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First Lady of the 14er's: Aspen's Christy Mahon, Her Majesty of the Mountains

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Aspen, CO local Christy Mahon on Capitol, at lastMahon on Capitol, at lastASPEN, CO On May 16, 2010, long-time Aspen local Christy Mahon became the first woman and the seventh person ever, to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 foot mountains, affectionately known as the Colorado 14’ers. It was a charmed last ascent, that final lap on Capitol, the mountain she’d been dreading the most. “Some tremendous skiers, like Chris Davenport, have skied Capitol and said it was one of the scariest things they’ve done,” says Mahon. “I remember thinking, am I good enough? Am I putting my partners at risk?”

She hiked the local Sunnyside trail last spring and gazed out at Capitol, with awe. “I had a little chat with the mountain. I said, ‘Hi Capitol, I’m Christy and I’m going to try and ski you this winter – if we could just get along for while, that’d be great.’”

She’d already bagged 53 peaks over the better part of six years, but despite that well-meaning heart-to-heart, Peak number 54 didn’t surrender without a fight. “It was March and we made our way up, but couldn’t get down the Secret Chute (Capitol’s technical couloir) and we had to come down. The next weekend, we went back. I’d gotten a little cold that became really nasty, at 12,000 feet and again, we headed home. I got pretty sick and was on two rounds of antibiotics. It had gotten really warm, there was a dust storm and I was almost ready to throw in the towel. I was feeling worn out. I started questioning what this whole project meant to me,” she shares.

“But then, I got better. And it started snowing again!” she recalls, with a smile, the smile of every skier greeting a long-overdue snowfall. “And I realized this was really important to me, after all the effort. I wanted the closure. I wanted to just do it and move on, to the next great thing.”

She was on her way to making history, yet, she kept her progress relatively under the radar. Throughout the project, she proceeded with quiet determination and a reverence and humility for the project, focusing on the effort rather than the hype.

There were other women racking up summits as well and two years ago, one of these women became very vocal about becoming The First. “Because the others were so visible, with their blogging and on-line posts, some people thought I was sneaking around,” she recalls, laughing. “Someone even referred to me as that ‘bitch from Aspen.’ ”

But for Mahon, actions spoke louder than words. “I just didn’t feel comfortable talking about a mountain like Capitol, saying, ‘Hey, Capitol, you’re going down next Saturday!’” she says, laughing. “I may have been the first woman, but you never know what bad-ass has been there before me. Some people just don’t talk about it. I didn’t have the confidence in myself that I would definitely do Capitol, and Pyramid; but I knew I was going to try. I was going to just get out the door and see what I could do.”

She was born Christy Sauer in Denver, Colorado, raised in a household without a TV and the Rocky Mountains as her great backyard. “My mom’s a big birdwatcher and hiker and we spent a lot of time outside and, at age 86, my grandpa just recently stopped tele skiing! Both he and my mom definitely gave me a respect for the outdoors. Growing up, I skied and ran, but it was never team-related, or through lessons. It was all just recreational, just to be outside.”

Her zest for big mountain quests and 100 mile trail runs developed later in life, when she moved to Aspen. “I was really introduced to all this stuff around here. I’d leave work and head out for a 13-mile trail run and I’d meet people who were going to hike a 14’er and I’d say, sure, I’ll try that! I’d look at people I respected and admired and try to do what they were doing; eventually, I’d put together my own projects and itineraries.”

One of her more influential adventure partners is her husband, Ted Mahon, a Leadville 100 veteran and one of the seven people who’ve skied all of Colorado’s 14ers. “Our first date was on Quandary Mountain, skiing it, around 10 years ago,” she recalls. “I had all the wrong gear…I borrowed a bike jersey and a pair of yoga pants, and I tucked them into the boots. They were far too tight to be dropping my knee,” she admits, laughing. “It’s like I was Ted’s little sister, in his hand-me downs.”

She became his partner as he finished hiking the 14’ers and then, told him he had to be hers. “I hiked them all and then, I wanted to ski them all, too. Ted’s nearly done them all twice at this point. It was so awesome having him along; having a consistent partner really enabled me to complete the project. Because you can’t do it alone,” she declares.

Both Mahons have full-time jobs: Christy works at the Aspen Art Museum and Ted teaches skiing and waits tables. So, to ski the summits meant becoming the ultimate weekend warriors. A typical summit went a little like this: leave after work, drive for around four hours, get some sleep, wake up at 3 a.m., put in a 12 hour day and then drive home in time for the Monday morning bell. It was exhausting, but more importantly, it was exhilarating. “Most of all, it was just really fun to get away,” says Mahon. “You’re spending 12 hours in the backcountry with your closest friends – no phone, no distractions, no TV – just old-fashioned fun and being together. To have moments like these is like nothing else,” she shares.

