The Freaks, Aspen's fastest ski gang
Last April, I spent a few days chasing a group of young, very fast skiers around the peaks of Aspen for a feature in SKI Magazine. They call themselves the Freaks, an ode to the late Hunter S. Thompson, and they are the latest iteration of Aspen's 40-year ski-gang history. Almost all of them grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley, including the three founders, Baker Boyd, Wiley Maple, and Sam Coffey. We skied powder and they welcomed me into their world in a way that made the story (this was thanks entirely to my friend Fielding Miller, a Freak himself, who vouched for me and allowed them to trust I wouldn't screw it up -- or, more importantly, slow them down too much).
I was a few hours away from filing my piece one morning in May, after staying up all night writing it, when I got a text from Boyd's mother. Coffey had died unexpectedly in Mexico of natural causes. I turned off my computer and stared into space for what felt like an hour. Coffey was just 29, one of the strongest amateur skiers in America and a beloved native son in Aspen, where he hoped to one day run for mayor.
I drove over for his memorial on, fittingly, Memorial Day. It was hard to listen to his loved ones' speeches, given the finality everyone was still grappling with, but among the many colorful stories one stood out. Maple told of how Coffey had quit his job the prior spring to travel and ski the Alps while grieving his father's death. Sam's time was more valuable than any amount of money he could earn, he told Maple, his childhood best friend. "I'll never get this time back."
The quote echoed through my head on my drive home. Nothing had ever sounded so true or rational. Weeks later, when I finally reopened my draft and updated it with Coffey's death, I included that quote at the end. I keep it in mind every day; I suspect I will forever.
Here's a link to the story as it ran in print: http://devononeil.com/Stories/Freaks%20PDF%20SKI.pdf
And here are a few shots from the reporting trip:
Maple and Boyd relaxing between runs on the Aspen gondola.
After a few runs inbounds on our first day, we headed to the backside of Aspen Mountain for fresher snow. Boyd rips through a fluffy stash en route to the road far below.
The snow was drier than usual for April.
With Coffey back from a work trip to interior British Columbia, I joined the three founding Freaks for a jaunt out to Tonar Bowl from Aspen Highlands. Tonar is one of Aspen's most picturesque, easily accessed backcountry runs, and they knew it would be holding prime snow.
A screen grab from a video I shot of Coffey, Boyd, and Maple taking their last run as a trio down Tonar. You could tell how much they loved skiing together.
Posted on 06 Feb 2020 by devon
Sven Brunso profile for SKI Magazine
About a year ago, I learned from a friend that Sven Brunso, a longtime pro skier who has appeared on more magazine covers than anyone, had lost his wife to suicide. I was aware that suicide rates in mountain towns are often two to three times the national average, but none of the stories I'd read about the crisis (as one psychologist later described it) allowed an intimate look at a family left behind. I emailed Sven, whom I'd never met, to see if he'd be open to talking about his experience since his wife, Beth, ended her life on Christmas Day 2016. I couldn't relate to his trauma, but I'd lost my aunt and best friend to suicide, so I had an idea of the devastation such an act leaves behind.
Sven replied later that day and said he'd be open to a phone call. We talked for an hour; at the end, he gave me his blessing to propose the story to an editor. I pitched it to SKI, a magazine that typically does not cover death in depth, but one with a broad enough reach that I thought it might make an impact beyond just the core skiing community. Three phone conversations with SKI's editor, Sam Berman, followed. Eventually she assigned the story.
In May, I joined photographer Liam Doran—a longtime friend of mine and Sven's who'd told me about Beth's death—on a three-day trip to visit and ski with Sven in Durango, where he and Beth settled after college. Sven and I had some long, hard talks during that trip, but throughout our time together his candor and grasp of reality amazed me. He saw huge value in being transparent about what happened and what he'd gone through since. The result was an 8-page feature in SKI's December issue, viewable on my writing page or here: http://devononeil.com/Stories/Sven_pdf_Ski.pdf (the PDF takes a minute to load). Sam published the piece at nearly twice its assigned length, which I was grateful for and which validated Sven's trust in us and candor in telling his story.
In a rare postscript to a story like this, Sven and I have become friends and even skied together on the Fourth of July. He retired from professional skiing this year, which I hope will lead to more adventures in the future.
Here are a few photos from our reporting trip:
Sven takes stock of Silverton, Colorado's Velocity Basin, home to the Gnar Couloir on 13,487-foot Storm Peak (middle right), our ski objective for the day.
The snow in the Gnar wasn't great, but it made for some interesting skiing. Liam shot this frame of me trying to survive the frozen crud before it softened up lower down.
Colorado's largest avalanche cycle on record happened two months before our trip, which meant there were plenty of sobering reminders throughout the San Juan range. This tunnel through one of the debris piles was actually minuscule relative to others.
Posted on 08 Jan 2020 by devon
"Irmageddon" to be printed in Best American Travel Writing
Each fall, Houghton Mifflin publishes an anthology of the preceding year's best travel stories, the aptly titled Best American Travel Writing. It's an honor for a writer to have his or her work included, and frankly it has always seemed out of reach to me. But a few weeks ago I received word that Irmageddon, my story about Hurricane Irma's devastation in the Virgin Islands, would be printed in the 2019 edition. The piece originally ran in Outside's April 2018 issue and can be viewed in print form here:
Thanks to BATW series editor Jason Wilson for considering it and to guest editor Alexandra Fuller for selecting it. The book comes out in October.
