Thrill Daddy Dreams of Powder Dawn
Andrew McLean is a shaggy-haired, left-brained industrial designer whose inventions are revolutionizing the world of adventure skiing. He's also found the perfect guinea pig to take his gear to outrageous new heights: himself.
THE FUTURE DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN; somebody has to create it. That’s as true for adventure as it is for computer technology or medicine. In the future, polar explorers will enjoy unprecedented mobility using wind power, which will carry them farther afield than they’ve ever gone with dogs or machines. In the future, alpinists will treat Mount McKinley like a quadruple-black-diamond downhill run. In the future, at resorts across North America, ski-mountaineering races will be as popular as halfpipe competitions.
Andrew McLeanMcLean at the Canyons Resort, near his home in Park City, Utah
Andrew McLean“Andrew’s got so much gray matter stirring in there that it sort of runs out his ears”: McLean at the Canyons Resort
Those things won’t just happen. They’ll happen because Andrew McLean, the godfather of all things off-piste, helped invent them.
But that’s the future. Today, a crisp December morning on the Wasatch Plateau—a high, wide yawn of alpine meadows and rolling hills about two hours south of Salt Lake City—McLean is focused on kites. Big kites. Kites capable of launching a rottweiler into low orbit. We’re here so McLean can introduce me to his latest obsession, a ski-kite that can pull you at near-highway speeds across flat expanses of snow.
“This is the only time I wear a helmet,” McLean tells me as he snaps his chin buckle. “Once you’re hooked in, these things can drag you into trees and power lines. I’ve ended up in a barbed-wire fence a couple times.”
McLean bundles a parachute-and-string contraption in his arms and hikes up a rise. A wiry man, he has an oversize noggin that rides on his lean 145-pound body, so that he vaguely resembles a five-foot-ten-inch sunflower. It’s an appropriate effect, though, since it emphasizes the enormity of his brain.
“Andrew’s got so much gray matter stirring in there that it sort of runs out his ears,” says backcountry skier Armond DuBuque, 34, a ski partner of McLean’s since 1997.
McLean hooks his climbing harness to the kite strings and tugs. He’s wearing lightweight ski boots and a pair of alpine touring skis. He hopes to use this setup in October, when he heads to the Patagonian Ice Cap to make first descents on mountains so remote they’ve barely been climbed, let alone skied. The inspiration for this snow-sailing gear came to McLean a few years ago, while he was watching a Dutch explorer mess around with a crude early version of a ski-kite in Antarctica. Back home in Utah, McLean ordered some ripstop polyester, rounded up a set of plans, and sat down at his industrial sewing machine to create his own version. The kites he produced were pretty cheap—costing around $50 to make—and damned if they didn’t work well.
“This one’s modified from an old NASA parachute design for Gemini spacecraft,” he says. “Let’s see if we can get a little wind here.” The purple canopy slowly rises to life, then catches a gust and rockets skyward. The web of lines zings taut and jerks McLean across the snow. He tacks east and west on the plateau, then, after about two minutes, comes back smiling.
Looks easy enough. Now it’s my turn.
McLean attaches the strings to my harness and sets me loose. The kite promptly yanks me into the next county. I try to master the steering, but it’s difficult because the harness feels like it’s pulling my ass straight through my belly.
“Powerful, huh?” McLean yells. “Up in Baffin we got these things moving at 40 miles an hour.”
After ten seconds of high-speed euphoria, I catch an edge and fall. The kite becomes a runaway mule, my face the sharp edge of a plow. In the distance, McLean is yelling, “Let go! Let go!” I drop the steering bar, and the kite wilts. Somewhat dazed, I lift my head and blow snow out of my nose.
OK, so the future may also hurt a bit.
McLEAN, a 44-YEAR-OLD MOP-HAIRED product designer from Park City, Utah, is acknowledged by many as the best steep skier in the United States. “All that crazy-boy extreme-skiing stuff—to me it was all just a Mountain Dew ad,” says Himalayan climber Conrad Anker, 42, who has teamed with McLean on several climbing-and-skiing expeditions. “It was never the real thing. Except for Andrew.”
