedition won an Academy Award. In 2002 Miura, at the age of 70, became the oldest man to climb Mt. Everest. He accomplished this in the company of his son, the first father/son team to climb the tallest peak. He climbed Everest again when he was 75 and then again in 2013 at the age of 80 but says he won’t try again.
On a more somber note, the first (but not the last) speed skiing death occurred in 1965 when Walter Mussner skied off the Cervinia track at 105 mph. The helmets of that time were the same ones used by downhillers, and the most aerodynamic position using them was to put the head down and essentially to ski almost blind. One element in Mussner’s fatal accident was that he had put his head down and was unaware his line was taking him off the prepared track.
Within a few years a big revolution in helmets, poles, fairings, speed suits and skis was occurring in the world of speed skiing. Helmets were both more aerodynamic and allowed better visibility. The ski equipment manufacturing companies, working with the best speed skiers, began developing drastically new and better equipment. Tuck positions and equipment were tested and adapted in wind tunnels used by automobile and airplane manufacturers. In time, a few racers (notably Sean Cridland, Kalevi Hakkinen and Kirsten Culver) mounted their skis on the tops of cars and practiced their tuck positions at over 150 mph on the roads of Finland and the Salt Flats of Utah. Techniques improved and racers’ expectations of themselves and of the boundaries of the possible continued to expand. By 1970 speed skiing was ready to begin a rapid push into velocities that would have been unimaginable only a few years earlier.
In 1970 the Japanese skier Morishita Masaru broke DiMarco’s six year old record by a hefty margin, traveling 113.703 mph/183.392 kph in Cervinia on a pair of Yamaha skis and beginning a remarkable decade in speed skiing history. Cathy Breyton became the first woman to ski over 100 mph when she went 103.300 mph/165.000 kph in Portillo in 1978. That decade was dominated by the American Steve McKinney who set four world speed records on three different tracks (Cervinia, Portillo and Les Arcs) and was the first skier to travel over 200 kph. McKinney was the leader of an era of speed skiing and was instrumental in several significant changes in the sport. One of them was the formation of International Speed Skiing (ISS) the organizing body of the first professional speed skiing circuit which for a few years in the early 1980s staged professional races all over North America. The most significant of these races were in Silverton, Colorado where in 1982 and 1983 Franz Weber set two records, the latter at 129.017 mph/208.029 kph, and Marti Martin-Kuntz set a woman’s record of 111.114 mph/179.104 kph.By the late ‘80s the professional circuit had come unraveled and the FIS was sanctioning speed races in preparation for speed skiing to be a demo event at the 1992 Olympics in France. That event was a huge success, with Michel Prufer setting a record of 142.165 mph/229.299 kph for men and Torja Mulari going 135.931 mph/219.245 for a women’s record. However, a Swiss speed skier was killed the morning of the final race while warming up. He was free skiing and was not on the track when he collided with a snow machine and died. This tragedy which was not connected to speed skiing contributed to the IOC’s decision to not include speed skiing in the Olympics.
Whether or not speed skiing is included in the Olympics, it continues to evolve and grow in response to the natural human curiosity about the question every skier asks: “How fast can I go?” A modern speed skier needs some special equipment the normal recreation skier does not have. In addition to a polyurethane coated suit, racers use aerodynamic helmets that look like something from a Star Wars film, 240 cm skis, the narrowest boots available and foam fairings to fit them, bent poles filled with lead, gloves that are leather on the inside and rubber on the outside, and a fire retardant high density foam back protector to cut down on burn injuries in a 140 mph fall. Also, speed tracks are groomed to near perfection by winch cats guided by lasers to make a nearly impeccably smooth surface.
At this writing (April 2014) the fastest skiers in history are an Italian man and a Swedish woman. Simone Origone has gone 156.8 mph/252.450 kph, and Sanna Tidstrand has traveled 150.74 mph/242.590 kph. Michael Milton of Australia holds the record for one-legged skiers at 132.76 mph/213.650 kph. While these speeds seem to be close to the limits of the possible, that is how it has seemed since the days of Lottie Joy and Tommy Todd. More than 300 skiers have traveled faster than 200 kph. It is impossible (and thankless) to predict the limits of the possible in skiing, but one thing Tidstrand’s speed makes clear is that women are closing the gap on men in the world of speed skiing.