Posted on 18 Apr 2019 by devon
Skiing across the San Juans
Last Easter, I joined three hardy adventurers on an attempted ski traverse of the mighty San Juan range in southwestern Colorado. We'd hoped to travel 65 miles along the Continental Divide from Silverton to Wolf Creek Pass. The story of what happened along the way, as well as the lessons I learned from our two leaders -- 68-year-old Denny Hogan and 70-year-old Matt Wells, who was skiing on two artificial hips -- made for fun writing material.
Outside published this digital feature in May, recounting the trip and sharing some of the wisdom Tim Cron and I gained from Hogan and Wells. You can find it at this link: www.outsideonline.com/2304031/couple-geezers-traverse-san-juans
In addition, here are some photos that didn't make the story.
Wells - aka Uncle Fuzz or Mateo - skis past the Grenadiers subrange early in the trip.
Dry ground made this Hunchback Pass campsite attractive, but hurricane-force winds overnight reminded us of the perils of sleeping above treeline.
From left, Wells, Jerry Roberts, Hogan, and Peter Lev: friends for decades, adventurers still.
Nestling in for the evening at Highland Mary Lakes.
Hogan might be the most accomplished mountain man you've never heard of.
Here he skins across the Rio Grande near its headwaters. The rest of us took off our boots and forded the river, but Denny figured his skins were already wet, so why not just keep 'em on and follow the rocks?
On our way to Stony Pass on Day 5, with temps in the single digits and a biting wind in our faces.
Hogan and Wells on Stony Pass outside Silverton. These two have been romping around the natural world together for nearly 50 years.
Cron takes advantage of fresh snow on Green Mountain for our first powder turns of the trip.
The four of us on a chilly morning up high.
And so it ends. On our way from Silverton back to Ridgway, Cron and I watch the San Juans fade into the background once more.
Posted on 06 Jun 2018 by devon
Irmageddon in Outside
On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms on record, slammed into the island where I grew up, St. John. I was pacing back and forth in my office in Colorado while it hit, watching the fireball of infrared radar, wondering what was happening 2,800 miles away. It took a few days before we learned the gravity of Irma's impact. Winds well in excess of 200 mph had annihilated much of the Virgin Islands, both U.S. and British. Our childhood home (which was still my mother's primary residence) was one of hundreds that the storm destroyed on St. John. No one had experienced anything remotely close to Irma's power.
I didn't know what to do for a while, but eventually my brother Sean and I formed a plan to fly down with some friends and take our home's ruins down to their foundation. The trip got postponed due to a second Category 5 hurricane, Maria, which hit two weeks after Irma and dropped up to 38 inches of rain in 48 hours. But eventually we made it, and we spent the week swinging sledgehammers and taking apart our home board by board.
I returned two weeks later to report from St. John and throughout the neighboring British Virgin Islands, where we'd often sailed as kids, for a feature titled "Irmageddon" that ran in the April issue of Outside magazine. I got chills during almost every interview as locals told me how they survived, sometimes narrowly. The lone St. Johnian to die during the storm, well-known charter captain Richard Benson, had a story that bordered on mythical, I learned from his son, Daniel, and fellow sailors. The entire experience left a mark on my soul and career that I suspect will remain forever.
I took photos to record the journey and am including some below. You can find the story on my writing page or at this link:
This was the first view we got of our house (the white one): a YouTube video shot by Caribbean Buzz Helicopters and posted a few days after the storm.
Gibney Beach before Irma, with some of its famous coconut palms.
Gibney Beach after Irma. Same site as the "before" shot, as you can see from the telephone poles.
Our childhood friend Galen Stamford breaks apart our home's north wall on Day 1.
Among our crew, we had a retired elementary counselor (Rich Enns), a retired avalanche forecaster (Scott Toepfer) and a master appliance repairman (Jeff Tarczon). Here Jeff drags our old stove down the road to the metal heap. We're still hoping he uses this image for his next business card.
Geckos love to grab your ear and hang out for a while. Photo: Scott Toepfer
To make it easier on the crews that eventually drove around the island collecting everyone's piles of rubble, we stacked our wood, metal, and more wood within 10 feet of the road. We also filled two 30-cubic-yard dumpsters with trash. Here, Sean humps a deck beam down the driveway.
We grew up sleeping in the room from where this photo was taken. The 640-square-foot unit seemed a lot smaller without its walls and roof.
As hot and hard as the work days were, they always ended with a cool-down swim at dusk. We alternated beaches so the guys could see as many as possible. This was the scene at Trunk Bay, usually the most crowded spot on island but, like everywhere in the wake of Irma, completely empty that week.
On our last day, after finishing the demolition, we took an island tour and stopped by the Annaberg plantation for some donkey socializing and a group photo.
My first interview of my second trip, in late November, was with Carlos Di Blasi. Carlos' roof got pierced by more than a dozen large beams ripped from another house a quarter-mile away by a tornado. Think of how fast this one must've been moving to lodge in his plaster wall at such a tiny angle. He and his wife decided to leave it there as a reminder that they and their sons survived.
We moored our sailboat Yahoo in Coral Bay when we were 6. This is what Coral Bay looked like two months after Irma, which left more than 500 shipwrecks across the territory.
Growing up, Sean and I always wanted to work on the ferry boats that we took to school on St. Thomas. The Bomba Challenger was one of our favorites, so it was especially wild to see it -- a nearly 200,000-pound vessel -- flipped upside down on Jost Van Dyke.
