2006 Louis “Lou” Dawson Interview


In 2006, a website publisher named Steve Hoffmeyer sent this series of questions to Lou in an email. Lou lightly edited the questions and answered in writing and the interview was published in February of 2006. Hoffmeyer’s website ceased to exist, and this content was removed from internet publication. Our version is lightly edited and condensed, and maintains the spirit of the interview, back when Lou was still the only person to have skied all of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot peaks (that changed in 2007, when Chris Davenport became the second person to ski them all).

Foreword by Aron Ralston
In 1994, at the age of 18, I hiked my first fourteener, Longs Peak, with my best friend from high school. Our only instruction set was the advice of another friend’s father to drive to the parking lot, and start at 3am. We missed that mark by a good 6 hours but made it up and down safely.

By 1997, I had hiked six more fourteeners, each with a piece of paper that I would prepare the day before at an outdoor sports store, where, crouched in an aisle, I would copy a few notes out of a guidebook. That fall, I finally purchased my first guidebook to the fourteeners, one that I’m sure most of the 500,000 people who set foot on a fourteener trail every summer are familiar with: Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners.

It was only after I bought the book and actually read the preface that I realized that the author, Lou Dawson, was the legendary figure I’d long heard about: the first and only person to have skied the fourteeners. Later on, his book would inspire me to attempt the fourteeners as solo winter ascents, and on March 7th, 2005, I finished that project, thanks greatly to Lou’s accumulated winter wisdom.

Since then, we have skied together several times, often with his son Louie. He continues to inspire me with his recent first descents, his leadership in the backcountry scene, and his positive attitude and genuine friendship. That he was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame last year is a well-deserved accolade, but it is merely a shadow cast by Lou’s love for our Colorado mountains.

– Aron Ralston

First questions for you Lou, when did you climb your first mountain? Which mountain was it? How old were you?

I was 9 years old, 1961, it was a sub-peak of Mount Yale that I hiked with my father and a group of boys during a camping trip. My first fourteener was with a group from the Ashcrofters, a mountaineering camp near Aspen. I was 15 years old. We backpacked in to Chicago Basin and climbed Windom, then climbed Sneffels and Pyramid later on. Climbing those peaks as a boy was a fantastic experience I’ll cherish forever.

How many times have you climbed all the fourteeners? Which fourteeners have you climbed the most times?

Most several times (or more), a few such as Culebra just once. I’ve skied most of them several times as well. I’ve never been too concerned with getting back to some, while others keep me coming back over and over again. I’ve always been more concerned with quality of routes and interesting climbs than with any effort to climb all of any peak category (13ers or 14ers). That’s why I didn’t climb all the 14ers till I did so for my ski project. People might assume I’m a fanatic list maker because I’m a guidebook writer, but I’m not. I do journal most of my ski descents and technical climbs and have a good memory for route details.

Pyramid is the one I’ve probably climbed the most times. I quit counting at 30 times, back when I was guiding it in my younger days. I was crazy for Pyramid — did winter ascents, climbed the north face in summer (exited under the summit block), did several north face routes in mid winter (including a first ascent), and even ran up the west ridge route once in 2 hours 7 minutes from the parking lot. Now that I’ve skied routes on both the east and west sides, I’d say it’s a mountain I know pretty well.

How many of the Colorado thirteeners have you climbed? Which are you favorites?

Sorry, no list, but it’s been quite a few. I don’t pay much attention to 13ers unless I’m going for a quality ski descent. Thus, I’ve been to Grizzly Peak more times than I can remember, and of course, hit the 13ers around Independence Pass quite a bit because it’s home ground. Also climbed many of them while teaching Outward Bound courses.

Which fourteeners do you think are the most difficult to climb by their easiest route?

I don’t think any of the harder ones are particularly difficult from a technical standpoint. But Pyramid, Bells, Capitol, Little Bear, Crestones all have places where if you trip on your shoelaces you could be killed. More, finding the safest and best route on those peaks can be tough.

