by Marc Peruzzi | photographs Chris Figenshau
The French extremist and ski mountaineer Pierre Tardivel once said that if you want to live to become an old ski mountaineer, you should make a habit of climbing what you ski. As with most aphorisms in mountaineering, it’s more of a decree than a law. Sometimes it’s safer to ignore it. On this day, though, Tardivel’s maxim applies.
I’m kicking a staircase into the shaded February snowpack of the North Couloir of Eagle’s Rest Peak in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. The 50-degree slope angle in the gut of the couloir is steep enough that I barely crouch to drive in my ice axe shaft. A sugary winter snow clears easily from the crampons. With each kick, I twist my heel to shape the step that the next climber in our party will improve upon until it likely crumbles under the weight of the ninth and final bootpacker. As we kick and poke our way uphill, we survey the line. This wind-feathered section will ski like groomed snow. Avoid that sun-glazed patch down by the apron. The faceted pockets near the rocks are a bit punchy. Better keep the speed down. It’s what Tardivel was getting at.
Halfway up the 900-foot couloir, I pull over to shed a layer and let the party of Exum Mountain Guides and clients I’m shadowing pass. Most guides I’ve known would be dismissive if some random like me offered to put in their bootpack, but Exum co-owner and today’s lead guide Nat Patridge, 46, is not your typical guide, and Exum isn’t your typical outfit. Founded in 1929 by Paul Petzoldt and later renamed by second owner Glenn Exum, Exum Mountain Guides is more of an advanced school of American alpinism than a stereotypical European guide service; the kind where you shut up and heel at the end of a rope or spoon low angle tracks.
By letting me set the bootpack, Nat’s practicing what the former Exum guide, instructor of guides, and pioneering ski mountaineer, Bill Briggs called “doingness.” Let the client take point and make decisions in the hopes that they’ll return with more experience, ready to participate in greater adventures, until you eventually lose them to the expertise you helped develop. Many former Exum clients become guides. Doingness is a Briggs word, but Glen Exum shared the vision of active client participation. Besides, in this case, I’m not a customer, the guides are currently roped to their clients, and the photographer Chris Figenshau (also an Exum guide) is burdened. With no tether, it’s easier for me to kick steps. Still, a miscue at these angles would send me hurtling at Nat and company.
There are consequences to doingness. Briggs—who was the first to ski the Grand Teton, and the second to ski Mount Rainier—called such potential consequences “adding mass to significance.” In magazine editing we call it gravitas. As the day plays out, the guides involve guests in the planning and route finding. It’s more apprenticeship than vapid tour.
A couloir is defined as a snow-filled, rock-lined mountain passage. With the proper gear for snow climbing and a handle on the avalanche conditions, couloirs act as broad highways for fast ascending. They’re also exhilarating to ski because of their steep pitch and aesthetic rock walls. As we top out of the nearly vertical egress of the North Couloir, behind us, the chalky descent is in shadows. Before us, a pileup of crags, dead-end chutes, and false summits sparkle brilliantly in the thin, 11,000-foot atmosphere.
The youngest mountain range in North America, the Tetons are stunning in their vertical relief. Most people think of the range in terms of high exposure rock climbing, but Nat believes they’re actually better suited to skiing. The peaks sit perpendicular to the prevailing storm track and tend to strip snow from northern and southern systems. Viewed from the valley floor, the Tetons burst skyward from sagebrush plains as if shipwrecked in the landscape. From that angle, all a steep skier sees is line after line of aesthetic backcountry descents that seem somehow out of reach to visitors like me. Historically, Teton skiing was conducted by an inner circle of Jackson locals. Tom Turiano, ski mountaineer and Teton skiing historian, credits the Tetons’ island range status with attracting skiers and climbers back before the war. Unlike Colorado’s Rockies, it’s a compact chain. “One or two trailheads access it all,” he says. “You see people you know. It became a community because of the geography. And then the history grew out of that.”
If the Tetons are dramatic from the valley, up close, we move through a geologic explosion with sharp boulders clinging tenuously to barren slopes of exposed talus and jutting rock bugaboos. Guide Adam Fabrikant calls the North Couloir the Eagle’s Dick, thanks to a phallic spire thrusting at the heavens from the center of the notch.