Because McLean declines to appear in extreme-skiing videos—he’s frequently asked to—and doesn’t endorse a signature line of skis (though K2 Skis sponsors him), he remains largely unknown to the general public. But among backcountry cognoscenti, his name is legendary. He’s perhaps best known for researching and writing The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, a backcountry handbook that McLean self-published in 1998. These days, used copies of this collector’s item fetch nearly $200 on Amazon.com, though it’s clearly not for everybody. Essentially a guide to avalanche chutes identified by the Utah Department of Transportation, it tells you where to find barely skiable lines that can easily lead to fatal accidents—a fact the author acknowledges with a low-key warning in the introduction.
“Much of this book is written in a flippant manner that at times can glamorize and/or downplay the dangers involved in this type of skiing,” McLean writes. “In truth, it’s not a very safe activity.”
Risks notwithstanding, in the past decade no athlete has pushed the bounds of what’s possible more than McLean. He’s done it by taking skis where they’ve never gone before and by creating new tools that allow him to go there. On remote slopes in the Wasatch, the Cascades, the Rockies, and the White Mountains, skiers tell tales of McLean’s descents on Alaska’s Mount McKinley and Mount Hunter, of the turns he carved down Mount Rainier’s forbidding Mowich Face, of the 3,500-foot chutes he discovered—and skied—on Canada’s isolated Baffin Island.
“They say McLean skis what the rest of us ice-climb,” says veteran backcountry skier and photographer Carl Skoog. “I don’t know if that’s true, but . . .”
It’s true. It’s also true that, during the nineties, while working as a product designer for Black Diamond Equipment—a cutting-edge backcountry-gear company based in Salt Lake—McLean invented a number of devices that helped define the wild new junction where skiing and mountaineering converge. The HotWire, a lightweight wire-gate carabiner he created in 1994, drastically reduced the problem of catastrophic failure due to gate opening and represented the first advance in ‘biner design in a generation. The Whippet, a ski-pole grip with an ice-ax head that McLean invented in 1995, has become standard issue for aspiring and veteran ski mountaineers. His latest project, a series of ski-kites, isn’t in commercial production and may never be, but there’s a growing demand for McLean’s prototypes among climbers and skiers heading to the polar regions. As it happens, McLean is also at an interesting junction in his own life. He recently got married to Polly Samuels, an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah and a skilled backcountry skier. After the ceremony, at Alta’s Our Lady of the Snows Chapel, the newlyweds emerged under an archway of crossed ski poles. The couple—reserved but hardly reclusive—even had their nuptials featured in The New York Times.
Marriage is the point where many adventurers try to cash in on their accomplishments, but McLean, ever the iconoclast, has decided to cash out. In 2003 he left his job at Black Diamond—amicably—so that he could have more time to ski, futz with gear, and take off on far-flung expeditions, a move that has upped his freedom but curtailed his cash flow. Now at an age when intelligence, experience, ambition, and ability all meet, he’s working on his boldest innovation yet: an unfettered lifestyle that will support his yen for adventure skiing and give him a chance to stage a second act as impressive as his first.
Of late, McLean’s passion has extended into the development and promotion of ski-mountaineering racing—a fledgling sport in the U.S. that’s already hugely popular in Europe. These races require competitors to climb and descend steep, sometimes dodgy off-piste terrain using climbing skins and lightweight alpine-touring skis, boots, and bindings. Until recently a top-flight racer himself, McLean has retired his bib to help boost the sport stateside, luring enthusiasts and hardcore endurance athletes to the events. His own race, the Black Diamond PowderKeg, created in 2003 and held every March in the Cottonwood Canyons, is the first Ski Mountaineering World Cup event in the U.S, part of a growing international series similar to the one that defines alpine ski racing.
