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Andrew McLean: Of Steep and Steeper

Face Shots

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“Get up early twice a week, and it’s like you’ve been given an extra day of life.” This aphorism, as spoken by Andrew McLean, is helping me understand why I’ve spent the last two hours following him through a predawn blackness, laboring uphill toward a ridge that rims Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon.

And it’s an aphorism that soon rings true: By 8 a.m. we’ve watched the sunrise and skied today’s chute du jour, a 40-degree, 2,000-vertical-foot slot stuffed with powder. For me, logging a day’s worth of backcountry skiing before the day starts makes for a memorable morning. But after 10 winters of this routine, wouldn’t McLean have grown weary of his so-called dawn patrols? “Nah,” he says. “Skiing is life, sleep is optional.”

Perhaps for adhering to such tenets, Andrew McLean is frequently labeled a skier’s skier. He could also be labeled danger’s disciple. Catalog the measures of his success and you can see why: He’s won both Blackcomb’s Couloir Extreme race and the equally grueling Whistler Peak to Valley race. He’s bagged numerous first descents and takes “vacations” to ski Denali’s Messner Couloir and the 8,000-meter Shishapangma in Tibet.

Danger also permeates his guidebook, The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains.Its easiest lines, like the 40-degree South Face of Mount Superior, are deemed too hazardous to warrant ink by traditional guidebooks. Its steepest, like the 70-degree descent of the Great White Icicle, were once the exclusive domain of ice climbers.

Some of McLean’s descents are so dicey he’s developed rope techniques for particularly lethal pitches. Though he admits belayed skiing is more stunt than sport, it’s gotten him down several chutes he’d have otherwise ignored due to 65- to 70-degree cruxes. It has also helped him hone the razor’s edge between skiing and flying. And that’s important to know: “When skiing is life, it’s a shame to let death spoil the party.” As far as aphorisms go, that’s another keeper.

Born: February 24, 1961

Home slopes: Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, backcountry

In the news: McLean was the leader of the American ski expedition to Shishapangma, during which his friends Alex Lowe and David Bridges were killed by a freak avalanche.

First descents:
The Enclosure (Grand Teton, Wyoming)
Mowich Face (Mount Rainier, Washington)
The Gargoyle and The Big Bang (La Grave, France)
Triangle Wall and Montgomery (Wasatch Range, Utah)

Companions: When girlfriends ask whether he loves them or skiing more, he tells the truth, “Which is why I live alone with my dog,” McLean says.