It’s here on this snowy perch beneath the eagle’s member, that most backcountry skiers would eat a candy bar, drink deeply, step into their skis, check all straps, buckles, and bindings, and take a long stress relieving piss before slipping into the descent. But Exum guides are equal parts climbers and skiers, and the 11,258-foot summit of Eagle’s Rest is only a five-minute, fairly sketchy ski boot scramble on rock and snow above us. With eastern Wyoming fading into the curvature of the earth, we high five on the summit before down-climbing to ski the couloir.
The clients are attending what Exum guide and marketing manager Brenton Reagan (currently setting up a belay platform at the top of the couloir) is calling Moran Club Camp. They’re seasoned repeat guests from the first Moran Camp held in 2015. This year’s iteration includes a basecamp at the mouth of Waterfall Canyon from which they’ll climb and ski tour for five days. Competent skiers with powder touring backgrounds, many have also skied exposed terrain on belay. If anything, their passion for human powered skiing outweighs their experience, which is why they hired Exum. The entrance to the North Couloir, though, pushes 75 degrees for a dozen feet before the first 10 turns mellow to 55 degrees. It’s steep enough that you’ll freefall briefly with each careful turn. Steep enough that if you were to stand upright on your skis you could reach out and touch the wall of snow beside you. As couloirs go, however, the North Couloir is straightforward. It’s not doglegged or hourglassed. An un-arrested fall directly down the gut would deposit you in some state of disrepair on the sunlit apron below. But first you’d have to avoid the protruding rocks on skier’s right, which would ruin you.
I ski down untethered and set up to watch the guides descend with their clients on belay. It’s a technique I’ve seen in photos, but never witnessed. The goal is to safely get the skiers through the crux—the steep section above the rock—while roped in. The trick is to give them enough slack so they can ski naturally without tugging them off balance. For perspective, 55 degrees is at least 10 degrees steeper than what most resorts label expert or extreme terrain. To ski safely at these angles you need to fight the urge to lean into the hill. Do so, and your ski edges quickly lose purchase with the snowpack and you’ll find yourself trying to self-arrest before the velocity is too great to do anything but hope.
Even for expert ski mountaineers, descending smooth snow in exposed terrain is a harrowing yet calculated affair in which you employ what Americans call survival turns and the French simply “the turn.” In a fluid motion, you gently punch your hands down the fall line while simultaneously pressuring the uphill ski so that your skis come around in a smooth, gliding pivot. It’s neither the jerking and twisting motion of a jump turn or the rocketing arc of a pro freeskier in a ski film. Get it right and you’ll live to be an old ski mountaineer. Get it wrong and you’ll be thankful for the rope.
The second core principle in his school of guiding, Briggs called this type of challenge the “gradient.” It’s the lever a guide applies to doingness. The key, says Turiano, who studied under Briggs and later became one of Exum’s first ski guides, is to match the gradient with the client. “Gradient is measured not only in the physical sense of the slope angle,” says Turiano, “but also in the abstract sense. Is the terrain you’re taking them on within their zone of learning? How fast you skin, climb, ski, talk, and how much information you provide between doingness, is the gradient.”
One by one, I watch as the clients—businessmen and college professors—navigate the crux, unclip from the rope after safely circumventing the rock, and then finally freeski out into the sunny apron. My breath goes short as a client with a bronc rider’s wild hands nearly misses two thrashed turns. But then he finds the tail of the ski and powers back down. More high fives follow as we regroup on the flats.
The word “empowered” is overused with guiding, but, to a person, the clients and guides are now grinning with their shoulders back. Nat and his crew have a deft touch with the gradient.
The next morning I wake to catch the sunrise over frozen Jackson Lake, which we’d traversed in the predawn the day before with our headlamps lighting up wolf tracks the size of saucers. But low pressure has moved in, and camp is buried in four inches of fresh snow with more falling. We eat heartily of bacon and eggs in the Lair, a floorless expedition tent that serves as kitchen and dining room, while trying to avoid eye contact with last night’s fallen soldier—a liter of bourbon well beyond my gradient.
