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The Steep Life

Dean Cummings stops by Aspen to share his backcountry philosophy.

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Big-mountain skiing legend Dean Cummings rolled through Aspen last week to introduce his philosophy on backcountry skiing safety—dubbed “The Steep Life Protocols”—to Aspen’s local contingent of powder seekers. The Roaring Fork Valley came out in force, from Red Mountain mansion owners to the Elk Mountains’ ice-cave dwellers, to meet Cummings and learn about The Steep Life Protocols.

After 20 years of guiding in Alaska’s Chugach Range, Cummings has developed a series of protocols aimed at making smart decisions and traveling safely in avalanche-prone backcountry terrain.

“When I got to Valdez 22 years ago it was humbling,” says Cummings, who won the World Extreme Skiing Title in 1995 and has starred in big-mountain skiing movies for decades. “The pilots were wild guys from the Vietnam War, the lines were unlike anything we had ever seen or skied.”

Cummings and his crew realized that they needed to set up protocols for big-mountain Alaskan skiing to mitigate the risk. “The Steep Life is about protecting this lifestyle that we love, because it is worth protecting,” says Cummings.

Cummings’s methodology formed as a practical and interconnected way of looking at the mountains; assessing terrain and conditions, using the data made available by avalanche forecasters and weather sites, trusting your instincts, and taking responsibility.

“We are the ones responsible for the evolution of our sport,” says Cummings, “and we’re getting too much confidence from the equipment we’re using and the certifications in our pockets.”

The essential gear—transceivers strapped to our chests, shovels and probes in our backpacks— are vital tools needed to save you in a scenario. The abundance of data—avalanche forecast, weather predictions, and snow reports—are important factors in the decision making process. However, according to The Steep Life, backcountry skiers need to be tuned in to their surroundings more and relying on the equipment and science less. The goal of The Steep Life is to use the information we observe to avoid the avalanche scenario. “The nightmare situation is when we are yelling ‘spot him, spot him,” says Cummings. “You do not want to take that ride.”

“It’s all really about terrain management and listening to our instincts,” says Cummings. “Our instincts are really good and we all need to listen to them more.”

Thanks to practicing what he’s preaching, Cummings has been able to nab some of the most insane first descents in recent memory. His first descents of The Tusk, Meteorite Mountain, and Mount Francis outside of Valdez, Alaska, have created quite a stir throughout the ski world.

“Those first descents were more than two decades in the making,” says Cummings. “You have to know when to go and when to not go. Some days you have to listen to what the mountains are telling you and go ski groomers or go eat nachos.”

As he’s done for years, Cummings will be making the rounds through mountain towns before guiding season starts in Alaska to present The Steep Life Protocols to backcountry skiers. The curriculum is his way of “giving back,” he says. Cummings will also be releasing a film entitled “The Steep Life” next fall, which highlights his first descents and the decision-making protocol implemented everyday by H20 Guides, Cummings’s Valdez-based heli-skiing operation.

For more information about H20 Guides visit:

Five Highlights from The Steep Life Protocols:

  • Always try to be visual and verbal with your partners. Cummings says that if you are maintaining visual and verbal communication “it usually leads to good outcomes.” “We constantly have to be checking the snow on the go,” says Cummings. Physically testing the snow in pre-determined safe zones throughout the day or run is imperative.“Look at the mountains and the terrain three-dimensionally,” says Cummings. The four different types of terrain to worry about are concave, convex, unsupported slopes, and terrain traps.
  • “Never pass up a high point to scope your line,” stresses Cummings.
  • “When you start your day with a concern about the snowpack that concern should last all day,” says Cummings. “Pick a route that gives you options.”