Steep Skiing in the West- A Look Back


“If you fall, you die!” This catchy, morbid phrase, popularized by Coloradan, Chris Landry, one of the sport’s foremost pioneers, defines the allure of steep skiing. Although people have perished, it is rare, and most never consider that dire possibility. Mountaineering skiers are driven by a passion to descend improbable lines, and the reward is enormous, indefinite and personal.

In order to survive increasingly radical descents from high peaks, ski mountaineers learned from the mountains, and each other. As steep skiing pioneer and Salt Lake native, Rick Wyatt points out, “Every first ski (or snowboard) descent stands on some previous skier’s shoulders. The current (growing) crowd of ski mountaineers operate at a high level. Most have great skiing, climbing, and avalanche skills and exhibit excellent mountain sense.” One no longer has to learn by the school of hard knocks. Mentors, instructors and guidebooks abound, and everything from routes and conditions to technique and gear advice is available on the internet.

An evolution of equipment also fueled the rapid growth and progress. Sturdy, reliable AT and Telemark boots and bindings, snowboards, and wide, short, and early-rise tip skis have made gnarly snow and terrain, formerly skiable by only the few, the domain of everyman. Skiing big, steep lines is now easier, more fun, and increasingly popular.


Mt. Superior’s South Face epitomizes ski mountaineering in Utah. Standing tall right across from Alta and Snowbird, it has undeniable allure. As with many other now classic runs, it is hard to prove who was the FIRST to ski it, but that’s beside the point. The point is, early ski mountaineers overcame huge psychological barriers. They had a passion to ski big mountains. They lacked agents, facebook pages, or video cameras to promote their feats. It was a natural extension of what people had been doing for years: seeking off-piste ski adventures on increasingly steep, serious, and wild terrain.

NW Couloir Pfeifferhorn- Jimmy Collinson photo

NW Couloir Pfeifferhorn- Jimmy Collinson photo

Some, like Mike Mendenhall, who toured up from Highland to ski the Lone Peak Wilderness, skied alone. Mendenhall used hockey skates (with the blades removed) as freeheel ski boots, bolting their toes to his skis. As Jimmy Collinson points out, “It was hard to find partners for steep adventures. Most people wanted to tour for powder.” This is still true today.

Wyatt skied Superior for his first time in 1973, at age 17. Previously, George Hartlmaier, an Austrian based in Brian Head, and Darwon Stoneman, of future Wasatch Powderbird Guides fame, had skied it in good style and others had “gotten down it.” But it was considered “questionable” by the authorities to ski such an avalanche-prone shot above Highway 210.

On one occasion, the SL County Sherriff impounded Wyatt’s car and tried to arrest the party for making a dangerous and illegal ski descent.  However, in the midst of this dispute, Alta’s first Marshall, Eric Eliason, himself an accomplished skier and mountaineer, showed up. Upon learning of the Sherriff’s intent, he started laughing and said it was ridiculous because the avalanche hazard was low, and the skiers had only endangered themselves.

Further afield, steeps enthusiasts scaled the Pfeifferhorn, and skied its cliffbound Northwest Couloir. One of the earliest parties was Snowbird patroller, Collinson and telemark racer, Ned Randolph, a transplant from Steamboat. Jimmy was on a brand-new (to him) Alpine Touring set-up and skiing for the first time after a spinal fracture. Ned, a champion Telemark racer, was on Karhu Extreme freeheel skis and leather Asolo Extreme boots, common gear in 1986. Extreme was in.

Ned Randolph- Monte Cristo Chute, Utah. Jimmy Collinson photo

Ned Randolph- Monte Cristo Chute, Utah. Jimmy Collinson photo

Collinson liked to travel light and ski everything without a rope (or pack) when conditions were ideal. The pair capitalized on a phat snowpack in May of ’86. Jimmy went through the chimney first using his homemade ice-axe / ski pole to chop “steps” for their ski edges as they delicately down-climbed with skis on.  Because so few people were into steep skiing, and the chute was so unusually phat, Ned and Jimmy thought they might be the only ones ever to ski the line. But OH, how times have changed!

