SKI. CLIMB. WRITE.
A living legend among climbers, Dick Dorworth set a speed skiing record, fathered five sons by five women, and drowned his demons in alcohol. Then he found Zen.By Emily Stifler Wolfe
Dick Dorworth is working on a typewriter, cross-legged on a thin mattress inside a handmade redwood slide-in truck camper. The year is 1974. Sheets of paper are stacked beside him, and woven tapestries hang from the open back doors. A pair of leather hiking boots is tucked in the truck bed beside camping gear. Dorworth’s dark hair and beard fall past his shoulders; his glasses are tight against his face. In the background, ponderosa pine boughs hide Yosemite Valley’s sheer granite walls.
National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell took this image of Dorworth, singularly focused on the work in front of him: Night Driving. This seminal coming-of-age tale is a window into the 1960s and ’70s counterculture fringe of climbers, skiers, and vagabonds and the drugs, drinking, and sex they imbibed. Mountain Gazette published all 100 pages of it in 1975, alongside a short essay by Edward Abbey, the two pieces taking up an entire issue.
“It became an instant cult classic, a talisman and a benchmark for those who fancied themselves hardcore,” wrote fellow climber, writer, and Buddhist Jack Turner, in an introduction to a later edition.
Night Driving was based on the real thing. Dorworth, who turned 80 in October, broke the world speed skiing record in 1963, going 106 miles an hour on metal skis and leather lace-up boots on an icy Chilean mountainside. He went on a 6,000-mile road trip from California to Argentina to climb Cerro Fitz Roy in 1968; his team—among them Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, founders of Patagonia and The North Face, respectively—made the third ascent of the 11,020-foot rock spire. And between 1957 and 1971, Dorworth fathered five sons by five different women. He didn’t meet or know about two of those sons until he was nearly 60. I first met Dorworth in 2006 at Practice Rock, a climbing area south of Bozeman, Montana, where I live and he spends summers with his partner, Jeannie Wall. Since then, we’ve become friends. They winter near Sun Valley, Idaho, where Dorworth—a member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame—still skis six days a week.
In mountain towns such as ours, Dorworth is a living legend known both as the madman he once was and the kind, loving Zen philosopher he is today. He is a child of his generation, his story one of redemption as well as contradiction. Never chasing commercial success or fame like some of his contemporaries, Dorworth followed his own path. It always led to the mountains.
There, and later in the zendo, Dorworth shifted his way of being in the world. One foot in front of another, one breath at a time, he found peace.
When he was 7, Dorworth and his parents moved to the south shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to work for his aunt and uncle, who owned Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. His mother was a cook, waitress, and change girl, and his father did bookkeeping and odd jobs. After class at the Zephyr Cove one-room schoolhouse, Dorworth would strap on his wooden skis and sidestep up the hill behind their house, lapping it until dark. He leapt off jumps, practiced slalom technique on a race course made of willows he’d cut and stripped with an axe, and toured the hills above the cove.
“I learned to cope with and then cherish solitude in action on skis, and those times were among the happiest of my childhood,” he wrote in The Only Path, a memoir self-published in 2017.
A natural athlete, he found joy in skiing—in the movement, in the discipline of practice, and in the mountains. It was also an escape from his parents’ difficult marriage.
While Dorworth’s father was deployed with the Navy during WWII, he had an affair with a woman who then died while he was overseas. He returned to a wife and 6-year-old son, living at home with resigned acceptance. Dorworth’s mother never forgave her husband. Dorworth himself didn’t find out where the resentment came from until he was almost 50.
His parents dulled their misery with alcohol, often drinking until dawn in casinos and bars around Tahoe, Reno, Carson City, and Las Vegas. Dorworth spent those nights in the back seat of the family car.
“Sometimes it was cold,” he wrote. “Always it was lonely. Sometimes it was scary. And I always hated it.”
