Aspen Extreme: From Cult Classic Fan to Bonafide Backcountry Trailblazer

February 28, 2017

Q&A with John-David Withrow

Backcountry skier – Breckenridge, Colorado


skiing on snow

Getting ready for a day in the fresh powder. 

Hey JD! Can you tell us about the kind of skiing you do?

80% of my skiing is done in the backcountry with no lift access, but also no crowds. If I want to ski with a large group of friends or family, I typically go to the resorts, because backcountry skiing requires knowledge of avalanche safety and the ability to ski in all types of snow — fresh powder, heavy, windblown crust, and much more depending on the last snowfall and weather conditions. On top of knowledge and skiing ability, most people do not want to skin up for a ski down when there are perfectly good lifts at the ski resorts.

Why and when did you start skiing?

When I was young, my aunt bought me ski lessons at a small ski hill in Pennsylvania. I was a terrible skier, but I loved every minute of it. After skiing the small hills of the mid-Atlantic, my family took a ski trip to the Colorado Rockies, which were the highest mountains I had seen.

While skiing at the Arapahoe Basin ski resort, I learned about the ski bum culture, where skiers lived out of their vans or campers in resort parking lots, working just enough to ski most days of the season. Following that trip, my brother and I repeatedly watched Aspen Extreme, a terrible ‘90s ski movie, about two friends from Michigan who drove to Aspen, Colorado, to work as ski instructors and live rent-free out of their vans. At the age of 12, I had big plans to live in the van somewhere in Colorado’s High Country, work as little as possible, and ski as much as I could.

ski slope


Living the ski bum life. 

Did you grow up around snow?

I grew up in Maryland, but I spent summers in the New Hampshire mountains. This is where I developed a passion for hiking mountains and the outdoors. It is much more fun to ski down mountains in the winter than it is to hike down, which naturally drew me toward snow.

What’s your favorite thing about skiing?

I have been very lucky to ski in so many places in the U.S. and Europe. Although every place is different, the people in the ski culture are fun adventure-seekers who always like to have a good time. It takes a unique person to strap in and slide thousands of feet down a mountain just for the fun of it.

skiing around abandoned mines

JD and BRNO skiing around abandoned mine structures. 

What’s the highest altitude you’ve ever been?

I often do hikes and ski on 13,000- to 14,000-foot peaks. The highest mountain I’ve climbed is [California’s] Mt. Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.

Do you have any crazy stories to tell about your ski runs?

Luckily, I do not. I try my best to stay safe, have fun and be sure we are home before my wife starts to worry about us.

snow and dog


BRNO always looks forward to spending his Saturdays out on the mountain. 

Why do you think it’s beneficial to have an Hook+Gaff watch with you on your adventures?

Most of my skiing is done at an altitude of 10,000–13,000 feet. At that elevation, the sun has a much bigger impact on the environment. At higher altitudes, the best skiing is during the months from March to May or even June. During these months, it often gets warm during the day when the sun is high in the sky and it stays light longer, but then quickly drops below freezing when the sun sets. This causes the snow to become hard-packed, crusty or icy, which is not ideal for making turns. Once the sun rises and hits the snow for a few hours, the snow softens up just enough for fun, soft turns. If you wait too long, the sun melts the snow to slush and could even increase avalanche danger in some areas.

The Sportfisher II Moonphase watch is comfortable and does not interfere with any movements on the climb up or ski down. The titanium case doesn’t get cold like other watches I’ve worn. The watch allows me to keep watch of the time closely and coordinate my ski with the time of sunrise. Also, the moonphase dial has introduced me to studying the correlation between snowfall patterns and the lunar cycle. I didn't realize how useful moon phase watches could be prior to this. Snowfall can be higher when occurring around a full moon than when similar conditions occur at another point during the cycle. It’s fascinating and helps me predict quality ski time!

Can you explain the feeling you get when you’re going down the slope?

It’s an adrenaline rush with every turn. For me, there is really nothing that compares.

breckenridge ski slope


The glassy skies of Breckenridge 

How do you feel once you’ve finished an exhilarating day in the backcountry?

After a long day in the backcountry, I am exhausted and my dog is finally tired. If I am skiing with a group, après is ski required for us to sit around and discuss how awesome the day was. 

What do you think is the best part about living life outdoors?

Being outdoors clears your mind, boosts your mood and simply makes the day better.

What comes to mind when you think of time well spent?

Simply being out in the wilderness skiing with good friends.

jd and brno enjoying the views


JD and BRNO enjoying the views. 

1 Response

Marsha osborn
Marsha osborn

March 01, 2017

Very inspiring. Love your buddy too!

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