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There are challenging climbs, and then there is the San Miguel Range in western Colorado.

The steep, dramatic subrange of the San Juan Mountains includes Wilson Peak, Mount Wilson, and El Diente, each rising more than 14,000 treacherous and craggy feet into the sky. But none of that gave Josh Jespersen pause two years ago when he attempted to climb and then splitboard down all three 14ers in a single day.

The former Navy SEAL wasn’t deterred on El Diente when he had to negotiate his way across a three foot wide band of snow that slanted at a 45-degree angle, stretching narrowly across 200 to 500-foot cliffs. Hanging on to the toe edge of his snowboard, Jespersen knew he could be one careless move away from death. With the same determination, he managed to complete Mount Wilson, the highest summit in the range, and board down it. But facing the third just as technical climb and descent, Jespersen noticed that his legs were shaking. The trying conditions of the other two powerful peaks had left his mind and body depleted, his nerves frayed. So Jespersen wisely called it a day. Wilson Peak could wait.

“I knew I didn’t have enough capacity to survive three of those really gnarly, thin-snowed situations where you have to hold it together the whole time,” he reflects.

Jespersen had his sights on a mission greater than conquering those three mountains in a single day. In May 2017, he completed the ambitious challenge of skinning up and splitboarding down all 54 peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado in a record 138 days. The previous 14er Ski Record was held by big-mountain skier Chris Davenport, who completed the same journey a decade earlier in 362 days.

Ask Jespersen the motivation behind this feat and he answers simply, “I wanted a big goal.” But it’s slightly more complicated than that. Working with wounded vets, he wanted to inspire fellow soldiers to connect with the outdoors and to motivate them to chase their own dreams. “When you set big goals, there’s got to be a reason that’s bigger than yourself while you’re doing them,” says the veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spend some time with Jespersen and it’s clear his military past informs much of his present. The mountains of Afghanistan inspired him to move to Colorado when he returned to the States in 2011. His operating base had been nestled 6,000 feet in the mountains, and getting snowed in there for a month made him nostalgic for his Pennsylvania childhood. “It brought me back to skiing when I was a kid, and I knew I wanted to get back to that,” he says. So Jespersen moved to Boulder to be close to the activities he loved, now equipped with the life skills he picked up on active duty.

Six years in the military also helped him develop a taste for extreme physical challenges and a knack for preparedness. The lean 32 year old builds durability months before every season with a steady diet of cardio, lunges, squats, and step ups. “It’s always important to maintain my whole body strength because when I lose muscle mass, that’s when my body starts falling apart,” he explains. During the ski season, Jespersen keeps large muscles engaged by alternating heavy deadlift and heavy squat workouts with days of climbing and skiing 5000-6000 vertical feet. Yeah, it’s a lot, but Jespersen knows accomplishing his objectives means making sure he’s primed to meet them.

When he’s not punishing his body or plotting his next exploit, the public land advocate has been working on a backcountry skiing guide book called Journey Lines due out in Fall 2020. The shorter ‘zine version will be published this winter. “There’s so much of the world to see, there are so many mountains to climb, it’s kind of endless,” he says with excitement brimming in his voice. Helping others find the same joy in adventure might be Jespersen’s greatest and most rewarding challenge of all.

Photography by Isaiah Branch-Boyle. Story by Sandra Nygaard.

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