I saw a lot of crazy things during my two weeks in the VI, but nothing so moving as what photographer Steve Simonsen and I found on tiny Cooper Island. We ducked into Carol Bay at the last second to see what became of this old West Indian fishing camp. A 90-year-old Cooper native named John Leonard and his 84-year-old wife, Jean, welcomed us cautiously then explained how they survived Irma in the elements after their house broke apart. They slept outside for a week after the storm, exposed to vicious downpours, until the Royal Marines built them a makeshift tent by draping a sail over a coconut tree.
This was Trunk Bay in late November, photographed from a gutted National Park Service staff house. The beach lost 30 feet of vegetation and gained as much in sand from the storm. Despite the changes caused by Irma, I've still never seen anywhere as beautiful as St. John, and I doubt I ever will.
Posted on 06 Apr 2018 by devon
"Overexposed" -- a feature on Cory Richards and PTSD
Every story comes about differently. This one, a cover profile of Cory Richards for Outside's August issue, started when I called Cory to talk about his coming attempt on Everest without supplemental oxygen in early 2016. We'd known each other loosely since 2009. I was reporting a standard Himalaya season preview for Outside's website, and Cory answered my standard-season-preview questions. Then he said, "I've dealt with some hard things in the past few years -- PTSD, my divorce, a general unraveling of self. If you want to talk more about that, we can go down that road a different time." Of course my interest was piqued, so a few months later, when Cory returned to Colorado after summiting the Big E, I drove down to meet him in Boulder, where he lived at the time. We spent the afternoon at his apartment and a neighborhood restaurant, talking about anything and everything, including the ugly parts. Our conversation became the basis of a pitch I sent to my editor at Outside, Jonah Ogles.
Jonah assigned the piece at a standard feature length, but over the next six months, as I reported my profile of Cory and spoke to secondary sources, I realized how much further the context extended. I ended up speaking to many more adventure athletes who had experienced their own traumatic events in the same field, and had dealt with similar personal fallout. Some had talked publicly about what happened; others hadn't. Yet their stories came to support Cory's tale in a remarkable way. (I've since heard from a number of readers who endured similar circumstances.)
Outside ended up running the story at nearly twice its assigned length, and hired famed portraitist Nigel Parry to photograph Cory for the cover. I was just happy to see it come alive after working on it for more than a year.
One of the fringe benefits to reporting the story was a two-day trip I took to meet Cory in Montana last February. We needed a closing scene for the piece, so I flew to his home of Bozeman and we went skiing at Big Sky the following morning. The conditions were mixed, but around 11 a.m., we lucked into first tracks down a 1,500-foot couloir with six inches of perfect powder. We had to hike an exposed ridge to reach it, which is depicted in this picture of Cory below. But the descent made the brief periods of stress worthwhile.
Montanans have a sense of humor when it comes to protecting their backcountry ski stashes.
Posted on 01 Sep 2017 by devon
Photos from recent reporting trips, life
I used to post photos from my work adventures and life at home more often. The practice has waned, but I still think it's a fun way to share background moments on this site. Here are a handful from recent trips, near and far.
Soon-to-be-World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin throws a boulder over her head during a photo shoot last fall in Vail. I was there to report a feature for The Red Bulletin, but the best quote I heard came after Shiffrin voiced concern that her butt would get dirty if she sat on a rock. "It's OK, we can wipe it," the stylist standing next to me said.
To report a piece on the Holy Cross Wilderness last summer, my wife and I pitched our tent on Lake Constantine for a few days. We woke up to this scene the first morning.
No work involved with this one, just a fun run around Buffalo Mountain in the Gore Range. Summer is fleeting here, but when it is firing it remains a sight to behold.
One morning last September I joined two friends from Breckenridge, Dave Gelhaar and Liam Doran, for a ride on the Monarch Crest Trail outside Salida. I was reporting a story for Bike that Liam was shooting, and we lucked out with incredible tundra foliage.
We all have our hometown haunts, and this couloir is one of mine. Pete LaRue climbs toward the top on a powdery May morning.
Another backyard gem, Fourth of July Bowl, on a late March powder day.
The San Juan Range in southwestern Colorado is one of America's king ranges. In mid April I joined three friends for a six-day camping and skiing trip along the Continental Divide, starting and ending in Silverton. Outside is publishing the story this fall. Here, Matt Wells of Hailey, Idaho, skins in front of the Grenadiers subrange.
Sunset at the Oasis, a general store and restaurant depot outside Great Sand Dunes National Park, in early May.
Right after we got home from the dunes, I flew to Slovenia to meet Davo Karnicar for a story on his 24-year pursuit of the first ski descent of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. We drove out this valley then hiked up to the snowy basin on the right for some skiing and photos. The story is running in the Red Bulletin this summer.
This is Davo climbing a wall above the alpine hut where his father was the caretaker for 40 years. You can see him in the lower lefthand corner.
From left to right: me, Davo, and Innsbruck-based photographer Carlos Blanchard at the Czech Hut.
One last shot from the local playground: Gentry Howden bouncing through two feet of light, fluffy snow during a mind boggling May 18 storm.
