Via Outdoor Research Verticulture 

By story by Mark Allen and video edited by Mike Bromberg
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Mark with the RMU team at the OPUS hut in the San Juans CO. This is apparently called "claiming it." Photo Nate Disser

Ski cultures are territorial, especially the old ones. The local’s band up like gorillas claiming large swaths of alpine territory. The troops get protective when others invade. Guarding the stash can become a way of life. The local chiefs are elusive and operate in the shadows. These full-timers are the real silverbacks. The local tribe knows more than god about the terrain and roams in the less obvious. Their timing always seems perfect as you gaze upon their tracks from a distant ridge and wonder. They lurk in the areas that we all want. They arrive there while we are drinking coffee. They have spent a lifetime looking for these places and have discovered them. The lines are not documented but recorded in the minds and verbal histories of the privileged. This is their land, their terrain, and you are a visitor. You might see their tracks, but sightings are rare. Tracking them can be dangerous prospect. They might feel hunted and reactions are unpredictable. You should stick to what you can ski from the road.
This tribal phenomenon is rich in the Southwestern Colorado San Juan Mountains. This area is home to one of the oldest ski cultures in the country and is also one of the least developed. For example, there is no formal written documentation or publication of first descents and features are often unnamed; most significant information has transcended the generations through verbal history. At 13,000ft plus, alpine ridge crests develop distinctly segregated circles that separate the populations. This cultural division has always reminded me of the evolutionary history of minority groups in Southwestern China. Large groups of people separated by terrain that after thousands of years have distinctly diverged languages and traditions. Silverton, Ophir, Ouray, Ridway, Durango, Telluride all have separate castes of usual suspects operating in their respective terrain. They even have different names for the same futures seen from opposite sides. The explanation for this is simple. The terrain is constructed in such a way that discourages travel. One could ski tour from Silverton to Telluride faster than one can drive there. The biodiversity is limited. So is information sharing.
Mark in deep. Who said CO had a bad 2012 season?Must have been the FrontRangers 
               Photo: Nate Disser

The snow pack is technical. More, it is intriguing. To complicate matters there are six to seven micro climates in the San Juans that manipulate the weather. This is dependant on how the storm tracks into the range and how the mountains alter the air masses relative to the complex terrain. Telluride will get 15” and Silverton will accumulate 2” yet the towns are 12 miles apart as the crows fly. Truthfully, the opposite trend is typically the case, but Silverton wants Telluride to believe just what it needs to.  The local wind effect here makes it difficult to find the stashes at first. The wind here is the most powerful factor. Large wind events will strip windward faces to the ground. The snowpack will be transported in its entirety to the leeward aspect. This all making perfect avalanche country.

The usual suspect Eagle slide path crossing highway 550 in two places. This path is such a regular customer the DOT gave it its own weather station. Photo: Jerry Roberts 

Asking around the verbal history of the area is vague. I have picked up scraps of information in coffee shops, taverns, and road cuts. My casual research tells me the early ski explorers in this avalanche stricken terrain were some of the nations first avalanche forecasters hired by the state of Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and National Forest Service. Their job was to keep Highway 550 open for commerce. This effort was not in vein since during the winter of 2006 – 2007, the CDOT triggered 464 avalanches with explosives for mitigation purposes. 159 of the controlled slides impacted Colorado highways. Veteran CDOT forecaster Jerry Roberts is a local living legend and was part of the first the group responsible for most of original exploration and naming of the back country zones in the Silverton area in the mid 60’s-mid 70’s. Compared to the big ski descents in the Elk Mountains by Colorado ski legend Chris Landry and company, the history in the San Juans would play out in the shadows and go unnoticed. Do to the correlation with avalanche mitigation several of the ski runs here were named after slide paths that hit the highway. The only ski beta sold for years was the Colorado Department of Transportation slide path map. This is the most intact record of the San Juan ski history. The passes are still today mitigated by CDOT with artillery from a vintage Korean War howitzer. One of the culprit paths is named “The Battleship” in its honor. Outside of these documented paths the consistency of names drift. Which name you use will indicate just how long you have been here. Roberts’s crew skied most of the main drainages for better understanding of the continental snow pack.  Roberts stated ”We were not special skiers in any way, we were just the only ones exploring.”
Kendal mountain North Face. One of the many tours that you start by walking across the street.