The God of Skiing by Peter Kray is a reverent, ribald, realistic mixture of fact, fiction and fantasy about what some refer to as the sport of skiing but which high priests and devoted acolytes alike know as a way of life. Peter Kray is a beautiful, insightful and devoted writer, and what I can’t resist thinking of as The Book of Kray is among the very best books about the spirit and practice of skiing as a way of life ever written.
At this writing, just days after two U.S.S.A. developmental team members were killed in an avalanche in Soelden, Austria it struck me that Kray wrote the introduction to the book in Soelden in 2013 and concludes it thus: “In order to tell what’s true, I made up a couple of things. But only to balance out what I’m still afraid of telling. And I present the events as much by year as I do by season, which means you can call it a novel if that makes it easier to understand. Or a documentary. Or skiing’s double album. It is the celebration of a sport made of cold and clouds and the anticipation that the white water will come to wash us clean again. It’s the explanation of why Tack Strau told the reporter in Alaska, “Skiing is made of gravity and speed. It’s dying all the time.”
Yes, and being born all the time in many forms, including literature as good as “The God of Skiing.” Those of a certain age and familiar with a certain time and place of skiing who know about Fritz Stammberger will be drawn to the book simply because a photo of Fritz is on the cover. Those who don’t know of Stammberger will stop to look because the photo and the title fit together as perfectly as the line only you can see through the trees on the best powder day of the season.
Yes, skiing is a way of life made of the freedoms to be found in gravity and speed and the skills acquired playing with them in the snow and cold and mountains in which we live. Kray’s book includes his time in Jackson Hole at the base of the Grand Tetons (which in French means big nipples but in the vernacular describes what they are attached to). In that time he met Bill Briggs, the first to ski from the summit of the Grand Teton, about which he writes, “Once you have seen those peaks, the photographic evidence of Bill Briggs’ epic ski descent down the face of the Grand Teton in 1971 looks like a nude, a weather bleached church on a moon-bathed hill. His thin ski tracks down the peak are the black and white prototype of something bare and yet to be seen, as stark and unimaginable as a lunar landing, as if they were the footprints in the sand of a man trying to sprint off the edge of the world.”
But even the most hard ass skier can only ski 5 or 6 hours a day and “The God of Skiing” does not leave out the remaining 18 or 19 hours. For instance, of “The Stewardess” he writes, “In the morning I could watch her perfect round ass in the lightbulb above the loft like a poor man’s mirror. Everything was beautiful and round about her—her blonde bangs, brown eyes and perfect boobs—like Bambi in the fields with the sweet smell of flowers. Like I was a big Texas cowboy drilling for oil.”
In the section titled “The Grievous Angel,” Kray writes, ‘Gravity’s the only thing that matters,’ Tack said…….’The sky is all in your mind…..It’s just an illusion to create a feeling of distance—an imaginary barrier.’
“After the third joint it didn’t matter. My hands finally stopped shaking and I could marvel at the energy and electricity and how his blue eyes burned like twin planets seen from space, ablaze and unexplored.”
That gives you an idea. “The God of Skiing” is a must read for all skiers. You can find it here for $13.95:


The largest cloud of methane gas in the atmosphere above the United States is sitting above the Four Corners region of the Southwest. It’s been there for several years and scientists have been aware of it since at least 2003. SCIAMACHY’s data from 2002 through 2012 consistently tracked the methane mass hovering above the southwest during that time, but it was concluded that SCIAMACHY’s (European Space Agency’s Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography) data was “…so extreme scientists still waited several more years before investigating the region in detail,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
“We didn’t focus on it because we weren’t sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error,” said Christian Frankenberg from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement.
Since NASA is far more focused on things like the slim possibility of finding life on Mars than dealing with the abundant bovine sized threats to life as we all know it on planet Earth, it is not shocking that it took their scientists 10 years to bother checking the data for error about a cloud of methane too extreme to investigate. But it is surprising that scientists outside NASA lacked the curiosity to check out a known 2500 square mile area (about the size of Delaware) of methane gas hovering above the Southwest. Perhaps the National Ski Areas Association should begin promoting Scientists Ski Weeks at western ski areas to help introduce the scientific community to the joys of skiing and the environmental and spiritual pleasures of mountains buried under snow rather than drying out beneath mysterious masses of methane. NASA scientists appear to be more familiar with interpreting data indicating that the dry winds of Olympus Mons blow 350 mph than with dry powder snow in the face coming out of a turn in the back bowls of Vail after a classic (remember the classics?) Rocky Mountain dump. NSAA has a potential market in NASA and NASA might find a perspective not too extreme to investigate in NSAA. More mysterious things have happened.