Posted on 26 May 2017 by devon
Lines in the Dirt
Early last summer I pitched an idea for a feature to Bike Magazine: find the fiercest mountain-bike access battle in America, and take a hyper-local look based on facts. My goal was to help people on both sides understand each other better, and also to expose any unethical or illegal practices. My editor, Nicole Formosa, who is also a longtime friend and former newspaper colleague, decided to expand the idea to a four-part, all-digital series that would examine not one but three localities around the country.
I spent the next two months vetting locations and decided on Northern California, Montana, and central Massachusetts, for varying reasons. Salt Lake City-based photographer/videographer Justin Olsen and I then spent a week in each state reporting last summer and fall. The result, called Lines in the Dirt, ran in late March and early April and sparked the kind of vigorous conversation I had hoped it might. Bike recently decided to publish the features in print later this year, too.
I just uploaded each story from the series onto this website; if you click the "Writing" link at the top of this page you can read them. Here are some photos I took during the reporting trips, which were draining and action-packed but also a terrific way to experience different parts of the country.
Montana's Bitterroot Valley, one of the nation's most polarizing access battlegrounds.
Bushwhacking near Lake Como outside Hamilton, Montana.
Two Bitterroot locals pedal up a final ascent in late August while smoke from a nearby wildfire deepens the sunset hue.
This overgrown sign greets you at the empty entrance to a trail in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California.
The journalism gods don't make many sources as colorful as Burton Eubank, a firefighter and EMT who has been riding the trails in Marin for 44 years.
One of many stellar trails in Truckee, California, just west of Lake Tahoe.
In November we spent a week in central Massachusetts, where the turkeys roam freer than the mountain bikers.
Posted on 26 May 2017 by devon
Not just the facts
The facts of Thalente Biyela's story are extraordinary. He grew up homeless, orphaned, physically abused, and addicted to drugs on the streets of Durban, South Africa, and has since overcome those circumstances to pursue a professional skateboarding career in Los Angeles. But the perspective and positivity he exudes in spite of those facts are what make Thalente such a rare human being -- and what I tried to convey in my profile of him, which was published on Page 1 of ESPN.com today and can be read at this link:
During my two reporting trips for this piece, one to L.A. in March and one to Durban in July, I took some pictures of the places I saw and people I met. Captions below each image.
Thalente during an afternoon skate session at Lance Mountain's house in L.A.
Bones Brigade legend Lance Mountain can still rip his backyard pool at age 50
Thalente and filmmaker Natalie Johns, at their home in Los Feliz
Thalente prepping the pool before dropping in
The beachfront skatepark that Thalente grew up ripping in Durban, South Africa
Elton-Lee Ireland, who gave Thalente a home when he was young, sitting in front of Gifford Duminy's mural of Thalente along the Durban beachfront promenade
Zulu kids at Indigo Skate Camp, in the Valley of a Thousand Hills outside Durban. The best of the bunch is a boy known as Two Chains (far right in the top photo)
Posted on 05 Dec 2014 by devon
Taos feature in Skiing magazine
Few ski areas in the world evoke the charm of the mountain lifestyle like Taos Ski Valley, tucked away in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo range. Since Taos was founded in 1954 by Ernie Blake, a Swiss-German who scouted the site while flying back and forth to Colorado, locals and outsiders have come to love the raw, earn-your-turns ethos that defined the steep-and-deep ski area. So you can imagine the trepidation that washed over the community when Louis Bacon, a Manhattan investor worth $1.6 billion, purchased the ski area from the Blake family last year. With a new chairlift going up the gut of Taos' crown jewel, 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, and plans to radically redevelop the base area, the reaction has been split. I spent a few days in Taos reporting a feature for Skiing magazine last spring, my first visit since my bachelor party in 2009. The piece -- "Selling the mystique" -- can be found on my writing page or at this link:
Here are a few photos from the reporting trip.
Two of Ernie Blake's 13 grandchildren, Keith Stagg (left) and Terah Blake (middle), led me down a powdery run on Kachina Peak (photo by Brett Hills)
Another hard day of work for Taos' avalanche dogs in the ski-patrol hut
If you like steep skiing, Taos is the place
Kachina Peak in all its mystical glory. The new lift will run right up the gut of the face (photo by Ryan Heffernan)
Posted on 03 Dec 2014 by devon
New story in Bike
Last August I flew to Salt Lake City and spent a couple of days with Peter Donner, a 52-year-old economist with the State of Utah who, I'd been told, rides the same 45-mile mountain-bike loop high in the Wasatch Range up to 70 days a summer, alone.
Everyone strives to march to his own drum beat, but I've never met anyone who personifies that ideal better than Donner. I tried to capture his unique worldview and idiosyncrasies in the profile I wrote for Bike, whose editors first heard of Donner from renowned photographer Scott Markewitz. Scott lives a few miles up Emigration Canyon from Donner and his photos accompany the piece I wrote. I'm also including here a few photos from my own ride with Peter. The story can be found on my writing page, or at this link:
Posted on 26 Nov 2014 by devon
Life lost, gained
Death is the most demanding and difficult subject for me to write about. It is also the most revealing.
Everyone deals with death differently; that's the only constant between these stories. When a source brings you inside his world of despair and healing, of contemplation and growth, you are essentially given a window into his soul at its most vulnerable time. It may not sell like a bikini, but to me there is no more interesting moment of truth.
