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Andrew McLean

With a passion for steep, technical descents, Andrew McLean has pushed the envelope of extreme technical skiing
By Peter Potterfield - November 3rd, 2004

For technical ski mountaineer Andrew Mclean, making a first descent of the Alaska Range's fearsome Mount Hunter can be seen as a logical progression in a lifetime spent seeking out "challenging" lines. Hunter, at 14,573 feet has been called "the most difficult 14,000 foot peak in North America" by Jonathan Waterman. It is high, cold, steep, crevassed, avalanche prone and has no easy way down. But Mclean, who has traveled to Baffin Island, Antarctica and the Himalaya in search of radical descents, found Hunter to be an "opportunity."

"It's all about the challenge," McLean told, "and the thrill of doing something hard. But it comes down to relishing the whole package, and to enjoy finding the solutions. The climb up can be really interesting in its own right. And then there's the moment to collect your thoughts at the top before taking on a descent no one has done before. Then, as you're working your way down, you get lost in it, totally focused on what's ahead, what's below, what's to come. That's what it's all about. When you finally get down and ski out of it, you can look back at what you've done, and it hits you why you've come: It's just really a cool thing to do."

McLean skied Hunter's West Ridge and Ramen Couloir in the spring of 2003 with Lorne Glick, Armond DuBuque, and John Whedon. "The route was found by Lorne," said McLean. "He spent months doing painstaking research to find a viable way down Hunter. Nobody else had ever found a route before, which is why it remained unskied even in 2003."

"You need perfect conditions on a route like this," added McLean. "That wasn't the case when Lorne and John first tried it the year before. But the four of us hit it just perfectly. We had set aside three weeks to do the route and it ended up taking about 16 hours--maybe 12 hours up, four down. It was spectacular."

Earlier, in 1995, McLean had skied Denali's Messner Couloir with Mark Holbrook. His steady accumulation of skiing routes of such rarefied caliber is part of the reason Powder Magazine votes the friendly, unassuming Mclean among the world's top ski mountaineers, and why Outside calls him one of the top 25 outdoor athletes on the planet.

With a passion for steep, technical descents, Andrew McLean has pushed the envelope not just of extreme skiing, but other outdoor disciplines too. He goes uphill as well as down, having made a first ascent of Antarctica's Vinson Massif via the Dater Glacier with Conrad Anker, Jon Krakauer and Dave Hahn. He climbed El Cap with Alex Lowe several times, including via Sunkist, and done four other El Cap routes such as On the Waterfront, the Shield, and Zodiac. And he's always up for trying something new: McLean crossed the Drake Passage, considered the stormiest seas in the world, in a 52-foot sailboat. In 2002 he used specialized kites to travel so quickly around Baffin Island he and partner Brad Barlage completed 19 first descents in just over two weeks of skiing.

For the Baffin Island trip, McLean and his partner utilized new wind technology in the form of NASA kites. He had first become aware of the unique windfoils while waiting for an airplane ride out of Antarctica. At the Patriot Hills camp, a pair of Danish explorers demonstrated how the kites made it possible to turn the 70 day ordeal to reach the South Pole into a 16 day excursion on the return, when the pair had the wind at their backs.

"The kites were just phenomenal," said McLean. "It was like being pulled behind a motor boat, and I knew right away that they had huge applications for the things I like to do, such as ice-cap traverses. The right kites could make it possible to cover three or four times as much real estate as you could just skiing under your own steam."

With his characteristically open-minded approach to equipment, McLean built progressively bigger and more complex kites until he had the size and shape that worked perfectly. With the new kites, sleds of his own design, and a shotgun for protection from polar bears, McLean and Barlage climbed and skied 19 virgin couloirs, what McLean calls the best skiing he'd ever done. But even that paled in comparison to the pair's advancement of the fledgling sport of 'kite skiing," as the 24-hour daylight, smooth sea ice, towering rock walls along the vast fjords, and strong, steady winds made for a perfect laboratory.

"As good as the skiing was on that trip," said McLean, "we'll both always remember Baffin Island for the kites, and the way we could bomb around."

In fact, it's McLean's innovative use of gear that often gives him the edge. "I've been designing gear for most of my adult life," McLean said, "so I think I'm more comfortable trying new things in the way of equipment. And I've got no problem at all taking a perfectly fine piece of equipment right out of the box and torquing it around to meet my own specialized needs."

McLean spent the past dozen years designing equipment for Black Diamond. Among his favorite innovations during his long tenure there are the Whippet, a unique ski-pole/ice-ax/self-arrest tool that, not surprisingly, comes in very handy when tackling just the sort of difficult technical descents to which McLean is naturally drawn. Then there's the wire-gate carabiners that he introduced, launching an era of refreshingly different approaches to conventional climbing equipment that together made for a significantly lighter rack.

"For me the wire-gates were even more fun than the Camalots," McLean said, "because it was a totally new mechanism that had never been used before."

His career as a gear designer began just out of college at the Rhode Island School of Design, where McLean had come up with a unique three-pointed climbing hook with a tripod base he called the Talon. When Black Diamond approached him to buy the design, a conversation ensued that lead to McLean's becoming a full time employee at the venerable Salt Lake City company. Soon, he produced a line of innovative gear such as Peckers, Bionic Crampons, and ice tools such as the Rage and Shrike ice axes.

But as challenging and engaging as it was, designing outdoor gear just wasn't as much fun as using it. So McLean left his position at Black Diamond last year to spend more time doing what he really loves: traveling, skiing, climbing, and looking for new adventures. While he still consults for the outdoor industry, and still designs gear, these days he's more likely to be found in Africa, Little Cottonwood, or Antarctica than in the office.

"It was a great gig," said McLean, "but I wanted to do more traveling, and more skiing, and I wanted to do more writing. At some point, you just have to make a commitment to doing what is most important to you."

With a sponsorship from Mountain Hardwear, McLean is able to spend more time on expeditions. And his writing career has blossomed as well, with recent writing credits that include National Geographic Adventure magazine. McLean is the author of a guide to steep ski descents in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, The Chuting Gallery. His stories on skiing expeditions appear regularly in Couloir and Powder magazines. His photographs have appeared in major periodicals, catalogs and books.

But for McLean, it's all about the challenge ahead, not what he's already done. And there's still one important remaining objective in the Alaska Range: Mount Foraker.

"After Hunter and the Messner Couloir," said McLean, "It's just sort of a natural conclusion to the 'big three' of the Alaska Range. To me, those are the three defining peaks in a range that has a great concentration of iconic mountains. For genuine challenge, and a sense of mountaineering history, it's really tough to beat a trip to the Alaska Range."

"Besides," he adds with a laugh," the social aspects are unlike anyplace else," McLean said. "Hanging in Talkeetna is about the most fun you can have. When we did Hunter, we ran into Fred Beckey at the TAT bunkhouse. Beckey had done the first ascent of Hunter 49 years before, and here we were, a half century later, trying for the first ski descent. Where are you going to get those kinds of twisted intersections except in Alaska?"

With planning for Foraker taking up most of his time, and his eye on some radical couloirs on the wild side of the Fitz Roy group after that, McLean continues to seek out technical descents that interest him. But in the meantime, he continues to ski his beloved Little Cottonwood Canyon a few days every week, or take a weekend to climb at Indian Creek, or head up to British Columbia for a sail into Princess Louisa Inlet.

"That's something I learned big time from Alex," said McLean, a smile reflecting the memory of his friend Alex Lowe. "No matter what time of year, there's just too many interesting things to do not to get busy doing them."


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