The NW Couloir features 40-50-degree skiing, in a ski-length wide chute falling right from the summit. Bolts for a rappel anchor were added in 1992-93, by the late American alpinist-extraordinaire, Alex Lowe. He was a Utah Avalanche Center forecaster that winter, and linked up with Black Diamond Equipment designer, Andrew McLean, for ski adventures.

After BD split from Patagonia and moved from California to Salt Lake, Lowe, McLean and friends initiated the “Dawn Patrol” ritual, on winter mornings. They were into “aid skiing,” choosing lines that required a rope. This opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. Some rejected these runs as “contrived” and not “natural ski lines,” but the NW Couloir is generally safer with a rope, and has become a Wasatch mega-classic.

The first time McLean skied Lisa Falls, a 5,000′ couloir falling south from the SL Twins, was with Alex in 1993. He recalls, “We went up Broads Fork and I had no idea what he had in mind.  It had snowed quite a bit the day before and we (OK, Alex) were breaking trail through very light thigh-deep snow.  For some reason we went way out on some rock faces to get to the top of Twin and I remember doing an full body weight dry tool move on an old Alpamayo Piolet, which was business as usual with Alex.

When we got to the top of Lisa Falls, I was concerned about all the new snow, but Alex seemed to think it was OK as it was so light (probably in the 5% range). He center-punched the upper headwall, it was unreal.  The snow was so deep that it was folding back in behind each skier, so it didn’t matter if you crossed tracks or not.  I was blown away by the first headwall, then amazed at how far down the run kept going. It was an epic journey!” Skiing it in waist-deep powder, without getting avalanched, is only realistic about once a decade. Epic conditions, indeed!

Dave Braun skis the Giant's Steps- Craig Dostie photo

Dave Braun skis the Giant's Steps- Craig Dostie photo


While Utah provides ample steep lines to cut your teeth on, many Wasatch skiers eventually fixate on longer, steeper lines on higher peaks in Wyoming, Colorado, California, Washington, Alaska and beyond.

“Bill Briggs’ run was inspirational to me,” says Wyatt. “It was a wild line, but it was an act of control. It built upon the accomplishments of European skiers, like Sylvan Saudan.” Indeed, Briggs’ monumental first ski descent of the Grand Teton in 1970 revolutionized ski mountaineering in the West. In ’82 Wyatt became the first to ski this Ford-Stettner route on (very lightweight) freeheel gear. Lorne Glick was the first to telemark down the Grand. Doug Coombs, Bill Dyer and Mark Newcomb guided the first clients down the 1200 feet of steeps up to 55 degrees above cliffs. Below, 500′ of rappelling down the Chevy Couloir leads to a final bit of rockfall-prone runnel skiing in the Stettner, before you slide another 5,000′ to the valley floor.

In 1976, Chris Landry, accompanied by Climbing Magazine editor Michael Kennedy, boggled American minds with the first ski descent of Pyramid Peak’s East Face in the Elk Range, near Aspen. By now all 54 “Fourteeners” in Colorado have been skied, many by extreme lines, but this route, situated 10 miles back in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, still reigns as a king-daddy descent. Thirty-five years ago it redefined the possible.

Kennedy down-climbed the face alongside, but couldn’t bear to watch as his partner hop-turned his way down 60-degree pitches above cliffs. Perhaps the most daunting moment was switching to crampons just above an ice face and down-climbing, before finishing the run. Landry’s descent was akin to the amazingly sheer lines being ticked in Chamonix by the French extremists.

Bill Brigg's tracks on the Grand

Bill Brigg's tracks on the Grand

In 1980, Landry hooked up with Yosemite climber Doug Robinson to nab the Northwest’s prime line, Mt. Rainier’s dramatic Liberty Ridge. When I carved this line, visible from my dorm room on the UW campus in Seattle, on July 11, 1995, it was still a rare feat. Protruding between the calving ice cliffs of the Willis Wall and the Liberty Cap, it goes at 50+ degrees near the top, and remains 45 or steeper for 4,000′. A friend climbed 38 pitches of 2-tool ice there in May of 2008. Yet this year, with a huge late-season snowpack in the Cascades, the remote and foreboding Liberty was schussed by dozens of new-school ski mountaineers.