The goal is to tour into Waterfall Canyon and split the group based on preferred slope angles, but the storm intensifies as we gain elevation. A wind from the southwest courses through the high peaks, currently hidden by clouds. We stop when Nat hears the faint rumble of a wind-loaded avalanche ripping in the distance—possibly in the hourglass face or one of the many short chutes we’d intended to ski.
As we cinch our hoods to the weather, I think back to a time a few seasons earlier in the Tetons when I’d clipped into an ice screw alongside Exum colleague Zahan Billimoria as spindrift rained down on us. Above the 12-foot-tall ice flow we hunkered against, a thin, bow-shaped couloir looked like worthy skiing, but to pull it off we’d have to navigate the vertical ice, boot up the chute, ski, then rappel back down the ice. Before we could begin, the spindrift turned from cascading pellets to chunks that could bloody a nose. If there’s that much snow moving now, I thought at the time, how much sluff and spindrift will run once we’re up there skiing it? Before I could voice my concern, Zahan looked over and said, “The mountains are talking to us. We should listen.” He redirected us for the main Apocalypse Couloir.
With the snow now caking the members of the Moran Club Camp, we too stop and listen. Up high, another unseen wind-loaded avalanche releases in a whoosh. As if on cue, Nat says “The mountains are talking.” It’s likely just sluff snow cascading off cliffs, but Tardivel probably had some advice about sluff, 20-yard visibility, and cliffs. And if not Tardivel, I get the sense that Nat has something to say about the matter. We set a new course to less exposed north facing slopes out of the wind and take turns setting a skintrack in what is now 10 inches of new snow adhering to old and cold powder. As we climb the 35-degree slope, the powder sluffs harmlessly in pockets, but shows no signs of forming catastrophic slabs.
Except for a select few, skiing avalanche terrain in Teton National Park in midwinter snow is a relatively new endeavor—even for seasoned Jackson backcountry skiers and guides. Until about 20 years ago, avalanche danger (and a lack of accomplished clients) in the park kept Exum from engaging in much ski guiding. Most of the Tetons’ famed descents and Exum’s early camps were executed in late spring when the snowpack went to stable corn snow. The company doesn’t have a permit for the easier to forecast terrain at Teton Pass. And the deep sections of the park don’t lend themselves to the day-to-day observations required for accurate avalanche forecasting. Yet here we are, skiing big lines and steep open slopes in February; Exum’s winter business has grown by 10 to 15 percent each of the past five years.
The winter snowpack hasn’t changed. What’s different is what Turiano calls the “parallel strains of influence” that have shaped backcountry skiing in the Tetons. Briggs trained Turiano in the art of guiding in the late 1970s. Turiano started the first Exum ski mountaineering camp in 1991. By 1993 it was popular enough that he’d hired celebrity Exum guides like Hans Saari, Wes Bunch, Stephen Koch, and Mark Newcomb to help. Like the community of climbers that Paul Petzl sowed, these early Teton ski mountaineers pushed themselves to pioneer new routes. “In the Tetons, we stand on the shoulders of giants,” says Mark Newcomb, referring to Petzl, Yvon Chouinard (the founder of Patagonia), and the ski pioneer and Himalayan climber Barry Corbett. In the ensuing years, a healthy competitive vibe followed that saw that generation of ski mountaineers etching first descents throughout the range, buckled into fixed cuff alpine boots clicked into 203-centimeter GS skis.
Mark Newcomb—who would later be the first to ski guide the Grand Teton with yet another famed skier, Doug Coombs, in 2003—credits Turiano as his guiding mentor. He’s also one of Nat’s closest friends and advisors (they guided together for Coombs in Alaska where they both served as avalanche forecasters). When Coombs, Newcomb, and Nat returned from Alaska, their experience changed their outlook. The steep, midwinter lines in the park were now within their reach.
