Why the Tetons in Wyoming Are a Must-Visit for Adventurous Travelers
Reaching the summit of Buck Mountain, the hard work should be done. Over two days, you’ve climbed 5,000 feet from the valley floor. Last night you camped—in a tent, in a snowfield—near one of the highest lakes in Grand Teton National Park, Timberline Lake. At sunset, you watched the Teton Range throw its profile—a shadow of it—down on Jackson Hole. This morning, you tackled the final 2,000-some feet to Buck’s summit, negotiating a knife-edge ridge that, to the north, fell away thousands of feet. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.
Now standing on your school bus-sized aerie with the dozen other members of your group, the South, Middle and Grand Tetons loom to the north. To the east, on the far side of the valley, mountain range after mountain range stretches into the distance. Winding through the valley floor, the Snake River lives up to its name.
Of course you want to take photos. Using a trick learned two days prior, on another, less-exposed but equally beautiful summit elsewhere in the range, you carefully take off your backpack and secure it to the slope using webbing and a carabiner. It’s important your backpack doesn’t go over an edge. You don’t want to lose the snacks in it. More importantly, you don’t want to lose your skis, which are tightly lashed to its exterior. You didn’t climb 11,938-foot Buck just to climb it. You’ve climbed Buck to ski its East Face.
One of a handful of skiers in Exum Mountain Guides’ annual four-day Live to Ski Camp, you’re already a seasoned backcountry skier, able to handle 6,000 feet a day of climbing, familiar with the use of an ice axe, crampons and basic knots, and confident skiing steep slopes with pitches of up to 45 degrees. You’ve applied—all applicants have to submit a skiing résumé, and Exum guide and camp co-founder Zahan Billimoria says less than half are accepted—to this camp because there’s even more out there you want to explore. But this exploration you want to do requires climbing and skiing skills beyond what you currently have; the Tetons provide an ideal setting for such a high level of education.
“There’s a huge gap between being a proficient backcountry skier who hunts for powder all winter long and developing the skills to go ski steep, high-consequence terrain that might involve a rappel or some belaying,” says Billimoria. “That’s what this camp was designed for—to help backcountry skiers bridge that gap to becoming solid ski mountaineers.”
Ski mountaineering, as its name suggests, combines skiing with mountaineering. General backcountry skiing involves skiers skiing up (also known as skinning) a mountain before skiing down. Ski mountaineers do the same, but often rely on technical gear such as ropes, harnesses, crampons and ice axes to navigate the trickiest parts of a route. While ascending, ski mountaineers might transition from skinning to carrying skis on their backs so that they can climb up an ice waterfall. (For the final 2,000 feet up Buck, you have your skis on your back; not because you had to ice climb, but because it is too steep to skin.) Skiing down, ski mountaineers might rappel a section that is unskiable (such as a cliff band or ice waterfall). General backcountry skiing has little objective danger aside from the current avalanche hazard and obstacles such as trees. Ski mountaineering is often in high-consequence and steep terrain where a slip or fall, on the ascent or descent, may result in serious injury or death.
A ski mountaineer might ski on belay, with a rope attached to her climbing harness while a partner above works the other end to prevent significant sliding after a fall. Mail Cabin, a lovely valley on the west side of Teton Pass that has tree skiing and numerous open bowls (and where Exum does single-day guided trips) is backcountry skiing. The North Face of Spalding Peak, which you skied on day 1, Skywalk above Avalanche Canyon (day 2) and the East Face of Buck, your final exam for the camp, are all considered ski mountaineering.
“The reason we’re so stringent about participants’ experience and skill level is that we’re really committed to delivering an A+ experience for the people who are ready,” says Billimoria, who grew up in Switzerland and has been rock and ski guiding for Exum for six years. “There are lots of learning and skill-building opportunities for intermediates, but really none for high-level people who want to take it to the next level and eventually tackle alpine-style objectives like Denali, Shuksan or the Grand Teton.” The applicants who made the cut for the camp range in age from early 20s to early 60s. The majority are in their 40s. In my camp, I was one of two women.
While Buck involved a night of camping, the first two days focused on instruction and skill development like constructing anchors or skiing on belay. Each of these days we were back in Jackson in time for dinner. We could have learned about anchors to belay off or rappel from in a conference room, but that’s not how this camp goes. Instead, guides found a giant boulder in the middle of the Meadows, a flattish area at nearly 10,000 feet up Garnet Canyon and beneath the Middle Teton, and had everyone practice building anchors.
