Wild Snow: A Historical Guide to North American Ski Mountaineering. Louis W. Dawson. The Mountaineers: Seattle, 1997. 214 black-and-white photographs, ten maps. 292 pages. $40.00.
Lou Dawson values nothing more than a stimulating ski descent from a hard-earned summit. Knowledge of his forefathers in the growing sport of ski mountaineering is one of his intellectual passions. The combination makes the Coloradan the perfect author for a Historical Guide to North American Skiing. His enthusiasm for the routes, the turning, and the stories he relates are infectious. I found it difficult to finish a chapter without my mind wandering to plans of how and when I could orchestrate a visit to the runs he outlines.
The 250-page hardback covers nine regions of North America, separated in terms of off-piste skiing. The author offers a sampling of “classics” in California, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Wyoming, the Northeast, the Northwest, British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. Naturally, his picks are controversial. Every skier has his own list of favorites within his or her region. Yet Dawson has chosen a representative handful of lines in the backcountry skiing hotbeds of this continent, and they are destined to compose a “hit list” for “piste off’ skiers.
Above and beyond being a guidebook, however, Wild Snow serves its readers with fastidiously researched historical background. The tradition and styles of “Glisse Alpinism” have evolved for 7,000 years, as Dawson informs us. Important characters and their influence on the sport add depth to the volume as well as humor. Austrian pioneer Mathias Zdarsky’s best quote can’t be fully appreciated without seeing his photo, but the self-proclaimed expert of the late 1800s included discussions of attire in his ski wisdom. For example, he wrote that “calling attention to the upper parts of the female body distracts the men from skiing.” (A prophetic and profound truth, indeed.)
Other historical anecdotes focus on the legacy of classic ski mountains. Included here are Bill Briggs’ first descent of the Grand Teton, Fritz Stammberger’s stunning ski of Maroon Bell near Aspen, and more recent envelope pushing, such as 1990s descents of Mt. Robson’s North Face and Denali’s Wickersham Wall. This latter “State of the Art” section compiles information previously recorded only in scattered magazine articles. Inclusion of this recent history helps make this volume an unofficial “encyclopedia” of ski mountaineering.
Lou Dawson has climbed and skied all 54 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, an unequaled feat that exhibits his unswerving dedication to skiing wild snow. Only a ski mountaineer of such stature could write as convincingly as he does. Dawson’s vast personal experience lends credibility and accuracy to his route ratings and descriptions. He takes on the unenviable task of judging and ranking the backcountry skiing feats of heroes past, both famous and unsung. But his background enables him to do so remarkably well. The writing is like the man: honest, clear and decisive.
With its excellent, original descriptions of access and routes on classic glisse peaks, Dawson’s guide is a must for avid ski mountaineers, past and present. Yet its easy readability, wide-ranging topics, and abundance of intriguing photographs also will appeal to aspiring backcountry skiers, mountaineers, and historians of all types.