Which do you think are the hardest to ski down by their easiest route?
Pyramid, Capitol, Longs and a few others.

As an avid fourteener climber, my bookshelf contains every book that I can find about 14ers including both of your 14er guide books. I have often wondered why you decided to break it out into two books (Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners Vol. 1 & 2) instead of one.

There was no way we were going to fit all those full page photos and maps in a single volume, especially with new editions having even more routes and graphics. It would have been at least a 400 page book — and grown from there. We’ve lost sales to people who want “one book,” but we’re also selling two books so the lost sales get canceled out to some degree. I won’t mention any names, but several Colorado publishers tried to push me into doing a quick one-volume book when I first approached them with the idea; they wanted books with no good maps and minimal photos. I love the 14ers too much to do that to them. Thankfully Blue Clover Press saw it my way. (Note, as of this 2019 edit, Dawson’s fourteener guidbooks are out of print. They’re available on the used market but not recommended as climbing guides due to dated information.)

In 1991 you became the only person to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, a feat yet to be matched. I assume that you hold a record? What precisely is that record and what would someone have to do to beat your record?

There are two parts to this. I’m the first guy to ski them all and will always be that, but I did take my time. Thus, the time record for skiing them all will always be up for grabs and is what people are trying to up the ante with (just as is done with climbing them). More, there will eventually be a person who skis them all twice and so on. I’m a big fan of all the guys out there trying these things. Mountaineering achievement is always a progression. For a while, no one was even trying to ski them all after me, let alone do it faster, and I got concerned that the idea was considered just a crazy fluke or something. Then a few years ago, interest really picked up, and now we have famous freeskier Chris Davenport doing them with a full-on media presence.

What does one have to do to officially “ski” a 14er? Do you have to start from the summit? Do you have to ski the whole way down? What are the rules?

There is no governing body of ski mountaineering ethics or rules, but a common consensus exists on what it means to “ski” a peak rather than ski “on” a peak. Having such a consensus adds challenge and makes the sport more interesting, and is fair to the public when people such as myself claim to have “skied” all the fourteeners.

First, the definition of skiing a fourteener is based on who did what before you. For example, if the peak has been skied from the summit during an average snow year, continuously, down to a logical stopping point (valley or trailhead), then that (in my opinion and by current cultural consensus) provides a definition for the next attempt. This is why I skied Pyramid Peak from the summit, as Chris Landry had done this before me. So I wasn’t going to ski it from a lower and easier point and claim a ski descent.

On the other hand, there were a handful of peaks I skied that had repelled previous exact summit attempts. I attempted to improve on that and did so, but still skied a few of them close to but not from the tippy top, for example Wetterhorn. You can read more about my “what’s a descent?” philosophy here, as well as my style for each descent. Again, there is no body of rules for this, it’s just what fits our culture and holds common consensus. (2019 addendum: When other skiers repeated Lou’s project, they did improve on his and other previous skiers summit attempts, a progression Lou says he “expected” and was excited to watch.)

How many of the fourteeners have you climbed in official winter (approx 12/21-3/21)? Which ones were the hardest?

You keep treating me like I’m a list junkie; is that some kind of fourteener culture thing ? My records are somewhat sporadic, but off hand I can come up with about 25, including the third winter ascent of Capitol in 1973 and early winter ascents of the Bells and Pyramid. I do love winter climbing and I’ve done quite a few fourteeners and thirteeners more than once in winter. During my fourteeners skiing project I climbed quite a few in winter, though I frequently failed to ski them because of thin snow and had to return before I felt good about claiming a legit descent.

If you were confined or restricted to only ONE mountain for the rest of your life, which mountain would it be?

Sneffels, as long as I got to live in a cabin at the bottom of the peak.

Any pet peeves about fourteeners?

I try to stay positive so I don’t have much to complain about. If there is anything that bugs me, it’s people on a summit who start frowning and grumping when other people show up. Same on the trail. Smile, everyone. Loud cell phone calls on the summit can get pretty obnoxious. Once I was on Elbert trying to enjoy the summit glow, and a woman standing on the summit was shouting in to her cell phone, chewing out her housekeeper. That was crass.

