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Running From Babylon: Ptor Spricenieks, Ski Mountaineer

You may not have heard of one of the world’s best ski mountaineers. But Ptor Spricenieks, armed with a new sponsor and personal ambition, couldn’t care less. Inside his strange and crucial journey.
posted: 11/24/2008

Canadian Ptor Spricenieks is getting married in La Grave, France. In Latvian national costume. He flew to Latvia’s capital, Riga, to personally assemble it. I find this out via e-mail. Among the unusual revelations I’ve come to expect in missives from the enigmatic ski mountaineer—some informative, others hilarious, many bizarre—this imparts only mild amusement.

Still—married? Ptor never seemed the type. This is a ski mountaineer who ventures to the far reaches of the globe to notch enormous first descents by himself. A man who circulates e-mails using words like “Illuminati” and “New World Order.” So marriage is something he might construe as a jaded institution orchestrated by, say, an imperialist, multinational consumerist plot.

Despite a litany of convictions and New Agey philosophies, against all odds, Ptor believes in family. And given that he is the Canadian-born son of a Latvian émigré, Ptor’s costume suggests that, on some level, he also believes in tradition. “It’s a civil ceremony and it feels completely natural,” he tells me. “I love her and she’s the one I want to start a family with.”

In the decade-plus I have known the man, this charming admission is the first suggestion that he is something other than a terrified alien marooned in a human body, attempting to signal the mothership by etching Nazca-like code on the steepest faces of the world’s fabled ranges. Is it the case that the ski world at large knows the myth of Ptor better than it knows the man?

Only most skiers know neither man nor myth. They might be aware of Chris Davenport’s single-year conquering of all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks; or Andrew McLean’s accomplishments in Europe, Baffin Island, and beyond; they may even know of Hans Kammerlander, the Italian skier who finally tamed Everest. But Ptor Spricenieks is as accomplished as any of them. This era of big-mountain superstars, along with movies like Steep and books like The Edge of Never, should belong to him. Yet he isn’t even mentioned in Steep. And despite a stunning catalog of first descents that places him among the elite of the elite, he isn’t sought out to pronounce upon the state of the sport, is not awash in gear and expedition invitations, and has yet to earn a decent living from his feats.

Why? Is it because he has run from the spotlight when he could have stepped into it, or too often fled from those who would help him? In any event he has, it seems, stubbornly turned down the dream of making a living from skiing to ski on his own terms, racking up enormously risky descents each season for little more than undiluted joy.

I’d always wondered why. In February 2008, an opportunity arose to interview Ptor in Kashmir, where he would be guiding and training the local ski patrol. After making the arrangements, I hopped a plane with a well-known photographer. We flew for two days, then took a several-hour jeep ride into the Himalaya to meet the man, ski with him, and ask a few questions. It would have been perfect.

Only Ptor wasn’t there.

***

Shortly after September 8, 1995, skiers suddenly began caring about Ptor. With skiing partner Troy Jungen, Ptor, then 28, scaled the 3,300-foot, sustained 57-degree north face of British Columbia’s Mount Robson—Yuh-Hai-Has-Kun in First Nations dialect, as preferred by both Troy, partly of Beaver Indian stock, and Ptor—with skis on their packs. At the time, it was considered one of North America’s last great unsolved ski-mountaineering problems. The face is an enormously exposed ice climb, so steep that it’s seldom in shape to accept ski edges.

Peter Chrzanowski, a little-known ski mountaineer and extreme-ski evangelist from Whistler, had been there no fewer than five times. His first attempt to ski it was a debacle involving three helicopters and a too-short coil of yellow nylon boat rope on which he and a partner had intended to lower themselves into The Shotgun, a 300-foot-tall ice chunk that was only two feet wide in some places. All of this unfolded in front of about 50 members of the media. Another of Chrzanowski’s attempts involved a dream team: Scot Schmidt, Trevor Petersen, Steve Smaridge, and filmmaker Eric Perlman. They were turned around.

