Interviews with badasses – an attempt to uncover some reality in the media-hyped world of ski heros. People who have pushed the limits of skiing with little fanfare.
Steep Skiing is totally subjective. Every line is unique. There are great lines, but there is no greatest or best. In this non-competitive atmosphere, we can sit back and admire what others are skiing. We can treat Steep Skiers the same way. Every skier has a unique history and experience. Peter Schon is certainly an outlier among outliers, and his role in the history of ski mountaineering is hard to nail down.
He’s skied in places, off mountains, and down routes that most expert ski mountaineers wouldn’t have the imagination nor the desire to even bother (myself included). Some of his 1st descents are part genius, part madness. He has a willingness to endure the suffering of self-supported missions, and thus ventures FAR off the beaten path. Skiing lines that demand multiple high camps, which lead to incredible exposure to the elements and skiing steeps with a brutally heavy pack.
On an impressive side note, Peter completed his Masters at SFU in Vancouver, is continuing his PHD in snow studies in Vienna, ski guides winters in Norway, wins awards for his black and white photography, engages in various photo projects documenting refugees in Georgia and Armenia, and regularly spends time with his girlfriend in Armenia.
So here’s an interview with one of the unique characters of our sport:
Trevor Hunt – Where are you from? Where did you learn to ski?
Peter Schon – I was born in the east part of Germany, and my family and I moved to Austria in 1991. I learned to ski in the resorts around my new hometown Leoben, in Styria, in the SE of the country. Particularly the ski resort of Präbichl and mountains around it have been my learning grounds in the beginning. I still ski there a lot, it is still home too.
TH – Did you have any formal training as a skier?
PS – Only the Austrian ski instructors Level 1. I do have the Canadian Avalanche Association Level 2, though.
TH – You spent some formative years skiing in Salzburg, a relatively quiet ski mountaineering destination compared to places like Chamonix. Can you tell us a little about some of the significant lines close to Salzburg?
PS - I lived three years in Salzburg when I pursued my Bachelor degree.
Salzburg is quite close to the 3000m summits of the Hohen Tauern, which includes Großglockner. Most memorable where:
1) Torstein (2948m) Ice Couloir (55°+); memorable because it was the first tour with both the late Andi Riesner (www.riesner.at) and Deon Louw (Canadian), who I would later make several other ski descents in the Alps, Caucasus with (the first trip to Armenia was with Deon) and with Andi also in the Tajik Pamirs.
2) Hoher Sonnblick (3105m) Nordwandrinne (50-55°, 1500m): memorable because it is 1500m of undisturbed skiing in a couloir that widens and declines in steepness as you descend. A perfect line.
I have not been to Salzburg for a long time, though. There are a few lines, however, that I want to ski someday – mostly an awesome line off Wiesbachhorn (3564m) that has 2500m vertical of good skiing, and there are several similar lines in quiet places (for Alps standards). There are also great lines on Großglockner (3798m) and in its vicinity. Overall this is a great area for challenge-seeking, strong ski mountaineers, and one that deserves more attention than I have given it.
TH – Seems like fairly early on in your ski career, you started to undertake committing self-supported epics. What inspired or motivated you to go down this route?
PS – That is hard to answer. I think it was the combination of a healthy dose of fantasy, growing up in an environment where I could jump & run & play, parents that took me out to the woods around my hometown, supported me and never limited my goals and ideas; and a fascination with foreign cultures and remote places ever since I was very young. It also has to do with finding out what I am good at and was fulfills me.
TH – Your most far-flung self-supported ski line?
PS – I must mention 3 here, because they are “far-flung” for different reasons:
1) Most remote, but in a desert: Cerro Pissis (6793m). In November 2005 Andy Debakker and I cycled through the Puna desert to the remote Cerro Pissis in Argentina. After 12 days I summited alone, and make the first accurate summit survey with a Trimble DGPS. Then I clicked into my skis, to make the 3rd ever ski descent of the glacier, one of the few in this very arid desert, before cycling out again.
2) An even more remote world of ice and snow, but with initial heli-access to base camp:
In summer 2010 Anders Ödman (www.peantphoto.com) and I travelled to the Tien Shan of Kyrgyzstan. We climbed Khan Tengri (7010m) for acclimatization, and then started the long approach up the Zvezdochka glacier with the goal of the remote East summit (6762m) of Pik Pobeda, which took us into a remote world of ice and snow in the last corner of the Kyrgyz Tien Shan. After several days approaching and climbing the mountain, I summited alone (Anders turned around exhausted not far from the summit, to spare energy for the long descent, a wise decision) and then made the first ski descent of the mountain via the NE ridge (50+ deg). A lone ski descent – steep, exposed and above a remote desert of ice and snow. I never felt that small in my life.
3) The finest:
In 2009 we traveled to the remote Bartang valley in Tajikistan, and hiked from the last village to the mountains. At 6000m we had to turn around to get an ill friend off the mountain, an exhausting task. Afterwards, Andreas Riesner and I went on to climb Lap Nazar (5990 m) in the Tajik Pamirs with minimal gear (bivy, no tent) over two days and made the first ski descent.
The route skied we is rated 50-55°, and the descent was one of my finest. The trip ended with a big celebration for us in a village as our journey ended. In the end, I preferred that style and simplicity, and shifted my focus from 7000m to 5000-6000m peaks again.
TH – Your most technically committing ski line?
PS – Shkhara (5193m) south pillar in Svaneti, Georgian Caucasus. I climbed the route with the late Boris Avdeev. Despite only being a partial descent, I skied what has snow on that line, with sections of 50-55°, with a lot of exposure and narrow sections, and I had a heavy pack and bad snow conditions. I also had not really slept much for days due to a soaked sleeping bag and was totally exhausted when I dropped in. I never before walked off a mountain hallucinating.
