Photography: Jason Thompson
Forrest Coots is not your average mountaineer. He's tall, lanky and wears a trucker cap, not quite fitting into his hometown of Mt. Shasta, California, but not completely out of place either. He's neither a hippie, new age mystic, nor trust-funded dirtbag. He is a high level athlete with a broken heart.
In his twenties, at college, Forrest was on the path to being average. Finishing up his Political Science degree, he believed the future was grad school, a steady income, house and family. Then his younger brother took his own life.
Events of this nature are unfathomable. It is something from which there is no recovery, merely acceptance. The Coots' family history shifted into Before and After. For Forrest, the only glimmer of peace he could find was through skiing. He reconnected with the sport and took to the freeride circuit with his sister, entering competitions and using that focus to ease the hole in his being. After a couple of years his sister quit, not interested in the pace of the circuit, and soon after Forrest discovered ski touring and mountaineering. In the stillness and raw power of huge undertakings, he found solace.
The image of ski mountaineers is that they are risk takers. Not always so. When he gave up the freeride circuit, Forrest also consciously gave up chasing movie sequences and cover shots. Not only is that not "real skiing," it is not what brands (sponsors) are looking for; they want athletes who make smart decisions and foster the next generation of skiers. At home he has his wife, Veronica, and their six year old daughter, Ryan. They are his world and the basis for all of his decision making. "If you think you have mastered mountaineering, you will get bit."
What comes up often with Forrest is the concept of apprenticeship. "There aren't many, or even any, young mountaineers out there. You have to learn and gain experience and respect for the mountains." Four key expeditions mark his learning curve: Alaska, La Grave, Peru and Georgia (Russia). Alaska was his first true big mountain experience. Very humble and refreshingly honest, he sums that one up with: "My mind was greater than my skill set." They spent a lot of time in the tent, waiting for opportunities. Not much was accomplished.
For Peru, he had visions of a 10 summit itinerary. "My daydreams never include the heavy pack or the stomach bug." Camped at 4300m for days, in big scary looking mountains, Forrest couldn't sleep; his mind racing while they waited for that ever brief window where conditions come together to make it possible to safely ski. "Ski mountaineering is fickle. The conditions can turn from perfect snow to alpine climbing. Suddenly it's all ice and runnels and skiing is impossible." The final result of that trip: 3 peaks in 10 weeks.
In La Grave he found a soulful place where untamed, intense skiing is just a few steps away from the top of the lift. Not mountaineering per se, but an excellent place to hone technical skills and mental focus. Of this he says, "You can't jump any steps." An apprenticeship requires years of gathering experience, letting go of dreams, and staying in the reality of this precise moment, this exact scenario where a mistake is the difference between low probability, high consequence, and high consequence. Risks are always calculated but there are moments when it just doesn't feel right. Time away from home, money and effort expended to get to this point, friendships, hopes, the hours of dreaming of a ski line lose their significance. At those moments he likes to: "Pull the pin and spin." He has nothing to prove.
The most recent chapter in Forrest's learning took place in Georgia, 2015. Ushguli is a UNESCO world heritage site. The architecture of medieval houses with defensive towers has been preserved largely as a result of its isolation. Situated in remote mountainous terrain, Svan communities were plagued by invaders. Life there is still hard and the people have no love for recreation that requires venturing out into harsher conditions.
What happened there? The usual. True ski alpinism: very complex terrain, riddled with hanging seracs and glaciers, but so remote as to make any hope of help impossible. Tyler Jones, their guide, navigated the huge terrain that made them all nervous. "In the end what turned us back was the tiniest of granules. Tyler went to anchor us in and the surface tension of the snow changed from solid to Swiss cheese. There was nothing there."
The Svaneti project might never be skied; global warming may make it impossible. Forrest's search will continue though, for those beautiful ski lines where he finds peace and clarity through intense mental focus. Where he can "tune everything else out and just focus on that next turn or the next step." He has all summer to think about where that will be, working as a ranger on Mt. Shasta, rescuing novices and taking care of the environment.
Surface tension in Forrest – there isn't any. He is balanced, with the nucleus of his family to ground him. "I am always aware of Veronica, particularly on summit days. I think: She hasn't gotten home from work yet and I have been up, gone to sleep, and am going again, half a world away." Veronica doesn't understand the skiing necessarily, but she understands the man. Distance is not separation.
Daughter Ryan climbs in the truck and rolls her eyes at what she calls "Forrest's music," the NPR radio station that is tuned in and turned on at all times, on the road or in the house, keeping Forrest in tune with what's really going on.
"We're not curing cancer or helping orphan children. Skiing is an inherently selfish sport."
That may be so, but helping yourself be whole enough to love others is the best that anyone can do.