At this point in your life do you think that your greatest mountaineering accomplishments are still ahead of you, or are they in the past?

Hard to say. I like to think my greatest accomplishments have to do with sharing the mountaineering experience through my books, talks, websites, outdoor ed work, etc. In that case I could have some accomplishments ahead of me. In terms of athletics I’m past my prime. Being named to the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame gave me a nice solid peak to the mountaineering career but is perhaps a starting point for more writing, publishing and public speaking.

Some climbers hardly ever climb the same peak twice, while others like Walter Tishma or Jim Gehres are content to climb the same mountain(s) over and over again. Where do you fit in this behavior?

In the middle. I don’t think of a trip in terms of “have I been there before?” The motivation is usually a combination of things: If I’m skiing, where is the best snow? Is there a route or trailhead I need to research for my books? Am I looking for solitude or not? How far the drive is and how much gas money do I have?

What is your secret to staying physically and mentally fit for a life of continuous peak-bagging?

Respect my body. Don’t substitute Ibuprofen for rest days. Stay hydrated. Limit alcohol and caffeine. Keep a base level of cardio fitness. Pray.

If you could spend a day hiking/talking with any mountaineer past or present, who would you choose?

Carl Blaurock, because of his smile.

What was your most delightful moment on a mountain?

Hard to say. There are few private ones I can’t mention (ha ha). My last summit (Kit Carson) while skiing all the fourteeners was an amazing experience. But there have been a couple of times when I’ve been standing on a mountainside, watching my son climb with skill, strength and determination, when my heart has really leaped.

What was your most terrifying moment on a mountain?

Any time lightning strikes.

Do you do much solo mountaineering? What precautions do you take to reduce the risks involved with solo mountaineering?

I used to solo quite a bit and was known in the 1970s for my solo rock and ice climbs. One of my best 14er memories is a winter solo of Capitol Peak. For solo mountaineering, my big thing is to always have some form of communication. I don’t want to lie there and die just because I’ve got a broken ankle. A cell phone is frequently enough these days, but I also carry a handheld ham radio on many climbs. I’ve also carried a satellite phone. Unlike some others, I don’t find these electronic devices stifle my experience; instead I find them to be liberating because I’m being responsible to my family and society.

Your biography says that you started your quest with a ski decent of Castle Peak in 1978. Who were the “big names” in backcountry skiing in those days? Who were your mentors? Who were your partners?

It’s probably hard to imagine for the younger set with all the movie heroes and such, but backcountry skiing in 1978 wasn’t really a sport with name athletes, other than a few guys such as Fritz Stammberger and Bill Briggs in the west, perhaps Brooks Dodge in the northeast. My mentors were just other Aspen skiers, a guy who was a ski patroller, and some other guys with various backgrounds, but all excellent skiers. In my younger days, when I worked for NOLS, some of the NOLS instructors were mentors: Paul Petzoldt of course, but also Burt Redmayne and Don Peterson. I was as much a climber as a ski mountaineer in those days and spent quite a bit of time in Yosemite and other rock climbing areas. I climbed quite a bit with Ray Jardine in Yosemite and count him as a mentor as well. Some of my peers and friends are mentors. For example, Michael Kennedy has always been a source of inspiration in matters of business and personal life, not to mention being an organized and committed climber and a great companion on many adventures.

My partners have been a varied group. I usually just look for friendly guys who can ski well and are scared of avalanches. With those qualifications, they usually work out fine. A few stand out. Bob Perlmutter and I seem to end up doing descents almost every spring. And John Quinn had the time, money and skills to join me on a bunch of descents when I first started the fourteener project in earnest.

Have you mentored any skiers or mountaineers that have gone on to become famous?

I think they’d have to tell you that.

I see from your resume that you climbed the Muldrow Glacier route on Denali in 1973. How much different was it to climb Denali in those days?