California’s Range of Light, the High Sierra, sports great corn snow and impressive vertical drops from peaks over 14,000’. Early skiers found it possible to get an edge on insanely steep angles despite their flimsy gear, owing to the consistent, granular spring snow. Most focused on gnarly gullies like Mendel, Parachute, V-Notch and Schlichter or traverses across the range.

The highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney, lacks a steep, continuous line to match its mountaineering stature. But runnerup, Mt. Williamson (14, 375′), may have the premier skiable North Face in the Sierras. In the phat spring of 1998, NASA-JPL “Rocket Scientist” and accomplished ski mountaineer, Dave Braun, rallied up from LA four times, mostly solo, to work out the details, and connect an unlikely line.

From the Owens Valley, 10,000 below, “The Giants’ Steps” appears to be a straight chute, but it actually involves four collinear couloirs, each ending in cliffs. They run diagonally across the steep face and are connected by short climbing sections. Braun, a U. of Utah grad who simultaneously studied steep skiing in the Wasatch, overcame all manner of setbacks and bad luck, but ultimately fulfilled a worthy obsession by pioneering the committing line with Eric MrGrath in tow for the first descent day.


The enormity of Alaska and staggering number of skiable lines makes it hard to identify THE most historically significant glisse descents. From Aleutian Volcanoes to Mt. Fairweather, the state has been carved by motivated shredders. The Chugach Range around Valdez has witnessed dozens of outrageous descents, but most were done with helicopters, and perhaps that is a separate category.


Being the highest point in North America has made Denali, and the surrounding Alaska Range, a magnet for steep skiers and climbers. Denali’s North Face, the 14,500-foot Wickersham Wall, may be the longest fall-line in the world, and it has been skied at least 3 times. The West Rib is a 9,000-foot drop, and its top has been heavily schralped. However, the lower portion is steeper and icier, and Landry ended his career after surviving a 1500-foot “slide-for-life” there. The neighboring Orient Express, owing to its better aspect and easier access from the 14,200-foot “medical camp,” has become the most popular of the 5 major couloirs falling steeply west off the summit plateau.

Yet the most imposing line above the tent city, which holds up to 400 people in the height of the season, is the Messner Couloir, first skied by Sylvan Saudan, the Swiss master, in 1972.  When he nailed this classic, 5,000-foot, 50-degree hourglass, it was given his name, the Saudan Couloir. His ski feats in the Alps and Himalaya were at the cutting edge. But somehow, after Messner climbed it in 1977 with only a movie camera and an ice axe, it became the Messner.

The Wickersham Wall, Denali

The Wickersham Wall, Denali

It is an intimidating line. After 800′, it rolls over to 48-degrees, and you can see the base camp 4000′ below. The angle remains 45+ for the next 3,000 feet. When I skied it in 1994, which may have been the second freeheel descent, the 200 odd residents of the 14-camp were cheering for me as I wearily skidded into home base. Being watched and celebrated in the act is an uplifting, and rare experience in the ignominious world of big peak and extreme skiing

I had acclimatized for my solo of the Messner during a 22-day first descent of the Wickersham Wall, which became my (fleeting) claim to fame. It was hailed as the biggest ski line on the planet. French extreme superstar, Patrick Vallencant, had been thwarted in his 1981 attempt to ski the Canadian Spur on this 4-mile-wide mega wall when he broke his ankle in a small crevasse while skiing blue ice.

Complete unknowns, John Montecucco and I were much luckier with conditions on the Spur, which can mean more than experience. When we turned the corner from the Peters Glacier and came to a vantage point above the enormous Tluna Icefall, I pulled out my monocular for a look at the objective. It was like 5 South Faces of Superior stacked upon one another. Awe-inspiring. But the key observation was the color of the snow. It was WHITE, not blue. We were destined for success!

Rick Wyatt, in addition to skiing on Nanga Parbat, Everest, and the Grand Teton, attempted the Wickersham in 1983. Along with renowned photographer, Chris Noble, and his wife, Evelyn Lees, of the UAC, he summitted and began skiing.

