Perched on the snowy summit of 14,025-foot Pyramid Peak, Austin Porzak had no alternative but to perform flawlessly.
Skiing any of Colorado’s fourteeners involves a host of deadly threats, from rock fall and avalanche danger to ski-snagging obstructions in the hard, wind-carved snow. Pyramid Peak, a jagged tooth of the Elk Mountain Range near Aspen, boasts all that plus 60-degree slopes and sheer cliffs demarcating its 4,500 feet of descent.
“Everything has to be done perfectly,” Porzak recalled of his May 2011 trip down the mountain’s east face, known among extreme skiers as the Landry line. The price of a mistake: “You lose your life. You die. Go off a big cliff.”
Porzak, a Boulder native and professional skier, estimates he is among about a dozen people in Colorado who have skied at least 54 of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks – and their no-fall zones – aided by gear advances and detailed trip reports on 14ers.com and other mountaineering websites. He’s working on skiing four other Colorado peaks considered fourteeners by some mountaineers.
Think of it as a higher-stakes form of backcountry skiing combining the riskiest elements of high-altitude, winter mountaineering.
Lou Dawson, a towering figure in Colorado ski mountaineering and the author of multiple guides, became the first person to ski from the summits of Colorado’s 54 highest peaks in 1991. Peak-bagging skier Christy Mahon of Aspen finished them in 2010 and was profiled in the Wall Street Journal, the latest example of increasing visibility for the sport.
While nothing new, high-altitude skiing has become more accessible with the advent of lighter, more versatile gear such as alpine touring skis, which feature special bindings that allow skiers to raise their heels while climbing and then lock them in again for the descents.
Split boards – or snowboards that split into two, allowing them to double as skis during climbs – also are used by some backcountry fiends.
Climbing is accomplished with the help of skins, or sleeves that slip onto the bottom of skis, giving enough traction to glide uphill.
Depending on the difficulty of the mountain, crampons, ice axes and technical rock climbing gear might also be necessary.
While Pyramid is considered one of the more difficult peaks to conquer, backcountry skiers and snowboarders routinely can be found on peaks such as Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, generally regarded as one of the more approachable summits.
But approachable is far from easy, and skiers should be well-versed in winter mountaineering before attempting the feat.
“Anybody that wants to do this had better take an avalanche safety course,” said Manitou Springs resident Steve Bremner, a veteran outdoorsman and ultrarunner who has twice skied from the summit of 14,271-foot Quandary Peak.
Spring is peak season for skiing fourteeners because the high sun helps bond together layers in mountain snowpack, bolstering stability, Porzak said.
“It’s a game of get up early and ski the lines early. If it’s too hot, you can get an avalanche,” he said.
Whether skiers choose to get involved in summiting fourteeners on skis has a lot to do with their tolerance for risk, not to mention their idea of a good time.
At a minimum, backcountry skiers tackling 14,000-foot peaks should be in top physical condition with excellent skiing skills. Anyone who climbs a fourteener in winter should be familiar with avalanche risk and carry a probe, shovel and beacon, which the Colorado Avalanche Information Center describes as the minimal level of safety gear for winter mountaineering.
When it comes to the skiing, conditions can be rough and raw, bearing little resemblance to those of a ski resort.
“On a fourteener in winter, you get the worst possible snow conditions that you can imagine – just wind-hammered,” said Colorado Springs resident Julian Smith, who has skied 11 of the state’s fourteeners.
Wind carves the snow into edges capable of grabbing skis, and in other areas hard-packed snow changes suddenly to “bottomless powder,” Smith said.
“You won’t get any notice that that’s taking place,” he said. “You’ll be skiing along steady one moment and be pitched headfirst over your skis the next.”
Even with extensive training and experience, a wintertime trip to the top of a fourteener can take unexpected turns.
During a March 14 trip up Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Porzak and two fellow skiers ended up getting stuck on the mountain after encountering a series of delays, including a rope that got caught during a rappel.
One of Porzak’s partners up the mountain’s Notch Couloir was Jim Detterline, the former head ranger on Longs Peak for 25 years and a veteran of more than 400 summits. He’s played a role in the rescues of 1,200 people, Porzak said.
“We figured if we didn’t want to become one of those statistics, we’d better get some rest,” he said. “We dug a hole under a rock and shivered.”
By the time they made it down, Porzak said he had gone 30 hours without food or water, illustrating the high stakes of the sport.
But in good conditions, the skiing is nothing short of exhilarating – especially the descent.
“Those first couple of turns can feel very awkward and your heart’s pounding,” Smith said. “Then you kind of get into the rhythm of it and it just starts to flow.”
Overall, the experience provokes a heady mix of emotions, he said.
“It’s thrilling because of what you’re doing, frustrating because of snow conditions and completely fraught with fear,” Smith said.
“Ultimately,” he added, “you can’t wait for the next opportunity to go out again and give it a try.”
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