By Sam Bass
Nothing makes you focus on the task at hand quite like massive exposure.
I’m shuffling sideways along the northeast ridge of Buck Mountain in the Tetons, kicking steps into refrozen corn, palms planted on the razorback crest like I’m trying to calm some humongous feral hog. Buck’s cliffy east face falls away toward the valley floor beneath my boot soles. An arm’s length away, the other side of the ridge drops more than a thousand feet into the Taggart Creek drainage. Across the yawning gulf, Mount Wister’s bulk gleams in the early-morning sun.
I’m trying to stay downhill of the rope that connects me to Carl Pelletier and guide Zahan Billimoria, because if I were to accidentally step over it and then fall, I’d probably yank Pelletier down with me. Billimoria’s thoughtfully rigged belay would certainly catch us, but I don’t want to yank Pelletier down, because I just met him a few days ago and he seems like a nice guy.
In fact, I recently met almost all of these people, at a burrito joint in Jackson, Wyoming, where we had gathered for carbs and margs before day one of the four-day ski-mountaineering course we are now about to conclude. Once we summit, that is. And safely descend Buck’s East Face without sailing off the giant cliffs that form its chin. I glance at Pelletier, who gives me an encouraging nod. Farther back, the faces of the 10 other students, including that of Giles Lajevic-Augustine, are set in grimaces of concentration. I breathe…and keep kicking my way toward the peak.
When Lajevic-Augustine got the email last winter, he felt like he’d won the lottery. It was from Nat Patridge, co-owner of Jackson, Wyoming’s Exum Mountain Guides, one of the nation’s oldest and best-known guiding services. Lajevic-Augustine had won a scholarship to a four-day ski-mountaineering-skills camp to be held that May in the Tetons.
“I was living in east Jackson, working nights at the grocery store stocking shelves,” he recalls. “I was also lifeguarding at the rec center, watching the kids’ water slide. I could never have afforded something like this.”
“This” is a camp designed for experienced backcountry skiers interested in becoming ski mountaineers—skiers who climb big mountains and descend exposed lines, using technique and gear borrowed from rock climbing to mitigate the risks of moving through such terrain. Admission is selective. A backcountry résumé is required, along with $990, which does not include food, lodging, and most gear. The camp is taught by some of Exum’s most credentialed ski-mountaineering guides, including Patridge, Aaron Dahill, Bill Anderson, Brenton Reagan, and Billimoria, who’s serving as lead guide.
The camp is named Live to Ski, which was the mantra of the late Teton ski mountaineer Steve Romeo, a close friend of Billimoria’s. In the close-knit world of ski mountaineers and avid backcountry skiers, Romeo became well known—through the photography and writing on his blog, TetonAT.com—for his
pioneering descents in Grand Teton National Park, the pace and passion with which he attacked them, and his way, as Billimoria puts it, of “sharing and inspiring others to chase their own adventures.”
On March 7, 2012, Romeo, then 41, and fellow ski mountaineer Chris Onufer died in an avalanche on Ranger Peak in the Tetons. The LTS camp, explains Billimoria, is Exum’s way of keeping Romeo’s memory alive. “We wanted to find a way for Exum to be involved in promoting his legacy in a way that was educational for a new generation.”
Before his death, Romeo had made the acquaintance of one David Sokol, a frequent Exum client and enthusiastic Teton backcountry skier. Sokol and his wife, Peggy, hearing of Romeo’s passing, were inspired to donate to the Steve Romeo Memorial Fund money earmarked to provide one full-ride LTS camp scholarship every year for the next 15 years. As Billimoria explains it, Sokol’s hope was that it go to a committed backcountry skier with a few seasons of experience who “is putting every last dime into developing ski-mountaineering skills, spending time creeping and crawling all over the mountains, learning their ways.”
The description fit Lajevic-Augustine, who had spent seasons in Utah, Washington, New Zealand, and Wyoming. “My whole backcountry experience had involved bootpacking and skinning,” he says. “I was skiing very obvious, easy lines—nothing technical. I don’t come from a climbing background, so I didn’t have any skill in placing gear, rappelling, or the other technical aspects of ski mountaineering. My only climbing experience had been on a top rope in Boy Scouts.”
