The ‘Steep’ Skier

Andrew McLean - photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics - All Rights Reserved

Andrew McLean | photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

ANDREW MCLEAN is a climb-up and ski-down purist with an enviable list of ski descents that have taken him around the globe to places like Baffin Island, Patagonia, and Iceland. Scenes from Andrew's Iceland expedition appear in the new Mark Obenhaus/Sony Pictures Classics film Steep.

SierraDescents got a chance to talk to Andrew about Steep and the pioneers of extreme skiing, plus we did our best to learn the expedition techniques and secrets that have made him one of North America's most respected (and well-traveled) ski mountaineers.

Andrew, welcome to the inaugural interview. Thank you so much for your time!

You're welcome.

You've been very selective when it comes to appearing in ski movies. How did you become involved in Steep?

The type of skiing I do is generally very remote and hard to film and it's also not very dynamic as far as going down the hillside as fast as possible. That has had a lot to do with my not appearing in ski films because it just doesn't have a huge public appeal. But Steep looked at the whole idea of big mountain skiing, and chose different episodes—they have the beginning history with Bill Briggs, the Blizzard of Ahs, and things like that, and I got involved because the type of skiing I do represents one of the specific niches. I first talked to Mark Obenhaus, and other people that were involved with Peter Jennings's crew. They were doing research on the whole project and I talked to them for a day, did a little bit of filming, and then we put together a few ideas for a trip that would be representative of the type of skiing I do but that also would be filmable, and that's how we chose to go to Iceland.

Steep introduces the term 'Big Mountain Skiing' to describe a combination of backcountry skiing, heli-skiing, ski mountaineering, and ski extreme. What's your definition of Big Mountain Skiing?

It's not a term I use very often, but I think it fits for Steep because there are all these different elements to it. My definition of Big Mountain Skiing would probably be the same as Steep's: beyond Backcountry.

The term has been growing on me, because it encompasses the higher-risk aspects of the sport without the unwanted associations that the phrase 'Extreme Skiing' has picked up over the years.

Yeah, extreme skiing is kind of a sport unto itself. Extreme skiing used to be purely the French term of it, and Steep has a really good segment on the original French extreme skiers, but then extreme skiing in North America morphed into going straight down big Alaska peaks, and that's really dynamic skiing but its not the true, original idea of extreme skiing. Shane McConkey was one of the first to come up with the idea of calling it free skiing, which is I think a much better description of that type of skiing.

Along with skiing, "Steep" is a film that very much focuses on people. For me, one of the film's most unexpected pleasures was seeing pieces of myself in the characters who populate Steep. Did you have a similar experience when you watched the film—a feeling of kinship?

Yes. And I think that's one of the real strong points of Steep. I've often though much as I love skiing, if for some reason I was not able to physically go out and ski, the thing I would miss most is all of the people. The characters, the skiers, you know, they're just great people. That's what Steep really captures, the people and the stories behind the skiing, as well as showing some incredible skiing footage.

It's definitely one of the film's strengths. I don't think it would be fair to say this film tells us we're not crazy, but it does say, "Hey, you're not alone, and here is your family."

That's very true! It's very hard to explain to friends and family who are not involved in the sport what the allure is. A lot of people get hurt doing it, there's not a lot of fame or fortune, yet people are very passionate about it. I'm thrilled Steep came along, because if you want to understand what I do and why I enjoy it so much, watch Steep! It says it all.

Another thing Steep features is an extraordinary collection of archival film footage, including as you just mentioned a sequence on the French extremists. How would you contrast what they were doing in the 70's and 80's with state of the art steep skiing today?

Well, what the original French extreme skiers did was amazing. In a very short time they invented a sport and just completely buried the needle and brought it all the way up to skiing some of the steepest stuff that's ever been skied in just a matter of five or six years. The original French extreme skiers were skiing stuff that's as steep as anything that's been skied today. Perhaps people have pushed it up a degree or two here or there, but getting beyond sixty degrees for a sustained pitch is really hard. And it has everything to do with finding the right conditions and being patient and finding the right area that will hold that type of snow. I think those guys were true pioneers of the sport, and what they did years ago is still completely valid today.

