I popped my head out of the tent at 3 a.m. It was cold. Real cold. No new snow fell overnight fell, a good sign for stability. We cooked up some canned chili and coffee for breakfast, then started to climb the 6000-foot monster that towered above us. A week ago, three co-workers asked me if I wanted to climb and ski the Skillet Couloir on Mount Moran. Skiing this Teton classic has been one of my goals since I moved to Jackson, Wyoming, two and a half years ago. Though the thought of actually attempting it scared the shit out of me, I knew I’d regret saying no. Our plan was to leave Saturday morning and skin across the lake from Colter Bay. We would camp overnight, start the ascent early Sunday morning, and skin back across the lake and home Sunday afternoon. When we checked the weather and avalanche report, our chances of success looked promising.
We started skinning across the lake around noon. The base of Moran is six miles from Colter Bay, and it took us two and a half hours to skin to camp. Whisky and wine kept us warm as we cooked dinner. I went to bed early and tried to sleep but aimless worries kept running through my head. “Did I bring enough food? Did I drink enough water? Did I bring enough clothes?” I thought of my favorite quote from Elyse Saugstad that I keep by my computer at work. “By constantly exposing myself to fear, I am diffusing its powers.”
We started touring at 4:30 a.m. An hour in, I felt strong and my breathing was regulated, I gave a silent thanks to my friend Crystal Wright and her bad-ass ski fit classes. Two hours in, I was cold, extremely cold. The first hour of sweating had made my clothes damp and I couldn’t get warm. For the first time, I thought I might not make it.
“Cam!” I yelled out to my friend, “I’m so cold, everything is cold. If I don’t start to warm up, I’m going to turn around.” I hated admitting this. I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to turn around but I knew vocalizing it now would make me seriously assess the situation.
We stopped and I drank some hot tea, the sun came out and I felt my body come back to life. Energized, we returned to the approach. The snow was consistently smooth as we skinned up the main gut. I felt confident again, which gave me another boost of energy.
Kickturns and switchbacks are not my specialty and we must have done 100 of them. I’m not a tall lady, 5’4” to be exact, and my 179-centimeter skis weren’t helping, nor were my Lange race boots. I teared up as I hurled my right ski around to meet the left, terrified of what would happen if I fell. Injury or death were two very likely scenarios. I focused all my energy on making those switchbacks and, eventually, they started to feel better.
As the top of the mountain grew closer, spirits got higher. I strapped my skis on my back and we hiked the final bootpack to the summit. With each step, my adrenaline rose. I knew we were going to make it to the top.
Standing atop Mount Moran with the Tetons as our backdrop, I quickly hugged my teammates before focusing on the next important task: getting down. The top of the Skillet is steep and intimidating, about 55 degrees. I took a deep breath and dropped in. The snow felt heavy. I took three hop turns and had to catch my breath, taking my time to pick my way down the couloir. I was more concerned with making it down safely than slaying the line. Then the couloir opened up and I finally let go. There was so much snow. I made fast arcing turns and enjoyed 5,000 vert of powder. I could not stop smiling. We did it.
But we weren’t done yet. On the way out, we struggled and moved slowly. My toes were badly frostbitten—third-degree on one foot and second-degree on the other, which would later get infected. Our legs were beat. But we slogged on. At the end of the day, the hours would tally up to 19. This mission tested every inch of me, mentally, physical and emotionally…and I loved it.
Standing on top of Mount Moran, a strong female member of an otherwise all-male team, made me feel the most alive I have ever felt. And I want to feel it again. I proved I belong out there. And I’ve even come to terms with my new nickname, “Nine Toe Jo.”