In November 2016, Utah skier (and then-college student) Drew Petersen cooked up a plan. He’d ski the highest point in every state in the American West: Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, and Montana. The trip would test him in every way. The original plan was a 26-day road trip punctuated by huge peaks like Washington’s Rainier, long walks like the 50-mile roundtrip journey to get to Wyoming’s Gannet Peak, and plenty of technical skiing. It’s the kind of dream trip that doesn’t set any records or earn any fame, but one of those arbitrary goals that pushes a person in uncounted ways.
The trip kicked off smoothly; Peterson checked off the first seven peaks largely without incident. On Rainier, he and his partner were turned around before the summit after getting off-route on the Success Couloir route. As the afternoon lengthened and the temperature warmed, they turned back.
“I wouldn’t even term [that a] tough call. The mountains told us what to do, and that’s when we have to listen,” says Petersen, who used the trip as an opportunity to learn alpine travel techniques. “I learned a crash course in glacier travel when we were on Rainier. That was pretty neat, definitely opened my eyes to that side of skiing and mountaineering, and made me feel like I need to keep on learning. The whole trip showed that there is a lot more to learn.”
After Rainier, they headed south to Oregon’s Mount Hood, to continue the quest and the film they were making about their missing, but rockfall cut the trip short. Petersen was struck in the back and arm and he and his ski partner had to act fast.
“We knew that time was of the essence, we had to get away from the inherent danger, and we didn’t want to put anyone else at risk. We self-rescued, climbed off that face, skied the south side, and got off the mountain under our own power. Zach was super strong and I just tried to stay focused and use all the strength I had left. I was air-lifted from the base of Mount Hood to a trauma center in Portland. To be okay at the end definitely made me the luckiest human on the planet that day. I still feel that way,” says Petersen of the incident.
“After the accident, things were very unclear. We weren’t sure if we would finish the film—let alone ski the remaining peaks and finish the film in that sense. That stuff really didn’t matter at that point in time. I really just focused on getting myself back home to Salt Lake so that I could sleep in my own bed, heal, work through the pain, and figure it out from there. Ultimately, the decision to include it in the film was for the sake of telling an honest story. Having the accident in the film, out there in the open now, has actually been a relief. I have felt like I had to hide the severity of that accident from friends and family—realistically everyone—so it’s like a weight off my chest.”
After convalescing at home, Petersen eventually decided to take the quest up again with the next peak on the list: Wyoming’s Gannet Peak, in the Wind River Range. The Winds, with their huge glaciers, high plateaus, and stunning, craggy peaks provided Petersen a space—and a 50-mile round trip journey—to help work through the trauma.
“On our summit day, we woke up at 1 a.m. and started the day under the moonlight—we didn’t even have to turn on the headlamps. When we crested Bonney Pass, we were greeted by our first legitimate view of Gannett as it was hit by the first rays of rosy pink light in the morning. It was glorious, so pure, so beautiful, especially after that long of an approach. The skiing off Gannett was phenomenal too, which was a pleasant surprise. Walking that far, we had to have the mindset that we would ski whatever conditions we were given, but to score buttery corn made it that much sweeter,” says Petersen. “When we were sitting up on the summit, I just tried to soak it all in. Life came back into perspective a bit for the first time since the accident on Hood. Then the actual skiing was definitely the most I felt like myself since the accident.”
The entire mission—from Nevada to Montana—followed the arc of any big mountaineering mission: it was unpredictable, with major changes in plan, thwarted objectives, and plenty of opportunity for growth.
“The mountains are powerful, will always have the last say, and I think conservative decision making is paramount for those reasons. I’ve always had a healthy amount of fear for what we do, or at least I’d like to think so, but I do have a fear that will keep me more honest in the mountains in the future—and that’s a good thing,” says Petersen. “Ultimately, this entire experience all made me that much more grateful to be alive, to wake up in the morning, to be healthy enough to ski, and to be able to see these amazing places and amazing mountains.”