Calgary’s unsung ski-mountaineering legend Doug Ward made two attempts. The second ended when a team member lost an arm to a helicopter rotor. Rumors swirled of top Euros failing on covert attempts, of skiers being killed in avalanches on the approach. Whether the rumors are true or not, Mount Robson’s north face, repeatedly repelling attempts by some of the world’s best, was not a trifling place.

Despite his defeats, Chrzanowski’s enthusiasm was contagious. He had beta on routes and conditions and a willingness to share it with Ptor and Troy, two Whistler-based skiers who’d been influenced by him. And through their own experience, they knew it was best to attempt it under a full moon, frequently a portent of clear weather. During the winter, it’s too cold for snow to stick to the north face’s blue ice, but after a long summer of warmish snowstorms, conditions appeared perfect. Ptor had also just returned from an attempt to ski Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, where he’d lived at 15,000 feet for a month. His conditioning aside, Ptor’s time on the world’s ninth-highest peak made Robson—or YHHK as Ptor insisted it be written—less intimidating to him. Leaving camp at 3 a.m., the pair surmounted the massive bergschrund cleaving the bottom of the face and kicked steps straight up, ending with a 60-foot freeclimb of 75-degree ice. At 8 a.m. they tagged the summit.

With the wind howling, they paused only long enough to collect their energy. In keeping with their respect for the indigenous culture, they offered some dried salmon to the mountain spirits on the summit. They then clicked into their skis only 30 feet from where they’d rolled over the top. The first pitch they skied was 60 degrees. When they hit the bergschrund the slope eased below 55. The entire descent took 45 minutes. And when he reached the bottom, Ptor cried.

Word of the accomplishment traveled fast. Virtually every mountain-related magazine picked up the story. Suddenly, Ptor and Troy vaulted from dirtbag obscurity to worldwide notoriety. Some in the fickle alpinist community claimed it was a miracle, that the unheralded duo had gambled with their lives and won. The boys paid little mind. A feat of this magnitude is life-changing. The typical trajectory would then normally involve sponsorships, more premiere descents, a lifetime of designing your own equipment and planning dream expeditions on someone else’s dime. The limelight beckoned. Troy would heed it to some extent—TV commercials, sponsorships, magazine photo shoots—but Ptor ran.

After a falling-out with Troy that November, another failed relationship, and self-doubt about what he was doing in the mountains, Ptor sold all his ski gear. He retreated to Costa Rica. Certain he was on the right path, he burned his return ticket to Canada. But just before Christmas he almost drowned in a surfing accident. He’d been raked against rocks and lost a generous amount of skin. He rested in a beach hut to recuperate before traveling throughout the country in early 1996. But he was shaken when he learned of Trevor Petersen’s late-February death in an avalanche in Chamonix. Petersen had been an inspiration. With that, Ptor began hitchhiking back to Whistler. It would take a month.

He spent the summer on Anderson Lake north of Whistler, moved to Nelson on Halloween for a two-month powderfest, then disappeared into the shadows of the world’s great ranges. He traveled to the Coast, Selkirks, Rockies, Tetons, Alps, Andes, and Himalayas, searching for a stronger connection to these fabled ranges by hanging with hospitable peasants, tribal shamans, and climbing’s elite, logging an impressive array of first descents in the process.

Emboldened by a sense of his capabilities, he took further journeys of self-discovery through what he calls “crucial scenarios” played out upon horrifically dangerous mountains around the world, including Artesonraju in Peru, BC’s Monarch Icecap, and a trouble-plagued attempt to ski Santa Marta in Columbia. He tagged huge, exposed descents with Doug Coombs in La Grave. He went to Yukon’s famed Kluane National Park and snared Mount Vancouver, an uninterrupted 10,800-vertical-foot descent done in pure alpine style: 30 hours nonstop. And unlike most ski mountaineers of his caliber, he did all of this, with little difficulty, while living off the grid in declared poverty.

By running the other direction from potential benefactors, he’d established a unique integrity—and a possible impediment to a ski career. Brushes with mainstream fame and sponsorship ultimately resulted in further marginalization. A combination of strong character traits often led Ptor into battle against both industry and friends—Troy included.

