Dean Cummings has been at the big mountain skiing game for well over two decades. The New Mexico native got a strong start in the mountains at an early age and never looked back. His passion and dedication has landed him atop the World Extreme Skiing Championships stage, captain of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, and then later as one of the most revered ski guides in Alaska’s hallowed heli-skiing stomping grounds of the Chugach Mountains. He’s a busy man, but we got him to share a little about his evolution as a skier, guide and big mountain pioneer.
SCARPA: How does a kid from New Mexico become an established personality and pioneer synonymous with Alaskan big mountain skiing?
DEAN CUMMINGS: I always knew I was going to make the mountains my life. Growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico was an amazing opportunity. 12,000-foot mountains surrounded me, and the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were close by. At 14, I started assisting guides at Santa Fe Mountain Center and realized that I could make a living as a mountain professional.
S: How did you decide to become a professional guide?
DC: It just seemed natural to combine skiing and helicopters. I realized that when I was in Valdez, Alaska for the World Extreme Skiing Championships in 1991. Flying over the Chugach Range and seeing the mass of snow, glaciers, and unnamed peaks made me realize that I wanted to implement my experience and start a guide service. After five years of research and development in the Chugach, I founded H2O Guides.
S: How did you come to work with SCARPA, and what products are you keen on?
DC: SCARPA has always been at the leading edge of backcountry and big mountain, and when they created a boot that combined high-level alpine skiing with backcountry features, it was a no-brainer that it would be a tool for the H2O Guides Team and me. Every skier should be using the Freedom SL. I’m convinced that this backcountry/alpine boot will replace traditional ski boots. My company H2O Outdoor Gear and SCARPA are actually going to offer a cobranded boot next season.
S: What does the future hold for you and snow science education? What changes have you seen in the two decades of professional guiding and educating?
DC: I think the winter sports lifestyle, our wilderness access, and our safety are being compromised – we’re focusing too much on snow science and safety equipment. If we can educate the public on how to pick the terrain they’ll be accessing and how to start managing their terrain by identifying terrain traps, then we should begin to see a decrease of incidents in the mountains. I’ve been working on this by educating the public through The Steep Life Protocols tour, which teaches on-the-go snow assessment.
Snow science, while important, is a cliché word for ignoring terrain management to avoid avalanches. Digging a snow pit in the starting zone, but having airbags and re-breathers is giving people way too much confidence. It’s all about avoiding avalanches through education.
S: Tell us about your new film project, “The Steep Life.”
DC: I created a short list of first descents I thought might be possible, and I’ve been on a mission to ski them. I wanted to get the attention of skiers and snowboarders and help them understand that there are protocols to achieving these endeavors. The last three “Steep Life” films haven’t been about my descents, but about letting people know that many of these descents took between 15 and 24 years to obtain and that I had to forecast the terrain based on snow conditions, weather and stability. It feels good to give back to a sport that has given so much.