You may not have heard of ski mountaineer David Rosenbarger because he's often found in places where a camera cannot easily follow -- deep in the mountains, navigating technical approaches across glaciers and up couloirs. He's a behind-the-scenes guy, the one who guided Seth Morrison down the Col du Plan off the north face of the Aguille du Midi in Chamonix, France, during the filming of "The Ordinary Skier." While Rosenbarger's ski descents include the famed Mallory route in Chamonix and exotic summits in Bolivia's Cordillera Real, he has never pursued competition or fame. Nicknamed "American Dave," Rosenbarger is originally from Oregon, but he's spent the last 10 winters exploring Chamonix. We caught up with him recently over coffee in Tahoe City to hear why he thinks freeskiers are crazy, what the conditions in Chamonix are like now, and what true freedom in the mountains feels like.
Sounds like it's Chamonix's turn for a good winter this year. What are the conditions like over there?
For the most part, it's been an outstanding winter. The skiing's been good all winter long. It's been really cold. It's huge relief there -- the top of the lift is over 9,000 feet higher than the valley floor. Commonly you can ski down to the valley floor in January, and some winters you can't at all. This winter you can ski every day to the valley floor.
What are some notable lines you've skied in Chamonix?
The first time I skied off the North Face [off the Aguille du Midi in 2007] was a big deal to me. The Mallory is the very famous -- it was the first North Face line. But there's another line called the Eugster, which starts the same way and goes off a west-facing couloir. That year, the Eugster had been skied a couple times, but it had a bunch of rappels in it. I was waiting for better conditions. We were up at the top of the lift in a whiteout. It was in the back of my mind that today would be really good skiing. We were sitting there having coffee, chatting with friends, then finally I saw a window. I looked up at the group, and said, 'Let's go.'
How did you get into this kind of skiing?
My first few years in Chamonix, what I thought was steep was not actually steep. It took a few years of skiing around there to see the potential. The more time you spend in the mountains, you just start to get more and more confident. You start being able to read the conditions. It's just a slow progression. It took a lot of going out there, learning, and figuring it out. Until eventually I felt like I could ski anything if it's good conditions. And then it's just a waiting game.
Why don't we see you competing in big-mountain contests against other freeskiers?
I have a lot of friends that compete on the world tour. I watch those guys ski and they're in fifth gear. They're hucking. I look at that, and I think it's crazy. That's just not my type of skiing. I just see myself doing that and getting hurt, for sure. A good friend of mine [Kaj Zackrisson], he had just won the Verbier Extreme. A couple days later, we were skiing in Italy. I was looking at this face [the Benedetti Line] that I've always wanted to ski. I look, and I'm like, 'Wow, I think it's good.' And he looks at it and says, 'You're crazy.' It's just a different mentality.
The best part about Chamonix is you can do whatever you want. The best example I can give you is this: I skied a glacier run off the Aguille du Midi six or eight years ago. And came down and went up again. This time the clouds had come in. Skiing on a glacier in a whiteout is not a good idea, but I knew the cloudbank was only down to a certain level, and below that you'd be able to see. So I get off the lift, and this guy was like, 'No, no. It's very dangerous. You shouldn't ski.' I thanked him and said, 'I think it's OK.' I walked across the bridge and there's another guy who kept telling me I shouldn't ski. I said, 'Thank you. I'm just going to take a look.' He said, 'It's very dangerous. You should not ski. You will die. But it's your choice.' And he got out of the way and let me go. That's the mentality there. There's nowhere you can't go. And there's no one saying what you can and can't do.