Breakfast with Dean Cummings: Big Daddy of Extreme Skiing

Nov 9, 2011
Outside Magazine

The other morning I had breakfast with Dean Cummings, a veteran Alaska heli-ski guide and all around big mountain badass, who was coming through Santa Fe to promote his new line of skis, H20 Outdoor Gear. That Dean has lived to see 46 is no small feat. He’s been skiing North America’s biggest, steepest peaks for more than 20 years, and lords over 2 million acres of alpine terrain in the Chugach outside Valdez, where he guides 300 clients a year on first descents so often he’s lost count. He’s made 46 ski films, including “The Steep Life," in which he finally tackles a couple burly first descents he's been eying for two decades. It's set for release next fall. 


Dean grew up in New Mexico and learned to ski at Pajarito, a locals’ hill outside Los Alamos, when he was five. In the early ‘90s, as an ambassador for Taos Ski Valley, he helped start a learn-to-ski program for kids from Taos Pueblo. He went on to become captain of the US Freestyle Ski Team and win the Freestyle World Championships in 1995 in Valdez. A few years later, he returned to the Chugach to start his pioneering heli-ski company, H20 Guides; he also launched the North American Outdoor Institute (NAOI) and began teaching avalanche education and remote ops to kids, outdoor enthusiasts, and fellow guides. 

In the midst of all this, he got married, had a couple kids, Wyatt Kodiak, 8, and Tesslina, 6, and settled full-time in Valdez, where earlier this fall he finished building the town of 3,000 its very own ski hill with a 1,000-foot rope tow right. A season pass costs $125.

When you ski as high and as hard and as long as Dean does, it's not unreasonable to expect something untoward to happen. Fellow extreme skiers Doug Coombs and Shane McConkey died in ski-related falls in the Alps in the past decade; others have suffered career-ending injuries. Which is why I was so psyched to see Dean's smiling face last Friday at the Tea House, where we talked about a few of his favorite topics: staying safe in the mountains, helping guides get the respect they deserve, and raising two li'l rippers of his own. (Next up on Rippers: Dean's tips for teaching kids to ski.)

How did you learn to ski?
There were five of us kids and my dad taught us all to ski the same way: He wouldn’t let us ride the rope tow up and made us herringbone up the hill on our skis instead. I was probably five at the time. My sisters hated it, but it was all about our inside edges. When we got to the top, we just reversed the edges and we were skiing. I did the same thing with my kids. 

What’s it like raising a family in Valdez?
We used to spend half the year in Utah, but a couple of years ago, before Wyatt started first grade, we had to choose. One or the other. We took a family vote, and it was four-zero for Alaska. Wyatt said, "There are too many traffic lights here!” I love the feeling I get in Alaska. My senses are so alive. You open the back door and the shed roof could collapse and kill you. Plus, there’s so much freedom. Within a minute from town, you can be in the wilderness. 

Tell me about the rope tow. A thousand feet of vertical—that's bigger than some East Coast ski resorts.
Yeah, we just finished building it. Before that, we didn’t have a ski hill in town. My wife, Karen, was the one who got it organized. I hauled away debris in my truck, and she did the business proposal. The mayor said it was the most thorough business plan he’d ever seen. There are a lot of skiers in this town, and there’s a little baby boom going on. People are psyched. It’s a reason to stay.

When did your kids start skiing?
Oh, they were tiny. They’ve always skied. First I wore them in a backpack. Then I held them on my lap while I skied. Then we clipped their tips together and I skied backwards. Now I push snow from the driveway and make jumps for them, and they have the rope tow. 

Is it important to you that they love skiing?
I’m not trying to push the skiing life on my kids. I’m going to just let it fall into place. It’s right there in front of them. Wyatt’s kind of into becoming a dentist, but I bet he’ll end up doing something pretty Alaskan. Maybe by then guiding will be more respected. 

It’s not now?
No, it’s a bit of a joke in the U.S.. Guides go through all this training and basically have a PhD in the mountains but are treated like ski bums. In Europe and Canada, you can make real money and you’re respected. Here, we set the trends but not the standards. Running a guiding school is a way for me to do something so my guides can make a living all year. 

What was Alaska like back in the day?
I went up there for the World Extreme Skiing Championships. I’d never seen such big mountains. They hadn’t been skied much. I started guiding for extreme skiers who were up there shooting movies. The terrain is so different that we had to develop new safety protocols. Digging a pit isn’t enough: You’d have to dig one every 100 feet to get a good read on the snow. You need practical assessments you can use on the go. It’s all about terrain management: skiing from safe zone to safe zone, and having bailouts. 

Is that your secret for staying alive?
I’ll never hang my hat on my safety record, but we had a perfect safety record for 20 years, until a client broke his leg two years ago. It was freak thing. For the most part, our instincts as humans are pretty good, but there’s a lot of junk that gets in the way: machoness, political correctness, ego. That’s when you can get into trouble.

So how do you tap into your instincts when you're scared shitless on top of a huge peak?
You’ve got to weigh it all out: Who am I putting at risk? What will happen to the skiers I’m with if something happens to me? What will happen to those I love? This shouldn’t be a hedonistic sport. It should be a sport of love and lifestyle, health and friendship. So many skiers just want to go 100 mph; eventually, they take that big fall. But not Seth Morrison. You know he’s a great skier because he has a profound respect and fear for the mountains. He never just points them. He’s smart. He’s making his career last. 

What was your relationship with Doug Coombs like?
We were good friends until I beat him on the [Forest Service] permit. Before that, we had a fun competition. It was all about protocol and safety records. He was one of the most skilled guides and skiers I’ve ever known. Neither of us thought we’d beat the other person; we just thought we should try. At the end of each winter, we used to go out for a day in the helicopter and ski, just us and the pilots, and we’d give thanks for the season. But then I won the permit and Doug was pretty upset and eventually he left and went to Europe.  

Is it hard to be gone so much from your family, especially when you're taking big risks?
Yeah, it’s hard. But I’ve been scaling back. You do 3 to 4 films a year, and that really increases the odds that you’ll die skiing. I’ve always wanted to have a life in the mountains. It was never about blowing people away but about building a career so I could do what I love. When I’m away from home, I’m always in touch, but a break is good, too. I’m such a hard-driving guy. I have no time for people who don’t try hard. 

Do you ever think of leaving Alaska?
We have 2.6 million acres of ski terrain in the Chugach—that’s the largest in the world that I know of. Only 2 percent of the mountains even have names. I could do 10 first descents a year for the rest of my life. I love that I’m not following in someone else’s tracks. I’m making a little bit of a legacy here for my guides and my family. 

And now you’re making skis? 
I’ve been making them for clients for four years, but this is the first year I’m selling them to the public. They’re handmade in Tahoe by hot skiers and machinists. The whole point is that they’re practical and versatile. People shouldn’t have to have three pairs of skis to ski three different parts of the mountain. You could use them to ski off Everest—or the rope tow. 


H20 Outdoor Gear Tazlina

What’s next?
I’m working on a tram that would go 5,302 feet from Valdez up to the big peaks. It’d be the most impressive lift in North America—a block from my house and a mile from the ferry terminal and the cruise ships. It’s still in the early stages. The city said they’d help build a road. From the top, you’d be able to see 26 glaciers without turning your neck.

—Katie Arnold

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