On June 16 in 1971, only six years after the invention of plastic ski boots and long before anyone dreamed up skis with sidecut, a man named Bill Briggs claimed the first ski descent of Wyoming’s Grand Teton. And he didn’t get a heli bump to the top of the 13,776-foot summit, either. A trained mountain guide working for Jackson-based Exum Mountain Guides at the time, he first climbed the damned thing with a fused hip, skis on his back, and broken crampons beneath his feet. Miraculously, he lived to tell the tale and went on to inspire ski mountaineers for generations to come.
In June, a 90-year-old Briggs celebrated the 50th anniversary of his epic first ski descent of the Grand Teton the best way he knew how: with a party at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, Wyo., where Briggs, a talented picker and yodeler, has been playing music with the Stagecoach Band he helped found every Sunday night since 1969. We caught up with him after the dust settled on the dance floor to reminisce about his grand adventure.
I did an interview with the local radio station before going up the Grand. He put it out over the air, saying, “I’ve got this nut who thinks he’s going to go ski the Grand Teton.” So it was pretty well understood that I was going to do this. Except for the radio station, everyone was very supportive. The fellow that I had to check out with at the National Park Service was a wonderful guy—he was part of the ski troops in World War II, and understood what was involved. He just told me to go do it.
It was a difficult challenge, let’s put it that way. I had to climb one pitch that had a combination of ice, snow, and rock. I had crampons on, but one of the points on them broke. And climbing up the couloir to the east face was so steep.
This wasn’t about achieving some landmark in skiing, or doing—and achieving—something scary. The highlight was running into challenge after challenge and then succeeding at each one. Every one of the problems you encounter that you solve is such a kick. That made the whole thing a fantastic adventure. I remember when I was at the top, all ready to ski down, and thinking, I’ve gotten through the hard parts, now all I have to do is ski. That’s the easy part.
I don’t know how other people may have skied through the top section of rocks. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about it, which makes me wonder if other people stopped short of the summit. There isn’t much snow and there are rock outcroppings all over the place. Your wedel technique has to be extremely precise to avoid those rocks. When you first start down, you’re making 0-radius turns—there’s just no room to turn. But then you get out of the rocky section and hit beautiful corn snow. It’s just plain fun to ski.
The next guy to do it was about four years later. He read up on all of the things that I had written about it in the paper and in magazines and whatnot. He was a good mountaineer and certainly a good skier. He went at it the right way. He wanted to understand what he was getting into before he did it, and I admire that approach. That’s that way you like to have the next person to do it come along.
My research was simply to just go up there and take a look at what was involved. I was mountain guiding at the time, so I had guided that route like a hundred times. In the process of taking people up I could look at different portions of the route. So I knew pretty much what the snow route would entail, even though I’d never set foot on it.
Barry Corbet [of Corbet’s Couloir] was an inspiration and a confidence-builder. We both went to Dartmouth. He was very bright, supposedly he had the highest IQ of anyone admitted to Dartmouth. He was an excellent athlete who became a mountain guide. And I eventually joined him and became a mountain guide in Jackson as well. He was great to work with, and smarter than I was, that was for sure. We went back and forth between helping each other and teaching each other things. He was going to film my skiing of the Grand. But he had a prior commitment in Baja, so he wasn’t able to do it.
I feel as though I’m a little on the weak side, physically, mentally, and confidence-wise to be doing what the hell I’ve been doing. And Barry was very strong. Whenever I felt like something was a little too difficult for me, I’d turn it over to him and he’d have all the confidence in the world to pull it off. In essence, I was just lucky to have him in my back pocket.
You need inspiration coming from someone who is a little bit better than you. Not a lot better—that’s overwhelming. But just a little better, so that you think to yourself, Yeah, I can do that. And Barry was always just that little bit ahead. How lucky can you be to have someone like that, at the right time, come in and be a support?
From an anatomical point of view, I’m a cripple. I was born without a hip socket. So I’ve always had that in the back of my mind, that I have a body that can’t quite perform. The medical field said I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40. But here I am, I’m 90, and no wheelchair yet.
I’ve always had a thing about proving the experts wrong. It’s kind of fun to do. It’s the idea of killing a sacred cow. I just had a bent to do that. It’s about reasoning. You get fixed notions or fixed ideas about the way things are, but when you take a look at them, that’s not always the way it is. Even if everybody says so. To say you can’t ski the Grand Teton just didn’t stand to reason.
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