It’s a funny thing, but in many ways Denali is still the same since you’ve got to carry your gear and food the same distance. Probably the biggest change is that the gear is somewhat lighter, and the route is better known. What made our 1973 trip interesting is that it was the first time skis were used extensively on the Muldrow since a 1932 crevasse accident involving skis had made their use unpopular. When they saw our skis, the Park Service made us carry big snowshoes which we threw into crevasses as soon as we found how well our skis worked for glacier travel. The key was that we were all good skiers, and we had excellent equipment (180 cm shorty skis mounted with Silvretta cable bindings that we skied parallel but with free heel). These days skis are used on most Denali climbs.

I wouldn’t normally ask this question, but since you list God as your first interest in your bio, do you think that spirituality is a common characteristic among mountaineers?

In my experience, yes, it seems alpinists are less cynical about God and less likely to be atheists. It’s a heart thing that goes beyond logic. You see the stuff we see up there, and it’s hard to think of it all as just random. I became a Christian some years ago, and part of my faith is putting God first, so I figured I’d better do that in my bio rather than listing Him after something like elk hunting, though the latter comes close .

What would you say are the most significant changes in the sport of ski mountaineering that you have witnessed in your lifetime?

First, it’s become much more popular and mainstream in the United States. That has been a huge change. Second, the gear we have now is so much better than that of the 1960s, it’s almost miraculous. I’m somewhat of an equipment innovator and dreamer, but I never thought it would get this good.

Please tell us a little about your career as a photographer.

When I was younger, I never carried a camera. That was a mistake. One day in the late 1970s, Michael Kennedy loaned me a camera and suggested that I should at least be doing record shots of my climbs. I developed an instant love of the art form and have pursued it aggressively ever since. I’ve sold quite a few photos over the years, but mostly use my shots to illustrate my own publishing endeavors, such as my books and websites. I’ve also spun off my photography skills into digital imaging, and combined with web development and pro blogging, that’s part of how I make my living.

Your bio says that you have done a notable amount of pioneer rock and ice climbing in Colorado. What are you most noteworthy climbs?

I’d say my most notable ice climbs were the first ascent of Ames Ice Hose near Ophir (along with Michael Kennedy and Steve Shea), and first ascent of Hidden Falls in Glenwood Canyon (along with Bruce Gordon). As for rock, I did a bunch of first ascents on the Independence Pass crags, and even have a first ascent wall route on the Longs Peak Diamond I did with Rich Jack (I guess I should have put that in my guidebook!), along with some desert climbs such as the first ascent of the Titan, Fisher Towers, west face.

What is your favorite piece of mountaineering gear and why?

My brain. After that, my Dynafit ski bindings. The things are incredible.

What would you say is the predominant characteristic, talent, and/or skill that has helped you achieve your mountaineering goals?

A combination of athletic skill, determination, and analytical thinking.

Carl Blaurock said, “I was born a hundred years too soon. We just had hemp rope, and we didn’t even use that right.” Do you ever wish your mountaineering career had occurred in a different time period?

Carl didn’t know how good he had it. Like I said above, it would have been cool to tie into that hemp rope with him.

What are your favorite fourteener routes?

A snow climb or ski of any route on Mount Elbert. Snake Couloir on Sneffels. Pyramid Peak on a weekday in autumn. Diamond on Longs (as a memory).

What were the last 5 fourteeners that you had left to finish skiing the fourteeners? Why those?

Blanca, Ellingwood, Crestone Needle, Little Bear, Kit Carson. They were last because of logistics. I’d been to them all several times and been shut out because of weather or lack of snow. They were a long drive from my home, so I tended to move them to the bottom of the list.

How do you balance climbing and a career?

Mountaineering IS my career. It’s more like, how do you stay in the office enough to get anything done? That, my friends, is an act of pure will.

What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to someone just starting out peakbagging?

Find the joy. Be positive even when the weather hits or the trails are crowded. Bring the mountain’s good tidings back with you and share them with family and friends.

What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to someone just starting out ski mountaineering?

Learn how to ski without falling.

– The End

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's personal website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners.

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