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11 Excuses For NOT Skiing with Andrew McLean

Features
posted: 11/03/2003

1.He didn't invite you.

Don't take it personally. Only a tiny fraction of skiers belong to Andrew McLean's clique of world-class ski mountaineers, a club that never lowers entrance requirements to attract new pledges-no matter how many of its old guard suffocate in slides or mummify in crevasses.

McLean, one of the few American elites still breathing, kicked in the club's door eight years ago. He and partner Mark Holbrook came out of nowhere to make history on the world's coldest mountain-and saved some lives along the way.

The story begins in the early '90s at Black Diamond Equipment, the mountaineering gear maker where they both worked. A mutual budding interest in backcountry skiing led them to take a tour together in the Wasatch Range. "Everything went wrong," says McLean. "I socked myself in the eye after yanking a strap too hard, and it swelled shut. I thought, 'Ohmygod, this guy thinks I'm a total Gumby.'" Hardly. Before long, McLean and Holbrook were joining legendary climber Alex Lowe for intense "Dawn Patrol" tours of Wasatch couloirs-meeting at 3 a.m. and pushing their sweaty, dank selves into the office by eight.

In 1995 they attended a Salt Lake slide show put on by alpinist Conrad Anker. When a shot of Mount McKinley flashed on screen, McLean and Holbrook spied a route down the Messner Couloir-never mind that nobody had ever skied this 50-degree, 5,200-vertical-foot terror from McKinley's 20,320-foot apex. They lit off for the highest peak in North America, "even though we'd never even climbed a fourteener before," says McLean. They didn't necessarily expect to summit, yet their ascent strategy proved flawless: Instead of shuttling heavy loads to a hypoxia-inducing high camp above 17,000 feet, they slept the entire time at 14,300. They didn't go out in bad weather, preserving energy for a clear window. They got one, and nailed the historic climb and ski with the lightest possible gear: a standard pack-skin-shovel setup.

The ensuing years saw McLean in the Tetons, the Sierra, the Alps, the Himalayas, Antarctica, and Baffin Island, claiming more than 75 first descents alongside Holbrook, Lowe, Anker, Doug Stoup, Hans Saari, and other alpine all-stars. Before leaving McKinley, though, the partners helped rangers evacuate a horribly frostbitten, edema-riddled Spanish party. McLean ended up carrying a corpse-one of his all-too-frequent encounters with death.

2. He'll dust you.

This past March, McLean, Holbrook, Adam Clark, and I slithered an all-day tour around Utah's Mount Superior in Little Cottonwood Canyon. A hardware designer for Black Diamond, McLean came fully equipped with the latest gear. He deployed rocket burners from his backpack, wore helium-filled boots, and propelled skis composed entirely of aircraft aluminum and unbuttered popcorn. Or so it appeared as he vacuumed 5,600 vertical feet of skin trail without a single labored breath. At one point I saw him intentionally break an unneeded trail just to slow down.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1961, McLean rapidly moved to Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, and Haiti before spending most his youth in Seattle. There, skiing fast came naturally to him, and he raced and eventually coached alpine at Alpental for a spell. A mere 145 pounds at 5 feet 10, he's hardly a Tomba. More like a human cheetah: lithe, with long, swinging limbs and a streamlined chassis, large only around the lungs.

McLean entered the Wasatch 100 Endurance Run a few years ago, though he'd never run so much as a marathon before. He finished 36th out of 180. Last year he won three randonnée races. Resembling normal randonnée travel, but with more angst, snot bubbles, and Euros in skinsuits, the events "take touring to a completely ludicrous level," says McLean. They hurt so good, he organized one: the Black Diamond Wasatch Powderkeg, which kicked off last year with 98 entrants. McLean broke trail before the event. At 3 a.m.

Despite all his power, McLean says he's learned toki the backcountry at 60 percent of his ability. "That way, I save energy in case I get into a situation like ice or avalanche. Then I have that burst left. If you're completely gassed, and a slab falls beneath you, you may not have the energy to scramble up above the fracture."3. If his lungs don't humiliate you, his brains will.

McLean went to college at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, pronounced "riz-dee"). Birthplace of the Talking Heads and some of the country's best artists, RISD's architecture doubled as sport-climbing routes for McLean. At night he'd boulder the campus. The police who caught him crabbing up cracks between buildings mistook his chalk bag for a giant stash of cocaine. Later, he caused a panic by dangling from a rope to test knots: Turns out the bridge he dropped from was notorious for suicides.

