When Donny isn’t guiding peaks, climbing rocks and running his company Chile Powder Adventures, he can be found advocating for human powered adventure with the Winter Wildlands Alliance. We caught up with him in between trips for a closer look at what drives him in the backcountry.
1. Tell us a little about yourself, what first drove you into backcountry skiing?
When I stopped ski racing at 18-years old, I moved to Colorado. Lou Dawson had just finished skiing all the 14ers and published his first guide book. My very first backcountry experience was skiing the west aspect of Mt. Elbert in late October. We made it, but we were a disaster as well. It was a beautiful rewarding experience, but it was evident we had a lot to learn. That was over twenty-years ago now. I’m not nearly as much of a shit-show; but I’m still out there learning as much as I can.
2. At what point did you decide to become a guide? How has that shaped your life thus far?
Guiding evolved from ski instruction. I wanted the experience of sharing the mountains with people, and I also wanted the freedom of the backcountry. Guiding allows me to share my passion for the mountains. It has also taught me about responsibility and respect for an unmanaged environment. I feel truly blessed that I love going to work everyday and that there is always a new challenge on my horizon.
3. Describe one of your best days in the backcountry.
This past May, on the first day of guiding in Iceland, where I had never been before, I skied possibly the single best run of my life. To walk into those mountains for the first time and in a matter of hours figure out the conditions and then open the trip with deep, blower pow in a steep couloir was surreal. It was a Zen-like moment. I felt like many years of training came together there.
4. In your mind, what is the importance of Backcountry education and initiatives like Project Zero?
Culturally, we love to talk about freedom and the liberties we have – in this case, in the backcountry. We all want more freedom to make our own choices. With this freedom comes responsibility. This has to be acknowledged. No one likes going to class or talking about our responsibilities; but no one wants to die in an avalanche either. I think it’s critical that people understand that the education and information available to them isn’t just a set of rules about what they can’t do – it’s information they can use to get out there and get the goods safely.
5. How can athletes and recreational backcountry users help shape a better backcountry community?
We need to interact more as a community. There’s a lot of folks out there and more each year. We all have different motivations and experience levels. One thing I’d like to see is less shaming of people for doing things that might seem dumb in retrospect and more encouraging people to make good decisions through forethought and planning. Or more simply, less “What were you thinking?” and more “What are you going to do?” We can be better role models by sharing more of the experience, not just the accomplishments.
6. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in getting into backcountry skiing/riding?
1. Find a mentor. Have someone to bounce ideas off of and to join on trips into the backcountry. What’s better than learning from your mistakes? Learning from someone else’s mistakes. Find someone who will let you pick his or her brain. 2. With your peers, create a culture where you can work together to make plans for the day and then openly reflect on how the day went after it’s over. Don’t limit yourself to just skiing together as friends. Approach it as a team.
7. Any additional thoughts?
I don’t want to sound like an old man, because I don’t feel like an old man. But I’ve been doing this for over twenty-years and I can say with certainty that each year gets better. Patience pays off in the backcountry.