Making Turns in Colorado The North Volume 1 by Fritz Sperry
Before I share my thoughts on Fritz Sperry’s latest volume I feel the need to expose the elephant in the room. The way people approach guidebooks is often loaded. It is a genre that polarizes thinking. Guidebooks inspire a lot of raw emotion. Much of it beyond the euphoria and intensity of the faces you see in their pages. The question you have of me is should I buy this? Is it worth it? It’s a long, meandering answer, let’s begin.
I had never seen anyone like him. He looked wild, part Romany, part wolf loping up the talus field, swift and all lanky grace. “It’s a fucking sham Chris.” I was 16, starting to climb and I had come across John Redhead. It was also my first experience of the contentious nature of guide books. John was the best climber in North Wales at the time and his usual partner Chris Shorter was teaching me. I was awestruck. They were talking about the new Llanberis Pass climber’s guide that had reached the shops that day. I was a fly on the wall and I listened trying to understand. Through all the volatility and climbers parlance all I got was that they didn’t like it. It became a popular and classic work.
It’s funny, 37 years later and temperatures still run hot when talking about guidebooks. Especially to backcountry ski areas. Only now the contention is not about grades and whose legacy to include. Rather it is about whether areas should be reported at all. Who do they belong to? What gives a writer the privilege to share a stash? One that took knowing the right people and having the right face; the one that fit, to be initiated. Put simply, guide books open stashes to the masses. Not everyone appreciates socialist tendencies in the USA.
There are going to be a lot of people that disagree with my take on guidebooks. But, let’s start by finding some common ground. If you love the outdoors, then you know that wilderness is going to hell in a basket on our current trajectory. I remember showing my three-year-old son a glacier in Alaska. I was carrying him on my hip. He asked me if I would take him up to it. I said he was too young and that we would need to use crampons and ice axes. He took my cheeks in both his hands, made sure I was looking in his eyes and said, “one day you take me up that glacier.” It was a seminal moment for me and still fills me with all the feels. The thing is when we returned seven years later, it had retreated up the hill and was now calving. Exit Glacier has been receding at a rate of approximately 162 feet a year since 2010. More recently, it shrunk 262 feet from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016, in 2018 / 19 it was 293 feet. If we want this to stop then we need EVERYONE to love wild places. The only way that happens is if people experience them.
So yes, I am in favor of guidebooks. I want to see as many people share these special places as possible. I am not so worried about the preservation of a particular area as I am of the planet as a whole. I don’t think we can self appoint ourselves as guardians when what we are saying is “get off my stash”. I also know as I get older and wiser, I can find new stashes. And, as I get fitter and willing to go deeper and higher I don’t see a soul. Yes, places get trashed and the ‘Instagramification’ of a site often spells the kiss of death. Do I like this? Of course not but the “honeypot theory” has been adopted since the ’60s. Attract more people to fewer places, then make more land accessible so that others can spread out. Think Berthoud Pass with all its developed trailheads and a warming shack. Then meditate on the remote vastness of the Gore Range with only a few access points and a lot of space. This will highlight the concept.
What we are talking about here is huge. Populations are growing and so is the need to have all those people love wild places. How else are we going to rise above the disinformation suggesting consumption is ok? How else will we create a groundswell? One that fights against extraction industries powering our world. How else will we realize that we all have a part to play? It is also this love that will decrease the trashing of our favorite spots.
So I guess you weren’t expecting this in a review of a guidebook. But let’s get real here. The agenda is far bigger than my fresh tracks. We need guidebooks. We need to encourage more people outside. “Crusties” and “newbs” alike.
So what do I love about the book? Well, it is the same thing that I love about Fritz himself. Anyone who has shared an online forum with him knows he is passionate. They may not notice the intention that drives that passion. It is the intention that is powerful. Looking at his work you know he blows Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours out of the water. This is a true master. Someone who has dedicated a significant amount of his time on this earth to his craft. Along the way, he has learned. He has learned a lot. He is willing to share his experience and understanding. Online I imagine this is often accompanied by a sea of rolling eyes and a chorus of “ok boomer”. But, this is missing the intention, or not recognizing its validity. Fritz has lost too many friends. And, more than most he has uncovered what led to these losses. He also has an innate desire to share what he has learned so that others do not experience it.
The Introduction is a succinct and thoughtful explanation of skiing in Colorado. Make no mistake here. The statistics show that Colorado is a dangerous place to ski the backcountry. Fritz lays out the hazards and strategies for mitigating them in a thorough and accessible way. His section on Avalanche is the best primer I have come across. It alone deserves your attention if you intend on skiing here.