Nearly expelled, he managed to leave RISD in 1985 with a fine arts degree and his first major creation: the Talon, a three-pronged hook for big-wall climbers. An immediate and quantum improvement over existing hooks, the Talon got McLean a job at Black Diamond (BD), became one of the first products the company made after its separation from Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia, and still sells well today.

Once installed at BD, McLean designed ice axes, refined climbing cams, and invented the revolutionary wire-gate carabiner, now one of the most popular carabiners on earth. According to Brad Barlage, an expedition partner and a BD sales rep, "Andrew's designs earn him a lot of respect in the office and in the field. Several of the company's other designers started climbing with Andrew's first carabiners."

McLean's great gift to skiers, including himself, is the Whippet. A miniature steel ice-ax head that snaps onto your ski-pole handle, the Whippet puts a highly effective self-arrest tool right in your palm. "Designing gear is half-personal; I build things I want," says McLean. "The Whippet meant I no longer had to depend on cheesy plastic self-arrest grips or to drop steep ice with awkwardly heavy ice-ax components. Every year, people write in saying they climbed Everest with their Whippets."

The mad scientist of mountaineering shares an oversize cubicle with three other BD designers, two dogs, and a sled modeled on an old Inuit design, which McLean devised to schlep 200 pounds of gear across Arctic wastes. I met him at work one day when he was juggling designs for a bombproof ski leash, a technical crampon for ice climbing, and a telemarker's kneepad that articulates like an armadillo's shell. His is a hungry brain, though, and it sometimes begs for even more stimuli. It's then that McLean redesigns new products...to include built-in bottle openers.

4. He told every slob who can type "amazon.com" how to plunder the most sacred couloirs in the Wasatch.

In 1998 McLean wrote the first known guidebook devoted to steep skiing. The Chuting Gallery raves that long, steep chutes resemble "skiing down the barrel of a giant gun," then points readers to 95 of Utah's best. Ever the Renaissance man, McLean published the book himself.

The idea was to provide couloir skiers with slope angles and ratings, similar to the intricate route descriptions of climbing guides. But if any sport fosters more resentful territorialism than climbing, it's backcounty skiing. "I've been accused of telling kids how to kill themselves," McLean says. "People don't say too much to my face, but I hear, say, that the book caused a two-hour raging debate at a party."

On our tour near Mount Superior, the fracas seems silly. As crowded as the Wasatch can be, we see only 12 other skiers touring that ideal spring Saturday. America's institutional laziness clearly protects the chutes more than secrecy does. We were alone when we pointed our tips through the choke of Holy Molé Couloir, snaked through Hallway Chute, plummeted down the 42-degree South Face of Superior, and pirated shade-protected powder in Suicide Chute. The book did none of the heavy lifting. Sure, The Chuting Gallery points skiers in the right direction, but they still must earn every turn. 5. He prefers sewing to television.

It's flat out un-Am-ur-ican. What could possibly compel a red-blooded, male Baby Boomer to fire up a Singer instead of a Sony? "Kites," says McLean.

Three years ago, McLean ran into a a group of Antarctic explorers who had slogged for 69 days across ice-and then reversed the distance in 16 days using kites. The engineer in McLean was smitten, and he's been sewing kites in his home in the hills by Park City ever since. "Kites revolutionize self-propelled trips," he says. "They eliminate death marches, resulting in way more climbing and skiing." McLean has covered 100 miles in a day with a kite. He pines for "free-form" kiting: traveling so fast he employs a GPS to tell him where he is. "I look at a flat expanse now and say, 'Oh yeah!'"

In 2002 he and partner Brad Barlage won a Polartec Challenge Grant Award to kite without support around Baffin Island and ski countless couloirs looming 3,000 to 5,000 feet above the sea ice. Harnessing the wind with fabric swatches weighing less than a half-pound, they nailed 19 first descents.

The adventure was such a triumph of ingenuity and self-reliance it convinced McLean to start resisting the "monster, well-publicized expeditions-with their hidden agendas, pressure, and expectations-in favor of smaller trips with friends." He plans a November expedition to Antarctica's Queen Maud Land, where he and Mike Libecki will kite-ski across the ice cap to untouched chutes for yet more first descents. So McLean keeps stitching while his TV gathers more dust. The poor ignoramus doesn't even know Chandler and Monica got married.6. He'll always love his dogs more.

In McLean's living room, Greta, a three-year-old Bernese mountain dog, sprawls on the couch like she owns it. She probably does. After all, McLean says his truck was owned by Otto, his deceased Bernese. He published The Chuting Gallery under Paw Prince Press and credits Otto as co-author.