I bring all this up because a story I reported this summer and fall was published yesterday on ESPN.com, detailing how big-mountain freeskiing savant Ian Borgeson, 20, has overcome the death of his father to earn a place among the world's elite competitors. His father Leif, the snow-safety director at Arapahoe Basin ski area, was Ian's hero and biggest fan. He suffered a fatal heart attack just a few feet from Ian while they climbed Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands in 2011. Losing Leif crushed Ian and his family. But the way Ian has responded in the nearly three years since then has shaped him, and comprises the meat of the story.
The package (a video and photo gallery are included) spent today on Page 1 of ESPN.com. Here is a link:
Posted on 19 Nov 2013 by devon
The reality of resort-accessed backcountry skiing
Accessing backcountry snow from a ski resort is nothing new. But the management of that snow -- which is uncontrolled by ski patrol and routinely avalanches if the terrain is steep enough and the conditions unstable enough -- has changed over the decades. Public land agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have moved from a stance of trying to limit access so that only experienced, knowledgeable people venture into the backcountry, to a stance of enabling access for whoever desires it, regardless of their experience and knowledge.
This feature, which ran on Page 1 of ESPN.com, examines that shift in strategy based on an unnerving episode two friends and I witnessed last spring in the Tenmile Range. Here is a link to the story:
And here are two photos of the zone in question. The first photo shows the terrain with a fresh coat of snow. The second shows the same zone three weeks after the episode I wrote about in my story. You can see debris from a massive avalanche that released overnight, without any human trigger.
Posted on 13 Nov 2013 by devon
4:32 a.m. alarm
The alarm began to buzz four hours earlier than I would have liked it to. We groveled for a few minutes, made sure we had packed everything we'd need up high, then set off to the trailhead in the dark. We were above treeline by 7 a.m. and at the pass by 7:30. It was Labor Day and I was working. Working should be in quotation marks.
There are few financial certainties in freelance writing, assignments can be a hustle, you're on your own for health insurance and a retirement plan. But mornings like this one remind me why all of those factors are worth it. The work pays and it's fun to see a project come together. Still, I woke up at 4:32 a.m. first and foremost to watch the sun rise above Buffalo Mountain.
Posted on 03 Sep 2013 by devon
Five months in photos
Just like every reporter loves a buffet, we all think our photos are better than they are. But hey, they make good memories, right? Pictures taken from the road or while on assignment trigger everything I felt and imagined all over again. In the name of that, and in lieu of a reporter's notebook, here are 12 shots from the past five months of work and life. Captions above.
The first thing I did when I got to Japan in February was take the elevator to the 38th floor of a Tokyo skyscraper.
The second thing I did was go skiing. On our hotel's laminate floor, ski boots were forbidden. Slippers were the call.
In March, I spent 10 days camped in Alaska's Chugach Range near the port of Cordova. We were only going to be there 6 days, then a storm dropped 10 feet of snow, stranding us. This was our camp during the initial deluge, when we got 40 inches in 24 hours.
Alaskan sunsets add color to an otherwise bleached landscape.
A airplane-window view of the peaks between Yakutat and Juneau.
From Alaska, I met my passport in Spokane, Washington, then hitched a ride up to British Columbia's Selkirk Range.
Travel is magic, but there's nothing like going home and visiting your backyard haunts after a few weeks away.
In April, I met Iguassu Falls in Brazil. We are now friends.
Spain was the last stop on a whirlwind tour del mundo. We saw a wild boar in the Pyrenees (below) and surfed on the Atlantic coast (bottom). If you ever doubt that every nook on earth has its own identity, go to Spain.
Posted on 11 Jun 2013 by devon
Drugs in mountaineering
In the summer of 2011, I began reporting a feature about performance-enhancing drugs in mountaineering, particularly a powerful and dangerous steroid called dexamethasone. The piece just came out in the April issue of Outside magazine.
This was a fascinating, highly complex, and, ultimately, very human issue to investigate. There are no rules in mountaineering. Say what you will about fame and glory and money; the ultimate goal is always to survive, which makes the performance-enhancing drug conversation as murky as it is emotionally charged.
I interviewed nearly 40 sources before pitching this idea to Outside, then another 20 after it was assigned. Most of the opinions I heard and read never made it into print, but I'm grateful to everyone for sharing their perspective and stories on what is a sensitive subject to discuss. That goes particularly for Jesse Easterling, one of the main characters in the story, who opened up some painful wounds to ensure others realize the dangers involved with taking dex.
Posted on 12 Mar 2013 by devon
Next summer, Breckenridge Ski Resort is likely going to build two new lifts to access Peak 6, a gorgeous alpine basin north of the current boundary. We've trudged up there to ski for years, and halfway up the climb, nestled in the trees just below timberline, sits a small cabin. It's unlikely this cabin will survive the expansion, so we've been visiting as often as we can this winter. There are some cool things on the walls. Plus, the temperature always feels warmer inside, even when no one's been in there for days.
Posted on 16 Jan 2013 by devon
Revelstoke Freeride World Tour
I just got back from a powdery week in British Columbia covering the Freeride World Tour for ESPN. There have been worse assignments. The heavens hammered for the first four days we were there, postponing the contest but not drawing any complaints from the traveling tribe of skiers and snowboarders who follow the tour. My coverage can be found below, in addition to a few photos from my smartphone. Next stop on the contest-covering circuit: the Winter X Games in Aspen.