The growth of these races illustrates the ongoing boom in backcountry skiing. In 2001, the Jackson Hole, Wyoming–based gear company Life-Link/Dynafit sponsored its first race. In 2005, they held four races, and total participation had quadrupled. “We could have run ten races this year,” says John Scott, Life-Link’s executive vice president. “But we had to turn areas down because we just didn’t have the time to do it.” At this pace, the sport could soon become as popular as mountain-bike racing or halfpipe competitions.
Though McLean would never claim all the credit for popularizing the winter backcountry, his impact is undeniable. While much of what he does takes place at the bleeding edge, he’s opening the gap between old ways and new, inspiring others to push beyond resort boundaries. In the McLeanian imagination, snow-covered mountains are places of unlimited opportunity. And when it comes to figuring out how to have fun there, he’s just getting started.
McLEAN’S LOVE FOR SKIING was born out of his mother’s efforts to give her rambunctious kids a winter outlet for their energy. “We had no money, and I didn’t know what to do with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old,” Duse McLean told me from her home in Bellevue, Washington. “Then I found out that if I taught skiing at Madonna Mountain”—now Smugglers’ Notch Resort, near Stowe, Vermont—”the whole family could ski for free.”
When five-year-old Andrew strapped on skis for the first time, he begged his parents to let him go up the rope tow alone. His dad, Pete, said no, pointing out that he didn’t know how to turn yet.
“I can so turn!” Andrew said. He promptly herringboned up a nearby slope and came down, making a nice-looking turn on the way. Triumphant, he marched over to the buzzing rope and held on. He was so light that it lifted him off the ground.
Shortly after his family moved to Seattle, in 1972, 11-year-old Andrew discovered the thrill of the steeps at Alpental, an icy, notoriously challenging ski area about an hour east of the city. There he learned to handle the terrain by shadowing Butch White, a free-spirited ski racer, down a double-black-diamond run called International. “It was a big deal to keep up with Butch,” McLean recalls. “He was really into ‘nonstops,’ where you’d ski International straight from the chair to the bottom in one continuous loop. We’d start off with a bunch of kids, and they’d drop off one by one. By the end of the day there’d be casualties all over the mountain.”
Off the slopes, McLean tinkered with skateboards, go-carts, and a scrap-heap MG. But design always came second to a hoped-for career as a ski racer. After high school, McLean chased his dream at the now defunct Mission Ridge Ski Academy, on the east slopes of the Cascades, near Wenatchee, Washington. A year later, he realized he had neither the heft nor the results to make it onto the World Cup circuit. Shut out of conventional racing, McLean applied to and was accepted at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence.
McLean went to RISD to develop his design portfolio but ended up nurturing a talent for finding trouble. He and his roommate often went climbing at night, defying Rhode Island’s flatness by climbing bridges and churches. “Gothic churches were the best,” McLean recalls. “All that ornate stonework. Great for fingerholds.” One night they scaled the side of the RISD Museum, triggered the alarm, and climbed down into the arms of two cops. McLean says his shenanigans prompted RISD’s then president, Thomas F. Schutte, to call him in for a dress-down just before McLean left for a semester in Rome.
“This trip is conditional, Andrew,” McLean recalls Schutte telling him. “You will not be climbing the walls of the Vatican.” After graduating, in 1985, McLean worked a few rent-paying jobs while perfecting a device called the Talon in his parents’ garage. A three-pronged hook that looks something like a metal starfish and that’s used by big-wall climbers to hook onto small edges, the Talon performed so well that McLean sent it to JohnBercaw, then the design manager at Black Diamond Equipment. About three weeks later, McLean’s phone rang; Bercaw offered him a job.
In the outdoor industry, working at Black Diamond in the nineties was like working at Apple in the early eighties—it was a place bursting with creativity, passion, and talent. The company emerged from the implosion of Chouinard Equipment, the gear outfit that legendary climber Yvon Chouinard founded prior to his creation of the more apparel-focused Patagonia. In 1989, Chouinard Equipment general manager Peter Metcalf led an employee buyout of the assets, then created Black Diamond, moving the operation from Ventura, California, to Salt Lake City.
