If you’ve been around the world of alpine skiing or seen a few ski movies during the last thirty years, you’ve probably heard the name Glen Plake at some point in your travels. He and compatriots Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup all made names for themselves in the late 1980s skiing things never before seen on film. Those were the pioneering days of what was then termed “extreme skiing” as caught by the lens of filmmaker Greg Stump.
The brash trio eventually went separate ways in life, but Plake continued on in the public eye growing his stardom on the slopes, rising to the level of ski industry icon. In spite of his bold and boisterous persona, he’s always had a private love of skiing that transcends his outward bravado.
Most recently, Plake has been involved in what might seem a very unlikely project. He’s been teaching Nepali Sherpas how to ski. How did this one-time star of ski flicks end up teaching skiing to Himalayan locals? It’s been the culmination of a lifetime spent in the mountains and a couple interesting twists of fate.
Plake was born and raised in California and grew up skiing at Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra. His natural sense of adventure and wanting to see what was beyond the boundaries of the ski area soon led him to explore “natural features” and areas past the lift accessible terrain, or “very off the run,” as puts it. He and a few buddies would stretch their excursions farther and farther past the ropes until eventually, they got into hiking. The mountains opened up new and unexplored terrain to them and it was endless. If they could get outside the resort, why shouldn’t they hike to the next ridge, or even to the peak beyond that?
Those formative years skiing and getting into the backcountry in the east Sierra would lead to more that just youthful escapades, though. Those out-of-bounds forays not only created a world where Plake could enjoy skiing the mountains with friends, but they also laid the groundwork and helped him develop needed skills for what was yet to come.
Plake had the opportunity to travel somewhere perhaps more storied than his hometown. “All of a sudden I find myself in Chamonix and exposed to the European model, which was a completely different situation.” It was a great place to get exposure to new techniques and huge alpine environments giving him new sets of mountain skills. Upon coming back to California, the bar was raised. He and his skiing partners started taking on new routes through the mountains that others had never ventured to before.
All this was happening amidst him growing as a celebrity, but it was never something he promoted. “It’s always been my time,” he said. “I never talked about…because who else would care.” It wasn’t something that he tied to his role as a ski spokesman; it was just something that he liked doing with a small group of friends. Climbing and touring was simply something that interested him and he never imagined there was anything commercial about it.
As his techniques evolved and his mountaineering knowledge grew, he started looking for bigger, newer challenges and kept pursuing the joy of discovery. He ended up running with a “relatively fast crowd in Chamonix,” as he put it. One of these people was a working guide named Remy Lecluse. The two were well paired and became good friends, spending a lot of time in the mountains together.
They planned a trip to the Himalaya, Plakes’s first visit, but instead of going to a popular climbing destination, they chose a remote valley in India. Going off nothing more than a black and white photograph taken by a survey crew in 1971, they set off to explore the surrounding mountains. They ended up spending a month and a half climbing above 6,000 meters, skiing and enjoying the majestic landscape.
Eventually, Plake would team up with skier Greg Costa as well, and the three of them became great climbing partners. That, unfortunately, came to a fateful end one night on their expedition to the 8,156-meter peak of Manaslu in Nepal. A serac broke high above their camp before daybreak sending an avalanche ripping through their tents. Both Greg and Remy were swept away and lost in the snow and in that moment, Plake had lost his Himalayan climbing buddies.
Plake had the notion that he wanted to do something to honor his lost friends. Those romantic thoughts dimmed over time until another friend came to him with an idea that rekindled the spirit. This friend came to him with news of a project to teach working mountain guides in the Nepalese system how to ski. Plake replied, “I’m in! I don’t care where, I don’t care what. I’m in. You need a ski instructor, I’m your ski instructor.” Given that Greg had been a ski instructor and Remy a mountain guide, this seemed like the perfect chance not only to carry on his friends’ legacy but also to contribute to the local climbing trade which they all cherished and respected.
Plake is, of course, an excellent skier but that’s not necessarily a qualification for teaching others. He’s also a Level 3 ski instructor going for his examiner license this spring, so taking on a class of aspirants was well within his abilities. That first session he had a group of six accomplished Nepali guides, only one of whom had ever seen skis before. They had signed up for the course but they were nonetheless skeptical as to how this whole thing was going to work out.
The doubts were not simply reserved for the skiing itself, they also questioned the usefulness of strapping this strange gear to their feet. As Plake soon taught them though, once they had a basic grasp of how to move around on skis, they could drastically cut down the time required to move from point A to point B. To this end Plake said, “I’m not trying to build skiing mountain guides, what I’m trying to do is have mountain guides who can ski.” The main uses would be utilitarian and transportation. The efficiency gains possible in trail packing, setting lines, hauling gear and affecting a rescue could be enormous, and all the fledgling skiers soon came to agree.
Plake’s hope is that one day this program can become self-sustaining. He asked one of his groups on a scheduled summit day whether they would rather learn to ski. They all answered, “We all want to learn how to ski. We’ve been to the summit.” That was gratifying for him, because “If they only ski because I’m there, this is not working. I want them to do it.” The first year none of them opted to keep their ski equipment after the session but the response was a little different the second year when Plake again asked, “You want to keep your equipment?” This time around, they all kept their skis.
Looks like it’s working.