Ski Mountaineering

The Goal Is Not to Fall

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Tetons' Ski and Snowboard Mountaineering Camp
OUTFITTER: Exum Mountain Guides; 307-733-2297; www.exumguides.com
COST: $850
DATES: May 30-June 3, 2000

On June 16, 1971, Jackson resident and Snow King ski school director Bill Briggs skied Wyoming's 13,770-foot Grand Teton. He was the first and he did it alone, without Gore-Tex, avalanche beacon, GPS, or cell phone. In the decades since, the Tetons have become the core of American ski mountaineering, but it's not because they're easy. Jagged and toothy, the Tetons' vertical walls are broken by discontinuous couloirs that in winter are best described as avalanche paths, forcing glisse mountaineers to wait for the warm days and cold nights of spring, when avalanches are more predictable and easier to avoid. Snow conditions range from black ice to perfect corn snow to thigh-deep slush. What's more, all descents of the Grand to date, except one, have involved treacherous rappels over rocks. Missing a turn can mean a 1,000-foot slide and, if you can't self-arrest, death by multiple blunt trauma.

Interested? Sign up for Exum Mountain Guides' five-day ski and snowboard mountaineering camp in the Tetons. You won't necessarily ski the Grand from the summit—in fact, only 100 or so people have since 1971—but if conditions allow, you'll take on some of its lower chutes and bag one or more of its neighbors. The camp holds its first two days at Jackson Hole Ski Resort, where your guides ostensibly teach you steep-skiing technique. In reality, they're screening you. If you can't descend 40-degree slopes with confidence at the resort, you have no business on 50-degree slopes in the backcountry. Which is not to say that you need to be an extreme skier capable of sticking 60-footers either: As guide Kevin Pusey puts it, "When you're seven hours from the nearest road, you always have to ask yourself, 'If I fall here, what's going to happen?'"

The goal of ski mountaineering, after all, is to not fall, a skill mastered by Exum guides like former World Extreme Skiing champion Doug Coombs and Tom Turiano, who has free-heeled more than 50 Teton peaks. Coombs and Turiano focus on the finer points of belayed skiing and rappelling into near-vertical couloirs, while ice-climbing experts like Pusey and avalanche professional Mark Newcomb train you in safe mountain travel. It's your job to pay attention: Your gear may be state-of-the-art, but if your skills aren't at the same level, you'd best restrict your expeditions to the Poconos.

NEXT TIME, TRY:

Skiing the Wapta Traverse
OUTFITTER: Yamnuska; 403-678-4164; www.yamnuska.com
COST: $570
DATES: February 26-March 3, 2001; April 16-21, 2001

Once you've honed your steep-skiing technique in the Tetons, it's time to learn a few more skills in British Columbia. Canadian guide company Yamnuska offers a five-day ski-mountaineering trip outside Lake Louise dubbed the Wapta Traverse. The tour includes two elements you probably didn't encounter in Wyoming: powder snow and glacier travel. While hauling your gear and food from hut to hut, you'll be learning to negotiate crevasses, ice falls, and high cols—skills you'll need for future, unguided trips. A strong group of expert skiers can expect to climb and ski as many as four peaks in five days.

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

Climbing and Skiing Maine's Mount Katahdin
WHEN TO GO: December-April MILEAGE: 17

Forget Tuckerman's Ravine. The skiing's great, but you can pretty much count on being taken out by a drunk "Joey." For bona fide East Coast ski mountaineering, head up to big-shouldered Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park. You and three others must register for the four-day expedition with park rangers at least two weeks in advance, and provide proof of winter climbing experience. You'll need it. You'll start off towing a sled full of gear from the Abol Bridge Trailhead, nine miles from Millinocket, to the Roaring Brook campground, 13 miles away. From there, your party will don crampons and climbing helmets, strap skis to packs, and climb another 4.4 miles above treeline. Most skiers prefer the North and South basins, but try any line you want. For more information, contact Baxter State Park at 207-723-5140. 

 

SKIING THE TETONS: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: Train by hauling a 50-pound pack up 5,000 vertical feet and then skiing back down—with the pack still on.

Mental Fitness: You need to know when it's OK to relax, and when relaxing can be fatal. As the guides say, "Low danger doesn't mean no danger." You'll also have to deal with what Pusey calls "That, 'I can't do this! Why am I here?' inner game."

Environmental Challenges:
Expect to work hard and confront terror at 11,000 feet—not exactly Denali or the Himalayas, but high enough to cause hypoxia-related problems for lay climbers.

Skills: This is a camp for expert skiers (fixed and free-heeled) and boarders comfortable riding 40-degree slopes—expert runs at most ski areas—in all snow conditions.

SKI MOUNTAINEERS' READING LIST:


For Inspiration: Teton Skiing: A History and Guide, by Tom Turiano. A turn-by-turn map down some of the steepest first descents in the Tetons, with beta that enables you to follow—if you dare.

For Practical Know-How: Ski Mountaineering, by Peter Cliff. Instruction in all elements of glisse mountaineering, plus detailed intelligence on some of the world's classic routes.

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