Metcalf wanted passion to drive innovation and soon convinced some of the world’s top adventurers to come work for him. The staff included Alaska mountaineering greats Jack Tackle and Scott Backes, Yosemite pioneer Maria Cranor, and ace whitewater paddler Jordy Margid. Speed climber and ice expert Doug Heinrich ran the retail store at BD headquarters; his assistant manager was a young alpinist named Conrad Anker. All-around mountain fiend Alex Lowe was the company’s quality-assurance manager.
The Black Diamond directive was simple: Its employees were expected to climb or ski into situations so sketchy that they were forced to think, Damn! I wish I had a tool for this. Then they were were supposed to invent it.
Nobody personified the place’s mystique more than Alex Lowe, McLean’s best friend and mentor. A dervish of energy and athletic ability, Lowe encouraged McLean to abandon the in-bounds resort steeps for the earn-your-turns adventure of the backcountry. During their first winter in the Wasatch, in 1992, McLean followed Lowe on a five-hour trek to the top of Lisa Falls Couloir, a challenging chute in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the ten-mile east–west notch that connects Salt Lake City to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.
McLean struggled to keep up and wondered why anyone would forfeit a day of lift-assisted nonstops for this. Once he reached the summit, though, the splendor of the scene shook him to his core. Under a bluebird sky, he stood staring at 5,000 vertical feet of untracked powder, which disappeared down a steep-walled couloir that hadn’t been touched all winter.
“Follow me,” Lowe said. McLean watched him float through waist-deep snow so light it filled in behind like fog.
“That,” McLean recalls, “was when I realized the potential of backcountry skiing.”
WHEN I FIRST MEET UP with McLean, in Salt Lake City, it’s the winter of 2005 and the newspapers are full of backcountry carnage. MOUNTAIN MAYHEM, screams the front page of the Deseret Morning News. SEARCHES WREST ANOTHER BODY FROM MOUNTAIN, reads The Salt Lake Tribune.
“Four fatalities in two days,” McLean tells me as I climb into his truck. “Things are spooky. We’ll wait a couple days and let things set up. Then I’ll show you a few chutes.”
A year ago, McLean worked at the Forest Service’s Utah Avalanche Center. It was a busy season for accidents, but 2005 has been worse. By early March 2005, Utah has recorded a total of seven avalanche fatalities, making this the deadliest season in 50 years—unnerving statistics, particularly considering the mushrooming popularity of the winter backcountry. Sales of off-piste ski gear have been brisk for gear companies in recent years; at Black Diamond, for example, revenues from alpine-touring equipment alone have grown about 20 percent annually since 1998. But lately, the backcountry has been biting back. I wonder aloud whether McLean feels any ambivalence about helping pioneer a sport that’s so inherently dangerous.
“I’m more from the school of personal responsibility,” he tellsme, arguing that the gear he designs is for experts who would be putting themselves in those situations anyway. “It’s like if I were designing a Porsche. Should I worry that people might exceed the speed limit and crash?”
Two days later, at 4:45 a.m., I meet McLean and Polly Samuels at a parking lot across the valley from Alta Ski Area. This painfully early meeting time is standard procedure for McLean’s dawn patrol. A handful of shadowy figures huddle around his Toyota pickup, discussing the plan. Above them, stars twinkle in a cold, black sky.
“Mark, you up for some touring after?” McLean asks.
“No, I gotta be in to work by nine,” says Mark Santurbane, 29, a Black Diamond product-design engineer.
She shakes her head. Judges don’t consider chute poaching an acceptable excuse for courtroom tardiness.
Two more skiers arrive: Dylan Freed, a 19-year-old part-time college student, and Tom Diegel, 40, a freelance product designer. Doors slam, plastic boots knock against pavement. The faint outline of Mount Superior, the broad-shouldered 11,132-foot patriarch of the Cottonwood Canyons, looms above us.