Contemporary bands of elusive locals from Silverton are the contributors to recent King Lines. Not naming names to protect the innocent, they can be found all living on one of the most unassuming back alleys on the other side of the tracks in the town of Silverton. They are a group of unsung heroes without team name or sponsor. They are tackling the never skied bold lines San Juans 13K peaks and taking the secret home with them. A few of them are responsible for a descent of Hunter in the Alaska Range. Mount Hunter is a entry test piece of American mountaineering to climb let alone ski. They sneak into the deep corners of the San Juans, redefine the standard, and slip back into town to saddle up to the Miners Tavern. That’s the way its been done here for decades and that’s the way the trend seems to remain.

Brian Rougeux getting his split-board on deep in Lakes Basin 

The most common trend in the terrain accessed from the Highway 550 these days is the presence of more people. The rapid pulses of public interest in back country skiing due to the advances in gear, media, and its availability are making places like the San Juans more accessible.  Silverton Mountain, Helitrax, San Juan Ski Co, San Juan Mountain Guides are all services bringing the public into the snow. Andrew Klotz is the author of new guidebook “Cold Smoke” writes about San Juan backcountry and showcases 25 classic tours of the area. This book has had little effect on the true secrets of the area covering only few of roadside classics. Recently the town of Silverton has transformed from a mining boom town and has seen a resurgence as a ski advocates epicenter. The Elementary School even has PE classes on skis for local kids. The town’s main ski hill, Silverton Mountain, is a brutally rugged, experts only, sidecountry ski area. More, the sleepy town hosts collections of boutique manufactures like Venture Snowboards and Skis, Scotty Bobs Skiworks, Mountainboy Sleds, Montanya rum distillery, and the Silverton Brewing Co. The town’s exports have become cold powder, skis, split boards, local brews, and kicksleds
All of these factors are encouraging new activity to what is easily seen from the road and the ski are, bringing a new resident culture to the range with it. Yet, the core tribes of the range are still skiing the lines that have never seen second descents by outsiders. The silverbacks’ wish to keep it that way.  Approach at your own risk.

Somewhere in the San Jauns

Written story by OR Brand Ambassador Mark Allen. An IFMGA guide, he spends winters in the San Juan Mountains of Silverton guiding ski, ice, and Level 1-2 AIARE hut based avalanche courses as a lead guide for San Juan Mountain Guides of Colorado. Check out his program list at The video was filmed and edited by OR athlete Mike Bromberg, also IFMGA certified as a guide. Mike splits his time between Crested Butte, Colorado,Chamonix, France and now is resident guide in Revelstoke BC with his company Mountain Pro.


Dispatch one -First Contact, Lacuna Glacier

Graham Zimmerman high on day one of the Lunar Spur~Mark Allen

We wanted to give you a call real quick and give you our one week update on our expedition 2011 on the Kahiltna Glacier. First of all when we first got here we dug in our camp at the Kahiltna landing strip and immediately set out on a six day trip to the rarely or never visited West Fork of the Lacuna Glacier. This entailed over twenty miles of glacier travel and it took us four days to recon the route out from the base of the peak which we intended to climb.
Graham Zimmerman transitions to booting while navigating one of the many ice falls of the Lacuna Glacier system. One of several reasons it would take 4 of our 7 days of supplies to recon a route through the gauntlet to our desired Advanced Base Camp. ~Mark Allen

 We put ourselves below the unclimbed South face of a unnamed numbered peak on the Lacuna Glacier system and made it up 2,500 feet of a new route and were turned around due to bad snow conditions and an impending storm.

Graham Zimmerman Looks down 1000ft of newly discovered terrain on out bivi perch above the Northwest fork of the Lacuna Glacier. ~Mark Allen
So we ended up descending after one and a half days on route and ended up returning to our camp. We used the remaining time for the 20 mile of glacier travel back to base camp. It was pretty much an odyssey into a more remote area Alaska Range terrain into a zone that neither of us had ever seen with the naked eye and possibly hadn't been visited by another  human being. It was a pretty wild adventure. Everything is going well, right now we're focusing on acclimatization. We're going to spend the next four days climbing the West ridge of Mt. Hunter, with the intent of climbing most of the route tomorrow, and bivying as high as we can to spend as much time as can above 10,000ft to start acclimatizing for bigger objects. Hope all is going well at home and wish you guys luck, and wish us luck on our next adventure up the West ridge of Hunter.......READ MORE @.. 


by Mark Allen
Climbing in Chamonix

Pounte Natillon in the Chanonix area as two climbers top out alpine rock classic "Amazonia" one of the standard IV 5.10 trad routes 15 minute walk from the Envers Hut. 