The holy drool of dogs? Their butt-wiggling enthusiasm for playing in snow? Claws that function as built-in crampons? Don't get him started. Plus, dogs never argue when you tell them you're taking off for two months in Tibet. Wives do, and that explains, in part, why McLean has a divorce under his belt and Holbrook has three.

McLean does have a girlfriend now, Polly Samuels-an accomplished backcountry skier, she won the Randonnée Rally at Stevens Pass, Washington, last season. They met at a trailhead after he commented on her bumper sticker from La Grave-the gnarliest ski area in France. McLean hopes for the best with her. Yet he told her that "my travel and expeditions have been a problem in the past, and they're not going away." And when he is home, his attention may be directed at dog magazines or his burgeoning efforts to design long-lasting, high-quality canine gear-or, as he calls it, "Petagonia."

7. Tragedy Dogs Him.

Our Little Cottonwood chute tour happens almost 10 years to the day after McLean's first ski-related tragedy. McLean and a fellow Black Diamond employee named Roman Latta were skiing Wolverine Cirque when Latta decided to enter a 50-degree couloir by hucking off a cornice. McLean agreed to shoot a photo...of what turned out to be the final voluntary act of Latta's life. The impact of Latta's landing triggered a lethal slide. Although McLean and others managed to find, extricate, and get him on a helicopter, Latta could not survive the trauma. It was the first run of their first day skiing together.

In 1999 Alex Lowe, the dear friend who introduced McLean to alpine touring and wrote the intro to The Chuting Gallery, died on an expedition with McLean to 26,289-foot Shishapangma in the Tibetan Himalaya. Attempting to become the first Americans to ski an 8,000-meter peak, their group got separated while scouting skiable lines. "We were just doingdid none of the heavy lifting. Sure, The Chuting Gallery points skiers in the right direction, but they still must earn every turn. 5. He prefers sewing to television.

It's flat out un-Am-ur-ican. What could possibly compel a red-blooded, male Baby Boomer to fire up a Singer instead of a Sony? "Kites," says McLean.

Three years ago, McLean ran into a a group of Antarctic explorers who had slogged for 69 days across ice-and then reversed the distance in 16 days using kites. The engineer in McLean was smitten, and he's been sewing kites in his home in the hills by Park City ever since. "Kites revolutionize self-propelled trips," he says. "They eliminate death marches, resulting in way more climbing and skiing." McLean has covered 100 miles in a day with a kite. He pines for "free-form" kiting: traveling so fast he employs a GPS to tell him where he is. "I look at a flat expanse now and say, 'Oh yeah!'"

In 2002 he and partner Brad Barlage won a Polartec Challenge Grant Award to kite without support around Baffin Island and ski countless couloirs looming 3,000 to 5,000 feet above the sea ice. Harnessing the wind with fabric swatches weighing less than a half-pound, they nailed 19 first descents.

The adventure was such a triumph of ingenuity and self-reliance it convinced McLean to start resisting the "monster, well-publicized expeditions-with their hidden agendas, pressure, and expectations-in favor of smaller trips with friends." He plans a November expedition to Antarctica's Queen Maud Land, where he and Mike Libecki will kite-ski across the ice cap to untouched chutes for yet more first descents. So McLean keeps stitching while his TV gathers more dust. The poor ignoramus doesn't even know Chandler and Monica got married.6. He'll always love his dogs more.

In McLean's living room, Greta, a three-year-old Bernese mountain dog, sprawls on the couch like she owns it. She probably does. After all, McLean says his truck was owned by Otto, his deceased Bernese. He published The Chuting Gallery under Paw Prince Press and credits Otto as co-author.

The holy drool of dogs? Their butt-wiggling enthusiasm for playing in snow? Claws that function as built-in crampons? Don't get him started. Plus, dogs never argue when you tell them you're taking off for two months in Tibet. Wives do, and that explains, in part, why McLean has a divorce under his belt and Holbrook has three.

McLean does have a girlfriend now, Polly Samuels-an accomplished backcountry skier, she won the Randonnée Rally at Stevens Pass, Washington, last season. They met at a trailhead after he commented on her bumper sticker from La Grave-the gnarliest ski area in France. McLean hopes for the best with her. Yet he told her that "my travel and expeditions have been a problem in the past, and they're not going away." And when he is home, his attention may be directed at dog magazines or his burgeoning efforts to design long-lasting, high-quality canine gear-or, as he calls it, "Petagonia."