It was these moments of camaraderie, of purity, of joy at simply being outside which kept her going through the harder, colder, more crucial moments, around 14,000 feet, where good decisions must be made. “One of the hardest days was summiting Mt. Wilson and El Diente, in one day –it was Cinco de Mayo and it had just snowed and the route was super technical, booting up the slope. It was freezing, the wind started coming in and I had to go over the Rock of Ages, at 13,000 feet. The wind knocked me down and I hit my head, lost my sunglasses and I was like, ‘OK, time to lock the heel down.’" She’d skied 35 of the summits on her tele gear and hadn’t alpined since high school, but she switched to AT gear, in a thoughtful decision, to make it as safe as possible, for both her and her partners. “I already felt like I wasn’t the strongest link and really, it’s not like it was blower powder up there. Most of the time, the snow sucks at that elevation – it’s really about survival skiing. If I fell, I could really get hurt, so I felt it would be better to get off my teles and finish the project, heel down.”

Fresh Tracks on El DienteFresh Tracks on El Diente

Still, there were times of turning back, so as to return and ski another day. The mountaineers used CAIC Avalanche reports and gathered field reports from other skiers, like close friend and frequent partner Dirk Bockelmann, of Aspen Expeditions, who’d been skiing similar aspects in recent conditions. “We’d always have the attitude that we’d just go on out and see what’s happening out there. You never know how it’s gonna’ be if you’re on the couch, you know? But we were always open to turning around. If we head out there and one of us doesn’t feel right, there’s no question about it, we turn around.”

She recalls skinning up at 11,000 feet, on a north aspect: “I stepped in a little slough and like 4 inches came off…it was really windy, and it just didn’t feel right. Really, I turned back this season more than any other year.”

This last year, she dedicated more of the actual winter season to her tick list, in addition to the usual spring backcountry ascents which are so typical for Colorado snowpack. More winter ascents would mean more summits skied, and the possibility of finally finishing this past spring. “Ted and I had other projects. We wanted to head to Greenland to ski and really, I was kind of tired of missing out on friends and family and daily life. For so long, it was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to be at your birthday, but I’m getting up at three in the morning…sorry!’ I was ready to move onto the next goal.”

Mahon fondly recalls a January summit of Mt. Sneffles, just outside Telluride: “We got up there and the sun was going down, just as we skied off the top – the light was amazing. The white fluffy powder went down to the rock and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is steep.’ We really had to test our skills.”

Then, there was Pyramid. Another humble and rather introverted mountaineer, Chris Landry, was the first to ski it and he never really talked about it much; in 2006, Ted Mahon, Neil Beidleman and Chris Davenport were the first to repeat it. “It’s one of the most classic ski lines and it was my second to last summit,” says Mahon. “I’d been a little uneasy about it; I’ve stood at the top so many times after hiking it, and I remember turning to Ted and saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve skied this?’ But, it turned out to be one of my favorite moments. It’s local, I was with this great group of friends and the day, the excitement, the realization that I just did something I wasn’t sure I could do…it was so exciting.”

Finally, on May 16th, her very last peak bowed its mighty head. “My birthday’s on July 16th and my family knows that I love the 16th of every month. I finally skied Capitol on May 16th and completed the whole project. Then, it was like, ‘Thanks, Capitol, for cooperating for a couple of days,’” she says, laughing.

Her friends and the local community at large have been both supportive every step of the way. “It’s been really cool, living in a community where so many people are really excited for you. People here share this passion and interest and everyone’s been really, genuinely happy for me.”

And on May 17, she packed away her skis and she and Ted headed to Mexico for some surfing. “I went from being an accomplished mountaineer to a wet, spit out, humbled swimmer,” she recalls, with a smile. “And to think, I kind of thought I was something special yesterday!”

Now that Capitol has been skied and she’s bid all 54 mountains adieu, Mahon’s enjoying a renewed equilibrium, balancing work and social life with future athletic pursuits. “I love wine and culture with my friends and going out for a night-time cross-country or a weekend backpacking trip. I don’t want to get too obsessive or take myself too seriously. I’ve actually learned to take a lot of rest days – just recently, I took five in one week!”

She’s well-rested, well-balanced and ready to recharge; so what’s coming up next? “I’m putting together a list of things to do…I’m excited to have more time to ski other peaks and tons of time in the backcountry. Having goals is really important to me because it pushes me. I’ll come up with another one, but I’m not sure what it is yet. Maybe to get a sunglass sponsor,” she declares, with a nod: “I always seem to be losing mine!”

Author’s note: On May 16, Jarrett Luttrell became the first snowboarder to finish all 54 of Colorado’s 14’ers, as well. Mahon was happy to share the spotlight.

Now, for the fun part...Now, for the fun part...

Photos Courtesy of Christy Mahon.