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Rare Air

Chris Davenport main Ian Fohrman

 

At 13,841 feet in elevation, it’s not so much Hagerman Peak’s size that makes it daunting, but its remoteness.

Located in Colorado’s Elk Range, it’s a long drive on rough dirt roads just to reach the point where the hiking begins. Most people attempt Hagerman in the late summer or fall, when a majority of the snow has melted. Chris Davenport is not like most people.

“I’ve been addicted to sports since I was a kid—I’ve loved going fast, catching air, whether it was on skis or my bike or jumping off a bridge into water,” he says. “It’s not what many people think it is—it’s not an adrenaline rush. Adrenaline junkie implies that you’re not thinking, that you’re reckless. For me, it’s being connected to nature, being connected to the mountain. There is that sense of risk out there, a sense of personal responsibility. I could die doing the things I do.”

At 43, Davenport is one of the fittest humans on the planet, a professional skier for 20 years now. His longevity in professional skiing—unprecedented in a sport that often spits pros out after five years and a couple of knee surgeries—is often credited to his ability to evolve. The Aspen resident is mainly a ski mountaineer now, but in previous lifetimes, he’s been a ski racer, a big-mountain champion, and a ski-movie film star. He’s climbed Everest—and skied down.

After that, what’s next?

On June 6, 2013, Davenport set out to climb and ski the beast that is Hagerman: It would take 12 hours and 16 miles of climbing—an increase of more than 7,000 vertical feet. But this wasn’t a random choice, some spur-of-the-moment challenging pursuit. Davenport wants to ski the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, an overwhelmingly large task he’s calling the Centennial Peaks project, which includes the state’s 53 mountains over 14,000 feet, plus 47 that tower over 13,000 feet.

He announced this mission in the spring of 2013. After a year of binge ski mountaineering, as of late January, he had only 16 peaks left.

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“At first we were like, ‘The Centennials, that’s going to be a huge undertaking,’ ” says fellow alpinist Christy Mahon, 38, who is climbing the peaks with Davenport. “But then once you set your mind to it, you realize it’s totally possible. And that’s the thing with Chris: With him, the impossible becomes possible.”

I come up with these projects and they’re difficult and require all of these skills, but in the end, I like to look back and say, ‘Damn, that was fun,’ ” Davenport says. “I take this all very seriously, but I’m really doing these things for fun.”

Davenport’s definition of fun is unlike most normal human beings’. To climb peaks like Hagerman under his own power, he’s waking up in the middle of the night, spending hours slogging up mountains often covered with impenetrable ice and rock. He reaches the summit sometime after sunrise and then skis down in unpredictable snow conditions and often on precipitous lines above hanging cliff bands. For Davenport, solving the puzzles these mountains present makes up a perfect day.

“The cool thing about projects like this is that every peak, every day is a new experience,” he says. “You have awesome days. You have tough days.”

The resilience is built from Davenport’s long history in the ski industry. In 1996 and 2000, he won the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Alaska and then got calls from Warren Miller and Matchstick Productions—major ski-movie companies—to see if he was interested in filming. In 1997, Shane McConkey and Davenport became Red Bull’s first sponsored athletes in North America, and in 1998, Davenport won a bronze medal at the Winter X Games in skier cross. Over the next decade, Davenport climbed the ranks of ski-movie prominence, acquiring more sponsors and establishing himself as one of freeskiing’s most versatile stars.

In 2005, he began looking for a new challenge. Years earlier, he’d bought the book Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners, written by Aspen-based mountaineer Lou Dawson, who’d been the first and then only person to ski all of the state’s 14ers, which he did over a 14-year period. The book had become a bible to Davenport, and while on a solo mountain bike ride in the fall, he decided he would set out to ski all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a single year.

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Between January 22, 2006, and January 19, 2007—just under a calendar year—Davenport knocked off the state’s 54 highest mountains. In 2008, Ted Mahon, a close friend of Davenport’s and another Aspen resident, became the third person to ski all of the 14ers, and two years later, Christy, Ted’s wife, became the first woman to do so after a six-year span.

Davenport says he’s always been a goal-oriented athlete, but after the 14ers project, which he also wrote a book about, he once again found himself looking for new, lofty goals.

“This way,” he says, “I’m constantly learning and challenged by new things.”

Thus, in 2008, he and some friends skied four of the most legendary peaks in the Alps—the Eiger, Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Monte Rosa—in just eight days. In 2009 and 2010, he skied nearly all of California’s 14,000-foot peaks.

In the spring of 2012, Davenport rallied another group—including Ted and Christy Mahon—to pile into an RV for a road trip around the Pacific Northwest to climb and ski 15 of the highest volcanoes in California, Oregon, and Washington over a two-week window. In 14 days, they climbed more than 78,674 vertical feet and hiked more than 141 miles. After that, he started looking for his next challenge.

