Andrew McLean has made a career out of searching out steep skiing lines around the world. But instead of relying on guides and helicopters, he’d rather do the groundwork himself and hike for his turns. He has first descents on all seven continents, and returns to Antarctica this fall for the forth time. We had a chance to speak with him from his home in Park City, Utah to share a little about his affinity for ski mountaineering.
You’re kind of this world famous couloir chaser. It seems like it’s your favorite means by which to descend a mountain. Why?
I just like the aesthetics of couloirs. I grew up skiing at a really steep, rocky, and craggy area outside of Seattle called Alpental, and developed an early love of skiing couloirs.
When I moved out to the Wasatch there was all this great fluffy powder skiing but it didn’t have the same punch that the steeper lines did. It seems like steeper lines in the world tend to be couloirs, and I really enjoy the sensation of being inside these narrow, dark, steep and long chutes.
Has the technical extreme been eclipsed by the exploratory extreme? What are virtues of both, and which do you prefer? How are they different?
For a long time I was into going steeper and steeper. But it actually gets pretty hard, and you can waste a lot of time trying to squeeze out another two or three degrees of steepness, because, to ski a really steep line it has to be just right. It can’t be too icy, and it can’t be avalanche prone.
Just looking for steep lines all the time, it’s tough, and you end up not skiing a lot of them. You go out and easily waste a day trying to hunt down a line that doesn’t ever materialize. But in the process I’ve gotten into exploring more, going to new places, and experiencing the culture, discovering cool places where there is skiing to be had.
For me, having that experience in chute skiing, though, if I go to a place like Morocco I would be into the exploratory part of it, and also looking for steep chutes to ski. It’s kind of a blend. I like exploring, and if I can explore and find steep chutes, so much the better.
What about going to a distant place and coming back with more than just skiing?
The trip that sums that up would be an expedition I took to Iran. I thought it’d be cool to check out a place like that, but I
had very low expectations. Mainly, I thought of it as desert, sand, and hot. I was expecting a lot of conflict, angry people and politics. And when we got there, it turned out the peaks were phenomenal. Almost put the Tetons to shame. The whole range was above 15,000 feet. We had phenomenal skiing, great access, great mountain culture, and a lot of it had never been skied before. Equally or more surprising was how welcoming and friendly the Iranian people were. The whole experience was based on skiing, but it went way beyond the actual turns. Discovering new terrain, new culture, and seeing a new part of the world, you’re kind of being enlightened. Everything isn’t how it’s being presented to you.
You’ve been to Antarctica before. What’s your involvement in the Antarctica trip this coming November?
This is the second time Doug Stoup’s IceAxe expeditions has put together an entire cruise ship of 150 skiers going down to the tip of South America in Argentina, to a little town called Ushuaia. We leave across the Drake Passage, which takes 2-3 days, and is an adventure in itself. Then, once we get down to the Antarctic Peninsula, we use the ship as a floating basecamp; we move at night, and during the day we’ll get off on Zodiacs, and ski all day and come back on board, later moving on to a new place. I’ll be joining both as a skier and guide.
What boot will you be bringing? What do you like about it?
I’m going to bring a pair of the Rushs. I’m very familiar with the Maestrales. I skied them all of last year, and they’re my all-time favorite touring boot, and if I was to change anything about them it would be to go to a three buckle version from a four buckle, as I seldom ever tighten the toe buckle. And that’s the main difference between the two. Rush is a little lighter, bit simpler, and I think it’ll be great for the type of touring we do down there.
In a perfect world, what are the virtues of a perfect boot?
One that allows you to ski anything you want. You can go for a 20-mile tour and ski a 60-degree couloir with the same boot. You don’t get blisters. It is a totally solid, dependable, quality boot that doesn’t leave you out in the middle of nowhere with broken parts, buckles—anything like that.
I think that’s a huge part of SCARPA for me. They’re implicitly trusted. They’ve never let me down. I’ve never had a problem with a boot, not even the smallest thing. And they fit my feet really well. I get the liners molded and never look back.