November 7, 2008

Backcountry Mag vs. Davenport

Well...not exactly, but if you did happen to catch the cover on the November '08 Backcountry Magazine, you'll see the provocative headline, "New Heights or New Hype: Freeski Mountaineer Chris Davenport." The feature article inside doesn't exactly stake out a bold position on the subject, but it does ask the intriguing question, is Chris Davenport creating a new skiing genre?

Seeing as we're currently waiting around for some snow around here (and otherwise bored), I thought I'd offer my own fearless take on the Davenport phenomenon, hopefully controversial enough to spark up a comment or two, but not too controversial, because we're still worn out from the election. :)

Ready? Here we go:

The Pioneer: Lou Dawson

To understand who Chris Davenport is, you've first got to understand who Lou Dawson is.

Lou Dawson is the first person credited with skiing all 54 of Colorado's fourteen-thousand-foot peaks from the summit or as near thereupon as theoretically possible.

As a feat of mountaineering, it's a big one, not just because of the sheer numbers of 14K peaks in Colorado, but because of Colorado's notorious mid-winter snowpack, Colorado's notoriously dry winters, and even access issues, all of which meant, in any given year, that only a handful of the fourteeners might actually be skiable, with the rest bare of snow or too dangerous, or simply (at the time) considered unskiable in any conditions.

It took Lou roughly thirteen years to ski all the fourteeners (including various unnamed high points—just to be thorough).

Now, in ski mountaineering, unlike climbing, it's not always easy to define what is and isn't a summit ski descent.

Everyone has their own idea.

If for example, I take off my skis to walk across a short rocky patch (as I did when I skied Mount Williamson), do I still get credit?

Part of the reason why it took Lou 13 years to ski all 54 Colorado fourteeners (in addition, of course, to the massive scale of the task) was his emphasis on style. Lou set a high standard for himself in terms of what did and did not qualify as a summit descent. This might seem foolish, but in the evolving world of ski mountaineering, style probably trumps all other considerations, because there are so many ways to "ski" a mountain.

The importance of style was anticipated way back in the 1970's by French Extreme skiers Patrick Vallencant and Anselm Baud, who insisted on always climbing their routes before skiing them, and eschewed the use of a rope on descent (excepting mandatory rappels, which were always noted as such).

Their rigid sense of fairness was not pointless. Absent some minimal ethic of style, the sport of ski mountaineering can quickly devolve into absurdity. Imagine strapping on skis and parachute, and jumping off the Great Trango Tower. Is that skiing? Or as Baud once mused, with a long enough rope, why not "ski" the Walker Spur?

Davenport: Anything You Can Do...

Enter Chris Davenport. A former Alpine Ski racer, Chris established himself as a freeskiing force when he won the 1996 World Extreme Skiing Championships in Alaska.

Fame and fortune did not immediately follow. The sad reality #1 of ski mountaineering is that it is not much of a way to make a living. Reality #2: many of the most high-profile ski mountaineering feats (first descents on big peaks) have already been skied—and this is especially true for North American skiers.

That meant that if you were a talented young freeskier looking to support self and family doing what you love, you had to keep winning contests, keep up the withering task of writing gear companies and begging for sponsorships, keep scrapping along—or get creative.

Get Creative is what Davenport choose to do, by proposing the audacious feat of skiing all of Colorado's fourteeners...in one year.

Right away, there were critics.

Logistically, Davenport's goal seemed all but impossible.

And stylistically...well, what the heck did artificial time constraints have to do with mountaineering? Turning ski mountaineering—a Soul Sport if ever there was one—into a dash to bag summits didn't sit well in the craw for many people.

Finally, insuring the controversy would not go away quietly, Davenport made no secret of his intention to commercialize the venture. There would be a film. A book. A website. The Project: Everything But Snow

Chris Davenport's project to ski all of Colorado's fourteen-thousand-foot peaks in one year began Jan 22, 2006, with the successful descent of Mount Lincoln (accompanied by film and photo crew).