It's extraordinary that they were doing such remarkable things at such an early phase in the sport's history.

Yeah, and I think that as far as the angle of it or the imagination of the lines that they were skiing, people haven't skied stuff that's much steeper than that, but what people are doing is skiing it maybe a little faster, or a little bit more dramatically, but the angle still is very respectable.

When I saw Steep, I got a huge thrill watching vintage footage of Patrick Vallençant and his peers making fluid turns on 50° faces. These are shots that many of us are going to be watching over and over again at home, in freeze-frame. Your style of ski mountaineering strikes me as a direct extension of that technical, climb-up-and-ski-down tradition. Were they an influence on you?

I would fully agree with that. I learned how to ski at a very small but steep area in the Pacific Northwest named Alpental. It had a lot of steep terrain in it, and for some unknown reason I just really enjoyed skiing steep terrain, grew up skiing steep terrain. I would climb in the summer and then one weekend I would climb on Saturday and then it would start snowing and I'd ski on Sunday and then take up skiing for the rest of the Winter. Alex Lowe turned me onto the idea of ski mountaineering—climbing up hard stuff, technical climbing, with technical steep skiing, and because of those two interests, I really started looking towards the steeper descents, such as the Grand Teton and what the French Extreme skiers had done. I think things might be different if I was growing up skiing now with what people are skiing and the way that they're skiing now. But those were my early influences—alpinists, and the French extreme skiers.

Were you interested in trying to figure out their technique?

Maybe not so much their specific ski technique...I use very conservative technique for skiing steep slopes. I try to minimize any excessive movements, I don't do any sort of 1-2-3 or smear turns, I just do a solid hop turn, try to keep every turn under control, and I think looking back at the vintage footage in Steep, those guys were kind of doing the same thing. I was more inspired by what they were skiing, and what they were capable of skiing, rather than their specific style.

When people come out of the theater, one of the first things they're going to be talking about is why anyone would voluntarily expose themselves to such a high degree of risk. Is that a question that keeps you up at night?

It should! I do think about it quite a bit, and the idea of being kept up at night is a good one, because at night I tend to think about worst-case scenarios, but when you go out skiing, you seem to ease into the sport slowly, you climb up stuff, you look at the conditions, you look at the day, and I go into it with an open mind. If it seems like conditions are good, then I'll ski something, and if I doesn't seem like it will work then I back off. And what I think isn't really shown in a lot of films and even in Steep is that for every successful descent there are probably five or six that were aborted efforts along the way. As far as being kept up awake at night, I think about it a lot at night, but when I go out and do it during the day, it makes a lot more sense than it does at night.

Andrew, when you go out into the backcountry, what scares you?

Well, I'd say avalanches are one of the main concerns. Usually when you go out and look at something, it's not as steep as it seems. Once you get up and you're actually climbing up a face, it's like, well this isn't as bad as it looked. Occasionally, you get surprised or scared because things are steeper than they looked. That happens on occasion, but because I like to climb things before I ski them, if I'm climbing up something and it's getting really steep and really icy, then I generally won't continue on with the idea that I'm going to ski down. If I climb up and it's steep and scary then I won't continue up to the top and make it even steeper and scarier by trying to ski down it. The actual angle doesn't scare me that much, but just the unknown entities and quantities of avalanches are probably my main concern.

I think somebody once said, "But for avalanches, backcountry skiing is a perfect sport."

That's very true. Something about backcountry skiing is a lot of it takes place on clear sunny days with great powder. If you're out rock climbing you're very aware of the danger: you're dangling hundreds or thousands of feet above the valley floor. With avalanches, you don't necessarily feel that, and they can be every bit or more so dangerous than falling off a rock, so I think that's a really good insight—the idea that backcountry skiing is perfect except for avalanches. That kind of keeps people honest, I think.

