On May 23, professional ski mountaineers Chris Davenport and Ted and Christy Mahon stepped off of a sightseeing train and into Colorado’s remote Weminuche Wilderness. Four days later, they would need to make it back to the same spot at a precise time to catch their ride out of the mountains. In the meantime, they would hike two days of trails covered with snow and littered with fallen trees and attempt to climb the steep, snow-covered rock that guards the summit of 13,824-foot Jagged Mountain. Only then could they hope to ski the line they had spotted from the air, one that no one is known to have skied before.
The objective could have warranted an expedition of its own, but when Davenport and the Mahons made their last ski turns back to the base, for them, it signified an appropriate finale to a much larger project: to become the first to climb and ski the Centennial, the hundred tallest mountain peaks in Colorado. From start to finish, the feat took them over two years.
Given Colorado’s pervasive peak-bagging culture, the state’s 14,000-foot peaks get an enormous amount of attention from outdoor enthusiasts. Every year, more than 100,000 people hike a Colorado “fourteener”—the term used to describe these 14,000-foot summits. A long list of people have climbed all 53 of the peaks, but only an elite handful of athletes have climbed and skied the fourteeners. In 2007, Davenport became the first to accomplish the feat in under a year, and the second to do so at all; the following year, Ted became the third, and, in 2010, Christy became the first woman to do so.
Davenport broke out in the world of professional freeskiing in 1996, when he won his first of two freeskiing world championships, and has since enjoyed a long and prolific career in professional skiing. The 44-year-old father of three sons has been featured in more than 30 ski films, including films by Warren Miller and Matchstick Productions, won an X-Games bronze medal in ski cross, skied and guided Everest, and made first descents of peaks around the globe, including mountains in Antarctica and Norway.
Ted, 43, and Christy, 40, who have been married for six years, have less public but equally impressive mountain résumés. Ted has climbed Everest, Denali, and Nepal’s 22,349-foot Ama Dablam, as well as high peaks in Ecuador and Peru's Cordillera Blanca. He has made ski descents all over the world, including the first recorded descent of the North Face of the Gunnbjørn Fjeld, the tallest mountain in the Arctic Circle. He has also enjoyed a successful career in ultrarunning, with five top-ten finishes in the seven times he’s run the Hardrock 100, a 100-mile endurance race held annually in Colorado.
Christy has also climbed Ama Dablam and mountains in South America and made ski descents worldwide, with highlights that include the Haute Route in the Alps and Canada’s Bugaboos to Rogers Pass traverse. She has run 20 ultramarathons, including the notorious Wasatch and Leadville 100-mile races and the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim.
After they each finished the fourteeners, the three Aspen, Colorado-based skiers hatched plans for another objective that would focus their attention on their own backyard, build on their previous project, and give something to their community.
“It's really important as an athlete and as a mountain person that we contribute something to the storyline of our state, of recreation, of the mountains,” Davenport says. “Skiing and time in the mountains adds so much to the fabric of our lives. Life is short, and it’s up to us to take advantage of every opportunity we can to interact with nature, find out what we are capable of, and leave a legacy so that our kids and our grandkids will have something to inspire them.”
While a Colorado fourteener on a nice weekend might be so crowded it feels something like a steep, high-elevation city park, a neighboring 13,000-foot-peak might not see a single hiker on any given weekend. Colorado fourteeners have guidebooks and route information readily available online. The slightly shorter peaks have relatively little information available, which deters all but a handful of adventurous people from attempting to climb them. So, in April 2013, the trio launched their siege on the 47 remaining highest peaks in Colorado, all 13,809 feet or higher, with the hope that they would get to know the Colorado mountains better and provide route information that would open up the terrain to others.
Ultimately, the logistics proved at least as difficult as the long bootpacks and pitches of technical rock climbing. One day, they stood on four summits, but the majority required their own individual mini-expeditions for which the trio had to find a window that weather, snowpack, and their schedules allowed—which proved difficult, since Christy works weekdays and Davenport has an erratic travel schedule as a professional skier. No less, the three managed to stand together on 34 of the 47 additional 13,000-foot summits.
“Certainly if you go back ten years, none of us had thought of climbing and skiing the Centennials—it would take forever,” says Davenport. “But, as we built our skills and our friendship, all of a sudden something that sounded impossible sounded pretty doable if we committed the time to do it. These projects serve to show you what you're capable of ... You just continue to raise the bar for yourself and find challenge and adventure every year.”
Adventure: When did you come up with the idea to ski all hundred highest peaks in Colorado?
Christy Mahon: We were actually finishing a road trip in the Northwest where we were skiing volcanoes every day and being transported to each one by RV ... The volcano tour was really a good preview. We were in this tight space living together, waking up at 3:45 together, hiking or skinning all day, skiing, coming back, cooking, drying our stuff, and we realized that we actually really made a good team and liked each other even through that.
A: What was the most challenging part of the project for you?
Ted Mahon: What makes this a big deal is the scale. We didn’t go away for three weeks, do one route, and go back to our lives … This took so many years and so much planning and focus.
A: It sounds like coordinating your schedules was one of the biggest challenges of your project. Why do the project as a team as opposed to as individuals?
Chris Davenport: A lot of these mountains are really hard. They're really committing, and, by yourself, it would be very easy to give up or to turn around or to quit. When you have a team, you don't want to let your teammates down. And you have that trust and that teamwork built into the equation, so, I think we all motivate each other, and we all bring out the best in each other.
A: How would you describe your teammates?
CD: Christy is the chief fun officer. Every single picture that I have of Christy, she's got a gigantic smile ... When we've got a long bootpack, we put Christy in the lead, like, Energizer Bunny-style, and off she goes.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
CM: Chris, I think his résumé speaks for itself, but, having someone that is a pro skier and has made a life of committing himself to being out in the mountains and being safe, always picking the best ski line and really looking to get the best out of each trip—it's pretty cool.
CD: Ted is a master planner and logistics guy. He's very good with maps and GPS and trailheads and equipment planning and food planning and just understanding the little details that are critical and easy to overlook.
A: As the sport of ski-mountaineering continues to grow and people look for greater challenges, do you think others will try to ski all of the Centennial peaks as well?
CD: I absolutely think that people will continue to follow our lead and ski these amazing peaks. Just like with the fourteeners, when I broke that glass ceiling and skied them all, very shortly after many others began this quest for themselves.
A: What’s the next list?
CD: The next list is the Bicentennials, which is the 200 highest mountains, and they're all above 13,600. That's a hundred more mountains. And, not that that's what we're setting out to do, but, gosh, imagine if someone went to do that.
CM: We say that's our retirement project. By the time we're 60.
TM: Yeah, the Bicentennials is the lifelong project. Cause it's going to take that long.