Santurbane, Freed, Samuels, and Diegel head out, skinning effortlessly up the crusty remains of an avalanche set off a few days earlier by the Department of Transportation. The snow is firm, but we’re packing avalanche beacons just in case. After about 400 yards, the slope angles upward to the point where we can no longer get traction with our skins. We strap our skis to our packs, and McLean hands me a ski pole with a Whippet grip before we start kicking our way upward again. “Take one of these in case you slip,” he says.
The boot tracks disappear up a finger of snow known as Suicide Chute, which is so close to vertical that it looks like a church steeple frosted with snow. This is where I bid McLean adieu. I can survive your average black-diamond ski run, but this looks considerably more severe. I park myself at the bottom and watch, thinking back to a conversation I had with McLean about what, in his estimation, the theoretical limit of steep skiing is.
“Seventy-something degrees,” he said, without hesitation. “That’s in perfect conditions. In Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. The snow blows in loaded with moisture, so it’s sticky. Skiing an 80-degree slope might be possible, but you’ll never find anything that steep in the Rockies. The snow’s too dry to cling.”
McLean would know. He once got pretty close to skiing that kind of slope, but he wasn’t exactly descending on “snow.”
For years McLean had kept his eye on a popular ice climb in Little Cottonwood Canyon called the Great White Icicle. The 650-foot gully was so steep it required ice axes, crampons, ropes, and belays to ascend it. In 1996, McLean and ski partner Mark Holbrook hauled skis almost to the top, then strapped on the boards and began slide-slipping their way down. “It was as much falling as skiing,” McLean recalls. “I could make one or two turns, but you’re building up speed as you come down, and the ice is so hard you can’t edge. There’s not enough friction for you to stop.”
“When it’s that steep,” says the 42-year-old Holbrook, “it’s not a pretty ski turn. You’re leaning against a wall with your ice ax dug in. You slide a little, hop onto your other side edges, put your ax in, stop, breathe, and get ready for the next one.”
From the bottom of Suicide Chute, I watch McLean ski down in the dawn light, at last observing the compact, efficient technique I’ve heard so much about. He makes a sequence of quick turns, his upper body steady and sure and facing down the hill, while his legs whip back and forth underneath him, making solid contact, controlling the speed.
“Andrew’s incredibly gifted at making these controlled little hops and checks—it’s as if his skis grow right out of his feet,” says Louis Dawson, 53, a backcountry-skiing historian and the author of a guide to skiing Colorado’s fourteeners. “For him, falling is very, very rare.”
He doesn’t fall, nor do any of the others. But I’m not fooled: They’re making something terrifically hard look easy.
The Chuting Gallery categorizes descents like this based on a rating system developed in Europe: S, for skiing, followed by a number. An S0 is flat as a golf course. S5+ refers to a 55-degree slope—about the same pitch as some of the steepest roller coasters—where falling is “verboten.” McLean’s penultimate rating in The Chuting Gallery, S7+, is a 60-degree slope “with nasty obstacles. A quick and certain death if you fall.”
Suicide Chute rates an S4: “40-degree slope with dangerous fall potential.” The Great White Icicle rates an S7. The Chuting Gallery lists only one higher rating.
“S8,” it says. “The future.”
AFTER TESTING HIMSELF on the steepest lines in the Wasatch, the Tetons, the Cascades, and the Alaska Range, in 1999 McLean set out on one of his biggest projects to date.
The goal of the 1999 American Shishapangma Expedition was to reach the 26,289-foot summit, strap on skis, and become the first Americans to ski an 8,000-meter peak. The team was a mix of the old Black Diamond dawn patrollers—McLean, 40-year-old Alex Lowe, and Conrad Anker and Mark Holbrook, both in their thirties—and two up-and-comers, skier Hans Saari and climber and photographer Kristoffer Erickson, both in their twenties. On the well-funded expedition, team members posted regular dispatches via satellite phone on MountainZone.com. American Adventure Productions was also making a film of the trip, shot by Aspen-based cameraman David Bridges.
