Lou Dawson and the Colorado High Country
For the first Conundrum Press Weekend Read of 2014 (and a snowy Saturday morning), we have for you David J. Rothman's essay on ski legend Lou Dawson
, first published in Rocky Mountain Sports, 1997.
has done a great deal for backcountry skiing, and it is our pleasure to pay him homage here.
For more essays on skiers, mountains, and all things adventure, check out Rothman's newest book, Living the Life: Tales from America's Mountains & Ski Towns.
Lou Dawson and the Colorado High Country
This week it's the turn of Lou Dawson, a member of the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame and surely one of the greatest living ski mountaineers (perhaps the greatest...) in America.
I met Lou
in the early 1990s through my involvement with Craig Dostie's innovative magazine Couloir (the first American magazine
devoted to backcountry skiing and snowboarding), and I'm proud to count both men as friends.
Though we haven't been on snow together for a number of years, I had several memorable tours with Lou
(including one that does appear in the book, "Carving the Big One," about skiing Colorado's highest peak, Mt. Elbert), and we stay in touch.
not only a great mountaineer, but a gifted writer whose guidebooks to Colorado's high peaks will be the standard for decades, and whose compilation of great American ski lines Wild Snow, is already a classic.
also runs the preeminent backcountry ski blog.
Among literally thousands of superb threads on gear, technique, history, travel and more, his
analysis of last spring's deadly Sheep Creek Avalanche, in which five backcountry travelers died near Loveland Pass in Colorado, is a textbook-quality forensic investigation of what went wrong.
Every young backcountry skier (by which I mean under the age of 35…) should be required to read it at least five times.
has utterly devoted his
life to the mountains and to backcountry skiing, and he
is one of the people who has transformed the sport in this country.
It is a pleasure to reprint my essay about him here, which first appeared in Rocky Mt. Sports in December 1997.
The essay is followed by the letter I wrote nominating Lou
to the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame
I hope that this introduction and the two pieces that follow give some sense of his
Hey, Lou - can we make some turns this year?
When Louis W. Dawson II
climbed and skied 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak on May 9, 1991, he
accomplished a great feat in the history of American ski mountaineering, becoming the first and still only person to ski from the summit of all 54 Colorado summits above 14,000 feet.
This twelve-and-a-half year quest witnessed both successes and setbacks, including life-threatening injuries from avalanches, and first or second descents of extremely technical routes on mountains such as Pyramid Peak
, Capitol Peak
, Crestone Needle
, and The Maroon Bells
, now 45, has climbed rock, ice, and snow throughout North America, for the last two decades he
has devoted himself to the Colorado high country.
has climbed and skied not only the "fourteeners," but hundreds of other peaks across the state, some of them dozens of times, making him one of the great living experts on ski mountaineering in the entire region.
His achievement joins the long history of high alpine ski mountaineering in Colorado, from the 1930s, when Andre Roche and Otto Schniebs explored the area above Aspen, through the years during WW II when the 10th Mountain Division trained at Camp Hale, and the 1970s, when Crested Butte, Breckenridge, and a few other ski towns saw the renaissance of telemark skiing, and Chris Landry, Dawson
, and others began to tackle technical descents on the state's more challenging peaks.
has put his
experience to work: his
guidebooks are quickly becoming standard issue for the Colorado high country in winter.
home in Carbondale, where he
lives with his
wife Lisa and seven-year-old son Louis Jr., he
has written Colorado 10th Mountain Trails and Colorado High Routes.
He is a Contributing Editor at Couloir, a magazine devoted entirely to backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and he has written a Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners, in two volumes from Blue Clover Press.
The second volume, which came out last year, won the coveted Mountain Exposition Award at the annual Banff Mountain Book Festival, perhaps the premier award of its kind.
The fourteener ski guides describe multiple hiking, climbing, and ski routes on all 54 mountains.
Dawson's approach is thorough and well-organized, and the writing is precise.
In addition to careful verbal descriptions, he
provides photos and topographic maps with all routes carefully sketched in, and useful indexes.
In addition, Dawson
gives sound advice about approaches and potential hazards for each route, along with a substantial introduction on mountain safety that all novice climbers and ski mountaineers should consult before heading for tree line and above.
This year (1997), Dawson publishedWild Snow: A Historical Guide to North American Ski Mountaineering(American Alpine Club Press).
The book includes both a detailed history of the sport, and careful descriptions of major routes across the continent, from the Rockies, to the Sierras, to New Hampshire's White Mountains, to the major Canadian ranges and Alaska.
is on the road promoting the book this fall, with a multimedia show which he
will be presenting in Colorado in January.
is not only a great mountaineer, but also an excellent photographer, historian, and raconteur, and reports that the shows are drawing good audiences, especially on college campuses.
eagerly goes on to point out, the size and youth of the audiences are yet another sign that ski and snowboard mountaineering are coming of age in America.
I am writing this letter to second the nomination of Lou Dawson
to the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame
It is an honor to write this letter.
It is also a pleasure, as the only challenge I face in composing it is to find the appropriate language of praise.
Over the last several decades, Lou
has made one of the greatest contributions to the sport of skiing not only in the state of Colorado, but also throughout America.
Great competitors in the traditional disciplines may change the sport, but in general only excel at that which others also do well.
has gone far beyond that.
well-known feat in climbing and then skiing from the summit of all the 14ers in Colorado remains unduplicated.
It is important to remember that Lou's achievement was not only one of persistence, but also of tremendous skill.
While many of the 14ers are technically not difficult, at least a third of them present significant technical challenges, and some, like Capitol Peak, Pyramid Peak
, and others, are as daunting as any ski descents yet accomplished anywhere on the globe.
Indeed, in completing his
notched a number of audacious first descents which have yet to be repeated.
established a benchmark - perhaps the benchmark - for accomplishment in ski mountaineering in this state.
In sum, Lou
is not only a gifted athlete.
He is also a journalist, a historian, a guide, and one of the best ambassadors for our sport that Colorado could ever hope for.
At a time when a growing public again seems to be rediscovering the sport's founding spirit of adventure, Lou stands as one of the most accomplished and articulate exemplars of that tradition, and it is not hard to trace his
influence on younger riders.
I have known Lou
for almost a decade now, and I have skied a number of peaks with him.
When I moved to Colorado full-time back in the 1990s I thought I was a competent ski mountaineer, but I quickly learned how much I had to learn when venturing out with Lou
On one notable spring morning several years ago, we descended Box Creek Canyon from the summit of Mt. Elbert, and I remember it as one of the biggest and most exciting days of backcountry skiing in my life (for Lou I think it was just a good stroll).
Lou is a demanding and exacting partner, but always generous with his knowledge.
I can think of no one I would rather have on the other end of a line.
Anyone who knows him also knows that, like most alpha mountaineers, he
has strong opinions and loyalties.
Tags: David Rothman, Lou Dawson, Weekend Reads