Every time I drive into the North Cascades National Park I read a park sign that says “The North Cascades-The Alps of America.” This has always struck a spiteful chord in my dark side and I have dreamt of vandalizing this sign to read “The Cascades of America”. The Cascades are my home, and to me there is no comparison. But this year, to see what all the pother was about, I set off for two months taking advantage of new work opportunities in the French Alps.

IMG guide Sheldon Kerr mid swing on summer alpine ice route positoned on the Contamine- Mazeaud route of the North Face of Triangle du Tacul. One of the many examples of stellar alpine ice objectives just minutes from the Midi tram.

As an avid traveler, the basic nuances of wandering the western world are not novel. So trying to arrange a ride from the Geneva airport to Chamonix, France with a two-word French vocabulary was entertaining. But what had my attention most was standing in the back of the line for the tram that would take me to the summit of the Aiguille de Midi. Culture shock sunk in. Taking mental notes of my observations; small petite alpine packs, climbers in harnesses, ice axes in hand with neatly coiled rope ready for the instant access to the 3000m alpine zone. It only took a few minutes to quickly learn the European etiquette with regards to your pack, crampons, and axe in the crowded tram-line. The French tram operators had no problem suggesting the correct drill. It was as if we were all in line for an amusement ride for adults. The sharp reality: this “ride” was real and would poise you at a turnstile gate leading to the alpine 10,000ft higher than you were 30 minutes prior.

   Somewhere on the East face of the Mount Blanc Tacul

I was not in the North Cascades anymore. The differences were obvious. The incredible access was coupled with a population of well-adept alpinists represented in large numbers. The line was heavy with guides awarded credentials by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) or Union International Des Associations De Guide De Montagne (UIAGM), the EU equivalent. These high-ranking guides are easily recognized by the metal pin on their lapel, the badges sewn onto their shoulder and pack, and their acutely well-organized and mint gear selection. This badge itself has significant meaning for this culture. To become a professional guide in countries that honor the tradition of IFMGA standards takes dedication. First, to achieve aspirant status that allows a guide to work under a fully-certified guide-mentor, at least four years are spent mastering ski mountaineer, rock, and alpine guiding. This is followed by another two years completing exams and work requirements before achieving full-guide status. The tram line reeked of this tradition.

IMG Guide Sheldon Kerr busting mixed moves during the Traverse de Rochford on the French-Italian Boarder 

Mountain access like this began nearly one hundred years ago in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. The history of guiding is even older. It was here that alpinism and mountain guiding were created. By the looks of the terrain, I began to understand why. I was in line equally for the guiding tradition and culture as I was for the ride up the Midi into these mountains.

The French Alps lean over Chamonix, cutting the skyline with large granite massifs laden with icefalls and towering needles. Glaciers gouge valleys for kilometers, dividing the towers who each pronounce their independence and unique character. Massive monoliths draw your eye in. The famous Grand Dru belonging to the Aiguille Verte, the Grepon, the Midi, the three summits of Mount Blanc, and all the serrated gendarme ridges that connect each feature capture your attention and unfold a potential lifetime of alpine objectives.

As I rode the cable car up from Chamonix into the alpine and over the North face of the Aiguille de Midi, the dihedrals and crack systems, including the Frendo Spur first climbed in 1941 were easy to pick out. The Frendo is a 3700ft 5.8 rock rib that leads to the upper ice faces and rock tower shouldering the Midi and is a test piece of any aspiring young alpinist. It is prominently seen from Chamonix center and summons you while you safely sip your draft beer in the square bellow.

                     French guide with client high on the South Face of the Aiguille de Midi on one of the classic routes overlooking miles of alpine  glaciers. 

The reason I came to Chamonix was to take advantage of mentorship and apprenticeship. There are hundreds of fully qualified guides who have graduated from an international certification system of the Alps IFMGA or UIAMG. These guides have spent their careers taking clients into the far reaches of these ranges. As an American IFMGA aspirant, it was this group of men and woman who I looked to for help reaching the next stage of becoming a full guide.