About those ropes. On day one of the LTS camp, which involved a long, sweaty ascent of several thousand feet from the valley floor into the upper reaches of Garnet Canyon, a few peaks south of the Grand Teton, I was thankful that our group’s ropes were weighing down the packs of my fellow students and several of our guides, rather than mine.
We were gathered in a high basin of the canyon, between Nez Perce to our south and the Middle Teton to the north, for a hands-on rope-management and anchor-building clinic. One half of the group had climbed and skied nearby West Hourglass couloir, while the other had summited Spalding Peak, at the canyon’s head. We had hiked through muddy alpine scrub brush, skinned over softening corn, and, close to the summit, stomped up dry boot-deep powder. So we could navigate the narrow swath of 50-ish-degree snow near Spalding’s peak, Billimoria had shown us how to ski on belay. Now, down lower, he sang the rope’s praises.
“The rope is a remarkably simple tool, commonplace in the climbing world,” explained Billimoria, a wiry, energetic 36-year-old who grew up in Switzerland and moved to Jackson in 2003 to pursue a career in ski mountaineering. “Skiers often only carry them for rappelling, but you can also use them in very simple ways to add layers of security to your experience.” He showed how ropes could be used for belayed ski-cutting of slopes to release potentially deadly avalanches, or to lower skiers into likely start zones to assess conditions.
“Adding layers of security expands the possibilities of where you’re willing to go,” he said. “But it’s a mistake to think that a rope enables dangerous skiing, like dropping into a start zone when it could slide, or belaying a slope because you think it’s going to avalanche. That’s like driving recklessly because you have a seat belt. Rather, in steep terrain, when you’ve decided stability is adequate and your skills are up to the task, the rope allows you to get your nose in it, to feel the snow with your skis and confirm your stability assumptions.”
We all certainly appreciate the security afforded by those ropes on Buck’s ridge, and now on the sunny summit, we chug water, slam Gu packs, and revel in the view of the Gros Ventre Wilderness across the valley and the Wind River Range beyond.
Two days ago, on the second day, we climbed and skied Mount Albright, whose enticing summit-to-valley run is visible to travelers passing through Jackson’s nearby airport. We practiced more belayed skiing and anchor building—everything from bombproof, three-point rock anchors to a seated belay stance. Yesterday, day three, saw us at a hotel in Jackson, learning knots, building belay systems, and discussing how to apply the appropriate amount of protection complexity for the task at hand. That evening we climbed about 4,000 feet to the base of Buck’s East Face, set up camp, gorged on freeze-dried camp food, sipped Maker’s Mark, and snuggled into down jackets as Billimoria spoke of the significance of Buck Mountain in his development as a ski mountaineer.
“Two friends and I summited Buck on December 24, 2003,” he said. “We skied down successfully and that was the day I said, ‘OK, this is the experience I’ve always been looking for.’ The mountain element. The skiing element. That’s when it all really came together for me in the Tetons.”
Now on day four, the finale, with thirst quenched and hunger sated, we click boots into ski mode, shoulder packs, and push off in teams of three. To Pelletier and me, Billimoria emphasizes the importance of calculated turns and conservative speed. Even though it’s not the steepest slope we’ve skied that week, a band of giant cliffs lurks below, and a small mistake could be costly. At one point I come in a bit too hot, which prompts a scolding. “Cool it down, Sam,” Billimoria says. “I don’t want to have to call your wife and kids with any bad news.”
He’s right. The sun is shining. The corn is soft. I slow down and enjoy the ride.
Sam Bass is Skiing’s editor-in-chief. He grew up in Maine, where ropes are used mainly to secure boats and pull vehicles out of ditches.
This video gives a sense of what it's like to ski the Tetons with Exum Mountain Guides:
Two sessions of Live to Ski Camp will be offered in 2014 (April 30 to May 3 and May 7–10; $990). Each camp will have four guides and 12 students. Young expert skiers age 14 to 18 interested in ski mountaineering should investigate Exum’s Hans Saari Camp (May 24–27; $250).
For more, including LTS scholarship info, visit Exum at exumguides.com or call 307-733-2297.
To view the photo feed from LTS 2013, visit #livetoskicamp on Instagram.