Josh Jespersen sets new Colorado 14er speed record

In 1991, Lou Dawson, of Wild Snow fame, became the first person to ski all of Colorado’s 14ers over a period of 13 years. As of May 21, ski-mountaineer and Navy SEAL Josh Jespersen scaled them all in less than five months.

Scaling even one of Colorado’s mountains above 14,000 feet is physically demanding, but after Dawson’s pioneering accomplishment, the extreme challenge caught on. Freeskier and ski-mountaineer Chris Davenport knocked out his ascent of all 54 peaks in one year, between January 22, 2006 and January 19, 2007. A little less than a decade later, Vail resident Jon Kedrowski attempted to beat Davenport’s record, but debate over whether he skied continuous lines from the summits of certain peaks kept him from claiming the title.

Now, Jespersen—known for his project Mission Memorial Day—holds the speed title, ticking off all 54 14ers in just four months and 21 days. We caught up with him to talk his intentions and ups and downs for this project, and what’s next for Mission Memorial Day.

Jespersen’s team rappels through the choke in Secret Chute on Capitol Peak after our successful climb and ski. [Photo] Josh Jespersen

Backcountry Magazine: What inspired you to try and ski all of Colorado’s 14ers this year?

Josh Jespersen: For the last couple winters I’ve been taking off to ski, and this past fall I was thinking of taking the winter off again and decided I wanted to make something of my season while raising awareness for my project Mission Memorial Day. I had heard about a guy who tried to ski all the 14ers last winter, and he completed them all in 364 days. He is the only person besides Chris Davenport to do it in less than a year. So I heard about that and thought it was a cool idea. I thought that if I took this on I could push some attention to Mission Memorial Day. So I worked all fall to try and save up money, and I got a $1000 grant from Mountain Athlete along with a workout program.

BCM: When did you start summiting and skiing the peaks?

JJ: I started the project January 3, and I finished the project May 21. It took me 138 days to climb and ski from the summit of all 54 fourteeners. The previous record was 361 days held by Chris Davenport. Everyone keeps asking me if I was trying to beat his record, and the answer is no. I was just trying to be the first person to ski them all in one ski season. It just happened that I beat the record. And like I said, I wanted to get a following and shift that attention over to Mission Memorial Day and make it easier to raise money for expeditions in the future.

Jespersen and a team of former SEALs fly flag with names of every SEAL killed since 9/11 before descending Ellingwood Point, with Blanca Peak in the background. [Photo] Ricky Schuler.

BCM: What were some of the challenges you faced in trying to complete these objectives in such a short period of time?

JJ: For struggles, dealing with the snowpack was obviously hard. Just trying to mitigate avalanches and shitty snowpack as much as I could was my goal. It was hard, but I didn’t have a single close call this winter, which I am pretty happy about. There were two tiny, little slides that I kicked off on an ascent, and I obviously turned around when I saw those. But I didn’t kick off a single avalanche while I was skiing, and I was happy that I stayed that safe. The second hardest part was trying to find people to go skiing with. I did 27 peaks solo.

BCM: How did you stay entertained and engaged in the objective? 

JJ: I ended up not listening to music the majority of the time. I was just staring at the scenery. There is so much to see—going into all these different ranges in Colorado—the beauty was mind blowing. I have been skiing here for a while, but this year I got a much bigger appreciation of the mountains, even the smaller ranges like the Tenmile Range and the Mosquito Range. Going and doing the 14ers in there was impressive. There were lines everywhere, and the best lines I saw weren’t usually the lines I skied, but that’s what happens when you have objective-based skiing.

I was having a blast every day. Don’t get me wrong, there were lulls in the winter where I was like, “Man, this is hard. I just want to go rock climbing.” But it generally stayed fun, and I stayed motivated the whole time. I had a deadline to go to the Philippines for this year’s Mission Memorial Day tribute hike, so I did Snowmass and Capitol peaks as the last two peaks. I did a 30-mile alpine loop to finish those, and I got to the trailhead less than 12 hours before my flight to the Philippines.

When I got it done I was so happy. I slept most of the way on my flight.

Paul Dawson starts the traverse of Broadway on Long’s Peak. [Photo] Josh Jespersen

BCM: How do you think conditions played into this achievement?

JJ: People said, “Oh, that was the winter to do it.” And in a way that was true, but this winter in Colorado was also kinda weird. We had huge dumps, and the beginning of the year, I can’t even tell you how many days the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) map was color coded red everywhere because of the high avalanche danger. It doesn’t happen very often. There were more days of extreme avy danger just this year than in my entire time of looking at that website. So we were getting all of this snow while I was trying to ski these super steep backcountry lines. I avoided the really steep lines at the beginning. But once I ran out of the mellower lines, I had to start on the steeper ones.