When sober, his parents were caring and affectionate. They bought him ski gear they couldn’t afford and drove him to races around the West. Herself a fan of pop fiction and mysteries, Dorworth’s mother gave him the essays of the 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, crime novels by Mickey Spillane, and everything by Mark Twain and Jack London.
Dorworth finished Reno High School and entered the University of Nevada, Reno in 1956, a time he has described as “an insipid era of saccharine shallowness and sterile hypocrisy that the ’60s would none too soon strip naked.” He studied English and journalism, ski raced, partied, and read Faulkner, Snyder, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Hemingway. He graduated in 1963 with a BA in English.
“Skiing and the mountains gave me a place to put my anger about my family dynamics and the disruption in life caused by WWII,” Dorworth told me. “[Both] were the beginning and the path of spiritual searching, which eventually took me to Zen.”
Although he was an all-American college ski racer and a member of the first U.S. National Development Team, Dorworth never made it to the top of that game, in part because he hated the politics and favoritism of sanctioned ski racing. The niche pursuit of speed skiing, on the other hand, had none of that. It was pure. All he had to do was survive.
“He was a very bright, intuitive, creative guy,” said C.B. Vaughan, a racer who spent three months preparing the speed course in Chile with Dorworth and, incredibly, tied the record that same day. “He was always interested in everything and anything.”
After he retired from racing in 1965, Dorworth began a 30-year career as ski coach and instructor, which included a winter coaching the U.S. Men’s Ski Team and four as director of the Aspen Mountain Ski School in Colorado. In 1966, at age 28, Dorworth started graduate school. The plan was to become an English professor, but he left after a year, bored and exasperated. The country’s fault lines were spreading amid Vietnam and civil rights protests. Dorworth was still lugging around angry childhood baggage. He’d been dropping lots of acid. He needed something to believe in.
He found climbing.
by jerry roberts, posted in mountain ~ desert ~ ocean ~ news & stories ~, tall tales & stories of the san juans
The Battleship path running near Silverton, Colorado.
Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson
Some folks sit on a cushion and count their breaths as though it were a matter of life and death. Others, like 68-year-old Jerry Roberts, a retired avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, meditate wholeheartedly on the intricacies of snow.
I do not use that word “meditate” lightly. As a forecaster, Roberts’s job was to rigorously and relentlessly observe the snowpack. That involved studying everything from weather systems swirling in the Pacific to the structure of ice crystals out the back door. His special awareness was then tapped by the Colorado Department of Transportation to help determine when to shut down the mountain roads for avalanche mitigation around Telluride, Durango, Silverton and Ouray. Winter in the San Juan Mountains begins in October and ends in June, and the range often receives 350 inches or more of snow in a single season. It is a notoriously dangerous place.
Currently, Roberts is employed with Mountain Weather Masters, an outfit he co-founded providing weather forecasts for the motion picture and television industries. The group’s logo—a sword-wielding samurai backed by a white cloud—reflects his longtime interest in Japanese culture. Roberts’s house in Ridgway, Colorado, is equally filled with avalanche maps and anthologies of haiku by Issa, Buson, and Basho. I met him there on a bright winter morning, and we sat by the fireplace, drank coffee, and talked. He showed me homemade chapbooks of his own free-verse haiku, many of which braid the languages of snow science, skiing, and mountain geography with the language of Zen.
Enlightenment? Roberts surely doesn’t claim to know much about such an exalted state of being. Self-deprecating and quick to laugh, he jokingly referred to our conversation as “bullshitting.” Nevertheless, I could tell from his warmth and sincerity that talking about snow and poetry was, for him, an immensely valuable pastime. After my second cup of coffee, when I rose to leave, instead of offering a handshake, he smiled and told me, “Keep on enjoying life.”
How did you first get interested in snow and avalanches? Living inside was never an option for me. I grew up at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, here in Colorado, and as a kid I was constantly outdoors. A big part of my life has been climbing peaks and skiing off them. Enjoying nature and the pleasure of the turn. Feeling the wind on my face. Those experiences in the wild can be so vivid. You become them. For some there’s no turning back.
