Words by: Liz Sampey
Photos by: Liz Sampey & Donny Roth
Challenges and Confidence: Building ski mountaineering skills with Irwin Guides
I zipped my hood over my climbing helmet to block the icy cold and snow from my neck as my
heart pounded faster with the energy created by the swirling gust of wind. Pip and had I double
and triple checked the well-crafted bollard anchor we had meticulously dug into the deep, firm
snowpack that Pip would be rappelling off of; as well as the deadman's anchor that she was
about to belay my ski descent from.
We tied in to the rope, and had our work checked by our instructor, AMGA Ski Mountaineering
Guide Donny Roth. We, along with our five other teammates, had worked together for four days
to learn the skills we needed to safely and effectively execute our mission. Now, we were locked
and loaded. I looked again at the doubled-back figure eight knot tied to my harness, and smiled
nervously at Pip, the tips of my skis hanging precipitously over the steep entrance to the couloir.
Today I would be the first to drop in.
(Liz Sampey about to drop in to a couloir, Pip Hunt on belay.)
I ski cut the top of the couloir, on belay. Some harmless sluff ran down the fall line, and I began
to turn in creamy, deep snow as Pip let out the rope. When I had passed the "no-fall zone," I
went off belay, finished out the couloir, and turned to watch Pip. It was her turn to rappel off our
bollard anchor and then ski down to me. I watched her drop over the edge and bounce a little to
test our anchor. Thumbs up from Donny above told us it was firm. She rappelled down, pulled
the rope through and finished her ski. Laughs and high-fives ensued. We had nailed it.
Of course, what we had just skied wasn't actually a "no-fall zone," and we were in minimal
danger up on the mountain that day. We were on the last day of the spring Ski
Mountaineering course held by Irwin Guides, out of Crested Butte, CO, and we were putting
our newfound skills to the test. We had first skinned and then climbed with crampons and ice
axes up the ridge of Mt. Owen, practiced steep snow climbing on belay with our partner, and
finally skied a couloir using the anchors and techniques we had learned: cutting cornices,
building anchors, skiing on belay, rappelling into lines, and of course practicing safe travel
techniques in avalanche terrain.
The course ran over four days in Irwin, CO. There were seven students, led by our two very
capable instructors Evan Ross and Donny Roth, who also work as ski guides with Irwin. All of us
in the course had quite a bit of backcountry skiing and various amounts of ski mountaineering
experience, and we all came eager to learn the skills and techniques we would need to make us
strong and capable ski mountaineering partners.
(The group skinning up to the Day 1 terrain.)
On Day One of the course, we got our feet wet by practicing skinning and steep skinning
techniques and talking about terrain selection. We broke into two small groups and learned
about using skis and ice axes to build anchors, and got lots of practice building anchors and
jumping on them. The day culminated with building a T-anchor using skis and rappelling down a
steep part of the slope, standing up on our skis and sliding slowly backwards.
(Instructor Evan Ross checking the trenches for the T anchor that Stephanie and Pip had just
Day Two of the course was another skills day. For the remainder of the course we would base
out of a cabin in the town of Irwin, which could only be accessed on snow. We loaded our
camping gear onto a snowmobile, and skinned up to the cabin with our packs. After eating some
lunch, we headed out to learn and practice some other forms of anchor building: the deadman
and the bollard.
(Stephanie and Pip digging out the snow bollard with their ice axes.)
(Liz testing out the bollard on rappel. It's good!)
(Donny explaining how to make a deadman anchor out of a small stuff sack stuffed with snow.)
In the evenings of Day Two and Day Three, Donny and Evan treated us to a great dinner they
cooked in the cabin as we discussed the events of the day, asked any questions we had, and
planned our routes for the next two days. We talked about current avalanche conditions, the
snowpack, the forecast and which terrain we were comfortable navigating. Skills days were
over, and now it was time to put them to use and do some more learning along the way.
(Not only can they guide, teach, and ski like the wind, those guys can cook!)
Day Three: we broke into two groups again. I was in Evan's group, and we had decided to
make it a huge tour day. We would climb up into an adjacent valley and descend a big mountain
face, and ascend a couloir back up. We navigated through rolling terrain and up a ridgeline to
the top of our first objective. Evan facilitated as our team made a group decision about the best
route to take through the face, discussing all the options. We decided to downclimb through
some rocks off the summit and make a long traverse over to our intended ski line. We dug into
the snow to confirm our earlier thoughts about the snowpack, and gave it a thumbs up. It was a
large, wide couloir and the rocks gave us just enough perspective in the flat light to shred it. The
line was exhilarating and fun, and it felt good to be skiing great snow in big terrain.
(Downclimbing through the whiteroom into our line.)
The climb up and out a narrow, steeper couloir was my favorite part. The snow was soft, so
crampons weren't necessary, and we took turns leading and kicking a staircase up the white
ribbon, and then enjoying a fun mellow ski home through fresh powder. The day was a success.
Everyone in the group made sure to fuel and hydrate properly, and manage their layers and
skins during the long, cold, snowy day out. Donny and Evan put a big emphasis on this,
because these details, often overlooked, are even more important than knowing the skills: if a
team member bonks or gets hypothermic, or lets their skins freeze up so they can't ascend, the
whole team can get into big trouble.
(Up and out.)
On the final day, Day Four, we again kept our same groups but switched instructors. My team's
trip culminated in the climb and ski of Mt. Owen with Donny, using nearly every technique we
had been taught throughout the last four days. Throughout the course, we all were challenged,
set up for success with solid education and practice, and came away with fresh new skills;
confident that we could execute our techniques while making smart decisions in the mountains.
The Irwin Ski Mountaineering Course was a great experience; one that I would recommend to
anyone who has a good level of fitness, some backcountry skiing experience, an open mind for
learning and a taste for adventure.
(Donny watching his students perform from the top of the ridge.)
(Pip and Liz celebrate a successful run and a great course.)