The approach to the Tibetan peak, which lies about 100 miles west of Everest, went almost too well. Led by the exuberant Lowe, the party marched up from 12,000 feet to 16,000 feet in a single push. That’s a good way to save time but a bad way to acclimatize. During the night, McLean was struck with high-altitude pulmonary edema, an altitude-induced lung ailment that can be fatal if a climber doesn’t immediately descend. Around midnight, McLean stumbled over to Lowe’s tent.
“Andrew, typically self-effacing, apologized for waking me and, obviously shaken and frightened, said he was going to hike down and wanted me to know he was leaving camp,” Lowe wrote in a MountainZone dispatch. McLean and Lowe, who insisted on helping his friend, labored downhill all night, stopping every few minutes so the wheezing McLean could catch his breath. McLean recovered, and a few days later rejoined the team to prepare for the summit climb.
It was during a routine reconnaissance for that climb that tragedy struck. On a warm, cloudless day, the team climbed above advance base camp for a closer look at the route. They split into two groups, with Lowe, Anker, and cameraman Bridges moving ahead of the rest across a flat section of glacier. The area was so far removed from any perceived avalanche threat that nobody carried beacons or poles.
Then, way up on the mountain, a little avalanche fell. It was at least 5,000 vertical feet away—a tiny, spindrifty thing. But as it came down, it triggered more slides. And bigger slides. “Holy shit,” said Lowe. “Look at that avalanche.” Nobody panicked. It still seemed unthinkable that the slide would reach them.
McLean stood on a low ridge a quarter-mile away, watching. At first he wasn’t concerned either. Then the slide grew and he thought, They better do something. Moments later, he realized, Those guys are not going to make it out of this. He watched as Anker broke for the side of the glacier and Lowe and Bridges ran downhill, perhaps trying to hide in a crevasse.
By the time the avalanche reached Lowe and Bridges, it was a massive wall of ice and snow roaring down the mountain at more than 100 miles an hour. McLean, realizing that even he was in danger, jumped down the back side of the ridge and kept low while chunks of ice and pulverized rock flew overhead. When McLean stood and looked back, he saw that the glacier’s crevasses had been erased. Filled in. One lone figure staggered across the snow. It was Anker, dazed, pieces of his scalp flapping from his ice-battered head. McLean ran to him.
“Alex is gone!” Anker kept repeating. “Alex is gone!”
At no time had McLean’s steady, soft voice seemed more appropriate. “Yeah,” McLean said. “I think he is.”
The bodies of Bridges and Lowe were never recovered.
AN EXPEDITION THAT WAS supposed to be the next big thing turned out to be the end of an era. The Shishapangma trip coincided with the high-water mark of the dot-com days, when the easy cash created by the stock-market bubble flowed generously into the adventure world. Even though most of the team members were old friends, McLean felt the expedition was hamstrung by too many sponsors, too many climbers, and too many media demands.
“The Shish trip had about 50 subplots going, and it scattered the focus,” McLean recalls.
Like many elite climbers in their forties, McLean has weathered the loss of friends to avalanches and accidents. “I’m not sure why, but having friends die in the mountains doesn’t shut me down as much as some people,” McLean told me once. But the loss of Lowe was—and still is—hard to swallow. “One of the saddest parts of losing Alex, for me, has simply been his absence,” he says. “And it’s not just about skiing. I’ll read a great book and think, Oh, man, I gotta tell Alex about this! And then I realize Alex isn’t around anymore.”
In the years following Shishapangma, McLean abandoned his ambition to ski an 8,000-meter peak and swore off high-profile expeditions. He downsized his trips to two- and three-person endeavors. He resigned from Black Diamond so he’d have more time for these smaller excursions, particularly ones that tapped the potential presented by kite-skiing. Then, in 2001, he attended a slide show put on by Mike Libecki, a Sandy, Utah–based adventurer known for his solo trips to Baffin Island, Greenland, and other northern extremes.