7. Tragedy Dogs Him.

Our Little Cottonwood chute tour happens almost 10 years to the day after McLean's first ski-related tragedy. McLean and a fellow Black Diamond employee named Roman Latta were skiing Wolverine Cirque when Latta decided to enter a 50-degree couloir by hucking off a cornice. McLean agreed to shoot a photo...of what turned out to be the final voluntary act of Latta's life. The impact of Latta's landing triggered a lethal slide. Although McLean and others managed to find, extricate, and get him on a helicopter, Latta could not survive the trauma. It was the first run of their first day skiing together.

In 1999 Alex Lowe, the dear friend who introduced McLean to alpine touring and wrote the intro to The Chuting Gallery, died on an expedition with McLean to 26,289-foot Shishapangma in the Tibetan Himalaya. Attempting to become the first Americans to ski an 8,000-meter peak, their group got separated while scouting skiable lines. "We were just doing a little recon," says McLean. "Walking around a flat glacier near camp with no visible threats. It could have been the Snowbird tramline. We didn't wear beacons, didn't even pack a lunch." When he first saw a slide spilling over a distant cliff, McLean thought, "No big deal." Then: "Wow, look at that..." Finally he saw it go over another cliff and propagate.

"I realized Alex and David Bridges were going to get hit. Then I realized I was going to get hit." The slide slammed McLean against rocks, broke his glasses, and convinced him he would die. Right before the powder cloud overtook him, he saw Lowe and Bridges "running downslope, maybe looking to jump in a crevasse so the slide would pass over them," McLean says. "I'd done so much with Alex, I just assumed he'd pop out, and say, 'Wow!'" But the entire landscape had changed, with 20 feet of ice boulders and debris covering acres and acres of glacier. The survivors knew immediately that rescue was impossible, that even beacons would only locate carcasses.

After Lowe's death, McLean began mountaineering with Lowe's protégé, Hans Saari, one of the Shishapangma survivors. They became very close friends. Then Saari attempted the Gervisuiti Couloir in Chamonix in 2001. He'd completed the first crux and was traversing a more modest pitch, where snow gave way to ice. For a moment, Saari hung there. Then the molecular bonding of metal ski edge to frozen water began to disintegrate. Before he could make an attempt at self-arrest, Saari lost friction and was flushed to his death.Barely more than a year later, in September 2002, McLean and a friend named Dan Rector got together one morning before dawn to scramble across the boulders atop Mount Superior. McLean was in the lead when he heard a sudden gasp. He whipped around to a sickening sight: the Wasatch horizon minus Rector's headlamp. Rector, a father of four, had fallen to his death off a knife-edge ridge.

"I've done a bunch of soul searching," McLean sighs. "At one point, 20 people that I knew died prematurely. Three where I was directly involved. I do think a lot of it is odds. If you spend a lot of time in the mountains, accidents happen. Look at Ruedi Beglinger and that B.C. avalanche last winter. Ruedi was an incredibly safe guy, but if you venture into severe mountains every day for 18 years, your chances are bad. It's just a matter of time."

McLean, incidentally, has never so much as broken a bone in the backcountry.

8. He's not afraid.

McLean is only the second skier, after infamously arrogant Swiss ski-film mogul Dominique Perret, I've ever heard say out loud that avalanches can be outrun. Granted, McLean says so regarding low-angled slush slides in the Cascades-by no means does he underestimate the runners of the Rockies-but in the pious temples of backcountry skiing, even the tiniest bit of avy bravado sounds like heresy.

Though Utah skiers unanimously praise McLean's talents and pioneering routes, they usually do so with double-edged words such as "psycho" and "sick" and "insane." When Wasatch diehards hear of your plans to ski with McLean, they begin breathing rapidly. Their sentences shrink to quick exhales: "McLean? Superior? South side?" Recently, McLean and an experienced ski mountaineer made plans to ski the Stupid Chutes. The morning of their planned outing, his partner's wife called and said, "My husband was up all night, he was so nervous. He's never going skiing with you again."

9. Hell, yes, he's afraid.

McLean, of course, knows firsthand how dangerous mountains can be. A slide near Wolverine Cirque once flung him into a tree, then ripped him off it before depositing him three feet above the ground in a second tree. Two of his marquee descents seem to have truly terrified him. The scariest occurred when he and Saari made the second-ever descent of the Hossack-MacGowan Couloir on Grand Teton in 1998.

A discontinuous 2,000-foot descent that includes hideous ice and a 55- to 60-degree, 1,000-v

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