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The Infinite Yo-Yo

Features
By Eric Hansen
posted: 07/23/2003

The quest begins on the wooded flanks of 14,148-foot mount democrat: the temperature in the pine forest well below zero. Strapping climbing skins to fat skis and donning goggles, balaclavas, and hats, the two pursuers of The Quest break crust for four miles. Stumbling up rock in four-buckle race boots, Sean Crossen and Brandon Clifford gain Democrat's summit ridge as a 70-mile-per-hour gust knocks Crossen on his back. Clifford can't hear his own voice when he suggests retreat.

The Quest continues on a route dubbed South Face Direct: Crossen and Clifford drop into a 10-foot-wide chute, hoping it threads through the cliffs, hoping it goes. Survival turns give way to tight 8's where spindrift collects and winds die. The stone alley jogs left, and the skiers exit, refusing to stain red the snow of a 50-degree bulge. Gliding onto the flats, they're down. It's done. But The Quest won't end for two years.

It all started last january, south of Vail. Democrat acting as the starting line of the duo's attempt to ski all the 14,000-foot-plus peaks in Colorado in record time. Longer than a journey, more grandiose than a mission, conquering the 54 Fourteeners requires some 2,500 miles of driving; 500 miles of approach hiking, skinning, and snowmobiling; and 44 vertical miles of climbing and skiing. Put in perspective, the distances are the equivalent of driving from Seattle to New York; hiking, skinning, and snowmobiling the Appalachian Trail from New York to Maine; and then somehow traveling two round trips from the Mariana Trench (36,198 feet down) to the summit of Mount Everest (29,028 feet up).

As evidenced by PR materials, Clifford, 24, and Crossen, 33, were planning to complete The Quest last season. But a drought left the Rockies with 50 percent of their usual snowpack. Crossen and Clifford wisely adjusted their time frame and are now attempting to knock 'em down in two seasons-still fast enough to easily best guidebook author Lou Dawson's record (the only other person to complete the grand slam) of 13 years. So far, they've tracked out approximately half their goal. The San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges of the south remain, along with five other challenging peaks.

"Skiing them in two years would be impressive," says Lowell Skoog, one of the most respected backcountry skiers in the country. "I would add that it is also the sort of project that could get you into trouble if you took it too seriously. Artificial timetables in ski mountaineering can be dangerous." Indeed, while summit-or-bust decisions obviously haven't put Clifford and Crossen in snow coffins, they have put the pair's friendship on ice and threatened to change The Quest into The Competition.

Clifford, the son of Barry Clifford, a famous treasure hunter who found the multi-million-dollar pirate ship Wydah, skis 50-plus days a year in the Crested Butte backcountry, occasionally works as a carpenter, and runs his Quest-based charity, the Green Light Initiative, which has given $3,000 to nonprofit wilderness and education programs. In the off-season, he heads home to Martha's Vineyard and travels, most recently to surf and visit an ex-girlfriend in Hawaii for three months. He grew up skiing in Maine and Colorado and competed in the North American Freeskiing tour and the Freeskiing World Tour, once finishing ninth out of about 100 competitors. "Brandon has got more of the surfer's mentality, as opposed to trying to ski for fame and glory," says Eric Baumm, a friend and patrolman at Crested Butte. "He's not looking to be a rock star, it just comes with his style." Hence the nickname Bran Digler.

Crossen grew up ski racing in Pennsylvania and spent his last year in high school at Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield, Vermont, a leading race academy and feeder to the U.S. Ski Team. He didn't make the Western State College team in Gunnison, so he turned to the U.S. Extreme Championships for the next seven years, whereis best finish was 28th out of 168. He worked multiple jobs in Crested Butte, everything from line cook to art teacher, before marrying Heather Chisman, a flight-for-life nurse, and moving to the Denver area last year. He has skied more than 400 days in the Colorado backcountry. "I'm fascinated by his drive and commitment," says Dawson, the Fourteener pioneer. "Last spring, when everybody had given up, he got out there and had some really good descents."

The pair met three years ago in Crested Butte and skied together off and on until Crossen asked Clifford to join The Quest. Or rather, depending on who you ask, Crossen agreed to let Clifford join The Quest. It was clearly Crossen's idea, but who needed whom is up for debate.

After knocking off 22 peaks together, they had a falling out one weekend when Clifford, eyeing a rare dump in Crested Butte, abandoned Crossen in order to ski close to home with buddies. "Our schedules were getting tough to manage," Clifford explains, referring to Crossen's inability to skip work. "I really wanted to take it easy and not have to kill myself skiing three peaks in three days. It was kind of stressful and way more work than necessary."