You can be completely unaware of the risk that you're facing. You can be skiing on what seems to be a perfect day, not thinking you're in any danger at all, and in reality you're playing Russian roulette and there are six bullets in the cylinder.

Right. I think the avalanche footage they captured in Steep is a really good example of that. Because we'd been skiing in Iceland for a couple of weeks, I was an avalanche forecaster for a while, Dylan Freed has taken his levels 1, 2, and 3 avalanche, and Matt Turley was also an experienced avalanche guy, and in our opinion there was no avalanche danger, it was rock hard, totally safe skiing, and out of the blue we were caught in an avalanche. Those types of things are just part of the sport. The only way to truly avoid them is to ski very low-angle terrain or not go skiing at all.

Andrew, what do you think is the single most important bit of knowledge, or technique, or habit that has helped keep you safe in the backcountry?

I would say route-finding. Route finding might also be rolled into safe skiing, sticking to ridgelines, the high ground, even when you feel that it's totally safe, still skiing one at a time, conservatively, and watching out for your partners. I've had many close calls that were just saved because of safe skiing habits, you know, skiing down, tucking under a rock, thinking it's a completely safe day, and all of a sudden having your partner trigger a big avalanche above you, where if you were not following all of those safe skiing protocols, you'd probably get caught in it. Without knowing anything about avalanches or mountaineering, if you follow these types of protocols and stick to safe lines, I think you can defuse a lot of the danger.

That said, how much of the objective danger inherent in big mountain skiing is beyond the skier's control?

It's hard to say. If I'm skiing, I feel like I can make turns and control that situation. You can also research the background, the snowpack, the avalanche warnings and things like that, but there's always a huge wild card out there as far as the avalanches or rockfall. I'm not sure how I would quantify that.

One of the most poignant scenes in Steep comes as we're watching Doug Combs skiing with his son in La Grave, France. Skiing is such a beautiful, wonderful, transcendent experience. It touches and changes lives—you might even say skiing brings people to life. And I found myself asking, does death have to be a part of this game? If the risk wasn't there, if the possibility of the ultimate price wasn't there, would it still be the same sport? Or are the two inseparable?

I think it would be nice if death wasn't part of it. I think the subtitle to the movie—Without risk there is no adventure—plays into it. I'm trying to think of a sport that would have a lot of adventure and meaning to it that would have no risk. And I'm not sure. So I would say probably the risk element is a big part of the sport. If I had to go ski very mellow, low-angle terrain for the rest of my life, it would not be very engaging to me. It would be competing with maybe reading a book or watching TV or something. It would be fun, it would pleasant, but it's not very engaging. And that's what I like about steep skiing: I just feel fully engaged and fully focused when I'm doing it. So I guess that's kind of the trade off. For those very intense moments of focus and concentration, there's a good reason for them—that is, the risk element.

Many of the people watching the film will leave thinking 'these are madmen', and yet the danger inherent in Big Mountain Skiing is not that different from the danger inherent in life. The risk is always there. I believe Helen Keller once said security is largely an illusion.

Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that one of the reasons I like skiing is because there is always that risk in life, but with skiing there are also incredible moments of intense happiness. These are things that can't be bought. Skiing off the top of Denali with perfect conditions with a good friend on a trip you've been planning for months and months and just having it all come together is one of those experiences that you just can't put a price on. It can't be replicated, you just have to actually go there and do it, and when you do it, it's incredible, and it lasts forever. It can't be taken away from you, it doesn't break, it just gets better and better with time. I think that's a big part of why people enjoy it so much.

Andrew, what have you brought back from the mountains? How has ski mountaineering changed you?

I think it's been interesting to me because it puts things in perspective. Some of the best times in my life have come from being in the mountains with friends, I've made a lot of friends in the mountains, including meeting my wife, and I guess the thing that I bring back from the mountains is just real quality experiences and great friends, and realizing how important they are.

That's our last official question, but I do have a few geeky technical questions if you don't mind going into those?