The aptly named competition venue, Mac Daddy
A Revy patroller hiking to perform avalanche control
Men's Snowboard winner Ralph Backstrom sticking a cliff drop earlier in the week
Posted on 14 Jan 2013 by devon
Past to present
Shortly after my family moved to St. John in December 1985, my brother and I met a shaggy blonde kid who would become a friend for life. Galen still lives in the Virgin Islands but made it up to visit us in Colorado last spring. One day he joined me and another friend for a powdery descent off a 13,684-foot peak above Breckenridge. This story, from Elevation Outdoors magazine, chronicles our adventure that day. It can also be read in the January print issue.
Galen and I scouting the line from below
Galen and I surfing Apple Bay in Tortola, BVI, circa 1991
Posted on 14 Jan 2013 by devon
In print these days
The geese are flying to Belize, which means winter is near, which means ski magazines are publishing new volumes. The editors of Powder magazine kindly added my name to their masthead this year as a correspondent; last winter the folks at Skiing (writer) and Backcountry (contributing editor) did the same. This does not guarantee millions, but it's a nice distinction.
On that note, like newborns exiting the womb, a number of stories have recently seen print for the first time. You can find them on the writing page, and also here:
*The unique ideas behind language-immersion schools (5280):
*A mission to ski the Sangre de Cristo range (Skiing):
*How a group of freeskiers is bridging the gap between skiing's famously rigid governing body and the Olympics (Powder):
*Two features in ESPN's six-part investigative series on avalanches:
There are more stories on the way this winter, so please check back.
Posted on 07 Nov 2012 by devon
3 months of photos
A lot of companies release quarterly earning reports. Here is the equivalent for a freelance writer. The past three months of reporting.
Early May, Sangre de Cristo Range, CO
Mid May, Honolua Bay, Haleakala, Maui
Early June, Sedona, AZ
Late June, Coeur d'Alene, ID
Later June, ESPN.com screen grab, L.A.
July, Breckenridge, CO
Posted on 17 Jul 2012 by devon
Half a harsh winter
It's been a traumatic season for the North American ski community. A lot of passionate and beloved human beings have passed away from accidents directly tied to their lifestyle, which began and ended with skiing. It's enough to make you question the sport itself. I've been doing a bit of that, with mixed emotions. In the end I believe it's a choice we make. You can't embrace the mountain life without accepting a very real vulnerability. It is the hardest part of seeking out this peace. You must be ready to be hurt at any time, physically, emotionally, or both. And if you're not ready, brace yourself, because it comes like a freight train.
Of course, the same environment that takes, also gives. In that spirit, here are some photos from this half a harsh winter. These represent joy to me.
Whitewater, British Columbia.
The ski run above our town.
Two casts, one X Games gold medal. (Photo by Josh Duplechian)
Powder plays a big role. (Photo by Alex Fenlon)
Friends do too.
Posted on 22 Feb 2012 by devon
A few days in Whistler
The touted La Nina winter has been a dud so far across much of the Northern Hemisphere, but Whistler-Blackcomb has done OK with snow. I was recently up there to report a couple of stories for next winter and got to ski a day with Eric Pehota and his two sons, Logan, 16, and Dalton, 15. This is Eric dropping in to an admittedly bony (even with the most snow in North America this season, B.C. is still in need) couloir off the Blackcomb glacier. Logan (in green) and Dalton are waiting their turn. Eric made the first descent of this line decades ago; he still loves getting after it.
Posted on 16 Dec 2011 by devon
Driving with the stars
In late September I flew to Detroit and spent a day driving some of Ford's top cars to preview the brand's upcoming Octane Academy. I'd never rallied a Fiesta on a full gravel course, drifted a Mustang or spun 360s in a Focus, so the whole day was kind of a rush. The fact that our teachers included X Games champs Tanner Foust and Brian Deegan as well as stunt-driving superstar Ken Block and Formula D drifting champ Vaughn Gittin Jr., made the day even sweeter. Here's a photo of them and me, just above the 54-degree pitch of concrete where Ford tests its vehicles' ability to handle very, very steep hills.
Posted on 04 Oct 2011 by devon
Getting toward fall
Some trails are worth visiting every year. This is one of them: a six-inch-wide singletrack at 12,400 feet. Once your calendar says September, you don't know how much time you have until it disappears for eight months, which was part of the initiative for a friend and me last Friday. Of course, that means snow is near, too, which is just as excellent in its own way.
Posted on 06 Sep 2011 by devon
Party on Independence Pass
As cool as it is to cover a big sporting event as a journalist, sometimes it's just as interesting to be a fan. That's what I kept thinking during the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-day stage race through Colorado that attracted the entire Tour de France podium. Montana boy Levi Leipheimer won the Challenge the last week of August, cementing his standing with a solid ride into Breckenridge. But I think the enduring image for so many thousands who cheered on the side of a road was of the pulsing energy. You could feel it build all day, then peak as the racers rode by like 130-pound freight trains. It made me want to see the Tour de France in person, as a fan. Here are some images from the so-called queen stage on 12,095-foot Independence Pass, where the party was as rowdy as the race. The cyclists were 115 miles into a 130-mile day, about to begin a hairball descent through pouring rain into Aspen.
American phenomenon Tejay van Garderen attacking 1km from the summit.
Posted on 06 Sep 2011 by devon
Kip Garre, 1973-2011
Kip Garre, who over the past two years became a good friend and one of the people I admired most in my life, died on April 26 in an avalanche in the eastern Sierra Nevada range. He and his girlfriend, a talented athlete and vivacious spirit named Allison Kreutzen, who also perished, were climbing the east couloir of Split Mountain, one of the most famous ski-mountaineering lines in America.