Newcomb admits that lineage, but he says that Exum guides tend to pursue their own form of excellence—and then bounce off each other like particles in an atom. Nat and Zahan, and most of the Exum ski guides I’ve met, share characteristics you don’t find with guides everywhere. Like Newcomb, Coombs, Turiano, and Saari they’re whip-smart, science-minded, philosophically introspective, and, when conditions allow, bold. It makes for an enriching work environment. “It’s not like Exum is exclusive,” says Exum guide Jess Baker. “They didn’t discourage me. They wanted me to rise to their level.”
The skiing and climbing ability was in place, and the gear quickly followed. But to safely ski the park in midwinter, the avalanche forecasting had to catch up to the skiers. Again, the Tetons had an advantage in Newcomb’s father, and onetime Exum co-owner, Rod Newcomb.
By the early 1970s, when resort skiers were hot dogging up at the Village, a skinny ski, mohair climbing skin, and low-cut leather boot telemark movement was taking hold with counterculture types intent on floating turns in untracked backcountry powder. Bill Briggs quickly tapped into the emerging market with a guiding permit for the southern side of Teton Pass. A little to the northwest, Teton Mountain Touring guided skiers to a hut system.
Rod—who had been the avalanche forecaster for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, an instructor with the National Avalanche School in Alta, Utah, and an Exum guide in summer since 1963—saw a need to educate those early backcountry skiers. In 1974, he started the nation’s first avalanche school for the public on Teton Pass. NOLS and Colorado Outward Bound instructors signed on for his four-day avalanche courses held in the field, as did ski patrollers newly tasked with opening and closing resort gates to backcountry skiers. “But the bulk of the students,” says Rod, “were people who wanted to ski the backcountry, knew there was an objective hazard, and wanted to be safe about it.”
To date, Rod has taught avalanche classes in Alaska, New Hampshire, and every state in the West except Arizona. Over the decades, Exum guides like his son Mark, the Olympian turned mountaineer, Hans Johnstone, Turiano, snowboard mountaineer Stephen Koch, Doug Coombs, and Jess Baker took or helped teach his classes.
When Nat moved to Wyoming in 1993 fresh from St. Lawrence University in New York, he headed into the backcountry in November, and immediately broke through a cornice and went for a ride down Devil’s Canyon. Uninjured, he signed up for an avalanche class with Rod and later worked for him as an instructor. The list of Rod’s disciples also includes Nat’s chief forecaster Bill Anderson, who took a level 3 class with Rod and later helped teach his courses. This is a high compliment from the temperate but exacting Rod: “I wouldn’t put somebody on the payroll unless they’d been out there kicking off avalanches in the backcountry. You can’t take an avalanche course and then become an avalanche instructor.”
Rod, Coombs, and Turiano opened up winter guiding. Famously, Coombs and Mark Newcomb were the first to guide the Grand Teton in 2003, but in February 2009, Anderson and Nat were the first to guide it in midwinter. Today, when avalanche hazard is low, a steady stream of skiers climb and descend the Grand in winter. (In 2015, Zahan gained the Stettner Couloir—only to turn around when he encountered 16 bootpackers ahead of him.) More recently, Anderson, Nat, and their fellow Exum winter guides—many of whom are American Avalanche Institute instructors—devised a private database that Anderson spent countless hours building. It collects avalanche observations from all over the Tetons. The data comes from the guides—I once peppered Anderson with questions as he dug an observation pit on a tour—but also resort and Forest Service observers and forecasters. More vitally, Exum now utilizes a simple Facebook page so that the Exum community can communicate freely in real time.
Like a lone backcountry skier building in-depth knowledge about his or her favorite slope, Exum as an entity is continuously growing its working knowledge of the conditions in the park.
It’s changed both the timing of camps, and the clientele. Goal oriented clinics like Moran Club Camp, where the objective might include skiing off a big peak or lining up an aesthetic couloir, are now just part of Exum’s portfolio. Much of the business includes private winter guiding, where a client signs on for a day of powder skiing or split-boarding. “Exum has been able to ride the wave of gear, and people’s changing attitudes about what it means to be a skier,” says Mark Newcomb. “It’s taken off despite the challenges.”