These might be of some interest to somebody—probably mostly me. I know you used Fritschi bindings on your expeditions, at least initially, and I think you're using Dynafit quite a bit now. Do you still alternate between the two, or have you shifted over completely?

I am 99% Dynafit now. I started out with an Alpine skiing background, and I think the Fritschis were a great introduction to backcountry skiing, because they kind of have the look and feel of an Alpine binding, and I was also working at Black Diamond equipment at the time, which was the distributor for Fritschis. And then I got into ski mountaineering racing, and for that the Dynafits are pretty much standard equipment, they're just so much lighter, and they tour so much better, so I got my first pair of Dynafits, and the more I started using them, the more I just thought wow, these things are incredible.

I started using them just for training and racing, and I kind of expanded that into daily tours, and then kind of just accidentally started doing some steeper and steeper descents on them, and realizing that I wasn't even thinking twice about it and they were just completely solid, they never came off. And then I started using them on some expeditions, and they never broke, which was better yet. So, I've totally converted over to them. I kind of think of them in the same light as the clipless pedals on bikes. You initial impression is that they're kind of fiddly and not so great. But then after you've used them and gotten used to them for a while, you'd never go back to the old cage style of pedals.

So the Dynafits have your complete confidence for expedition skiing and steep skiing?

Yeah. They've got the real advantage to them that you can also lock them out. With a Fritschi, if you set it to full strength, din 10, 11, 12, you'll still release out of them, but with the Dynafits, you can set it to a very high DIN setting but then you can also put them back into the touring mode which locks your ski out at 14 or 16 or something like that, so they just don't come out. They're also metal on metal—they have metal pins that go in metal sockets, so they're a very secure, positive connection between your boot and your ski.

I remember reading about your Patagonia expedition, where you were talking about 'semi-frozen mud sludge' in your tent and the abominable weather, and I found myself wondering how you keep your feet dry, and warm, and healthy on these expeditions.

I try to dry my liners out all the time, so I will come into the tent and pull my liners out of my shells and then I'll leave the shells outside in the vestibule, kind of tipped over and I dry the inside of the shells out just to get all the frost out of them, so that way it doesn't just keep accumulating a lot of ice in there. Then I will try wearing my liners a little bit, just inside the tent, and I also spend a lot of time with my liners just stuck inside my sleeping bag, giving them a chance to dry out. I also go through and just wipe out the inside of the liner, just to kind of get any condensation out of them. Another trick I do is I might have water bottles with hot water in them and I put those inside of the liners, and that kind of helps drive the moisture out of them. I also use a little—it's kind of like a pot cozy that fits over the top of the stove, and it has an asbestos or fireproof material that directs all of the heat up through a central cone and if my boots get wet, I'll put the liners over the top of that asbestos cone and really dry them out. Keeping your feet warm and dry is a big part of winter camping.

Do you take a second pair of boots or down booties?

No. I bring just one pair of boots and then I will bring a pair of over-boots that I use mainly just for walking around camp. So, I might pull my liners out of the shells and then I'll put the liners inside gaiters and walk around in those.

And otherwise, when you're climbing and skiing, you're just in a standard Alpine Touring boot?

Yes. I try to have them fairly loose fitting. I like them tight around the ankle and my calf, but it's important to have a lot of room to wiggle your toes, and that's where the warmth comes from. I used to do a lot of Alpine racing, and for that you use as tight a boot as possible, but for keeping your feet warm in the backcountry, you want a lot of wiggle room for your toes, so that they can get some air circulating around them and get some blood.

Do you ever take a pair of over-boots to put over your shell for extra warmth?

I've tried that in the past, but it doesn't provide that much extra warmth—this would be like a super gaiter or an over-boot—and they provide a little bit of warmth but they complicate putting on crampons and then you have to take them off to put your skis on—they don't work with bindings. I bring them just as like après-ski boots to kind of walk around in the snow.

I think that's probably about as obscure a question as you'll be asked for a while. That's it for us today. Thank you so much! It's been a pleasure talking to you, and hopefully we'll catch you someday on the hill.

Thanks for the call, Andy!

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents