What took me so long?
A couple years ago my friend asked me to join him at Grand Teton National Park for a ski mountaineering course. At the time I was definitely a “competent” resort skier, but my backcountry experience was pretty much nil. I’d owned touring gear for a quite a while, but rarely got to use it, except for a couple sidecountry tours at Alta. Ever since, I’d wanted to do bigger days in the backcountry but none of my ski buddies had the requisite experience or interest and I didn’t wasn’t sure where to begin. Anyway, when my friend told me about this course, I jumped at the opportunity.
Before I flew out to Wyoming, I actually looked at the details of the course (gotta know before you go, after all), and it turns out the program really would be a perfect fit. There were a couple of 4000’ – 6000’ elevation-gain days starting at 5:00am or 6:00am (ouch), but, I’d be rewarded with skiing high-angle couloirs blanketed with the best snow in the world. Jackson Hole isn’t on everyone’s bucket list for nothing.
Day 1: Classroom and fieldwork
We met early at the Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ (JHMG) office, grabbed coffee, ate some breakfast and got to work. We discussed gear needed in the backcountry, how to pack a backpack, you know, the usual training montage stuff.
What was one of the more useful things I learned was how to use apps like Gaia to plan the day’s route to avoid avalanche paths and other terrain related dangers. This wasn’t an avy course but we still needed to cover the basics. We also learned how to build a sled out of skis so that one can drag one’s partner back home in case of an accident. It’s the kind of skill that’s good to know and never have to use…
In the afternoon we went for a quick tour up to the top of Snow King Mountain. I was feeling really good and took off running on my skis, ready to put my heart and lungs to work. JHMG recommends everyone fly in a day or two early to acclimatize when signing up for their programs. We all did, but I could definitely feel the effects of the altitude on this first tour.
Anyway, once at the top we continued with more classwork. Instructors Mike and Brian showed us how to build anchors, properly set up a belay and rappel down with skis. I was skeptical that you can build a solid anchor using an ice axe but it’s true, it held me on a 50° slope, fully laden with skis and backpack.
Day 2: Red Sentinel Couloir
What Doug, our guide for the day, had in mind for that second day’s objective was not your ordinary walk in the park. Our goal was to climb to Red Sentinel Saddle, ski its northeastern couloir down to Glacier Gulch and back. Consider this: the saddle is at 11,240’. We parked our car at 6200’. It was a looooong day.
After 8 hours and two 5 minute breaks we reached our objective. At that point I was feeling pretty good: I was acclimatized and all of the running I had done that year made it a cinch! For other people in the group (names will not be named!) that initial trek turned out to be a little more challenging.
Once we got to the top of the Red Sentinel Saddle Doug went over to take a look and said “looks good.” Good enough for him had to be good enough for me. I wanted to see the couloir for myself. And after leaning over and seeing how steep, narrow and dark that couloir looked I felt scared. It’s true. But, if Doug was fine with other people dropping into that thing, I figured I’d be fine too.
To get into the couloir we had to rappel about 40′, we got down one by one and soon after started skiing. The first section was narrow, rocky, with super thin snowpack so we took it one jump turn at the time, but once we got into the wider section it was amaaaazing!! To this day it ranks as one of the best runs of my life. Unforgettable. After a day of skinning on hard snow, the north side had nothing but deep, super light, soft powder. Doug said it was pretty close to the perfect Alaskan snow he remembered from his days as a heli-ski guide.
Day 3: More ski mountaineering
The day before was a 12 hour haul and I thought these guys would take it easy on us on the last day, but, no, I was wrong. We had 10 hour day ahead of us but with a little less vertical climbing. And we were rewarded with two sweet runs in super deep powder.
Grand Teton National Park is a special place
This was an eye opening trip for me. The guys at JHMG changed my life for the better. They taught me the basics that I’ve used ever since, wherever and whenever I go into the backcountry. The whole crew there thrived at taking my group to the next level and challenging our expectations of what we thought we were capable of. Most importantly, they mentored and led in such a way that I always felt safe and that my concerns and questions were not those of an amateur, but of a peer and fellow adventurer.