Forty years ago last June, a banjo-picking, yodeling Ivy League grad with a fused hip named Bill Briggs clicked into his bindings and skied off the summit of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. Seven thousand vertical feet later, after a successful first descent, he emerged as the father of American big-mountain skiing. These days, when he isn’t hosting a weekly hootenany and enjoying daily epiphanies, the 80-year-old Jackson Hole local is busy working on a DVD series about ski instruction that integrates his unconventional spiritual beliefs.
Adventure is risk overcome. You’ve pushed your own envelope way open. The Grand was a grand adventure. It was outstanding in terms of personal reward.
I started yodeling at Dartmouth. I teamed up with this German-Jewish guy, the only African-American on campus, and me—that was our yodeling trio. We were all outcasts. With yodeling, I try to express and create the feeling of being in the mountains. The openness. The grandeur.
The Teton Tea Party started in 1958 when I was camped by the Snake River. I wanted to have people to sing with. So I brewed up this Teton Tea, a cheap mixture of half tea and half wine with lemon and sugar. Once we got the music going, everybody wanted to be a part of it. One time Shane McConkey came down. John Denver said it was the scariest gig he ever did. We have them every Monday night at Dornan’s. Now it’s called the Hootenanny.
When I became a Scientologist, my reaction time got so much quicker. I was playing Ping-Pong with a guy. I had a cast on my leg and I whipped him because I was so much better at Ping-Pong than I’d ever been. After the game that day, I thought, “Who wants a ski lesson?” Then, I cut myself out of the cast and went up to Mount Snow and gave a lesson.
You and I are spiritual beings inhabiting a body. It’s possible to separate the spiritual being from the physical body. I have one instructor who skis 20 feet back from his body. He’s very good.
I have epiphanies almost daily. I had two today. One was recognizing the difference between ability and skill. Skill is something that, once you have it, you always have; how well you do that skill is ability.
Big-mountain competitions are perfectly fine, because you push yourself further, breaking open higher levels of ability. Along the way, though, there’s got to be something bigger that you’re training for, which is beyond winning.
You want ski partners who are self-reliant. You want to create an opening that sucks a person into taking care of more than they thought they could. The attitude of support is also really crucial. You can’t have negative vibes going. It knocks your confidence out.
Now when I go skiing with people, it’s all about who’s gonna get the first line, all rushing around. The charm back then was that there was no competition and that everybody was contributing to the experience. It was about community.
Ski mountaineering has evolved greatly from when I did it. It’s just far more extreme. All peaks are essentially skiable now.