In February and March it barely snowed, so I was starting to get worried about the snow coverage. But at the same time, it stabilized everything up high really early in the season. So I was able to get on some steep lines and knock a few of those peaks out while we had good conditions, which was great. And I think in the winter I skied 24 or 25 peaks, which I think was the most anyone has skied in one winter, but I have not been able to verify that. In March there wasn’t a lot of snow, but the faucet turned back on in April and May, which I was pumped for. But it turned on so much that it was making it hard again, and it wasn’t spring pow skiing—it was hard to manage. I turned around May 1 on Maroon Peak because of avy danger. I just chased storms around the state.

Jespersen and team make the approach to Secret Chute on Capitol Peak through the Pierre Lakes Basin at around 5 a.m. Snowmass Peak is cloaked in alpenglow in the distance. [Photo] Josh Jespersen

BCM: You saved some of the most daunting peaks for last. What was that like?

JJ: I had just finished skiing South Maroon, North Maroon and Pyramid in three days, and I only had Capitol and Snowmass left. Then a huge storm came in, and I had to leave for my Mission Memorial Day trip in five days, so I had a one-day weather window before I left; I had to fit Snowmass in there. I was looking at a map, and Snowmass is a 20-mile adventure, and Capitol is around 17 miles. The mountains themselves are just two miles apart, but there is a big, nasty ridge that separates the valleys they are in. I saw that I could go from Snowmass and then make it through Heckert Pass. So I thought I would connect them with that and went for it.

I had two buddies with me, and we went and skied Snowmass. We were at camp packing up after skiing Snowmass, on our way to Capitol, and I shook my fuel canister, and I was like, “There’s not as much fuel in here as I’d like.” It was still winter up there—the whole time we were skiing Snowmass it was snowing, but we had been banking on there being flowing water on the Capitol side. After the weather, however, we were starting to think that it would still be frozen over there. So we filled up all the water containers we had before we headed over. We climbed the pass and started skiing down in a foot and a half of cold, dry pow. After we descended the pass, we made camp and decide to find water, and everything was covered in snow.

We settled into camp and started eating food and boiling water for the rest of the night, and I decided that I wanted to eat the last of the blueberry crumble we brought. We boiled water for that, and of course the fuel can died in the middle of making the crumble. Luckily we had a liter of water for each dude for the next day, which isn’t nothing, but it’s also not a lot. So we wake up and get ready to ski a peak some consider to be the hardest in Colorado with no hot breakfast, no coffee and only a liter of water. Skiing the peak was fine, but after we broke camp and headed down valley we started to feel the dehydration and hunger pretty badly.

BCM: You said you had a pretty quick turnaround for your trip to the Philippines. What were you doing over there?

JJ: For the Mission Memorial Day Trip this year, we went to the Philippines to recreate the Bataan Death March. We realized that in order to make Mission Memorial Day hit home for more people, we would need to look at different conflicts. We were talking about doing Normandy or climbing a peak in the Alps to keep the theme of climbing going, but nothing really jumped out at us. We were struck by the Bataan Death March, because it was one of the greatest atrocities that happened to American Troops in any conflict, so we decided to do that this year. Most of the men who survived are in their 90s now, so we wanted to do a tribute before they were gone and to make sure people learned what they went through. The Death March consisted of them walking 66 miles over five days. During the march itself about 600 Americans died and 10,000 Filipinos died.

Denali was incredible last year; the moment we summited with our flags after two years of trying was huge, but this trip provided a greater sense of accomplishment and pride for what we are trying to represent with Mission Memorial Day.

Jespersen, former Marine Infantryman Brian McPherson, former Army Military Police Margaux Mange and Air Force Pararescueman Willy Forsyth stand at the Filipino monument for the Death March at the end of 2017 MMD. The pillars commemorate the lives of the Filipino and American soldiers lost in the march. [Photo] Josh Snead

BCM: Did anyone else summit for Mission Memorial Day this year?

JJ: We had Ben Zavora who owns Beartooth Mountain Guides go and ski Mount Wilse in Montana on Memorial Day for us, carrying flags adorned with the names of fallen vets. We also had an expedition of five guys, three former Navy SEALs, an Army vet and one guy who was in the Navy reserve go and climb and ski Mount Rainier for MMD as well. I am hoping that slowly but surely MMD will gain momentum. We want to do different tributes like the Bataan Death March, but I still want to maintain the mountaineering aspect, so I was pumped that we had the two mountain trips this year.

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