Baffin is an enormous and sparsely populated island that straddles the Arctic Circle in Canada’s far northeast. It’s well known in climbing circles as a big-wall nirvana. Ambitious craggers had been spidering up Baffin’s granite for decades, but none had ever looked at the walls with an eye out for skiable lines.
As the images flashed by, McLean’s pulse quickened. Baffin offered dozens of untouched chutes, though each stood miles away from the other, separated by flat, frozen fjords. McLean knew the solution: He would kite-ski between them. In an April 2002 expedition that lasted three weeks, he and fellow dawn patroller Brad Barlage traveled fast and light up and down the island, covering more than 250 miles and recording 19 first descents. “The first day, we were psyched to find a run with 2,500 vertical feet,” McLean says. “By the end of the trip we weren’t bothering with anything less than 3,000 feet. There were couloirs between 3,000 and 5,000 feet all around us. We could afford to be choosy.” (Yosemite’s El Cap, by comparison, runs about 3,600 feet, base to summit.)
The low-profile adventure, which had no professional photographer, film crew, or live Web link, opened up a whole new world in long-distance ski expeditions. Ski historian Louis Dawson, author of Wild Snow: 54 Classic Ski and Snowboard Descents of North America, ranks it as one of the most exciting advances in ski mountaineering in decades.
“Those couloirs have been there forever,” says Dawson, “and we’ve had athletes capable of skiing them for 20 or 30 years. But Andrew was the only one with the vision to see them as skiable chutes. And then to think of taking kites to whip around those fjords? Fantastic.”
No doubt, McLean’s next act waits in places like Baffin, distant locales where towering chutes split massive granite faces. This fall he’ll be in Patagonia. After that, he can’t say. Wherever there are mountains that haven’t been skied—Antarctica, the Caucasus, the Altays—he’ll be looking for a way to get there.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER visiting McLean in Utah, I call him at his home. I’m eager to hear how he’s making ends meet and to learn about any new travel plans he’s cooked up.
“So how’s unemployment working out for you?” I ask.
“Um, not so good,” he laughs. “I’m cutting expenses, but there’s only so much you can cut. There’s no way to get around putting gas in the tank.” In fact, he’s doing fine, cobbling together an income by “teaching some skiing seminars, selling some photos, and doing some freelance designing.” The day I call, he’s busy working on a new project for G3—Genuine Guide Gear, a backcountry-equipment company in Vancouver, British Columbia—and putting together a ski-mountaineering video.
As his list goes on, McLean grows more animated: “If the wind’s good,” he says, “I want to test a new kite design.”
And where might that take him?
“Hold on. Let me get my globe.” A few moments later he comes back and puts it simply. “I want to see how far I can go into the world’s remote regions,” he says. “On skis.”
If you drew a flow chart chronicling the evolution of adventure skiing, you’d notice a lot of moments like this: McLean observing the Dutch explorer in Antarctica, proceeding to Libecki’s slide show, moving to his home workshop, where he stitches together his own kites, and going off on his exploratory trip to Baffin Island.
More recently, it would include a moment from 2004, when Mountain Hardwear—a Richmond, California–based gear company—published a fall catalog whose cover featured an amazing photograph, taken by Libecki, of adventurer John Helling skiing behind one of McLean’s kites in Antarctica.
As this catalog circulated through gear shops around the country, you can be sure that weekend adventurers noticed it, and that many paused to take a closer look. Hmmm, that looks cool, some of them thought. How do I try one of those things? If they browsed the Web, they found out that an outfitter called NorthWinds was already offering guided kite-skiing trips to Baffin’s Frobisher Bay, a place that may someday find itself clogged with kites.
As for McLean, he doesn’t seem too interested in the greater commercial application of his endeavors. His role is to just be out there, soaring across some vast white plain on another continent, trailed by a partner or two, towing their sleds of garage-tweaked gear into some distant mountain range, where they’ll climb and ski a dozen unnamed runs. Then they’ll pack up and bring their story and pictures back home.
That’s how the future happens.