Frankenberg co-authored a study published last year in Geophysical Research Letters that concluded the mass over the Southwest contained atmospheric methane concentrations equivalent to about 1.3 million pounds of emissions a year, about 80% higher than previous EDA estimates. There is less methane in the earth’s atmosphere than CO2, but methane traps significantly more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. That is, methane is known to be a significant (perhaps the major?) contributor to human caused global warming and climate change.
A CBS news report last year was titled “Scientists Puzzled By Methane Mystery Over Four Corners.” The Christian Science Monitor story about the same matter carried the title “How scientists overlooked a 2500 square-mile cloud of methane over the Southwest.” In that article Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University in state College, noted that it can be hard to determine how responsible industry is for methane emissions in certain areas and is quoted as saying “….we really don’t know to (sic) the extent to which the coal industry and coalbed methane increased and aggravated an existing, natural condition.”
Science is a difficult and exacting endeavor and finding mysterious clouds of methane, much less determining where they came from, cannot be a simple task. But it seems to me that whether one is a scientist with NASA or a professor of one of the sciences at a prestigious university a good place to begin any investigation is with the obvious. For instance, in the case of the mysterious mass of methane over the Four Corners it is worth noting and very obvious to the folks living there that the states surrounding that area—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Texas—are home to some 33,000,000 cattle. Any scientist worth a cow fart could easily determine that a cow contributes approximately 220 pounds (POUNDS!) of methane to the atmosphere every year. Each cow’s yearly methane donation to the atmosphere’s rising temperature is the equivalent of an automobile’s CO2 gift to global warming after being driven 7800 miles. Even a non-scientist with a calculator can determine that every year the cattle of those eight southwestern states donate 7,260,000,000 pounds (POUNDS!!!!) of methane to the atmosphere above those states. Every year. 7,260,000,000 pounds every year. Year after year after year after year after…………
That’s a lot of methane and the fact that it is a mystery to NASA scientists how a cloud of it the size of Delaware formed above an area with 33,000,000 methane factories gives an added dimension to the old saw, “It’s not exactly rocket science.”

DAVE McCOY: A Man For All Seasons

When Dave McCoy first saw the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California he said, “I’d never seen anything like it. I loved the snow: I started dreaming about it. I said, ‘This is where I am going to spend my life.’”
Many people reading this understand that experience and subsequent path.
That same year McCoy received the foundation of what he called ‘…the best possible education.’ He told Leigh Buchanan: “When I was in the eighth grade my folks separated. It was during the Depression, and so my mom and I got on a Greyhound bus and went to meet my father’s parents in Wilkeson, Washington. We got acquainted, and she left me there. I stuck around for two and a half months, but I didn’t like the rain, so I took my knapsack and headed back to California. I rode with the bums on the trains, ate at their campfires at night, and listened to their stories. It was the best possible education.”
At the time Dave was 13 years old. His formal education ended with high school, but with that best possible informal education, his love for snow and mountains, hard work and fun he built Mammoth Mountain Ski Area from a rope tow on the side of hill to one of the largest and best ski areas in North America. Many people reading this already know it but for those who don’t Dave’s influence on skiing and skiers is incalculable, and that story is best told in Robin Morning’s fine book “Tracks of Passion.” Dave, who I’ve known since 1953, will be 100 years old in August. I hadn’t seen him since his 90th birthday party but a few weeks ago I had the privilege and pleasure of spending a few hours in conversation with him.
That talk illuminated and reiterated why I am among many, many people who consider Dave McCoy among the most remarkable, decent, genuinely good human beings we have ever known, a great man by any measure. That is, his successes, accomplishments and positive impact on the community of Mammoth, the larger world of skiing and thereby the world at large did not make him a great man, but rather, the other way around. We reminisced about several people, events and dynamics of the life and lives we know and consistent perspectives and themes kept surfacing in Dave’s narrative:
“Most people are essentially good,” he said, “and if you give them the right chances they will show you that goodness.”
“All of us make mistakes. That’s part of learning. The thing is to learn from them and to move on and not repeat that one and don’t be afraid of making a different one.”
And there is this as told to Leigh Buchanan: “In 1991, we had to lay off 150 people, because we had six years of very light snow. Instead of keeping all the best people, I looked at the people that were really able to take care of themselves and let them go first. It worked out, because they ended up doing greater things than they had been doing. It may not have been wise, but that’s the way it is with me.”
Thanks, Dave.