I didn’t focus on Alps test-piece objectives, but instead on routes with good guiding problems for me to negotiate and train on for my AMGA alpine guide’s exam this September 2010. My training goals led me to some of today’s classic alpine routes that historically, in the early 1900’s, were some Europe’s premier alpine achievements.
Mount Maudi and the Kuffner ridge. The ridge was gained via an main coulior at the base of the buttress. The route assends that prominate ridge through spines and towers topping out the dome to the right of the needle summit.

The Kuffner Ridge, also know as the Frontier Ridge, on Mount Maudi was first climbed by Mortiz von Kuffner with Alexander Burgener, Josef Furrer, and a porter in 1887 and is one of these classic routes. This ridge is a complex buttress of exposed ridge and towers holding an entire days-worth of moderate mixed climbing and snow spines.

With beta from IFMGA guides Mike Powers and Richard Mansfield, my two America ex-pat partners Matt Anderson and Dan Protz, and I set out for the climb. After a quick breakfast by headlamp in the empty cafeteria of the Italian Torino hut, we crossed 2 kilometers of glacial neve under moonlight back into France, approaching the base of Mount Maudi. The peak towered over us. Storm clouds began to build over the summit of Mount Blanc, an indicator for oncoming foul weather. The weather was moving from the back of my mind to the front as the darkness veiled the peaks true scale. I began to feel the anxiety manifested by the unknown. If we climbed high on the route it would be difficult to retreat anywhere but up. But, without much hesitation, I committed to the up.

We crossed the bergschrund and gained the sharp ridge via the 850ft access couloir running rock and ice protection along the way. Simul-climbing this classic alpine ice couloir in one long pitch set a tone of security and speed for the day.

Matt Anderson nad Dan Protz simul climbing the goat's back spines of the Kuffner Ridge with Italy to the right and France on the Left.

The terrain was already classic and kept getting better. Corniced snow ridges, moderate granite rock climbing, and easy ice all combined in a rolling gauntlet ridge crest with an electric view of the Italian side of the Mount Blanc massif. My favorite parts of the route were the exposed corniced snow ridges. I felt alive with the team perched on its crest. The French use an appropriate metaphor for this feature relating it to the furry tuft of hair that sticks up on the back of mountain goat, giving the mountain a living spirit. These ridges are difficult to protect and it is assumed among partners that you throw yourself off the opposite side in the event of a fall. This method of protection is a challenging but somewhat affective practice though not entirely fool proof. Two Italian climbers met their fate on this exact feature 24 hours after our ascent. A fatal slip caused by a collapsed cornice led to grave results. Giving plenty of respect to the spines, I knew that we were not immune to a similar fate.

AMGA ALPINE EXAM TRAINING- Chamonix Alpine climbing from Mark Allen on Vimeo.

Another classic I climbed, the Midi-Plan traverse, is a ridge run on the skyline from the Aiguille de Midi to the Aiguille de Plan and back; glaciers, knife blade snow spines, and buttresses of 5.8 hand cracks on perfect granite. This takes a full day of rope wrangling and dozens of transitions from pitch climbing to rappelling to short roping and back. Returning to the tram before the lift shuts down for the evening is the main motivator for moving efficiently. This is understandably one of the reasons people from this land are efficient alpinists.   I mock-guided this objective with U.S. IFMGA guide Dylan Taylor while he played client. This is common practice among guides who are in training mode and it allows us the opportunity to critique each other on potential improvements and correct exposure to unnecessary risk.
                               Mark mid-transition on the Midi-Plan Traverse-Photo Dylan Taylor

Mount Blance getting served a typical afternoon storm for the 2010 alpine climbing season. Unpredicatble white orographic lenticulars consumed the upper elevetions regularly this year. 

While all my climbs helped train me for my goals, most of my mentorship happened while on Mount Blanc. I was able to work several trips with UIAGM and IFMGA guides from France, Switzerland, Britain, Italy, Slovenia, and the U.S. They treated me like a little brother. Aspirants, I discovered, are somewhat of a commodity compared to the number of working full-guides. Full-guides were extremely eager to help out an underdog guide, remembering their own struggles while learning the craft. And, on this objective I felt right at home. The terrain was reminiscent of the glaciers and elevations of my home mountain, Mount Rainier. The guiding, conditions, and client profile for this peak were somewhat old-hat and made the transition into a new venue much easier. At the end of most days, I would sit with mentor guides and debrief the event on ways we could do things better. This evaluation is an extremely valuable moment for the aspirant, and is how development can occur.