To our south, the easy to access terrain off Teton Pass is now heavily tracked, and the snow that’s currently hammering Waterfall Canyon is only a flurry there. But here, 45 minutes across Jackson Lake and an hour up Waterfall Canyon, the north-facing powder we’re lining up might have seen only a couple sets of tracks all season.
Skiers, understandably, get worked up by bottomless conditions and three-foot storms, but some of the best snow you’ll ever ski is about a foot deep and “right side up.” The storm—this storm—came in with more water content in the snow and progressively dried out so that our skis are running on a spongy, energized base topped with cold dust. You can throw the skis out to the side and load ’em up with power. Yesterday, we pushed hard for a rewarding descent. Today, we’re simply ripping powder. The snow billows to our sternums as we hoot and holler with none of the stress of yesterday’s big line.
I never skied with Doug Coombs, but those who did speak of his virulent joy. He was so strong that Mark Newcomb once described him as built from rope and pulleys. Upright and relaxed, he didn’t ski so much as flow in the effortless action sense that Peter Matthiessen described in The Snow Leopard. “At these times, … even in dangerous places; my feet move naturally to firm footholds, and I flow.”
If Briggs brought doingness and gradient, and Rod and Mark Newcomb brought scientific excellence, then says Turiano: “Coombs had his own strain of influence with Exum. He added the stoke factor, the sheer excitement and playfulness.” Baker says Coombs turned that elation into a bond with his clients that instilled confidence. “Some people would claim that he was a little dangerous,” Baker says. “But he brought something that either the Euro guides lost or never had. Even I would feel it when I was guiding with him.”
Nat, in turn, learned to ski backcountry snow by skiing with Coombs and emulating him. When he visualizes himself skiing a run the best he possibly can, he sees Coombs. He has the same upright relaxed stance, the same outward curl of the wrist in his pole plant. But mostly what you see is a lightness of movement.
As we rip our second powder lap of the day off a knob Brenton dubs Poutine Point, I see Coombs in Brenton, and especially Nat, who, in form and flow, nearly channels Coombs on skis. They’re even giddier than their clients—who are beyond euphoric from the snow and the secondhand high of Doug Coombs.
It’s May, 2001, and Nat is near the toothy summit of Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi (the Needle of Midday). Beneath him, a portly hanging glacier known as the Glacier Rond paints a white face on the massif. Everything else is exposed rock. From most views, the Glacier Rond appears un-skiable, but that’s part of its appeal. To descend it, ski mountaineers navigate to a gash called the Exit Couloir. From top to bottom, the descent falls roughly 2,500 vertical feet. It’s touch-the-wall steep in spots; then the Exit Couloir eventually mellows to 50 degrees. Unlike the North Couloir of Eagle’s Rest, here a fall will take you off seracs or over nearly vertical cliffs. At best, you’d carom off rock walls. Far below, a bergschrund—a crevasse that separates the snow of the Exit Couloir from the ice of the valley glacier—await what remains.
One hundred meters down the nearly vertical entrance to Glacier Rond, a sluff knocks Nat from his feet. In low angle terrain, such loose snow avalanches are nuisances, but on exposed slopes they’re deadly. Like whitewater, the sluff carries Nat at the speed which gravity and slope angle dictate, down a path of least resistance. One branch of the river of sluff flows to skier’s right and eventually off a fatal serac, a cliff of glacial ice. The second branch that Nat’s fighting, diverts to skier’s left at a latticework steel tower above an unskiable section of exposed rock. As the sluff carries Nat into the rock, the tibia/fibula bones in his right leg snap just above his boot cuff. With his broken leg windshield wipering in front of him down the Exit Couloir, Nat wonders if he’s carrying enough speed to clear the bergschrund. In an agonizing final tumble, he does.
From fall to debris pile, the sluff carries Nat 2,000 vertical feet before depositing him on the valley glacier. An arduous search and rescue operation unfolds. The last thing he remembers is the morphine shot. As he recovers, an embolism from the broken leg releases into his blood stream and induces a coma. This is the condition that kills the character Phineas in A Separate Peace, a novel by John Knowles largely about lost friends and self loss. The mortality rate is 60 percent.