But as a costumed Latvian wedding suggests, Ptor is also funny, imaginative, and playful. He appends e-mails with the cri de coeur “Yeah doggies!” He freely plucks notions and verbiage from science fiction to describe everything from mountain-related undertakings to political subterfuge—like “grok,” a term from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, to denote intuitive understanding.

Fortified by the garlicky aroma of strong cannabis smoke, these threads have braided themselves into something larger. Into a man who is out there, both literally and figuratively—the world’s most accomplished unknown ski-mountaineer/paragliding philosopher king/conspiracy theorist.

***

Long before ski mags and movies collectively declared Gulmarg, India, the Next Big Thing, adventure skiers had put it on the radar. Ptor among them. When Gulmarg extended its gondola for the winter of 2006, Ptor was recruited to work on an international team of mountain-rescue professionals to train Gulmarg’s nascent patrol. He’d been there in 2004 and had already fallen in love with the mountains and people. Ptor and company buckled down to a training regimen with the eager Kashmiris. Despite plodding Indian bureaucracy, they’d made important baby steps in mountain safety and avalanche control—using ski cuts instead of explosives lest the Pakistanis mistake avalanche control for military shelling.

At the end of the gondola extension’s first season, the snow-sports community was talking Gulmarg. Front and center in the discussion, Ptor landed a gig to guide there the following winter for Extremely Canadian, a respected Whistler-based travel company that specializes in steep skiing. A season later, I’d hoped to see it firsthand. Except Ptor didn’t show.

I wasn’t the only one disappointed. His dog couldn’t figure it out either. Outside the lower gondola station, on our first day, we were approached by a large, sand-colored mutt with dirt-frosted fur. Though Ptor had adopted it in 2004, the Kashmiris treated it like any other stray: as a fluffy soccer ball. Nevertheless, the dog sleeps in Ptor’s digs when he’s around, a welcome break from battling the aggressive monkeys and snow leopards that prowl Gulmarg’s treed fringes by night. A chewed-up ear and long scar on the dog’s forehead suggested it got off lightly in a recent encounter. This dog that stood its ground against a big cat might be tough as nails, but it was susceptible to the mellifluous tones of oot and aboot.

Habituated to the timbre of a Canadian voice, he followed us as though he knew us. We were seen as either portents of Ptor’s arrival or the next best thing. I felt like I was channeling Cheech and Chong when I bent to pet him and break the bad news. “Ptor’s not here, man.”

“The flow was not going [in Kashmir] for me that year,” Ptor would later lament. In fact, last winter’s “flow” was more of a flushing toilet. Back in La Grave he’d been battling a sciatic problem and was just getting over it as he prepared to embark for India. But his passport, which he’d sent to Paris to obtain an Indian visa, was lost in the mail system. It was impossible for him to leave Europe in time to join the Extremely Canadian crew.

Writing off the debacle as destiny, Ptor, an ardent paraglider, remained in La Grave and got down to testing the prototype of his dreams: a ski wing he had designed called the Phawked UHP. Things went well until his last run.

“I started down between seracs towards [a photographer],” says Ptor. “As I passed him going Mach chicken, I launched into my biggest glide yet. But I was slightly off-axis on the landing. My left ski was grabbed by funky snow and I crashed.”

As he came to rest, Ptor knew something was wrong and looked down. His left leg appeared dislocated below the knee. It would take nine screws, a plate, 10 days in the hospital, and six weeks in rehab to mend his shattered tibial plateau. Surprisingly, even when straightening out the leg and being transported to the hospital, he says he experienced almost no pain.

***

Ptor spent his “first childhood” just north of Toronto in the town of Bolton. Aged three, he slid around the family yard and the short banks of the Humber River Valley. Accompanying him on these micro-forays was his mother, who’d ski-bummed for several seasons at Quebec’s Mont Tremblant during the ’50s. Eager for her own fix, she eventually dragged Ptor to Edelweiss, a nearby nub of a ski area.

An honors student in high school, Ptor moved on to an engineering program at McMaster University. In 1988, he dropped out and moved to Whistler. Within a week of returning to Bolton for the summer, he argued with his mother, repacked his bags, headed back to Whistler, and was sucked into the vortex for good.