First, though, we climbed 12,240-foot Spalding Peak and skied its 1,500-foot North Face, practicing skiing on belay at its very top, where the pitch approached 50 degrees. Skiing on belay, one end of a rope tied into your harness and the other end in the hands of Exum guide and co-owner Nat Patridge above, wasn’t as burdensome as you expected. Patridge asked that you count out loud to three. “Turn every time you get to ‘three,’ ” he said. (Turning at consistent intervals sets up the belayer to smoothly feed out the rope, rather than getting hung up and having the rope pull you backwards.)
The next day we learned more about skiing on belay—and got to belay some of our fellow campers—while skiing runs off the north face of Albright Peak. Each day, camp guides challenged us to think more and more for ourselves, a skill necessary in the mountains. “There’s no one correct way to do this stuff,” Billimoria, and the four other instructors, repeated over and over. “We want to show you several different ways and then you can make the choice that works for the specific situation.”
Stepping into your skis on the summit of Buck, you know the hard part is not over. Also, you’ve decided that skiing the top part of the face on belay works best for you. Considered one of the classic ski mountaineering routes in the Tetons, the top of the 1,200-foot East Face nears 45 degrees in pitch. About two-thirds of the way down, the face is bisected by a 200-foot- tall cliff band. To the left of the cliff band there is a break in the rocks you can ski through, but a fall high on the face, when you’re still above the cliffs, is disastrous. There’s little likelihood of being able to self-arrest before flying off the cliff. You’re fairly certain you’ve got the skills to ski the top without falling, but, since falling has such high consequences, why take the risk? “A rope isn’t a weakness, but a really valuable tool,” Billimoria says.
Making your first turns off Buck’s summit, you’re smiling. Actually, no. Smiling doesn’t do it justice. You’re beaming. A goofy grin owns your face. You’re still concentrating and focused and don’t want to fall—being on belay saves you from the cliffs below but not from the ribbing of fellow campers— but missing is the steely taste of fear you’ve had before at the top of intimidating lines. You’re going to enjoy this. Four turns in you let loose a yelp. The Haute Route was great and so is heading out of bounds from the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s tram, but carving turns through the corn snow—spring conditions, when avalanches are less likely, are the best for ski mountaineering—on a ginormous mountain face, that from the valley floor looks vertiginous, is something else entirely. You wonder if you’ll ever be truly happy skiing “usual” runs and routes again. You want to climb and ski every peak and line in the Tetons.
And that’s the stoke Exum is hoping this camp brings you. “Every big mountain skier wants to ski the Tetons. They are kind of without comparison. They’re certainly the greatest of all the accessible ranges in the U.S.,” Billimoria says. “Pair that level of terrain with the history of Exum Guides and also with skiers who have the desire and curiosity to learn how to safely explore serious mountains and you’ve got something unlike anything else offered anywhere.”
Ski mountaineering has no single inventor or father, but, in the U.S., Bill Briggs, who first moved to Jackson Hole in the late 1950s, is pretty close. In the 1960s and early 1970s, he did first ski descents of the Middle Teton, South Teton, Mount Moran and Mount Owen. But it was his 1971 ski descent of the Grand Teton that really showed what was possible with the sport. In 2008, Briggs, who still lives in Jackson, was inducted into the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
Closer to the present, few people have done more to promote and celebrate ski mountaineering in the Tetons than Steve Romeo, who, before his death in March 2012 at age 42 in an avalanche in Grand Teton National Park, blogged about ski mountaineering adventures big and small in the range on TetonAT. com. (Although no new “trip reports” are being added to the site, Romeo’s family and friends maintain its archives.) “He helped put the Tetons on the map for our generation as the premier destination in North America to test your skills as a ski mountaineer,” says Billimoria, who was a former ski partner of Romeo’s. This camp took its name exactly from Romeo’s motto, “Live to Ski.” “We wanted to be part of Steve’s legacy,” Billimoria says.
Back on Buck, you’re past the section where a fall would take you over cliffs and about to enter the couloir that lets you ski through them. You feel like you’re doing nothing so much as living to ski. Pointing your skis into the 15-foot-wide swath of snow, you vaguely remember responsibilities and to-dos and meetings and annoyances, but those intrusions last a mere millisecond. You’ve still got nearly 3,000 feet of turns before you’re back in the real world … if you can ever fully be in it again after having had your eyes opened to what you’re capable of.