Crossen decided to ditch Clifford and used his valuable free day to tick off Oxford Peak alone. He was more than a little pissed: "Clifford had never climbed a Fourteener before last winter," says Crossen. "He didn't love the idea. He just didn't have anything better to do."

The tension is still palpable, but after tackling five peaks separately before the last of the meager snow ran off, and taking a break from each other over the summer, they plan to reunite and finish together this spring. Even if they haven't completely reconciled. Whether The Quest returns as a collaboration or morphs into a footrace, the same 27 peaks remain, with their grueling approaches, technical climbs, and avalanche danger. Gaining experience as they've gone, Crossen and Clifford have saved some of the toughest adventures for last, among them, Capitol Peak and the Sangre de Cristo range.

"The Sangres are the crux," says Dawson. "They're the driest range." Last year, the mountains of southern Colorado remained brown, leaving many routes patently impossible, so this year can only get better. In the last 35 years, every Colorado drought has been followed by average or better-than-average snowfall. "Of course, our typical years are still really avalanche prone," reminds Andy Gleason, lead forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's Silverton office. "That's why we have the most avalanche deaths in the country."

Unlike Dawson, Clifford and Crossen plan on occasionally running a snowmobile to mount quick attacks and retreats to and from the bases of the 22 remote peaks in the Sangres and San Juans. And unlike Dawson, they aren't waiting years to ski from every summit or even attempting to summit every peak on the day they ski, opting instead to descend from the highest skiable point they can attain. They're going fast, placing more emphasis on the skiing than the climbing, but they aren't gonzo weekend hacks either. They take the time to study slope stability. "We've been spending a month or two in each range, so we know what to expect," says Clifford. They also don't hesitate to backpedal. "Last winter we climbed to 12,000 feet and then turned around probably 15 times," Clifford adds. The pair hasn't triggered a single slide.

On Capitol Peak, the steepest Fourteener left, face slides are less of a danger than the exposure. Two thousand-foot drops fall off both sides of the Knife Ridge that slices toward the top. To navigate it, they'll have to trudge along one side, hugging the spine with ice axes in hand, or straddle the blade roped up-a technique that requires some faith in your partner. Once on the summit, Crossen hopes to establish a new descent off the back side, avoiding the heavily corniced route Dawson chose down the Knife Ridge. "It would be just a normal 40- or 50-degree face with a 50-foot rappel," he says. But they'll need a solid base to attempt it.

The unstable snowpack of the southern ranges is the biggest obstacle. To ski there safely, the pair will likely employ an unconventional strategy that Crossen has played with for years, what he calls "aftersunhit." When big dumps arrive, they'll wait till the first slides slough off the southern and eastern faces, then time their climb for a 6 p.m. descent. The theory being that as alpenglow bathes the peaks, shadows and dropping temps freeze the snowpack into a stable consistency. "People probably think we're crazy," he acknowledges, "but it can be cold enough at 14,000 feet to ski fresh powder safely."

And powder makes all the suffering worthwhile. In the end, how much the two enjoy skiing the Fourteeners is as important to their success-and to them-as technical skills, schedules, and luck. Despite their hopes that The Quest will land them both healthy sponsorships, they're not going to risk life and limb for gas money or another free jacket. "The goal is to finish them by spring, but that's secondary to skiing them in ideal conditions," says Clifford. "We're not worried about sponsors needing a record. There is a record and it's 13 years."

Of course, Dawson skied 51 of the 54 from their true summits (the other three are rock piles), busting ass with each step and gauging avalanche conditions like a wizard. His record still stands. This is a new record.

FOURTEENER CHECKLIST

Think you can catch Clifford and Crossen? The approaches are painful slogs, but the payoff can be huge. In a good snow year, skiable descents range from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, and the powder at 14,000 floats like anthrax. Here's where they stand. You better get going.

