Aspen’s Mountain Man: Lou Dawson

Editors’ Note: This as-told-by story originally ran in our Steep Issue as part of The Revival Tour, a feature documenting the past, present and future of  Aspen, Colorado, its surrounding Elk Mountains and those who have shaped the region’s lasting legacy. 

Lou Dawson’s name is synonymous with backcountry skiing. He’s known as a pioneer, historian and walking gear encyclopedia, between countless first descents—like Snowmass, South Maroon Peak and Capitol Peak, to name a few—his 13-year mission to ski Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot peaks, a career as a guide and outdoor educator and the author of a half-dozen guidebooks, including the history-packed Wild Snow and his same-named website. I caught up Dawson, who moved to Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley as a teenager, to learn more how he got his start in the mountains. —Lucy Higgins

Happy feet in the Sangre De Cristos: Lou Dawson descends from Bear’s Playground after skiing Kit Carson Peak, his last 14er, in 1991. [Photo] Glenn Randall

My parents were always supportive of my interests. There was a boys’ camp up in Ashcroft, Colo., the Ashcrofters, that was run by a guy name Dave Farney, who was a pretty well-known ski instructor at the time and a real go-getter. He was one of the founders of Aspen as we know it; one of the old time locals.

The boys’ camp’s focus was mountaineering and rafting and that kind of thing, but the summer session I went to was more about rock climbing. There was a climbing camp in Independence Pass, and we lived up there for about three weeks. We just rock climbed with the camp guides; a couple of whom had been Exum Guides. The rock up there is pretty good, and it’s one of the better sport-climbing areas in the U.S. We also did some major alpine backpacking in the Elks and San Juans and climbed some of the 14ers. I had a great time as a boy, but that camp eventually fizzled out.

I got some good skills pretty quickly. At the time, I didn’t really like going to high school; I wasn’t very academic and just hated being locked in there all the time. I spent winters skiing at the resort; I went to school with some of the better skiers in the country, like Andy Mill, who ended up in the Olympics. I would just get out there and beat myself up trying to follow these guys around. I developed some decent ski skills, eventually. It took awhile, because I was interested in climbing.

Even from the early day, my dad had some ski-touring skis, so I would also get on those and tromp around in the mountain valley behind our house.

I decided I really wanted to go for it and get my skills up and maybe even get involved in the guiding industry, so I got involved in a NOLS course in 1968. One of the instructors was Burt Redmayne, a Jackson Hole resident and part-time guide. Burt grabbed me and a friend and said, “Let’s go rock climbing in the canyon in Jackson.” We were 18—actually younger, more like 17. So we went up and hung around Jackson; went to some parties. It was awesome.

From there, I got really psyched on climbing. I got back to Aspen and started doing a lot more rock climbing in the Pass and scrambling around in the peaks. That winter, I wasn’t doing well with high school, but mountaineering had my focus and kept me sane through the teenage years of being stupid.

NOLS started to have these instructor courses—they needed instructors because they were going to expand the school. So I went to the first instructor course, and I was the youngest guy. I met all of these cool people—Tom and Dorothy Warren, famous Jackson Hole people. I learned from them how to be safe and a good climber and a mountaineer. It was really cool.

I got my instructor certification, and this guy named Skip Shoutis hired me. That summer I worked as an assistant, then I went right in as an instructor. I was too young and immature to be an instructor, but I didn’t get anyone killed.

I ended up with a NOLS career for a while and while that was going on, I was doing a lot more hardcore climbing and became a rock climber with a career in Yosemite, doing some pretty tough stuff. I was combining that with my NOLS stuff and realized I couldn’t make a living—in those days it was very hard to make a living as a guide or in outdoor education. I ended up seguing into being a carpenter and guiding to support myself.

At the same time I was doing alpinism, the no-brainer of combining skiing with climbing and mountaineering. I made the switch from being a top-notch rock climber to really focusing on ski mountaineering and traverses and that sort of thing. I was spending every winter and spring doing high routes and some traveling, but at that time in my life, I was more interested in expressing my creativity in alpinism where I was. The Elks are fickle, but they’re really great terrain for ski mountaineering.

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  1. Cap Hamilton says:

    My girlfriend and I attended the August 1969 session of NOLS. It was our good fortune to have hiked along with Paul Petzoldt, who had insights and a great many stories to share along the trail and around the campfire. My girlfriend, Susan, 48 years later, wrote of her experiences for the NOLS newsletter and said it was one of a very few life-changing experience for her. But –and here’s the kicker–I never would have gotten to NOLS without first attending Ashcrofters when I was 16, which for me was “the road not taken” in my life. I remember hiking off the trail and down the road into Crested Butte, dropping off our packs in the park, finding the town’s soda fountain, “bellying up to the bar” and ordering a chocolate malt. It was the summer we all lived in a yellow submarine, if you know what I mean. — Cap Hamilton

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