Jef Desbecker - A true backcountry adventure icon

3 minutes read
Posted 24 July, 2023
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Jef on his fourth private Grand Canyon rafting expedition in April this year, during which he turned 70

In a cost-of-living crisis Kiwi American backcountry adventurer Jef Desbecker is just the guy you need around. A self-professed ‘professional ski bum’ in his younger days, Jef wound his way all over the US using skills and savvy he’d learned along the way to carve a lifestyle on snow and rivers.

Despite being kicked out of several high schools during a rebellious streak, Jef realised he needed an education, completing a four-year environmental science degree in three years.

Raised near Buffalo, New York, with its brutal winters, Jef was mentored by a kind farming neighbour who taught him practical do-it-yourself skills. “He taught me so much. I’d sit on the fender of his tractor for hours.”

“My parents split, and Mum moved us to the country where she was into organic gardening long before it was heard of,” he says.

By 15, with the wild 60s raging, Jef rebelled, taking his long hair and bell bottom trousers to California, getting right amongst the hippie movement, and skiing in Boulder, Colorado.

After a bout of hepatitis, he opted out, choosing to study in Salt Lake City gaining straight A’s while also learning to fly, gaining his private pilot’s licence. “An hour in a plane cost me $7.50 and an instructor $15.”

Skiing was another passion. “By my third year I could do school three days a week and ski four.” His marks had won him scholarship grants and he cleaned toilets at night to maintain his lifestyle.

By 1976 he’d discovered road cycling and bought a treadle sewing machine, putting his mother’s sewing skills to use making panniers, a backpack, tent, and thick down sleeping bag. “I knew nothing about cycling but rode off through The Rockies to California and down to Mexico.”

By 1979-80 Jef had discovered telemark skiing in Idaho.

He was hooked, joining a backcountry Nordic Ski Patrol, building snow caves at minus30degF.

After his tent home collapsed he found a local disused barn loft, living in those for four winters with a candle and thick down sleeping bag. “I learned to tell the time by the stars, and how to keep moving to stay warm.”

While hitching, a guy in a Chevy Suburban picked him up, changing everything. Bob Pruitt introduced him to the “very on the edge” hang-gliding world and the big wigs of the fledgling new industry.

“I was so taken. They were going up and hooking into thermals, soaring on ridge lifts.”

Jef then worked in a hang-glider factory in Albuquerque and slept rough in the snow at the base of the local skifield.

A skiing flip went wrong, landing the first of two serious broken necks, so he headed home to work for the farmer, his mobile hang-gliding school truck in tow.

Next he biked and hitched across the US with a girlfriend, helping build condos in Avon, Colorado, while Beaver Creek Ski Area was under construction. “We lived in a teepee in 5-foot of snow with her young son and dog, cooking over the fire. It was minus 20degF at night.” Jef built an in-ground fridge box to keep food from freezing.

Later, he discovered river rafting in Moab, Utah, learning to guide multi-day trips on the Colorado River, upstream from the Grand Canyon.

Jef had featured on the cover of top US ski magazines, and NZ had always beckoned so he wooed top American sponsors, heading down under, seven duffle bags in tow. On arrival he immediately made his way to the NZ Ski Show in Auckland where all the right connections were made.

“Queenstown seemed like the main resort and a girl, named Robina, met us at the bus giving us her rumpus room.” “One thing led to another” and they’ve been together for 38 years.

Jef and mate Whitney Thurlow introduced Queenstown to telemarking - instructing and running courses. For almost 20 years Jef also worked as a heli-ski and backcountry ski guide locally.

He and Robina bought farmland on the Crown Terrace which they lived off.

Since then, they’ve developed two local purpose-built buildings for ZigZagZoo Childcare Centres, helping fund many more international adventures.
Jef’s traversed Wrangell-St-Elias wilderness, pulling sleds on metal-edged cross-country skis for seven weeks, camping on glaciers, covering 400kms, doing a similar expedition up a Pakistani glacier to the base of K2.

At 70 he just completed his fourth whitewater rafting trip down the Grand Canyon, which still leaves him fizzing.

So will he ever retire? “What from?” he laughs. “I’ve never had a job. It’s all just fun.”

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