Grand Teton Backcountry Day

This is too good to not embrace safely

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I have always been curious about backcountry skiing so a few years ago I hired a guide to take me and my son up on the Teton pass for the day. It was a great day and I must say pretty physically challenging going uphill for this old Midwest dude. So on my recent trip back to the Tetons, we needed to get out in the backcountry again. I’m smart enough to know this is way over my head to do on my own and of course I have been reading about people more experienced than me making mistakes and dying in avalanches. So after doing a little home work I called Teton Backcountry Guides and chatted with co-owner Diane Verna. She and her guides clearly know what they are doing so I booked the day. This isn’t like booking a tour in Disneyland, it is very weather and conditions dependent. So we agreed to a window of a couple days. (Must be really hard scheduling in this business.) As the day approached we went back and forth and finally agreed on the day in Teton Park. Overcast with some occasional snow. The past few days it had been snowing.

I would like to figure out how to get skilled in backcountry skiing so I asked Diane what it takes to get out there on your own. Her reply was:

Twenty years plus of experience. Yes, take the avalanche classes. They are a good thing. But there is no substitute for years of experience and learning by getting out there with experts.

That was a joy kill, but I understand. I have been racing sailboats for 40+ years and can see the parallels. You don’t go to a weekend seminar, race a few seasons and suddenly be on par with the best. Hard to admit, but until the day comes (if ever) when I live out west and get out in the backcountry day after day I might not ever be really capable/safe going in new terrain making informed and safe decisions. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn and always play things safe. Reminds me of a good friend of mine who is no longer with us talking about Ice Boating and when the ice is save. (Ed Schwarz)

I don’t go out on the ice when I “think” it is safe. I go out when I “know” it is safe.

Anyway, we agreed on the day and my nephew, at the last minute, decided to join us. It was after skiing 3 straight days, the last one at Jackson where I pretty much collapsed of exhaustion at 3 pm. I always intend on getting in great shape before skiing but I never seem to hit stride on the work outs. That is another subject and another blog post to come….

We decided to ski Grand Teton National Park versus the Teton Pass. You can typically get a bit more vertical in on the pass but it is a zoo on top of the pass. On the day we drove over the pass all the parking was gone at 6:30 am. People actually start skinning up the mountain in the dark with headlamps! Teton Park is less crowded and of course the scenery is specular on a clear day. We started at Taggert Lake Trailhead. It is an hour or so of flat skinning and then the climb begins.

A few words about our guide, Evan Miller. Guessing in his late 30’s, maybe early 40’s. We didn’t learn too much about his background but enough to know Evan is an outdoor professional to the extreme. Leading people in Antarctica, working for National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), guiding mountain climbing at Denali…You get the picture. The best people in this business are not only experts in the craft (skiing, hiking, avalanche knowledge) but they are also experts in people. How to quickly size up the participants and make sure everyone has a good time and is kept safe. In our case it was pretty easy to understand the situation. Ryan is 24, fit and agreeable. No concerns. Nephew Russ is about 30, same thing; fit and agreeable as well as the strongest skier (up and down) of us. Then me, the old man of the group. 64 years old, tired from the past 3 days of skiing and pretty much a rookie of skinning up the hill. I was the speed and distance laggard of the group. Everyone was patient with me. I’m always curious about what other people do in life so I asked many questions. Every had a blow out? Someone way over their head out here in the wilderness and you have to get them out? Evan smiled and gave a vague answer. “Up is optional, down is required.” I said, you can’t leave them behind can you? His answer:

Not if you want to keep being a guide.

Thanks to me, we were the slowest group going up the mountain. Several groups passed us as we slowly gained elevation. But hey, I’m not embarrassed and I’m not going to exhaust myself to the point where I can’t enjoy the down. We switch back up the mountain with Evan breaking trail. I think he can go 5 times faster than me breaking trail and 5 times higher. When you turn 90 degrees to go back the other way, that is the hard part. It involves a little technique of not leaning forward as you are tempted to do at the steeper angle and of course it is physically challenging. On the “last” turn before we stopped for lunch I blew out and slide backwards. Thankfully I didn’t fall which would have been a mess with bottomless snow pack. After several minutes Evan came back down to retrieve me with a few words of wisdom and breaking a new trail that matched up with how I was now pointed.

Finally I caught up with Ryan and Russ. We had now climbed 2,000 feet. I think Ryan and Russ could have gone another 1,000 or 2,000 feet but I was done. No time to put on the macho front, I firmly said this is it. Time to head down. The picture below is where we started the down. I’m the guy in the middle.

Evan started the down. Can you say smooth? Wish I could have seen the smiles on our faces. Now my adrenaline was pumping. It has some time since I skied deep powder. Do I still have the stuff? Pleased to say it was like riding a bike. But my bike was the best available. So easy to turn on these modern AT powder skis I could hardly believe it. Move your knees and ankles a little and unweight just a bit. It was like a hot knife through butter. Magic. For the next 30 minutes my fatigue vanished. I dropped 20 years, 20 pounds and was skiing again like I did 20 years ago. (OK, maybe not, but please give me this little fantasy.) SOO much fun. I commented to Evan, “I’m better on the down than the up.” Evan said something nice and then said something telling.

You never know what will happen until we start going down.

I’m sure Evan was relieved that the way down was uneventful aside from a few shouts of pure job. Here is Ryan and Russ slicing up the powder.

Unlike resort skiing where you coast up to the lift line at the end of the run, we had to walk out to get to the parking lot. Unfortunately my skins came off and the adrenaline rush of magical power skiing was over. The old man was crashing. Ryan could see Dad was once again running out of gas so I’m grateful he stayed with me and we slowly limped back to the parking lot. Russ offered up a post trip beer and we enjoyed the twilight in the parking lot. I collapsed into the pick up and Ryan did the driving back over the pass to Victor and our camper.

As I reflect on this great day it occurred to me that reliving the memories is actually a much more lasting experience than the day itself. I will play this day over and over again in my mind. Likely skiing the down better every time. :-)

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