Spending so much time in the backcountry, sometimes going out for weeks on end, I saw my share of avalanches. Pretty soon I was thinking, hmm, I better learn a bit about this huge power I’m edging up against. The air blast created by an avalanche can reach 200 miles per hour. In some cases we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of snow on the move.
So in the early seventies I found my way to the San Juans and took an avalanche course. Within a few years I’d moved into an cabin in the Chattanooga town site and was collecting data for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, San Juan Project. It was a simplified, almost ascetic existence—skiing a bunch, learning the snow-pack. The locals down in town called me and another buddy who lived in the next shack and worked on the project, “the snow monks.” We were hooked. Who would have ever thought looking at snow could be so exciting?
What exactly does “looking at snow” entail? It all starts with the weather. Back then, forecasters weren’t using the Internet. What Internet? It was more like a finger in the air: Okay, it’s coming from the southwest. Might be a big one. Get ready.
Wind is the architect of avalanches, so you’re tracking the storm’s movements, gauging speed and direction. You’re monitoring temperatures, too. Did the storm come in warm and then cool down, bonding the new snow to the old snow-pack’s surface? Or did it come in cold and then warm up, creating a dangerous upside-down cake, a heavy, wet slab sitting atop a low-density base? You’re constantly interpreting. Is it a hard slab or a soft slab? What got loaded during the storm, north faces or northeast faces?
Small world becomes big world—that’s how I like to sum it up. A forecaster observes things at two scales, the micro and the macro. You look at a snow crystal under a hand lens and see all the beautiful shapes and angles, and then you think about how a mountainside covered with these beautiful crystals can all of a sudden fracture, come down and cover the highway, and sweep you into oblivion.
I’m reminded of a line from the Soto Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru: “You must pay attention as if you had a fire burning in your hair.” Yeah, you’re afraid to go shopping at the supermarket an hour away because you might miss a wind event. You can’t be absent from your place. You have to be totally present.
Forecasting is not just a job; it’s a lifestyle. You don’t think about Christmas or your wife’s birthday. You don’t go on vacation. A series of storms in ’05 lasted ten days. I got very little sleep. From November through May, paying attention is what you do. It’s who you are. There’s no difference between on and off.
Over the years, I learned so much by just being out there. A friend of mine says, “Experience is a series of nonfatal errors.” Every winter I added something new to the list of what I knew. You develop a daily mantra, your daily prayers: Look for this, note this, pay attention to this. If you don’t, somebody is going to get hurt. Maybe you.
As you immerse yourself in the observation of these massive forces—storms and avalanches and the like—you must become increasingly aware of your own smallness, your own fragility. There’s a quote attributed to Miles Davis, “If you aren’t nervous, you’re not paying attention.” I used to joke that it was my job to worry for six months of the year. The worry is itself a kind of meditation. You worry from the first storm to the last storm. Why hasn’t that slope avalanched? It’s got to avalanche, doesn’t it?
Our mortality is with us through all stages of life, whether we’re aware of it or not. As a snow viewer, out in the middle of the storm, you know that the possibility of the end is always present. Mortality isn’t an abstract concept—it’s right in your face. The sky is falling!
At times it was dangerous driving the road in “full conditions,” snow coming down so hard you couldn’t see past the steering wheel. Over the years, an avalanche or two took me for some rides while skiing. For much of my life I’ve had a daily, maybe an hourly appreciation of my own impermanence—a heightened sense of how delicate things really are.
Because no matter how much expertise you have, no matter how keen your focus and diligence are, the big one can still slide on you unexpectedly, right? One has to be comfortable living with uncertainties—that’s just part of the life. In the worlds of snow and weather, but also the rest of life, there are so many unknowns. Our job as forecasters is to try to reduce uncertainties while simultaneously learning to live with them. A bit of yin/yang. Some days are better than others, but every day is another invitation to try.
