In 2010, Aspen-based professional mountaineer Christy Mahon made history as the first woman to ski all of Colorado's 53 14ers (14,000-plus-foot) peaks. She achieved this feat alongside her partners, husband Ted Mahon and friend Chris Davenport.
After ticking Colorado's highest peaks off their list, the trio set out to bag the remaining 43 peaks that make up Colorado's Centennial Peaks—the state's top 100 highest peaks. (The group calls themselves the Centennial Skiers and post their progress online.) When we caught up with Mahon recently for an update on her team's progress, they had just returned from a challenging—and ultimately frustrating—attempt to summit one of the four remaining peaks on their list: 13,983-foot Stewart Peak, in La Garita Forest just outside of Creede, Colorado.
How many peaks did you bag in this last trip?
Zero. We don’t go out and come home-empty handed very often, but I saw this happen when I was trying to complete the Colorado 14er list. The smaller your peak list becomes, the harder it can be getting those last peaks. You need a few mountains to be in a certain condition at a certain time, and that doesn’t always happen.
Did anything unexpected happen?
Yes. We didn’t want to wait for the forest service roads to open on the north side of the mountain so we hatched a plan to go from the south. We all had experience on this side from doing the nearby 14er, San Luis Peak, a few years ago. However, since then, the forest has been hit hard by the spruce beetle epidemic and low annual snowfall. Now all the trees are dead in this area, and without a lot of snow, the deadfall made it almost impossible travel though the forest.
What were the challenges?
We knew this approach was going to be really long, so we planned to skin in for a ways, camp, and then go for the peak the next day. Unfortunately, the warm temps and unsupportive snow, combined with the deadfall on the forest floor and lack of snow on the south side, left us with the realization that we would be better served going for the peak from the other side.
And what about the rewards—even though it wasn't a successful attempt, there were probably still some highlights, right?
Just getting out together after a busy winter season, cleaning out the overnight camping cobwebs, and spending the night in a beautiful area under the full moon. We also got to stop by Creede, Colorado and Kip’s Grill, which is a favorite mountain town and local hangout of ours.
Do you plan on ticking it off the list this spring?
Yes, we’ll go for it again this spring from the other side.
What's the group dynamic among you three?
This is one of the best parts of the project. In our group we have a woman, husband and wife, pro skier, photographer, etc. [Editor's Note: Davenport wrote a hardcover photo book called Ski the 14ers.] We all approach the mountain a little differently, but we have a great respect for each other, which makes group decision-making easy and the presenting of new ideas really comfortable.
How does a 13er compare to a 14er? Is there much of a difference, or does it vary by peak?
Our latest outing is a good example of how a 13er is different from a 14er. A 14er would have multiple, doable routes listed in books or online trip reports. Not a lot of people are skiing 13ers, so there is not a lot of information about how to best approach and ski the mountain. This leads to a lot of 'Let's just go and see’, but that’s what makes it more exploratory and interesting. Figuring it all out is what we all really love about this project. Plus, I feel that the high 13ers on the Centennial list can be more intricate peaks and definitely a bit more remote, creating a greater challenge.
What are you looking forward to most once this challenge is over?
All three of us love setting and achieving goals, so I think we are all looking forward to being able to check off the last four peaks and move on to another new project. Logistically, each peak we have left is difficult, and a couple of them are technical, so I know I will be happy to have them done.
What advice do you have for women who are looking to get into backcountry or challenge themselves in new, perhaps uncomfortable ways?
I think uncomfortable is the key word here! With ski mountaineering especially, I think women have to be prepared to suffer a bit and be humbled by the mountains and/or new challenges. It's hard work: If it were easy, you’d have more people out there doing it. I also would say pick a good partner—partners are key to success. Be a sponge. There’s still not a day when I go out where I don’t learn something from the experience. But the rewards reach into all aspects of life and are truly amazing.