Five and a half days later Nat awakes from the coma to learn that fellow Exum guide and close friend Hans Saari has died in a fall on Chamonix’s Mont Blanc. In the bitterest of ironies, Saari was in France to interview Pierre Tardivel. He died after entering a couloir from the top and skiing onto nearly invisible, 60-degree white ice. It’s never been confirmed, but in his pocket he reportedly carried Tardivel’s list for a long life in the mountains. The fall occurs in what’s known as the Tardivel Entrance of the Gervasutti Couloir.
Although there’s never been a human powered ski guiding death in the long history of Teton skiing, Saari would be the first of many friends Nat and Exum would lose to the mountains. Coombs falls 1,500 feet to his death in La Grave, France, in 2006 after attempting to rescue a close friend who also fatally fell near the Couloir de Polichinelle. More recently, while attempting to climb and ski the Sickle Couloir on Mount Moran with friends in 2015, Zahan watched helplessly as an avalanche ripped Brook Yeomans, Stephen Adamson JR., and Luke Lynch, 500 feet over unskiable terrain. Adamson and Lynch, both fathers of young children, did not survive. And then, this past summer, Exum Guide Gary Falk, one of the most experienced climbers in North America, fell to his death on the Grand Teton. It’s believed a knot he’d probably tied thousands of times failed. Falk’s death weighs heavily on Nat. He wasn’t just a close friend, Nat was his employer. These are but a few of the deaths in the broad net of Teton backcountry skiing.
Tall and rangy with a slight hitch to his step from the leg that took nearly two years to heal, Nat is quick to laugh and happy to speak at length, but like many natives of northern New Hampshire where he grew up, he’s comfortable with prolonged silences. At first I attributed those silences to regionalism—I was raised to not speak unless spoken to as well. But I’ve come to suspect he also picked up some of the scientific qualities of the Newcomb family. With both snowpacks and human relations, he’s an observer. And then there’s the burden he carries. This past autumn, Nat sought counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder to help him address the loss of Falk, but also Coombs, Saari, and his own devastating, yet psychologically untreated, fall so many years ago on the Aiguille du Midi. The last time I saw Zahan, hollowed out by the loss of his friends a few months earlier, he was a quieter person as well.
When I set out to write this story I was keen to shine a light on oversimplified linear relationships between Exum guides past and present. The forecasters, Rod Newcomb and Bill Anderson. The educators like Briggs, Turiano, and now Baker who is helping to open the backcountry to women. The drive for excellence exemplified by Mark Newcomb and Zahan. The infectious joy of Coombs or Brenton Reagan. But the more I observed, the more I came to see the guides and Exum itself as composites. If you set out to build a guiding company you’d want Exum’s amalgamation of Coombsian stoke, Briggsian education, and Newcombian observation to run through it. And as unsetting and unintentionally callous as it may sound, you’d also want the past tragedy. A possible addendum to Tardivel’s list, death is what keeps people alive. It’s dangerously easy to acquire avalanche and mountaineering knowledge, but knowledge can lead you astray without the tempering of life lost.
Mark Newcomb, who went on to ski from the summit of 26,335–foot Shishapangma in the Himalaya and is now a Teton County Commissioner, husband, and father of two young boys, summed this up concisely for me in a simple anecdote. He and Nat were out recently with friends celebrating Mark’s fiftieth birthday when Mark overheard Nat talking about a highly skilled, and highly prolific local ski mountaineer who had been driving himself a bit too hard in recent years. “He’s a great skier,” said Nat. “But he’s trying to outsmart the snowpack, and that’s not sustainable.”
In that comment, Mark saw a wisdom in Nat that only comes with trauma. “He’s navigated that landscape of losing friends and surviving injury,” says Mark, and here I got the sense that he was talking about both Nat and Exum. “The testosterone is gone, but the love of adventure is still there.”