Unfortunately Evelyn, who was walking down using ski poles rather than an axe on the flat, windy summit plateau, slipped on blue ice as she changed aspect, and slid over 1,000 feet, breaking her hip. The parties mission turned to rescue. They descended to the upper Peters Glacier and climbed 2,000′ up, with Rick lifting her broken leg up each step, to join the West Buttress route at 16,200′.

Our 1994 descent stood on their shoulders in many ways. Their rescue route became our escape off the Wall after skiing it in pieces from the bottom up. This conservative, but controversial method of acclimatizing while skiing unencumbered, worked perfectly. We also used most of the same camps as they had and benefited greatly from a “beta” session where Rick imparted to us many of the keys to success on the monstrous wall.

The very next year a French pair climbed and skied the Wickersham in just two sections. But the more interesting repeat was by Adrian (Nature) Popovici, aka Adrian the Romanian. He survived the persecutions of Ceausescu before escaping his homeland to become a ski instructor in Utah. He had a passion for the Wickersham Wall, and came to Denali every year for a decade seeking the prize. We asked him to join us in ’94, but he was a loner and shunned the invitation. He would spend weeks at the 14 camp, skiing the couloirs to acclimatize, waiting for the right conditions on the Wick, and surviving on food and fuel donated by descending parties.

Finally in ‘98 he climbed to the 19,470-foot North Summit and dropped straight down the never repeated, objectively deadly, 1964 Harvard Route. Knowing the wall like the back of his hand, he jettisoned his pack and let it slide to a plateau, just above cliffs, 4,000′ below. Upon recovering it, he began a 2 mile traverse to the Canadian Spur across impossibly steep, broken glacial terrain. Somehow he reached the spur, but his troubles had only just begun.

Finding a pocket of unstable snow, he got avalanched but survived the ride. Sobered, he proceeded down the wall only to have a crevasse bridge collapse under him on the Jeffrey Glacier. Carrying speed, he pulled himself to safety on the other side! Escaping the snow and glaciers, he met a hungry Grizzly bear, fresh from his winter den. Crossing the mile-wide, mega-braided McKinley River is the final crux. Sure enough, he lost his footing in one of the deep holes and got swept downriver. Again his will to live prevailed. Finally, 56 hours after leaving the 14 camp, Adrian arrived at Wonder Lake having realized a life-long dream and survived an Alaskan odyssey of epic proportions.

Mt. St. Elias, the second-highest peak in the 49th state, is the most prominent mountain in the world. It rises to 18,008 feet, within 10 miles of the sea. It has a drop of 17,000′ on the south side to foothills near the Pacific Ocean, probably the longest on the planet. It has been the site of failed attempts, tragedy, hype, and just recently, a successful glisse descent with virtually no publicity.

Jim Hopkins, Julie Faure, and I attempted the Duke of Abbruzzi’s 1897 first ascent route on its 100th anniversary, but got turned back below 14,000’ by deadly snow conditions. Long-time Alta local Lorne Glick, got the first descent of the peak via a 40-45-degree chute, known as the Mira Face.

Two years later, Aaron Martin, Reid Sanders and Greg Van Doersten, got flown onto the Mt. Hayden plateau, an extremely Short Take off and Landing spot at 11,500′ on St. Elias’ SW flank, by celebrated Wrangell-St. Elias bush pilot Paul Klaus in his tiny Supercub. Photographer Doersten remained in camp the first day after arrival to acclimatize. The others, eager to ski, intended a “short acclimatizing foray,” but got carried away with good weather and smooth climbing, and soon they were near the summit. Turning around to descend, and taking a different line, the ultimate disaster occurred. Both skiers disappeared down the monstrous South Face, never to be seen again!

In 2007, a super-hyped, mega-dollar attempt on the south side mega-route, was made by an Austrian team sponsored by Red Bull. Axel Naglich descended the upper portion in April and the lower mountain on a second attempt in July, but the tactics were as controversial as the result was disjointed.

Finally, last year a party of three made the first complete descent of the full 17,000’ line, but information has been scant to date, primarily word-of-mouth. Perhaps this party didn’t do it for fame, but it was a long-sought objective, the “Last Big Thing” in ski mountaineering. Skiers await the story of the World’s Longest Descent.

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