Rise and Fall of the Redline

By David Page, Winter Wildlands Alliance Executive Director

Skier Kyle Toohey breaks through to blue in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Unceded Ute, Eastern Shoshone, Goshute, and Timpanogos lands.

Photo by Iz La Motte @izmottephoto

This letter was originally featured in our Spring 2024 Trail Break issue.

As the first wet flakes blew in, I drove down to the brewery for a standing-room only screening: the Eastern Sierra premiere of “The RedlineTraverse,” Steve Seime’s home spun documentary about Jenna Kane and Greg Cunningham’s epic 19-day ski tour last spring along the High Sierra Crest fromMount Whitney to Mammoth. The movie had been teased in this year’s BackcountryFilm Festival. The community was out in force, buying raffle tickets for the local avalanche center, buzzing with the promise of new snow.

The concept was hatched by skinny ski pioneers Tom Carter, Allan Bard and ChrisCox in the early ‘80s, inspired by the free wheeling ‘70s-style ski mountaineering of Doug Robinson and friends. On the old paper maps was a red line that ran along the crest. The gist was to stick as close to that line as the terrain and conditions would allow, to stay above 11,000 feet, and, most importantly, to “redline” the proverbial fun meter. The ghosts of Orland Bartholomew, with his hickory skis and rake-handle ski poles, and Norman Clyde, with his legendary 100-pound packs full of cameras and kettles and hardcover books in Greek, haunt the whole enterprise.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” says Cunningham in the film: “the style…fun, adventure, and jumping off into the unknown.” It wasn’t quite as unknown, of course, as it had been 110 or even 40 years ago. They’d studied the guidebooks, gleaned what beta they could from the old-timers, pored over satellite images on Google Earth. They could see the long, clear future of the weather window where their predecessors could see only the horizon. And yet, there was still much to discover: what actually went, what didn’t, and where there was powder, corn, wind-scoured granite, or manky, impassable sludge.

Perhaps most surprising, in that deepest season in contemporary memory—would there ever again be so much snow as in the winter of 2022-23?—was the solitude they experienced. Day after day they saw no other humans. Aside from the commercial air traffic and a growing amount of space trash wheeling across the night sky, the range was as wild and quiet as it was when Teddy Roosevelt added it to the National Forest Reserve system in 1908. As it was across the long millennia of ancient sheep hunters and obsidian traders. As it has been for tens of millions of years.

But here we were, packed into a brewery on a Wednesday night with a hundred other people—a hundred bearded, dredded, sunburnt, tech-clad dirtbags of all shades, genders and persuasions—beautiful, beaming people, every one of whom has the gear, the basic skills, and all the maps and routes and beta in a single phone app in their pockets. Plus the unquenchable appetite to get out into it and take pictures. And for every room like this, there are a hundred more in mountain towns across North America. According to the folks selling the gear, maybe 5 million backcountry skiers and split boarders all counted up.

I have to admit, and I’m sorry for it, that my first thought was: there goes the Redline Traverse. And then I thought: well, who knows, maybe these are the people, my people, who will one day finally come together to save these places for all time.

Let it snow,

David Page, Executive Director Winter Wildlands Alliance