I met Kip in the San Francisco airport on our way to Western Nepal in September 2009. During the six weeks we spent together, as well as subsequent adventures in California and Boston, I grew to respect his definition of life and pursuit of fulfillment as much as I've ever respected anyone's. His passion has consumed my thoughts since I learned of his death, and I suspect that will be the case for a while moving forward.
I wrote a cover story for Backcountry magazine about Kip this winter, as well as an ESPN retrospective on his rarest gift, after learning of his death. Both can be found below.
The photo you see above was taken in Dhuli, a tiny village in the Bajhang District of Western Nepal, after six days of trekking through a jungle to reach the foot of the Saipal mountains. He was pretty much always smiling.
Backcountry Mag: http://www.devononeil.com/Stories/KipGarre_FebBCM.pdf
Posted on 03 May 2011 by devon
Story in Outside
A story I wrote about the crisis-response company Global Rescue is in the current (April 2011) issue of Outside Magazine. The story not only profiles Global Rescue, but also takes a hard look at the multi-billion-dollar crisis-response industry.
You can find it at:
Meanwhile, this photo was taken Wednesday in an alpine zone outside Leukerbad, Switzerland. We were staying in a hut and skiing some surprisingly good north-facing powder - as was this group of Swiss-Germans. It's been a harsh winter in Europe with very little snowfall, but above a certain elevation, everything was skiing pretty well for late March.
Posted on 25 Mar 2011 by devon
Sangre de Cristos
I've been making an effort this winter to get out of town and explore the state, more so than in years past. Last weekend, that meant driving down to the northern Sangre de Cristo range with a friend and trying to get up a 13,500-foot peak. It's been a lean winter down there, and the snow line is much higher than we thought it'd be, which made for a large day. This photo was taken at the end of our hike out at 3:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours after a 4:30 a.m. start in Breckenridge. Luckily the trailhead is less than a mile from a little slice of heaven called Valley View Hot Springs, where we camped for the evening. Watch for a story on a season of Colorado trips later this spring.
Posted on 08 Mar 2011 by devon
Story in Parade Magazine
This week, Parade published a story I wrote about Dean Karnazes, who made his name running ultramarathons and writing an international bestseller about his strange adventures. Now, Karnazes has made it his life's goal to combat childhood obesity and inactivity.
I took this photo last August at the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run in Colorado. Karnazes has 3.5 percent body fat. To view the story and read other interesting facts (his $25,000 speaking fee didn't make the cut), go to:
Posted on 28 Feb 2011 by devon
Cover of Backcountry
This past August, I flew to Reno and met up with a friend and professional skier named Kip Garre. I'd met Kip in 2009 during a trip to Nepal, and we'd stayed in touch. Not only is he a man of rare talents in the mountains, but he's also one of the most authentic people I've met. We went climbing and camping in the Eastern Sierra, then spent a couple of days in the Lake Tahoe town where he lives, mountain biking and flying over the lake in his buddy Kevin Quinn's Cessna.
The result of that reporting trip can be found in the February issue of Backcountry magazine, which begins with Kip on the cover rappelling into a precipitous Chamonix couloir. Jordan Manley, one of the most talented photographers working today, took the cover photo as well as the shots that accompany the story. I hope to be able to include a full version of the piece here soon.
Posted on 24 Feb 2011 by devon
Back home again
Someday I hope to write a book about growing up on St. John. But until then, I am happy just to re-enter the island bubble every now and again.
I was back home for eight days in late November and spent quality time with a number of people who have influenced my life, among them my friend Galen, a world-class surfer (and person) whom I've known since I was 5, and my old baseball coach and mentor, Chino, who runs the youth sports program on the British island of Tortola. They are depicted here along with a few other photos from the trip.
Posted on 04 Dec 2010 by devon
The San Juans ...
Are Colorado's most bitchin' mountain range. I wish this were my backyard. It took two hours of riding and hiking up some mean dirt to get to this point, but once there you can ride for five hours above treeline uninterrupted. We didn't start until 12:30, of course, so by the time we finished our ride, we barely had time to pitch our tent before dark.
TransRockies on ESPN Outdoors
ESPN Outdoors published a four-part series this week on John and my little running and fishing adventure last month in Colorado. (This is John hurting in a big way on Day 1.) The series ran the same week as a snowboarding feature on former prodigy Todd Franzen, who underwent a stem cell transplant to fight Hodgkin's Lymphoma on Monday. Franzen's story spent a day on Page 1 of ESPN.com.
ESPN also is running a feature this month on college football's best kept secret -- a program doling out an Ivy League-quality education and graduating 90 percent of its players while averaging six bowl games a decade since 1980. It's not Stanford.
If you check out the Writing page of this site, you'll find the above-mentioned stories as well as two recent Denver Post outdoors features and a weird essay from the Mountain Gazette.
Inside an aspen grove ...
Being is awesome. These photos were taken the third week in September. Fall in Vermont is one of the prettiest scenes in the world, but fall in the Rockies runs a close second.
Gore-Tex TransRockies Run
'Round these parts, the heavyweight events are often three digits long: 100 miles or more. My latest journalism experiment involves one of the classics here in our back yard -- the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run, a 118-mile footrace across the Continental Divide from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek. Although the true badasses of the world would run that far in a single push, we're getting six days and averaging about 20 miles each stage.
