Wilderness is inherited. Skiing the 50 Peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park.

By Austin Porzak

No matter where we are in the Park, no matter what we are doing and how isolated or alone we may feel, we can’t forget that there were generations who came before us. Skiers, climbers, explorers and yes, tourists, that made lands such as Rocky Mountain National Park possible. Without the combined efforts of these doers and believers, we wouldn’t have such an expansive area to call our backyard. The wilderness serves as the foundation of this project and was inherited from those before us and there’s a lot to be said for that. My situation is a bit different though.

Glenn Porzak, Mike Browning and Ed Ramey during the 1st winter traverse of Trail Ridge Road in 1968

Glenn Porzak, Mike Browning and Ed Ramey during the 1st winter traverse of Trail Ridge Road in 1968.

In 1974, my father, Glenn Porzak completed a surveying project for the NPS to define the present day boundaries for Rocky Mountain National Park. In doing so, he was the first person to summit the 100 highest peaks in the Park. Now, 42 years later, my goal is to not only ski 50 of these peaks, but also do so in a way that pays homage to my dad and the lessons he taught me. I believe wholly that the opportunities we have in the wilderness are inherited, and for me, skiing is the way I have chosen to make that ethos a large part of my life.


Austin and crew were outfitted with BCA Float airbag packs during their quest to ski all 50 peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: John Dickey.

So, last ski season I and a close crew of friends set out to ski the 50 highest peaks using some of my father’s beta and discovering some of our own. We were able to break RMNP up into roughly 7 zones, which allowed us to compartmentalize the peaks and look to make linkups of multiple peaks in a day. By looking at the project this way, we were also able to dial in the approaches to these peaks in the most efficient way.

Skier Jeff Barnow scopes out a line down the north face of Long's Peak after a ski cut released a slide.

Skier Jeff Barnow scopes out a line down the north face of Longs Peak after a ski cut released a slide.

The season started off with some amazing powder skiing on the south face of Hallett. It was easily one of the coldest days we had to deal with the entire season, but the early season powder was worth it. After the first few peaks, we quickly realized that the project was more than doable and I started learning everything I could about RMNP from my father. It really blew me away to hear all he had to say about the park.

Austin Porzak traverses a section of the Boradway Traverse on Long's Peak (14,259').

Austin Porzak traverses a section of the Broadway Traverse on Longs Peak (14,259′).

From 100 mile winter traverses to first ascents he has truly been discovering and testing himself in this Park since his childhood. His stories only lead us deeper into the park and we began to move deeper into terrain that rarely sees wintertime traffic. We put down some pretty unique lines in the Never Summer range including a linkup of Cumulus and Nimbus. This zone was particularly interesting because we had to traverse a large portion of the Grand Ditch that was built in 1890 to help farmers in the Front Range with irrigation.

Austin Porzak drops into the lower section of a line on the south face of Stratus (12,461').

Austin Porzak drops into the lower section of a line on the south face of Stratus (12,461′).

Another ascent and descent that stands out was the south face of Stratus. I had climbed the line with my father when I was really young and didn’t remember anything about it. When I asked him if he thought Stratus could be skied he just laughed and said, “don’t you remember?!” After showing me on a map I had a faint memory of doing a very steep snow climb with him back in the day and I then remembered the 15 hour day and getting hailed on just before we ran from a moose… needless to say, the memories quickly came back. It was really cool to be able to stand on the line again with a completely different perspective and think back to climbing it with my dad.

One of my personal highlights from last season was skiing “The Cheekbone” on Chief’s Head in winter with Dan Sohner and John Dickey. This was a line my father originally established as a snow climbing route and hadn’t seen much traffic since his ascent. For me, this truly was following in his footsteps.


Austin Porzak and Jim Detterline in the crux of Notch Couloir.  Photo credit Will Johnsmiller.

As the winter turned to spring, we set our sights on a few more technical routes. Arrowhead and Spearhead were two highlights. Arrowhead ended up being a 22-hour day. Big thanks to Michael Steinman and Dan Sohner for joining me on that mission, but the most memorable spring mission was skiing the Banana Peel on Chiquita. Our crew had become pretty tight by this line and we were fortunate to hit the Banana Peel in perfect spring corn. Another outstanding day was on Lady Washington and Storm Peak with Jesse Levine. Storm and Lady are not difficult ski descents but they rarely come into good skiable conditions and we skied them in great conditions.


Dan Sohner inspects his line skiing Rocky Mountain National Park.

This season is going to be amazing. We have quite a few overnight missions planned for this season. This will include a traverse from Mount Ida to Stones Peak, as well as a possible new line on Longs Peak. I am also really looking forward to Desolation Peak and Andrews Peak, which are two of the most remote peaks in the Park.

The summit register put into place on Pilot Peak by Glenn Porzak on October 5, 1974. This was Glenn Porzak's final peak in his 100 highest.

The summit register put into place on Pilot Peak by Glenn Porzak on October 5, 1974. This was Glenn Porzak’s final peak in his 100 highest.

With this project, we are hoping to accomplish a few things outside of skiing the 50 peaks.

First, we want to acknowledge the generations of people who came before us who saw the wilderness for what it truly can be. Creating and maintaining a national park is an investment in future generations. Future generations who may not know the names of those before them, but can see the work they did and have nearly identical experiences in the wilderness.

Second, we want to perpetuate the practices and principles that have kept these wild spaces viable and accessible for the current generation. As resort skiing grows and people start to look to the backcountry more and more, they will undoubtedly find Rocky Mountain National Park and realize what an amazing resource this is. We want to show others the true depth of the park, but we also want to encourage people to continue to protect our national parks. The national parks truly are America’s Best Idea and we have a responsibility to make sure they not only stay protected, but also continue to inspire people to get outside and do so in a safe and respectable manner.

12152015john-dickey184-skirmnp-3-940x627Photo Credit: John Dickey.

EDITORS NOTE: We’re sad to report that touring partner and mentor Jim Detterline passed away last week at the age of 60 after a suspected fall while climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our condolences to Jim’s family and friends.

Stay tuned and view Austin’s Trip Reports this season at www.skirmnp.com.