Tackling the Grand Teton

Ringing in the new year with ridiculous ski goals.

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Along with the rest of the world, I woke up on New Year’s day 2012 with a handful of unlikely-to-be fulfilled resolutions. But I also set my sights on one huge, physical, mental, and sporting challenge: to climb and ski the Grand Teton.

Let’s make no mistake: I’m a ski-mountaineering neophyte. I bought my first backcountry set-up last winter. My ice ax is still shiny and my ski crampons are still sharp. Last season, I started venturing into the backcountry. It got into my system and took hold. But I wasn’t quite sure how to go from being a passive, guided participant—or a liability—on a ski mountaineering excursion to being a self-reliant, knowledgeable, contributing team member.

I did all those things people tell you to do to become more backcountry savvy. I took an Avy 1 course with Markus Beck and Alpine World Ascents. I tagged along on backcountry missions whenever people were willing to take me. Each time, I thought to myself “I want more of this.” I wanted to be with that crew at the bottom of Telluride’s lift Seven bedecked in harnesses with ropes and axes and crampons hanging off their packs getting ready to hit the Heavens Elevens chutes. But, the leap from competent skier to competent ski mountaineer seemed so great, time consuming, and out of reach. And, patience is not one of my virtues. So the question last winter became, how do I become a ski mountaineer in less than a year?

It was a serendipitous series of events that brought skiing the Grand Teton into my consciousness. First, last spring, I came across a picture of my uncle atop the Grand. Then June came along, which marked the 40th anniversary of Bill Briggs’ first descent of the Grand in 1971. I interviewed Briggs for a story and the way he spoke of the experience, the grandeur, of the risk-reward pay-off, of how pushing your physical limits can lead to something greater, inspired me. I wanted to see what I was—and possibly wasn’t—capable of. I wanted in on the Grand.

So, I signed up with Exum Mountain Guides to climb the Grand over Labor Day for an initial recon mission. Founded in 1931, Exum is the oldest and arguably the most prestigious guiding service in North America and the Grand Teton, one of the continent’s most iconic peaks. In late August, I met my guide, Brenton Regan, at Exum’s office in Grand Teton National Park. We went over some basic rock climbing and mountaineering skills and decided on a two-day climb, with an overnight at Exum’s camp on the saddle between the Middle and Grand Teton. After a cruisey day hike to the saddle, we went to bed at dusk in order to wake at 3:30 am for our summit bid. At dawn, we reached the top of the 13,775 Grand. We had the summit to ourselves and the high prairie stretched out below us in every direction. After downing a few Gus, Brenton walked me over to the lip of the Ford-Stetner couloir, the traditional GT ski descent. All I could see was a patch of corn snow disappearing into an abyss of no-fall zones, a few belays, and lots of 50-plus degree pitches. “Sign me up,” I said. 

On the way down, Brenton discussed what would need to happen in order to make skiing the Grand a reality. While there’s no substitute for experience, he outlined a rough curriculum that would take me from novice backcountry skier to skiing the Grand. The program included that initial recon mission, a class in mountaineering basics with Exum’s Boulder outpost and guide Tim Brown, lots of skiing and skinning on my own, and a week in Jackson training with my guide, Jess Baker, a Freeskiing National Champion and Exum guide, to work on backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering techniques. We’re aiming for a February attempt, given the snowpack sets up right and a high-pressure system moves in. If not, we’ll try again come spring.

So, with the New Year upon us, the journey’s begun. Stay tuned as Exum tries to make a proper ski mountaineer out of me. We’ll see.