I'll be doing the race with a local friend named John Cutroneo, fishing the waters we follow after each day's stage, and chronicling our experience for ESPN Outdoors, which is publishing a three-part series a week or two after it's over. These two photos are from our final training run this week, a circumnavigation of Buffalo Mountain in the Gore Range.
Posted on 21 Aug 2010 by devon
July in Breckenridge
It is said that when living at 10,000 feet, you never know which weekend summer will fall on.
This year, however, summer came early and has remained gloriously warm and mosquito free in our high-altitude nook of the Rockies, as evidenced by this photo taken off of Boreas Pass a few miles south of Breckenridge.
It hasn't all been warm and fuzzy, however. Ullr's, a longstanding bar on Main Street and our flag football sponsor of many years, closed last weekend after its landlord allegedly tried to DOUBLE its rent. Who does that?
In spite of such unfortunate news, work churns along like a train in a tunnel. Assignments for ESPN.com have expanded to include a story on baseball's farthest seats as well as a feature on an Australian motocross pioneer who nearly perished last year during a double backflip attempt; both articles ran on the front page six days apart.
A number of other stories are currently in print, including features in The Ski Journal (on our trip to pioneer skiing in western Nepal), Rock and Ice (on an 86-year-old woman who's become an unlikely Himalayan climbing judge), and Trail Runner (on a local jungle doctor who runs in homemade sandals and never turns on his heat).
Forthcoming stories include a profile of ski mountaineer Kip Garre for Backcountry, which I'll report in California's Sierra next month.
Until then, whenever someone says, "Nobody cares that you tele," remind them, "Your girlfriend cares I tele."
Posted on 27 Jul 2010 by devon
Random tidbits from the winter that was
This winter featured a wide range of assignments and adventures. It began in Nepal, continued in New Zealand, swung back to Colorado for a yurt trip and extreme skiing competition in Crested Butte, followed by a week in Valdez, Alaska, and lastly a spring hut trip with my twin bro and a few friends.
Breckenridge (ski resort) is closed for the winter now, but the ski season continues at Arapahoe Basin and with high-alpine backcountry corn and (hopefully) some last tastes of north-facing powder.
As for the writing side of things, I've been doing more work for ESPN.com and have stories forthcoming there, as well as in Rock and Ice, The Ski Journal, Trail Runner and BIKE. And although it's still a ways away, watch for a feature next winter in Skiing magazine.
Posted on 22 Apr 2010 by devon
Western Nepal photo gallery
I came home from Western Nepal last fall with more than 900 photos. It took awhile, but I finally pared that collection down to 22 for this website. The girl you see below is about 6 years old and was one of the many beautiful children to hang around while we organized our logistics in the village of Chainpur, at the foot of the Saipal Himal in early October. I had never seen a kid with more naturally mesmerizing eyes.
To view all photos in the gallery, mouse over the "Photography" header at the top of this site, then click on "Western Nepal" below it. As with the "General" gallery, you can view a high-resolution version of each photo by clicking the "Hi-Res" link below the picture.
Posted on 22 Apr 2010 by devon
Abel Tasman National Park: Very Nice
On a recent 3-day sea kayaking trip along New Zealand's smallest national park, we came across this beach at Mutton Cove. Nobody else was around. We made breakfast and hung out for a while, saw a bloated and very smelly seal taking a nap, then we kept paddling.
The kayaking/camping trip was part of a three-week stay on the North and South islands. I had heard a lot about New Zealand, all of it good. My expectations were exceeded. That place is as close to a natural utopia as I've experienced; a nation that got very lucky with its landscapes.
As for our sea kayaking voyage, aside from the beaches and the wanderers we met, it was highlighted by the fact that we (barely) did not end up capsizing in very rough waters while navigating a 3-kilometer stretch of cliffs.
Posted on 12 Jan 2010 by devon
Wanted: Trail maintenance workers in western Nepal
It took a chartered fixed-wing plane's rescuing us from the bombed-out airport in which we were holed up, but we made it back safely from far western Nepal. To call it a wild trip would be a disservice to the word wild. Not much went according to plan, which, aside from the unfortunate bed bugs experience our second night, elevated the expedition into another league of novelty.
You can hopefully tell from the photo below what I mean in the title of this little news item. Not sure if there are benefits for volunteer trail workers, but maybe you could call it an "internship" and put it on your resume: "Helped future travelers not fall off the mountain and die in The Middle of Nowhere, Nepal."
Watch for a forthcoming feature on the trip in The Ski Journal, and if you're interested in some shorter reports in the meantime, check out a six-part series on Skiing magazine's website: www.skiingmag.com/nepal. There's a photo gallery there as well.
Posted on 19 Nov 2009 by devon
October can be a tough time to be stuck in Colorado's ski country -- not enough snow to ski where you want, too much snow to use the singletrack. The Himalaya, on the other hand, is an excellent place to spend October. Monsoon season is over, the arctic winter blizzards have yet to arrive, and the peaks are for the taking.
That's what I learned as I got ready to join three ski mountaineers -- Jamie Laidlaw, Kris Erickson, and Kip Garre, all backed by The North Face -- on a 40-day expedition through far-western Nepal to the remote Saipal region, a tantalizing corner of the Himalayan range. Their targets: a number of 6,000- to 6,500-meter peaks that have never been skied and likely never been climbed.
We leave September 21 and return November 1.
If you happen to see my mom in the meantime, wish her a happy 60th birthday on October 15th!
Posted on 19 Sep 2009 by devon
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