The fifty four 14ers in the Colorado Rockies have always held great allure to intrepid ski and snowboard mountaineers. There’s a line to ride on every one, some long and clean, many rocky and terrifying. Veteran Colorado ski mountaineer Lou Dawson was the first person to ski off the summit of all 54 peaks, completing the task in 1991. Skier Chris Davenport upped the ante in 2006 setting a new speed record for skiing them all in just 361 days. Since then, several skiers and two snowboarders have completed the challenge, but no one had beaten Davenport’s record until this spring.
In May of 2017, splitboarder Josh Jespersen from Leadville, Colorado blew away Davenport’s 14er speed record by over 200 days! Josh crushed all 54 peaks in just over four months, 138 days to be exact. The motivation and mountain skills Josh required to pull off such a feat were honed with elite training. Josh is a former Navy Seal. Now retired from active duty, Josh is the founder of Mission Memorial Day, an organization that creates active and unique Memorial Day events remembering fallen veterans. Josh has also begun working with Protect Our Winters in the fight against Climate Change.
To inspire any of you to start tagging Colorado 14ers, we caught up with Josh to hear the details on what it took to pull off such an incredible accomplishment.
Josh Jespersen atop Humboldt Peak in the Sangre De Cristo range. Photo - Heath Jamieson.
What inspired you to undertake the challenge of riding all 54 peaks?
I took this on for a couple reasons. The easiest answer is that one day at work I thought to myself that instead of just shredding all season, I should give myself a goal, something to accomplish. The season before I had followed another Colorado skiers’ progress as he tried to beat Dav’s record. He didn’t end up beating it so the idea popped in my head to give it a try.
The deeper reason for why I set off to climb all 54 stems from my recent work guiding wounded veterans in the mountains. I have always gotten a sense that my fellow vets need something to push them, some proof that life beyond the military can be fulfilling, and someone they can relate to showing them the way. By accomplishing the challenge and potentially beating the record, I knew I could help my fellow veterans in that regard.
First light on the South couloir of Crestone Needle.
Had you climbed or ridden any of the 14ers before starting the mission?
I had ridden down four of them and hiked up three others. For the vast majority of these peaks, I was in new territory. I didn’t think not having climbed many was a hindrance to taking the project on though. Sure, I would be searching for beta on most all the peaks but that gave it another element of exploration for me, which in the end, turned out to be one of the best parts. So I felt good about pulling the trigger without seeing most of the mountains previously.
Touring into a high camp in Pierre Lakes basin below Capitol Peak. Photo - Mike Fields.
Was it your goal to try to break the speed record from the start?
Nope, but I was trying to do it as fast as I could, and thought I could do it in one season. I was only able to do the project in 138 days because of what Dawson, Davenport and the handful of others skiers and snowboarders that have pulled it off did before me. I scoured their trip reports, watched their videos and didn’t take their efforts for granted. Colorado skiing has a pretty strict ethics element to tackling these peaks. I tried to meet those long held standards by hitting each of the peaks in the best conditions possible and riding the most aesthetic continuous lines. To do that I was chasing storms all over the state, and every day the weather allowed I tried to ride the coolest, most fun line I could. On a 14er of course ;)
John Maudsley climbing the East ridge of the Wetterhorn.
What were the most technically challenging peaks?
Capitol peak was the most challenging, for sure. No matter what you do on that mountain, you are billy-goating and exposed to fatal falls for almost your entire line. There is no getting around it, and the mountain has yet to be skied "clean," meaning no rappels, belays, or having to don crampons during the descent. There are a few others that have only one summit descent that is very technical as well, but you might not die if you fell. Peaks like Crestone Needle and Little Bear. Both of these peaks have one option, and they are both super steep, super tight, scary couloirs. Also peaks like Pyramid and Kit Carson force you to put yourself out there on an exposed upper face with high consequences. Following those up, there are about 15 that have options, but they are all very committing. These would be peaks like Longs, Wilson, North Maroon, Blanca, and Windom. For the rest of them, you can still get rowdy if you want to but it’s not mandatory. Every 14er has at least one line on it that is a real challenge.
What peak had the best line and snow conditions?
You really have to try and time it just right so that a peak isn’t wind scoured or buffed, and the snow pack doesn’t have any really dangerous layers on top or buried. Looking back, I nailed Crestone Peak right on the money. Crestone has a 45 degree 2,000’ fall line descent that I rode in two feet of stable POW. It was unbelievable! To safely score conditions like that required compiling a number of different forecasts and being hyper aware of the snowpack. It also required a 15 hour day, since I rode Crestone Needle in the same push, and also in pow!
Jespersen flies a flag with the names of every SEAL killed since 9/11 before descending Ellingwood Point. Photo - Ricky Schuler.
How did snowpack stability affect your touring plans? Any close calls?
Snowpack stability was a huge factor and was always on my mind. To pull this off safely I had to approach the season with some unique tactics for sure. I broke down my peak list into groups that reflected the instabilities I thought I might be dealing with. For instance, Colorado has strong westerlies, which often build wind slabs on eastern slopes. So I made a list of west facing descents to ride when east faces were suspect. If faced with a soft slab problem on all aspects after a storm, I had a group of peaks with ridge descents that I could ride without exposing myself to open bowls or chutes. Obviously, the plan wasn’t fool proof, and I still had to suss things out on a daily basis, but it gave me a good road map for approaching the season. January and February were hard because it was just storm after storm. I was getting beat down by the brutal weather, got turned around on a few objectives and was almost out of my "safe" descents by mid February. My luck improved in March when a nice high pressure sat over the state for about a month. The sunny skies stabilized deep instabilities and opened up some of the steeper lines early in the season. Since I had a good plan, knew how to mitigate with terrain, and was so cognizant of avalanche danger I had almost no close calls. The closest call on descent was on Little Bear. Just as I was getting to the tightest choke on the line, a small soft slab broke beneath me. I was able to cut out of it and watch it flush through. Ascending, I had a soft slab break around me on the upper east face of Maroon Peak. I dug in, held my ground and promptly pulled the plug right after that. Other than that, I think I would have made most armchair avy commentators proud :)
What is your advice for aspiring riders who would like to ride all 54?
Do not be picky about snow conditions when you’re looking to go tour. You’ll never really know conditions until you go, and on peaks this tall, you’ll often come across five different snow surfaces on multiple different snow packs. On any day, you could ride trees, couloirs, ridges, and faces in one descent. So it is really important to be comfortable on any terrain, with any snow surface, and to enjoy riding anything, no matter how crusty it is. Also, get really good at mitigating avalanche danger with terrain. Being good at digging a pit is one thing, but that doesn’t matter if you come across a weird pocket and you don’t know what your looking at, or how to avoid it. Mitigation with your terrain includes dropping large cornice blocks on questionable slopes. Don’t be afraid to cut one loose to test a slope as long as you are 100% positive nobody is below you. And lastly, you gotta learn to embrace the suck because there will be plenty of suffering. Just focus on having a blast at all times!