1) Blanca Peak; 14,345
2) Capitol Peak; 14,130
3) Castle Peak; 14,265
4) Crestone Needle; 14,197
5) Crestone Peak; 14,294
6) Culebra Peak; 14,047
7) El Diente Peak; 14,159
8) Ellingwood Peak; 14,042
9) Grays Peak; 14,270
10) Handies Peak; 14,048
11) Humboldt Peak; 14,064
12) Huron Peak; 14,003
13) Kit Carson Mountain; 14,165
14) La Plata Peak; 14,336
15) Little Bear Peak; 14,037
16) Longs Peak; 14,255
17) Missouri Mountain; 14,067
18) Mount Antero; 14,269
19) Mount Belford; 14,197
20) Mount Bierstadt; 14,060
21) Mount Bross; 14,172
22) Mount Columbia; 14,073
23) Mount Democrat; 14,148
24) Mount Elbert; 14,433
25) Mount Evans; 14,264
26) Mount Harvard; 14,420
27) Mount Lincoln; 14,286
28) Mount Lindsey; 14,042
29) Mount Massive; 14,421
30) Mount Oxford; 14,153
31) Mount Princeton; 14,197
32) Mount Shavano; 14,229
33) Mount Sherman; 14,036
34) Mount Sneffels; 14,150
35) Mount Wilson (S); 14,246
36) Mount Yale; 14,196
37) Mount of the Holy Cross; 14,005
38) North Maroon Peak; 14,014
39) Pikes Peak; 14,109
40) Pyramid Peak; 14,018
41) Quandary Peak; 14,265
42) Redcloud Peak; 14,034
43) San Luis Peak; 14,014
44) Snowmass Mountain; 14,092
45) South Maroon Peak; 14,156
46) South Mount Eolus; 14,083
47) Sunlight Peak; 14,059
48) Sunshine Peak; 14,001
49) Tabeguache Peak; 14,155
50) Torreys Peak; 14,267
51) Uncompahgre Peak; 14,309
52) Wetterhorn Peak; 14,015
53) Wilson Peak (N); 14,017
54) Windom Peak; 14,082
he Knife Ridge. "It would be just a normal 40- or 50-degree face with a 50-foot rappel," he says. But they'll need a solid base to attempt it.

The unstable snowpack of the southern ranges is the biggest obstacle. To ski there safely, the pair will likely employ an unconventional strategy that Crossen has played with for years, what he calls "aftersunhit." When big dumps arrive, they'll wait till the first slides slough off the southern and eastern faces, then time their climb for a 6 p.m. descent. The theory being that as alpenglow bathes the peaks, shadows and dropping temps freeze the snowpack into a stable consistency. "People probably think we're crazy," he acknowledges, "but it can be cold enough at 14,000 feet to ski fresh powder safely."

And powder makes all the suffering worthwhile. In the end, how much the two enjoy skiing the Fourteeners is as important to their success-and to them-as technical skills, schedules, and luck. Despite their hopes that The Quest will land them both healthy sponsorships, they're not going to risk life and limb for gas money or another free jacket. "The goal is to finish them by spring, but that's secondary to skiing them in ideal conditions," says Clifford. "We're not worried about sponsors needing a record. There is a record and it's 13 years."

Of course, Dawson skied 51 of the 54 from their true summits (the other three are rock piles), busting ass with each step and gauging avalanche conditions like a wizard. His record still stands. This is a new record.

FOURTEENER CHECKLIST

Think you can catch Clifford and Crossen? The approaches are painful slogs, but the payoff can be huge. In a good snow year, skiable descents range from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, and the powder at 14,000 floats like anthrax. Here's where they stand. You better get going.

1) Blanca Peak; 14,345
2) Capitol Peak; 14,130
3) Castle Peak; 14,265
4) Crestone Needle; 14,197
5) Crestone Peak; 14,294
6) Culebra Peak; 14,047
7) El Diente Peak; 14,159
8) Ellingwood Peak; 14,042
9) Grays Peak; 14,270
10) Handies Peak; 14,048
11) Humboldt Peak; 14,064
12) Huron Peak; 14,003
13) Kit Carson Mountain; 14,165
14) La Plata Peak; 14,336
15) Little Bear Peak; 14,037
16) Longs Peak; 14,255
17) Missouri Mountain; 14,067
18) Mount Antero; 14,269
19) Mount Belford; 14,197
20) Mount Bierstadt; 14,060
21) Mount Bross; 14,172
22) Mount Columbia; 14,073
23) Mount Democrat; 14,148
24) Mount Elbert; 14,433
25) Mount Evans; 14,264
26) Mount Harvard; 14,420
27) Mount Lincoln; 14,286
28) Mount Lindsey; 14,042
29) Mount Massive; 14,421
30) Mount Oxford; 14,153
31) Mount Princeton; 14,197
32) Mount Shavano; 14,229
33) Mount Sherman; 14,036
34) Mount Sneffels; 14,150
35) Mount Wilson (S); 14,246
36) Mount Yale; 14,196
37) Mount of the Holy Cross; 14,005
38) North Maroon Peak; 14,014
39) Pikes Peak; 14,109
40) Pyramid Peak; 14,018
41) Quandary Peak; 14,265
42) Redcloud Peak; 14,034
43) San Luis Peak; 14,014
44) Snowmass Mountain; 14,092
45) South Maroon Peak; 14,156
46) South Mount Eolus; 14,083
47) Sunlight Peak; 14,059
48) Sunshine Peak; 14,001
49) Tabeguache Peak; 14,155
50) Torreys Peak; 14,267
51) Uncompahgre Peak; 14,309
52) Wetterhorn Peak; 14,015
53) Wilson Peak (N); 14,017
54) Windom Peak; 14,082

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