Rising to the Challenge
|Snow Caps: The granite spires of Wyomings Teton Range (Stockbyte/Getty)|
The canyon walls were closing in tight, the snow had iced up, and the pitch of the slope was so extreme that I could press my palm against it without bending at the waist. Below me the couloir stretched out like a runway, a vertiginous 700 feet to the valley floor where bright sun assaulted the open slopes. The steep south-facing sliver where I stood remained shaded.
I pulled my ice axe from its sheath, reached forward, and plunged it into the wall. I kicked my right foot into the solid surface, excavated a foothold with my crampon, and perched. My left foot followed. Three hundred feet above, the narrow slot spilled into Surprise Lake, a high alpine trough at the base of the day's prize: 11,572-foot Disappointment Peak. I was determined to not let that mountain's name become prophetic.
Of course, the fact that my harness was attached to a rope that was, in turn, attached to Christian Santileces, Exum Mountain's lead guide, inspired confidence. As he and I climbed in sync, with a little slack in the line between us, I felt like I'd been shimmying up couloirs my entire life. Falling was an afterthought, and even if I did slip, I trusted I could stop myself, plant my toes and ice axe into the snow, stick my ass in the air, and defy gravity. A week ago, before I'd started this mountaineering course in the snowy environs of Wyoming's Teton Mountains, I would've been paralyzed by fear. Four days in, however, and falling was an afterthought, and the conditions that had paralyzed me in the past—boot-packing up steeps, side-stepping exposed ridgelines—had become surprisingly commonplace.
When we topped out at the snow-covered Surprise Lake, I glanced up at Spoon Couloir, a gorgeous, 50-degree corridor of snow and rock hovering above the lake. I expected a surge of fearful adrenaline—I have to go up there?!?—but felt only optimistic enthusiasm. Christian broke trail to the southeast face, took off his skis, and began boot packing up a 60-degree face, and I followed.
The granite Tetons—the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains—skyrocket more than 3,000 feet out of the Snake River Basin. With no foothills and relatively easy access, these steeps are a ski mountaineer's dream. Often compared to the extreme slopes in the Alps, the Tetons have schooled ski legends from the known—Doug Coombs and Bill Briggs—to the lesser known, like local Tom Turiano, author of the definitive book, Teton Skiing: A History and Guide.
No wonder, then, that Exum is based here. Founded by Glenn Exum and Paul Petzoldt in 1930, Exum Mountain Guides is one of the oldest schools of mountaineering instruction in North America. Here the focus is less on just getting their clients up the mountain and back down again. Instead, the school aims to engage and inspire its students, teaching them fundamental climbing skills before attempting to tackle big peaks.
When I signed up for a primer before taking my trip-of-a-lifetime journey to the mountains of Italy, Christian asked what I wanted to get out of our private sessions. Earlier, another guide suggested we might ski 13,770-foot Grand Teton, a mountaineering coup reserved only for extremely skilled athletes. That gave me nightmares. So I asked to spend the week hammering home the basics and developing a more solid foundation, while dropping me in a few seriously humbling scenarios.
He obliged. We set aside five days that would include snow school, climbing several peaks, winter camping, and a final expedition. After our first day, we modified the plan and ditched the camping in order to focus more on climbing and skiing steeps.
Day one began with avalanche rescue drills. For over an hour Christian hid beacons and I found them as he timed my progress and fine-tuned my search. Then we threw ourselves down a steep moraine slope that dropped about 100 vertical feet and practiced self-arresting with an ice axe. I slid in every configuration possible. Head first, feet first, sideways. With skis on. Without. Convinced I had the hang of it, Christian enthused that I was easy to teach. I was skeptical. After all, it's easy to be teachable when you're launching yourself down an extremely safe slope.
After lunch we skinned 3,000 feet up a steady climb to the top of 25 Short, a popular day trip and one I had done many times when I lived in Jackson Hole a decade earlier. It had snowed the day before, and we got face shots all the way down.
Day two dawned exceedingly cold. Zero degrees in town, with forecasted wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. Undeterred, we drove back to the park and bee-lined for Shadow Peak, another popular ski spot. We planned to skin to the summit, drop into the 40-degree southeast couloir, and spend the day boot-packing up and skiing down until I was comfortably mobile in both directions.
The weather had different plans. Sideways snow limited our visibility to about five feet. A chill worked its way through my five layers, which included a down jacket. Several times my eyelashes stuck together, frozen, and each time my fingers regained their feeling, the wind kicked up. (Later, a friend who spent that day skiing at Teton Village discovered he'd gotten frostbitten in the brutal conditions.) At the peak's summit, atop the couloir that was to be our classroom, Christian made the executive decision. Instead of hammering the boot pack, we would absorb another ski mountaineering lesson: always respect the conditions. Three thousand feet of powder turns later, I gratefully blasted the heat in my car and drove myself to the local pub for a celebratory pint.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication