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"Ski the Wild West" with Drew Petersen

Combining 10,000+ miles on the road and skiing from the high points of eleven western states, a new short film relives the journey through the American West.

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Drew Petersen had an absolute stellar year in 2017. After springtime trips to Kyrgyzstan and Switzerland, Petersen traveled all over the American West, skiing from the high points of Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California. We caught up with the Utah-based skier in between laps on Alta‘s Wildcat Chair for more about what went into the trip and what’s next.

SKI Magzine: What was in the inspiration to ski from the high points of 11 states in the American west?

Drew Petersen: I wanted to do something close to home in order to explore my own backyard. I’ve always wanted to ski some of these peaks, but still others I had to look up for the first time. It felt like the right mix to see a variety of landscapes and ways of life, all right here in the American West. These mountains have inspired for generations.

SM: How many miles did you travel in total?

DP: All told, it ended up being a little over 10,000 miles with all the little connecting pieces on the road. Initially, I expected it to require around 5,000 miles on the road, but that was if everything went smooth—and there were obviously some bumps in the road. Fortunately, I really love driving on the open road, mostly just for the time to think. It’s good for the soul.

The road to Boundary Peak in Nevada.
The road to Boundary Peak in Nevada.Photo credit: Drew Petersen

SM: What was the highest point emotionally? The lowest?

DP: It is super hard to pinpoint what was the highest point for me, figuratively speaking at least. Each one of these days, every peak, every state, offered such a complete and unique experience. Borah Peak in Idaho was definitely the best skiing. Kings Peak in Utah was the biggest single day mission of the trip. But Gannett Peak in Wyoming was definitely a high point because of where I was emotionally and spiritually, as I think people can hopefully see in the film.

As for the lowest, I think it’s pretty clear in the film. After Mount Hood, I felt as small and weak as I can imagine. 

SM: What would you recommend to skiers who want to become ski mountaineers with similar objectives?

DP: I think that lesson I am constantly learning are the same lessons I would stress and offer to others: be patient, practice humility, and always be open to learning. 

The mountains are powerful, in ways both good and bad. It seems like we often get to see the days that go perfectly when snow stability, weather, and everything else aligns. Those days do happen out there, but they are far from guaranteed. Put in the hours and don’t be afraid to take your time working up to bigger objectives or goals—perhaps over several years, or even a lifetime. Take avalanche classes, get your Wilderness First Responder or other medical training, and also prepare your body physically. 

Overall though, I think the strongest value is in experience and mountain sense. Be patient and keep on learning.

skiing mt rainer in washington
Dropping in on Mt. Rainer in Washington State.Photo credit: Drew Petersen

SM: Which summit were you most excited about and why? Did it live up to your expectations?

DP: Gannett Peak, in Wyoming, was probably the most anticipated. It is situated in the middle of the Wind River Mountain Range, a remote area that is super difficult to access. Our route required a 50-mile roundtrip. So in a way, I guess I was excited about the challenge, and even more excited to walk through the Winds. Those mountains are absolutely jaw-dropping. It definitely lived up to my expectations, and more. To walk that far, work through part of what I had going on mentally, and enjoy the process was important, but we also scored some of the best corn snow of the season.

Approaching Kings Peak in the Uinta Mountains of Utah.
Approaching Kings Peak in the Uinta Mountains of Utah.Photo credit: Drew Petersen

SM: You had a pretty nasty scare with rock fall in Oregon. What was the primary lesson from that accident, and did it change your outlook and objectives for the trip?

DP: There were so many lessons I learned. I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I was the luckiest human on the planet that day. The biggest lesson is to always wear a helmet. Wearing my helmet is why I’m still around today, and that is an ugly fact that is not easy to come to grips with. The fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t have been there. But we did make conscious decisions that entire day with safety as the biggest focus, including the decision to transition at that exact spot. So that’s the primary lesson: even when you make conscious decisions, things can still go awry and turn for the worst. I just don’t want to ever rely on luck so much again.

SM: Why did you come away from Rainier happy about the decision you made, and, as you say in the movie, “the decision to not go is never wrong”?

DP: Turning around on an objective always puts things in perspective. Life in the mountains and skiing is never about a single goal or accomplishment. For me, it’s about making it home at the end of the day, and about waking up healthy the next day being able to go enjoy life again. The hard part about making that decision is that it’s rarely clear that you absolutely have to turn around. You’ll never know that you were there in the wrong situation until it’s too late, which we were obviously shown the very next day. On Rainier though, we were so happy because we still skied from near the top of the line, and it was a phenomenal run—we’re skiers, not climbers.

Climbing Nevada's Boundary Peak at Sunrise.
Climbing Nevada’s Boundary Peak at Sunrise.Photo credit: Drew Petersen

SM: After a season including this trip plus skiing in Kyrgyzstan and Switzerland, what’s in store for 2018?

Oh man, yeah, 2017 was an unreal year. I sure hope that 2018 will offer more of the same. I have some exciting news coming up. My calendar is still super up in the air, with a lot of potential adventures. I do hope to travel some special places, especially back to the Alps, but I also have a couple ideas cooking up close to home to keep seeing more of the American West. No matter what, I’m going to ski as much as I can and have as much fun as I can. That plan is always my favorite plan. 

Follow Drew’s travels this season and beyond via his Instagram Page.