                       The Aiguille de Envers Basins

The most memorable venue I visited during my stay was the Aiguilles de Envers up valley on the Mer de Glace glacier. Two cirques with massive granite towers resemble that of the Sierra. Grade IV and V rock spires of impeccably steep granite jet 2500ft out of the glacier. The hut is positioned below the steep, massive towers 10 min away from where you start roping up for the 18 pitch, 5.10 rock route.

Mark Allen casts of into a world of pristean granite with splitter cracks shooting to the summit on the Aiguille de Roc located near the Envers Hut-Photo Jay Allen

Nothing during my stay topped climbing splitter granite cracks a thousand feet off the deck with a valley glacier sweeping bellow and the Grandes Jorasses dominating the horizon. Several of the climbs lead to classic hypodermic granite needle summits provoking disbelief. This is a place I will certainly travel back to in the future.
Overall, my time in the Alps was incredibly educational. I was exposed to many historical aspects of Alpinism and what it means to the local valley. Being immersed in the alpine and exploring what the French Alps have to offer, I progressed in my own guiding and took one step closer to becoming a full IFMGA guide.

The fifth 60m rappel off of the Aiguille De Roc. Seven more to go. Jay Allen using a sigle strand descent method will a 5mm tag line for the pull-photo Mark Allen

One thing that I found missing during my adventures was something I experience in the Cascades; serenity. Coming home, scaling to the crest of the North Cascades, and looking over glaciated vistas of unclimbed rock was a breath of fresh air. We are spoiled to have this resource. We are lucky to be living in the heart of true wilderness. The North Cascades are untouched by European standards; no trams, no people, no villages and with a culture and tradition that is still being developed. Because I enjoy this wild place so much, I don’t want to see all the traditions of Europe become a standard here is the U.S.
 Europe has figured out, though, how to professionalize guiding as an industry and into a legitimately well respected trade. Professionalizing the mountain guiding standards and simultaneously deepening the traditions of guiding with our U.S. climbing culture will create a better, safer experience for my clients, my co-workers, and myself in the beautiful places we call home. I encourage you to look into the IFMGA standard by going to the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) web site and educate yourself about the importance of guide standardization and how this might affect you as a consumer. Good luck and see you in the Alps!

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Climber top ropes "Nose Job" a popular pillar climb in the Ouray Ice Park.~Photo Mark Allen


Mark Allen
Cell Phone: 360 305 2383

Ice climbing is one of the most gratifying styles of technical climbing. To be able to swing the ice tool and crampons into frozen waterfall ice is electrifying. Climbing ice has always been a surreal experience that looks like it should be beyond the realm of possibility but is quite achievable. Climbing in Ouray is the most accessible venue for technical ice climbing in the Lower 48. The Ouray Ice Park provides a full spectrum of challenges for those first-timers exploring the sport to the seasoned annual ice climber. The winter setting of the San Juan Mountains and small town mountain culture of Ouray make this the perfect vacation spot to explore the sport of ice climbing. There are many restaurants, hotels, and other recreation options to make a fully loaded vacation in Colorado this winter.

IMG Guide Ben Kurdt leads out of the Box Canyon in the Ouray Ice Park, CO~Photo Mark Allen

Join Mark Allen and other IMG guides for a privet or scheduled program this winter. I will be available to book trips December through February this season. Contact me as soon as possible to get your spot on the calendar. Availability becomes limited so don’t wait too long! To learn more about what IMG can offer you go to the International Mountain Guides Link listed above.


Contact me directly at to coordinated with my availability. Once we have resolved the dates I will help facilitate your registration through the IMG office. ~Photo S.B. Giddings


Washington Climbers Kick Off Alaska Season 

by Erik Lambert 

The southeast face of Mt. Bradley (9,104'), Ruth Gorge, Alaska Range, Alaska, where Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman established Vitalogy (Alaska Grade V: M6+ WI5 5.9 R A1, 4,600') earlier this month. The team climbed for 99 hours camp-to-camp. Read more.....