“That first year, I met Peter Chrzanowski, who took me on my first backcountry run,” says Ptor. “It blew my mind. Chrzanowski also introduced me to Trevor Petersen and Eric Pehota, who in turn blew my mind at what and how they were skiing. Through them I learned about the French roots of climbing and skiing.” That pretty much covers the genesis of any big-mountain maven. But then he mentions how Seppo Makkinnen—an old Finn who cut many of Whistler Mountain’s first trails—instilled in him the pride that comes from climbing up to ski down.

“And,” he recalls, “I watched Blizzard of Aahhh’s about a thousand times on mushrooms until I actually ended up in a real-life avalanche scenario with Greg Stump and crew in Lakeside Bowl. That blew my mind enough to take a Canadian Avalanche Association Level I course.”

Ptor formed a vision of what he wanted to do in the mountains amidst Whistler’s supersize personalities—the Trevors, the Erics, the Chrzanowskis—but it was the unsung and unwashed with whom he would do it. He gravitated toward Whistler’s original dirtbag crew of Graydon Card, Johnny Thrash, Matty Shred, and Chris Kettles. During that first winter, someone suggested he meet Troy. “Then we met and started doing large molecules and skiing. It just went from there,” says Ptor.

By the time they stood atop YHHK five years later, the pair had already gleaned an impressive range of collective mountain experience. In addition to numerous ski-mountaineering trips, Ptor had also entered the 1993 World Extreme Ski Championships in Valdez and skied alongside slalom god Ingmar Stenmark during a stint working for Blackcomb’s race department.

As various exploits filtered back to the mountain community, most of what he did, no matter how brave or apparently suicidal, made sense in a “that’s just Ptor” kind of way. One thing that chafed observers, however, was how a perpetually friendly guy could have two major fallings-out with Troy, the man with whom he’d shared the most emotional moment of his life.

“We’re both stubborn, idealistic bastards and we go through periods of psychological uncertainty and imbalance dealing with the intensity of the mountains and life and death,” says Ptor, who is characteristically philosophical about these past rifts. Which is why Troy will be the best man at Ptor’s wedding. Which leaves me wondering if Troy will also wear a costume. It also leaves me envisioning towering Latvian gnomes dancing around a bonfire.

I don’t ask for fear that I’m right.

***

Ptor’s not exactly a darling of the ski industry. Insiders may respect him as one of the world’s best ski mountaineers, but he remains the most unsung for a reason. Some of this might be attributed to sharing Reinhold Messner’s credo of never promoting or receiving gains from something he doesn’t believe in or use himself. The other side of Messner, however, the one in which you devote every waking hour to promoting or defending yourself to anyone who will listen, is the side that Ptor has studiously avoided emulating.

After YHHK, Ptor was sponsored by Fischer skis. But after years of prodding, the company refused to make a fat board while everybody else surfed past him in the Coast Range schmoo. They parted ways.

“In 1997, I got in with the dream sponsor, The North Face, but it wasn’t the fantasy I’d hoped for. I remember [TNF climber] Conrad Anker describing my expedition ideas as ‘bold,’ then basically tossing them out the window,” says Ptor. Later, relations with TNF were plagued by miscommunication and internal decisions that left Ptor feeling “disrespected and small.” He retreated. A subsequent stint with Patagonia seemed a good fit. Ptor dug Patagonia’s ethics and green vibes. “I’ve always admired Yvon Chouinard, but I didn’t resonate harmonically with designers on gear ideas. They have no money for hardcore ski mountaineering and after five years of no increasing interest in me, it was over.”

Ptor also associates his sponsorship difficulties with his dirtbag financial situation, high cost of communication, lack of a computer (he finally got one in 2000), constant travel, and status as “a Canadian kind of guy who can’t really get into a high level of self-promotion”—which just got in the way of skiing. Ptor admits he could have tried harder to work with the industry but when it came to opportunities in the mountains, his id was in control. He once passed on a day of filming with Christian Begin and Hugo Harrisson because they didn’t want to shoot in La Grave—despite already being there. “The téléphérique [had] been closed by a major storm for three days. I wouldn’t have missed that first lift on a bluebird morning for anything,” he says.