This is a book full of diverse lines and a diverse geography. My one piece of constructive criticism is that it is now time to revisit the series and reorganize it. That said, this volume fills in the evolving gaps from two of the last 3. For those of us that have the others, this is a great addendum. If I was buying his books for the first time I would want them all recompiled into 2 or 3 volumes.
Another thing I love about these books is that the images are inspiring. People having a great time in a setting that is sure to bring joy. I pore through these books to glean both feelings and ideas. I can find out about approaches and have a comparison with what I see from the TH. I do not necessarily go out to do the lines in the book. Rather it gives me solid information to decide where I want to go and how to get there. Sometimes I follow a line in the book, sometimes I seek out my own. If you have a spirit of adventure then they still exist. Last week I was looking across at a peak that is well documented by Fritz. There were a couple of very juicy looking ribbons of snow left undescribed. The thing is Fritz has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area. He also knows how the conditions work which means he figures out the best lines. His generosity means that you hold many of them in your hands when you flick through the pages.
Each route has a chart with the nuts and bolts. There is also a commentary that shares the route, other observations, a story or wisdom and in the back a map. All the information you need to find the route is there. I believe it is wise to transpose the lines and information onto your own map (CalTopo.com anyone?) Then you can add alternatives if the line in question is not the right choice when you are up there. It will also make you look more at the route and surrounding topography. This is the part of backcountry guidebooks I would love to see better understood. A guidebook makes finding and choosing a line easy, the thing is ascending and skiing it may not be. Backcountry skiing has a large learning curve. When you use a guide book you use someone else’s vast experience to help you find a line. This needs to be matched by the group to make good choices while skiing it. If something does go wrong the group also wants the wherewithal to deal with it. I am a fan of backcountry apprenticeships and taking classes. Constant learning is what keeps us safe and alive. Being in a group that incorporates this will keep us coming home. We will also have the most fun. A guidebook is only a part of the equation. Avalanche and First Aid skills and knowledge need to complement riding skills. These should include a multitude of different snow types and terrains. Fritz spells out a lot of the avalanche knowledge you need to develop. Supplement it with first aid knowledge. Best of all match routes with the ability to self-extract.
If the front of the book is filled with a sound overview of skiing in Colorado, then the rear contains plenty of resources to start this journey.
Making Turns in Colorado The North Volume 1 by Fritz Sperry Review
So is Fritz’s guidebook good? That is a resounding yes. Do you need a copy if you ski Colorado’s backcountry or aspire to? Again I say yes.
And, if you still think guidebooks shouldn’t share your stash, think about how much has changed in the last 20 years. I left Leadville 15 years ago. Back then I could not find any partners to ski any of the lines I could see driving to Copper Mountain. Only a few would ski documented 14ers with me. Now with guidebooks, websites and improved equipment it is rare to have these places to ourselves. At least we can find people to share them with. Fritz’s guidebooks have done a lot to open these areas up and show what is possible. If you think guidebooks have destroyed your freedom, contemplate how you might not have even started without them. After that think about how modern mapping is going to exacerbate the situation. As more people learn how to use it to its full effect there will be no secret stashes. Guidebooks’ impact will be far smaller than evolving mapping technologies.
John Redhead unknown to him became an influential figure in my climbing story. The times he stopped to pick me up and give me a lift, shaped the way I thought about our shared activity. He inspired me to improve and grow. We will do a lot worse than choose Fritz to inspire us in the same manner. Buy his guides. Share them with friends. Take the time to learn to play this game in a way that you mitigate as much risk as possible. And help others to see why they need to love our playgrounds. It is the only way our great-grandchildren are going to inherit them.
Wil was born in North Wales and steeped in its rich maritime, mountain and river folklore. In response to the request to “get a real job” he became first a teacher then professor of adventure education.
He then emigrated to where the sun shines for 300 days and snowfalls for 100 (Colorado). During more than 25 years as an outdoor educator, he worked Scottish winter seasons, taught canoeing, climbing, kayaking, and skiing throughout the States, Europe, and Australia. He also regenerated the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Outdoor Education program. His biggest adventure (by far) is fatherhood. It has also been the inspiration for his website www.wherethefruitis.com.
Things he likes to do include (middle) aging gracefully, and skiing (telemark) aggressively. He is happiest outdoors with a good view, good company, good weather/snow and the residue of self-powered adventure; sweat, a manic grin, and wild eyes.