“As goal-driven as Dav is,” says Ted, 41, “it was only a matter of time before he decided to finish skiing all 100 of Colorado’s highest peaks.”

In spring 2013, Davenport, often along with Ted and Christy, had already completed 30 of the Centennial Peaks in just 36 days.

Davenport figured Hagerman would be his final push of the year, his gateway into a summer with his family. He and veteran mountaineer Neal Beidleman set out around 4:30 a.m., leaving the trailhead and carrying backpacks loaded with ski gear. They crossed rivers gushing with spring snowmelt and walked through rotting, hollow snow on the lower portion of the mountain.

“On the descent, I love playing with gravity,” Davenport says. “Gravity is this all-encompassing force, but you can push it one way or the other. I like to play with it as I’m descending—to me that’s a really fun game. When you’re skiing down a face, gravity is doing all the work. You’re just adding the right amount of resistance by stepping on the brakes or the gas pedal, edging your skis slightly to brake or straightening them out. I love those aspects of having a degree of control, of feeling the acceleration. Those are my controls that I have. Gravity is the force that’s constantly pushing me, and it’s my job to be the pilot.”

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After more than 12 hours of intense effort, the duo finished. “It was a huge day,” Davenport recalls. “We skied this incredible line in great conditions. I remember feeling a sense of closure on the season. I’d made it through another challenging year in one piece. There are dangers we all face out there, but I felt really at peace with the year.”

In attempting Hagerman, there were echoes of a previous mission the two had undertaken together.

In spring 2011, Davenport and Beidleman climbed Mount Everest. Beidleman hadn’t been up Everest since the fated trip in May 1996, when he was working as a guide on the now-famous expedition, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, where eight climbers died. He decided to return as a guide on the trip with Davenport 15 years later, but he wasn’t planning on skiing anything while he was there—only a small handful of people have ever skied off Everest.

Davenport had other intentions.

“I take my skis when I go to the mountains,” Davenport told Beidleman. “If the conditions are right and we can ski, great. If not, no worries.”

So Beidleman carried his skis up Everest too. On their first look at the Lhotse Face, a 50-degree flank climbers must ascend to reach Everest’s South Col, it was sheer, blue ice—a suicide mission for a skier.

“Sorry, but that’s what you’ve got to expect up here at this time of year,” Beidleman told Davenport.

It began to snow lightly that afternoon and as the group moved up the mountain, acclimatizing over the next week, the snow began to accumulate on the Lhotse Face. Within 10 days, it had piled up to shin-deep powder that miraculously stuck to the steep, icy surface.

“This is unbelievable,” Beidleman said. “It’s perfect ski conditions.”

Davenport and Beidleman hiked to 25,000 feet in elevation and clicked into their skis, making continuous powder turns down the Lhotse Face. The sherpas and other climbers watching from Camp II cheered loudly, and their ski tracks glistened in the snow for days.

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Back on Hagerman Peak in Colorado, Davenport and Beidleman again got lucky with the snow conditions. They reached the summit by midmorning and took a moment to soak in their surroundings. Then they stepped into their skis and dropped in for what turned out to be creamy, consistent snow, a real prize in early June.

“I seem to have more than my fair share of perfect moments,” Davenport says. “I don’t know how I get so lucky. I just know I have these moments in the mountains that I’ll never forget.”

They’ve saved some of the hardest for last: 13,809-foot Dallas Peak, outside of Telluride, has only been skied a couple of times, and there’s 13,824-foot Jagged Mountain, which will be one of the most technical ski descents. As for 13,864-foot Vestal Peak in the San Juan range, still on their to-do list, the trio doesn’t even know if there’s a skiable way down.

“There are some serious issues with the peaks we have left,” Ted says. “Will there even be snow at the top? They’re really remote, so we have no way of knowing until we get there. We are leaving the biggest prizes for the end.”

Davenport, for his part, isn’t too worried. “With a project like this that has never been done, we don’t feel like we need to race through it. We’ll give it our best, see how many we can do, but I don’t see any problem finishing by spring.”

That mystery is perhaps the most enticing part about ski mountaineering projects for Davenport. He’s constantly searching for that missing link, the solution to each mountain’s puzzle.

When the Centennials project is completed, the trio will be the first to ski all of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. They hope their accomplishment will help draw interest in the niche sport of ski mountaineering. “I certainly don’t expect ski mountaineering to become mainstream—it requires a certain set of skills and knowledge that isn’t for everyone,” Davenport says. “But anyone can look at this project and go, ‘Wow, that’s inspiring.’ ”

One thing is guaranteed. On their way down from their final peak this spring, Davenport will undoubtedly look over to his ski partners and ask the inevitable: “What’s next?”

chrisdavenport.com

 

 

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