Without mindfulness, my job living with the uncertain nature of snow would have been impossible. Riding around in my CDOT rig, feeling the snow with hands and under ski, they all lead to the same place: Mindfulness. Mindfulness of what is.
How does haiku fit into all of this? I’ve always been drawn to the counterculture, so naturally I spent time in the Bay Area in the sixties. I was fortunate to experience some of the fine Beat poets performances at City Lights and Moe’s. That was my first brush with another life. All of a sudden I was thinking on that plane—the haiku plane.
The Zen aesthetic relies on the fewest possible words to express a situation, a feeling, a view, a brush stroke. It shaped how I looked at everything, including snow. Alongside the more scientific approach to the snow-pack, I began to understand it through little descriptive bursts: “Wind slab layers / thick as Van Gogh / brush stroke.” I’d pull off the road during a blizzard, or stop at the end of a ski descent and scribble something about the mood in my notebook. Some of my haiku are okay, some aren’t. That’s fine with me. The importance lies in the attempt, the effort at catching a moment.
The poet Jorie Graham has described poetry as a way of going through life, as opposed to accidentally slipping around it. Even if you’re serious about not going around it, you do. We all do. Searching for the right words for haiku, skiing a perfect line through the trees—these can get you going through life, at least for a little while.
The haiku is both a meditation and an expression. You disregard the nonessential and focus on the essential. There’s a discipline to it. It’s similar to writing a good avalanche or weather forecast with a minimum of words—less room for confusion. It’s also an attempt to share some space with the masters, to walk the mountain paths with traveling monks and roshis, begging bowl in hand. There’s a haiku by Basho that I love: “Come, let’s go / snow-viewing / till we’re buried.”
Buried in what? In snow? I wonder if it isn’t also something else. As you put it a minute ago, maybe by viewing snow we get buried in “what is.” One of the great things about snow is that its meanings are infinite. It melts and becomes irrigation-water for ranchers or drinking water for city dwellers. It has significance for an avalanche forecaster today and for Basho back in the 17th century. It can be a dream or a nightmare. And yet it’s all the same, just different crystals that have bonded together—needles, columns, stellar.
After six-plus decades in the Colorado Rockies, what would you say are the lessons that stand out in your mind? It might sound trite, but what I’ve learned is that the mountain always leads in the dance. It’s hard to say much more about it than that. You do what you are allowed, nothing more. You wander around above the trees, knowing all the while that you are a temporary trespasser.
I don’t want to be a downer, but people die. Avalanches take us out. It happens. Years ago, a friend said to me that in the San Juans we’ve got a “tiger of a snow-pack.” That always stuck with me because of its animistic sensibility. Rocks, snow, clouds—I see them as alive. That mountain outside the window is a living thing. And it’s bigger than you are! It’s in charge. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get bit by the tiger. You’re going to suffer. It’s a big tiger.
As you said earlier, though, for some folks there’s no turning back. It’s a risk worth taking. That’s right, you learn all you can, pay attention, and then learn some more. Nature has this draw, whether it’s the ocean, the desert, the river, or the mountain. For me, it’s the wind from the desert southwest carrying it’s dust that will become the snowflake nuclei here in the San Juans. It’s that smell: “Aaaaaah, the turn / I can smell it / in the air.” It’s the feel of powder snow blowing up into your chest as you round your turn on a perfectly angled slope. There’s stillness at the heart of that motion, the Stillpoint. Gravity is pulling you down, the same force that wants to collapse the snow-pack and send it to the valley floor. Steep powder skiing is just one controlled fall after another.
“One controlled fall after another.” That has a lot of overtones. Words come up short. D. T. Suzuki, the prominent early exponent of Zen in the West, once said, “When a feeling reaches its highest pitch, we remain silent, even 17 syllables may be too many.”Leath Tonino is the author of a forthcoming book of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, about explorations in Vermont, where he was born and raised.