I ask Nat how it’s possible for him to ski and climb with such enthusiasm given the friends he’s lost and the responsibilities he carries for his guides and clients. He tells me that Exum can’t shy away from the balance of risk and what he sees as opportunity. Without risk, he says, the experience wouldn’t be as rich, or the joy as great. “The mountains are a beautiful and wonderful place,” he says. “They give you energy. Climbing and skiing let you interact with other human beings in ways that you can’t replicate. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it, but I’ve always been drawn back to those relationships. And I’ve worked through those hardships. But it’s taken a lot of effort.”
Skiing big lines like the North Couloir can be intoxicating, not just for the pure thrill, but for the instant camaraderie Nat was hinting at. For those with addictive personalities, or pressing demons, it’s easy to see how you could be lured into pushing too hard, plotting new lines, making proliferation a goal in itself. But charging is not sustainable. When Hans Saari fell to his death in the Tardivel Entrance, he was beginning to transition away from first descents to a career in writing. Mark Newcomb found a different exit. As his hip began to degenerate, he set an objective of skiing Shishapangma. It would be the capstone to his lauded but abbreviated career as a ski mountaineer. In order to do it, he put off descending big lines in the Tetons. “In a way, I was lucky,” he says. “By the time I’d skied Shishapangma, and Doug passed, my life had changed.” Today he goes into the big mountains infrequently, preferring to ski with his boys, ages five and seven. “And I have a new-found love of skiing 35 degree powder,” he says.
After day two of shadowing Moran Club Camp, Adam, Chris, and I leave the clinic behind and ski through darkness across Jackson Lake with a small speck of light on the opposite shore as our compass point. I feel exhilarated and accomplished; rewarded in much the same way I feel when watching my kids rip around on skis or speak eloquently on a subject they care about. In the bliss of doingness, I daydream about moving to Jackson and knocking off line after line. As a longtime outdoor writer and editor, I’ve also lost too many friends and acquaintances to the mountains. But one day, it seems, is all it takes to throw me out of balance.
In the morning, Chris and I join Jess Baker so I can experience what a day of private guiding is like. A little farther south in the park, we tour up Wimpy’s to Albright Peak and ski from the summit. It’s not a mountaineering endeavor—our axes and crampons are in the car—but to gain the summit requires some skinning know-how to negotiate the giant steps by the upper cornice. Fifteen years ago, this shot was barely skied. Now it’s a classic line. We carefully execute a few semi-steep turns up top and then open it up in the 35-degree powder on a broad ramp of snow.
Halfway down, I stop and spear my ski tails into the snow in what Rod Newcomb, on a similar ski tour I joined him on a few years ago, called an Alta Start. The technique lets you enter a run without squandering your first turn—or just hang out. Rod, who I first met in 2001, when, unroped, he scampered around our party on the Grand Teton, is Tardivel’s prototypical old mountaineer. The line that Rod and I skied was heavily tracked, but he approached it with the caution of a first year student in avalanche science. Wisdom, in the spirit of Socrates, is knowing enough to know you don’t know anything at all. We can’t outsmart mountains, but perhaps if enough people like Briggs, Rod, Turiano, Nat, and Zahan live to be old ski mountaineers, we can learn to listen to them. Tardivel, who notched 100 first descents as a 19-year-old in 1982, turns 54 this year.
I also see hope in how Jess is engaging women in steep skiing through camps and clinics. Another bright spot is what Exum and the Doug Coombs Foundation are doing to get new generations of underprivileged skiers into the Wyoming backcountry. Exum has been part of the Jackson community since 1929, Nat says, but now they’re giving back. Thus far, they’ve donated 6,500 guide hours to the cause of growing the community. A handful of bold skiers and mountaineers pioneered Teton skiing in a cowboy era that’s just coming to a close. Imagine what an inclusive population of skiers will create. “Open yourself up to others” could be another addendum to Tardivel’s list.
Jess, Chris, and I ski until the light gets soft. The run is as wide as a highway and devoid of trees from the strength of past avalanches. For a moment, I let them ski off so I have the mountains to myself. It’s not the steepest line or the deepest powder, but I count myself lucky that I’ve lived long enough to experience it. Risk is inherent in the gravitas of doingness. So, too, with bliss. But there is a balancing point.
From the Deep Winter issue.