That Chris began skiing on the 22nd, rather than the 1st of January is telling. The 05-06 winter in Colorado began as one of the worst on record. Common sense said that Davenport needed not just a good but an extraordinary winter to accomplish his goal. It was soon obvious that mother nature wasn't going to cooperate.

The obvious course of action was to put off the attempt, and wait for next year.

Dav did the opposite: he kept skiing—as much as possible—ticking off whatever summit happened to be skiable at the moment, waiting for a big Spring storm to turn the season around. That Spring storm never arrived, and soon Summer came, and the fourteeners project looked to be over, though Davenport had come tantalizingly close.

But salvation did come in a most unexpected form. It was in fact a Fall storm and more like it that made it possible for Davenport to resume skiing in early November (usually a problematic month in Colorado). An abundance of atypical weather that fall and then winter allowed Davenport to complete his goal, skiing the last fourteener on his list, Longs Peak, on January 19.

Yes: that was January of the following year, technically putting all the ski descents within the span of one year...just not within the same year.

Nonetheless, the deed was done, and as a commercial venture it was inarguably a success, putting Davenport on the map in a way that winning the Extreme Championships could never hope to match.

Questions

Browse the photos on Chris' website, Ski the 14ers, and something soon becomes evident. Because of the 05-06 season's poor conditions, at least a few of Davenport's ski descents took place on mountains that bore very little snow.

Give Davenport credit for perseverance, but some of those peaks look pitifully bare—the kind of bare that implies a lot of walking on rocks; the kind of bare that would keep most ski mountaineers at home. The kind of bare that would seem to rule out anything resembling an Official™ summit ski descent.

And so, the inevitable questions of Style became even more intense. What was a 'ski descent' by Davenport's definition? And was his project really a mountaineering feat, or simply a feat of self promotion?

Analysis

Lost in these questions of legitimacy is a fact that many critics gloss over: Davenport is a master of logistics and one Hell of a skier to boot. His ski skills, in fact, allow him to claim ski descents where others would have likely given up. He showed creativity in choosing lines that connected patches of snow that allowed him to ski, hop, jump, climb, or (yes) walk while keeping his skis on his feet, and so if he did stretch the definition of skiing in places, he did so in a way that spoke both of his discipline and his talent.

And what of this artificial timeline—the year deadline? Does it have any precedent in mountaineering's history?

Indeed. We recognize Reinhold Messner as the greatest mountaineer on Earth not because he was the first to climb Everest, but because of the speed of his solo summit of Everest. We recognize many athletes not because they were the first to do something, but because they found a newer, quicker way to do it. Were this not so, the Olympics as we know them would cease to exist.

And yet...I cannot believe ski mountaineering is at its best when it is simply a competition with the clock.

There are other ski mountaineers who have found creative ways to advance the sport (Andrew McLean's kite-skiing trip to Baffin Island will always top my list) despite the dwindling list of high-recognition "firsts".

And perhaps the most timeless accomplishment that will come from Davenport's quest to ski all of Colorado's fourteeners will be his first descent of Capitol Peak's South Face—a line that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the standout achievements in North American ski mountaineering.

Coda

Davenport came to California a season or two ago. Rumor was he intended to ski all of California's fourteeners as his next project.

Perhaps the man brings bad weather with him...once again, there was no snow, but this time it was in the Sierras. It's not clear that all of California's fourteeners would be skiable in a ice age. In a poor winter, no amount of creativity could overcome the Eastern Sierra's snow deficiency. Davenport was sent home.

And I was glad. There's something a little grating about an interloper rushing in with the intent of bagging all your mountains in a whirlwind tour and then posting photos of it on their personal webpage. I mean: the nerve of the man.

Not only that, if someone's going to be the first to truly ski all the California fourteeners, in any time frame, I'd much rather it be myself. And I bet there are plenty of Bishop and Mammoth skiers who are hoping they'll be the first instead.

So give Davenport credit for turning up the heat on the rest of us just a bit. And give the man credit for conceiving something new and something ambitious within our sport—and making it happen.

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Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow



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