Ptor admits that being acclaimed and obscure at the same time in the ski world is confusing. Yet he insists he has no regrets, that integrity is everything. “I’d choose respect over money any day. It’s definitely ego that motivates me to do things on my own, in a pure style and without being seen. It bothers me that YHHK wasn’t mentioned in Steep, but it’s not really personal. I’m just as choked they didn’t mention Hans Kammerlander.”

Generally, he believes that his ideas were too “out there,” though Black Diamond, his latest sponsor, holds promise. Nevertheless, Dan Caruso, Black Diamond’s marketing coordinator and team manager, admits that Ptor is not an easy guy to sponsor. “It’s hard to get ahold of him when he’s in Kashmir or Yukon, which is understandable. But sometimes I wait for an e-mail response and get a well-thought out conspiracy theory back,” he says. In 2006, however, Caruso had bumped into him in La Grave and directed him to BD’s test center there. After a week of skiing the BD product, over a beer Ptor asked Caruso, “Am I too old to get sponsored?”

“I jumped at the chance,” says Caruso. “The stuff Chris Davenport does is cool, but Ptor’s been doing radder stuff for over a decade and is way out of the spotlight.” Caruso also says that Ptor has worked out far better than he ever imagined. “He doesn’t seem to be a gearhead because he’s not materialistic,” Caruso says. “But of all the guys we sponsor he’s probably the most knowledgeable from a design and feasibility standpoint. He’s good at designing products and we’ve used a lot of his ideas.”

And Ptor, for his part, seems happy. He says he connects with the people at BD, that they know who he is and appreciate it. “It’s another company I believe in and I look forward to growing with,” says Ptor. If that sounds like scripted “I just want to get out there and help the team put the puck in the net” jockspeak, it’s not. There’s another side of Ptor that dispels such foolish suspicions in a nanosecond: his writing.

The nature of it, often manifested as 2,000-word e-mails, and the need for an uncensored, unedited venue, has made the internet his best friend. You can find his voluminous, considered, thought-provoking stories and diatribes at skiing websites, on blogs, and, should you be on his list of antiglobalization sympathizers, in your e-mail inbox.

One recent e-treatise entitled Rise of the Conscious Skier was carpeted with live links and a few photos of George W. Bush. Leveling accusations at America’s elite, Ptor found a way to sew in a warning that Canada will soon come under complete control of the “fascist” USA, as evidenced by bicycle-helmet laws and the prohibition of beer drinking in the streets.

It is this side of Ptor that Caruso hid from Black Diamond when first presenting him for consideration. Rather than show them a video of Ptor “talking about random stuff in a tent,” Caruso put together photos of him and told the higher-ups that Ptor had “skied some nasty shit, and at altitude.”

“The last thing I want to be is a monodimensional skier who hides in their bubble skitopia,” says Ptor. “I can’t waste the voice I do have on drivel about how cool my last trip was. Rather, these are introductions to further research that everyone must ultimately do to grok the situation for themselves. I’m not afraid of being wrong but I am afraid of blindly accepting authority without expressing an opinion.”

As I scan the final line of Rise of the Conscious Skier, I find that there’s little danger of that. After five photos, 61 links, and 2,276 words, it ends with this: “Have some pride and refuse to be employed by corporations eroding our mountain communities and ethics. Fuck the ski hill and your ego and go ski touring.”

***

The injury was an unhappy ending to a difficult season. Given the devastating scenario in his knee joint, he has made what some physiotherapists might deem a miraculous recovery. By commuting on his bike between home and rehab over the summer, a 37-mile round-trip with 4,600 feet of climbing, the man was clearly in need of another big project. While recuperating, he began writing a book. He got married this past September. And now that he can hike, climb, fly, and ski again, he’s planning more skiing.

“Busy stuff these days,” booms his most recent e-mail. “Troy and Pierre and I just climbed La Meije for my bachelor party. Gonna paraglide into town for the wedding. Bluebird today—Yeah doggies!”

Undiluted joy. A crucial scenario to grok if there ever was one.

- SKIING MAGAZINE, DECEMBER 2008

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