TH – For certain peaks on Wikipedia, your name is credited for having surveyed the true elevation. What is this about?
PS – This comes from my curiousity and interest in Geography (I studied Geography for my BA degree too), maps and technology. These surveys helped testing and establishing Differential GPS for surveying in high and remote mountain environments. The survey of Cerro Pissis also proved that this peak is the 2nd highest volcano in the world, and not the highest as claimed by Argentine authorities. My survey of Shkhara was the first accurate survey of the summit and showed that it is the 3rd highest summit in Europe.
TH – I think we’re both in agreement that Jean Noel Urban RIP was one of the kings of Expedition Steep Skiing. What are some of the impressive lines he skied in Central Asia? What lines of his impress you the most?
PS – Indeed, he was an exceptional athlete. Besides his ventures to 8000m summits, he currently is the only one to have skied all 7000m summits of the former USSR, the “Snow Leopard” mountains. This in itself is remarkable (I have been on some of them myself). His most remarkable line for me is the Denali north face (Wickersham Wall) in Alaska, still one of the longest and remarkable ski descents ever done, and likely the longest continuous anywhere.
TH – Tell us one unique thing about skiing in The Republic of Georgia, that you’ve learned over your many trips there.
PS – Unique? Hm, really there are two:
i) Patience. The mountains are tough there. The routes on many of the high mountains are long, steep, and objectively dangerous, and retreat is almost impossible when something happens. The weather is very changeable, and can be fierce. Here I learned to be patient, because I can always come back, unlike with some far-away locations. I am increasingly uncomfortable with “once in a lifetime” chances…they either make you push too far or turn-around in disappointment.
ii) Balance. I also learned here that mountaineering is not just about the mountains. When you have put everything into that one goal, what is left when you have reached it? It’s a matter of balance – the harder and higher I climb and steeper I ski, the more important becomes returning to the valley, to friends and loved ones, to celebrate and treasure the other aspects of life. In the South Caucasus I found exactly that balance.
TH – Tell us one thing about Armenian culture that you’ve learned during your time there.
PS - Armenia for me was the beginning of the Caucasus story, in 2005. In March 2005 we went to the town of Aparan in Armenia, and Deon Louw and I explored the country’s highest mountains on skis. It was a wonderful journey, and in many ways the journey never really seemed to have ended.
A part of me had stayed here, and I came back over and over again. It is the mix of culture, history, the immense hospitality and the fascinating wideness of the country-side and mountains. Now Armenia is a second home for me, with a second family. Still in some ways I will always remain a stranger there as well.
So what I learned from that? That a single journey can change your life and that hospitality can capture your heart even on the coldest, greyest Armenian winter day.
TH – What inspired you to photograph and document the lives of refugees in Georgia and Armenia?
PS – I was always interested in the people, cultures and issues in the countries I travelled to. This was the case elsewhere too, but I never built such a close connection to culture and people there as I did in the South Caucasus.
Due to my frequent visits there, I was increasingly confronted with the issue of displaced people and refugees from the conflicts in Abkhazia (1992-93), South Ossetia (1991-92 and 2008) and Nagorno-Karabakh (1988-1994), and I became very interested in those issues. With this interest and my new abilities in photography, I started a long-term photo project about refugees and displaced people in the South Caucaus. I got in touch with several NGOs and started to go with them to their work areas. I did not want to show their misery of the refugees and displaced people in the South Cacuasus – who amount to 1.4 million – but show that they are people, with a face and a story.
It was a highly rewarding experience. The refugees told me many personal stories and hosted me in typical Caucasuan hospitality, despite the difficult circumstances they live in. The refugees live in former public administrative buildings not in function after the collapse of USSR – e.g. abandoned hotels, hostels, schools or kindergartens. Many, particularly in Georgia, were resettled to better places, some still have to survive in poor social and living conditions, and that since 18-23 years. This work that put a lot of things into perspective, and I will continue to work on this project in the future.
TH – Any practical advice for mounting a self-supported ski mountaineering trip?
PS – That would deserve a few pages..but the ones that spring to my mind:
1) Work hard, plan everything well – get all the info you possibly can. Get in touch with those that were there before you.
2) Train train train. You should never operate at 100% of your physical capacity. Make sure you have something left if things go wrong. Know what food works for you, how much you need, what food your stomach can handle in the altitude.
3) Going high? Never EVER underestimate altitude and AMS.
4) Know what to do when things go wrong. Education is a good thing. I fortunately did not have to apply what I learned as wilderness first responder (in Canada) in guiding, but I was glad I could apply what I had learned on several occasions on trips/expeditions.
5) Knowing a mountain range and having patience is key. Chances are, the first time you do to the Tien Shan, remote parts of the Andes or Alaska, you will fail. Firstly, go do some smaller peaks, and return for the big stuff when you know the game. Never push it.
6) Sponsorships… My advice: try to finance as much as you can yourself. Sponsoring is give and take, and the give part can be hard. Sponsorships can create uneasy pressure. I have some equipment sponsors, but only sponsors I know I can work with. I’ve had them for year and I’m able to give something back.
TH – Any philosophical advice for mounting a self-supported ski mountaineering trip?
PS – Be patient – I believe patience is what keeps us alive in the mountains. Mountains do not run away, but your will and motivation may, as priorities tend to change. Finding the right balance is the key.
Do not confuse experience and repeating mistakes in the mountains without consequences.
Stay commited to your dreams, ideas and style. Let others inspire you, have an open horizon, but do not let short-lived trends in our sport lead to off your path. I believe steep-skiing and difficult ski mountaineering are deeply personal pursuits, and there is only so much we can take from others here.
Interview written in Tbilisi, Georgia. October 2013.
Peter’s Website: www.ps-photo.net