I started getting all touchy-feely about touring in the Tetons last week about half way up the Glory bootpack. I’d woken up less than an hour before, skis already in a the car from a failed mission the day before, driven through Driggs, Victor, up the pass. I was on my own, I wanted to sweat out my problems on the bootpack more than I cared about the usual shared experience of backcountry skiing.
I stopped at the billboard to rest for a second, leaning into my poles and staring to my right at the mist shrouding the valley, sparkling all the way to the Gros Ventures. On my left I imagined I could almost pick out the bend in the road where my house sat. No smoke over there yet, that’s a good sign, I was worried I’d overstoked the fire on my way out.
Two springs ago I climbed this bootpack for the first time in camo duck hunting pants, Full Tilt boots, and a rented beacon. We stopped at the same billboard, sweating and huffing, before dropping down the gut of Glory on my first real backcountry run. It’s funny, but I still overheat and under-breathe on that bootpack two years later. That’s sort of the magic of bootpacking, if it starts feeling easy you can just go faster.
In those two years a lot of my life changed. I left my hometown, moved three times, eventually found myself in Teton Valley with a new job, a new group of friends, a new set of goals. I remember how exotic that first Glory bootpack was, how nervous I felt. Trying to figure out how to A-Frame my skis, unbuckling my boots, terrified to turn when we did drop in. Now I live here, I can wake up on any given morning, drive 20 minutes, run up this thing, ski a few thousand feet and get back well in time for work.
It’s a backup lap now, something to ski when I don’t have much time and I just want to drown my problems in the catharsis of simple exertion. Even though that bootpack is lined with dog poop and gets tracked out incredibly fast there’s a lot to be thankful for.
I topped out, clicked on my skis and dropped in. Icy hop turns on too-light carbon skis with too-light bindings. Chundery double eject to a long slide with both skis whipping on their leashes. When I finally stopped I sat in the tracked out ice and laughed at the sunrise.
Two days later I was in the same parking lot but headed south this time, up to Edelweiss. Sliding up the access road I remembered my first day on skins on this same road. Dodging wind drifts, trying to figure out my risers, warily watching the rest of the group as I tried to figure out kick turns. Now it’s a breeze, chatting and laughing through the waves of snow. The main bowl was tracked out, moguled like something at a resort, but the secondary bowl skier’s right of the skin track was still pretty fresh. Soft turns, popping off rollers, mellow terrain that would have blown my mind two years ago and still draws a grin on my face.
Two years ago I learned that skis are a most pleasurable means of mountain transportation, now though I use them like an exercise bike too, making myself wake up early and tour just to stay in shape, stay sharp, stay happy.
But all that pumping metaphorical iron isn’t just so that I can shave a couple seconds off the Glory bootpack. Instead it pays off when the skin track gets long and bushy.
That’s exactly what happened yesterday.
I tagged along with Dan and Mark (all appropriately clad in collared shirts) on Saturday to ski a couloir off Housetop. We skinned fast from the parking lot, made the yurt in just under two hours and then ran the ridgeline out to where the couloir should have been. We found a giant curling wave of a cornice, majestic in its instability, so we pushed on through the low visibility, maybe the line we were looking for dropped in one shot further along.
We poked a little further along and found something promising. The entrance was steep and mostly corniced so Mark probed for dirt and we tried to figure out how to get into this thing. The cornice was too solid and too big to cut, but Dan figured out a down-climb and got in beside it, trying to cut a chunk off with his board. He shaved and whacked the cornice but that thing wasn’t going anywhere, which made us feel much better about dropping in. Downclimb to the safe zone, glad I brought a whippet, and click in.
The visibility had gone downhill all day, and Dan dropped into the grey first. He popped down to the next safe zone and hollered back up. The choke didn’t go, there was some sort of mandatory cliff to drop, but low vis meant it was impossible to tell how big it was.
We dropped down to him, chucking snowballs trying to figure out if this thing was 30 feet tall or 3. Time for a council of war. A look back at the picture from last spring of this zone revealed that after the first pinch everything should be easy going. More scoping, more trying to figure out how big this cliff was. If we dropped it there would be no climbing back up out of the line.
More discussion before we agreed, might as well drop this thing. Mark sent it first, hoping it was small but prepared to suck up a big drop. He stomped it, turned out to safety. It was small, only around 10 feet. Dan cleared it nicely, slapped and got out of the way. I sideslipped in too far, trying to scope the rocky lip. The gut was scraped out now and there were sharks everywhere. Finally I slid into a turn and committed, too close to the edge to get settled in my stance. I caught a rock on the lip and flailed out. Lost a ski and a pole on impact and tumbled twice before I oriented myself and dug in my whippet, self arrested, and braced for sluff.
Everything settled and I started laughing. I was fine, nothing had slid, and the couloir opened onto the apron below me. Mark brought down my ski and pole and one by one we dropped down to the apron, huge turns in soft snow, punctuated by the occasional chunk of old avy debris.
Whiskey, Oreos, and Peachy O’s while we waited for the fog to clear so we could see our line. No dice, but we were confident we’d dropped one shot left of where we’d planned to.
A little sidehilling took us to another decision point, either wallow back uphill the way we’d come, or drop one more tantalizing shot down to the valley floor and suffer out the creekbed. The promise of untouched snow below us won out so we ripped skins and blasted huge arcs through the trees, party skiing, slashing lips, trying to pop pillows all the way down to the creekbed.
From there it was simple, just a few miles of meandering, following deer tracks across natural bridges over the creek, cutting back and forth to avoid thick brush. I opted to stick low to the creek, twice I had to bail on too-steep banks and toss my skis over the creek before clacking across rounded rocks in my boots. The second time the pillow I was skinning on collapsed into the creek and I stood in the rapidly melting pile of snow, trying to keep all my gear from freezing. Finally we hit the road, downhill skinning to the truck, and beer.
On the way home I was laughing again. Two springs ago I first felt this gurgle of fear fighting confidence in my gut on top of Glory. Yesterday I felt that uneasiness again, that feeling of extra weight. But back then all it took to get that was an hour long hike and some nice sun-warmed snow.
Now the process is so much more enjoyable. Now I get to wander 5 or 6 miles in, dodging bad puns the entire way, before we get to even make our decision on what to ski. Now I get to jump off cliffs in couloirs that I never even could have imagined existed two springs ago. Now I get to skin out long creek beds, bending under the portals of trees bowed by snow. Now I can go home and talk to people who understand why I love getting to do all this stuff, and when I wake up the next morning the Tetons fill my window. A lot to be grateful for indeed.