Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ office is in a strip mall at the south end of town. The facade and interior are not classically strip mall-esque, except of course for Jackson. The outer wooden/log covering is replicated inside with bare wood and log, structure, furnishings, and finish work.
Fourteen of us are crammed into a small room, sitting around four, white, plastic tables with barely enough room to pull chairs out. Three full cans of Dale’s Pale Ale sit conjoined by their plastic rings, while the remains of three other six packs are scattered around, either empty or quickly approaching that state. The bright, fluorescent lighting from high overhead burns in stark contrast to the previous eight hours of flat, natural light. Heads being held up by hands, droopy eyes, and windburned faces tell of three thousand feet of earned turns in cold, snowy, blustery conditions.
It is the end of the course, an AIARE Avalanche Level 1, and the instructors are trying to point us in the right directions for future learning, growth and development. Next to me, Dylan, a young bearded climber who guides on Devil’s Tower is being honest about human factors. “Man, when we stopped to dig that pit, I’ll be honest with you, I was thinking like, ‘there’s only another 500+ feet to to top, lets keep going” he says, eliciting nods of recognition and agreement around the table. “I was thinking “we should just go to the top and get some more turns’. So yeah, I would piggyback onto what others said about terrain management and social contracts. That is new to me.”
Next to him, I lean back in my chair, balancing on its two back legs with the wall behind me for support. Dylan’s comment received no such nod of recognition from me, as several hours earlier, high on the side of Wimpy’s, a classic backcountry ski tour in Grand Teton National Park, I was pretty focused on learning what the snow and our instructors had to teach us. I didn’t realize however that there might be learnings I didn’t expect.
The fourteen of us, two instructors and twelve students, had gathered in the parking lot at 0800 hours. We split into two groups and picked our way up the northeast side of Albright Peak. We opted out of the normal skin track for sake of education: route finding, trail breaking and learning up through some lower angle terrain, which didn’t always prove to be easy. In writing our trip plans the night before, we had allotted four to five hours for ascent, observations, breaks, etc. for the 3500+ feet from the parking lot to the top of the ridge. It was our goal to be pointing our skis funward by 1300 hours. We took turns trail breaking and route finding as we zig zagged, slipped, slid, and skinned our way upward with the surface alternating between boot deep (or more) powder, ice, and most things in between.
Being the detail oriented person I am, I kept an eye on my watch, observing the minutes slowly tick toward our predetermined turn around time. Despite having spent much of my middle and high school years yearning for winter and snow covered slopes, I haven’t skied much in the past 16 years. My junior year in college, which was spent in Missoula, MT, is probably the last time I regularly skied, frequently getting out both to the back country and ski areas. That was in ’98-’99. So when I saw the clock approaching our turn around time, there was little to coax me upward, only snow pit observations and a previously made plan that urged me to stay. All I knew was that below me was crusty, wind blown snow that would likely have me going ass over tea kettle most of the way down the hill, despite having learned to ski in the east. I voiced my preference about wanting to get a profile and some observations in before heading down, no doubt spoiling some other folk’s more immediate idea of fun. We grouped up, bundled ourselves against the cold, snowy conditions then, while eating and drinking, dug a snow pit to check out the snowpack. Our instructor, John, ran us through some observations, asked us questions and did some tests. My organized and detail disposed mind had me jotting it all down in my notebook.
The gravity aided part of our day began with a group management briefing from John. He gave us some pointers, more nudges in the right direction, and skied of down the slope, followed quickly by the rest of the group. The low angle and soft powder made for easy enough skiing before we grouped up in the trees. I didn’t fall on that pitch, so it wasn’t too bad.
John did a quick check-in then launched off again, with the group in quick succession. “Hmm, I could see why people might enjoy this” I say, to no one in particular as I come to a stop at the bottom of the next section. The focus, the softness, the location, they all combine to make me smile, but just a little bit. The next few pitches offer more of the same: easy skiing, fun turns, and soft powder spraying upward into the face. And I eat it only once or twice. The bottom half though has me tumbling a bit more frequently as I crunch through crusts and ski into frozen chunks. I am sure Lucy, who is playing sweep at the back of the group just wants a nice clean run and to not have to continuously stop to wait for me to get up. After a long low angle finish down the meadow, we regroup as fourteen and make the long trek back out to the parking lot. Behind us Albright Peak and Wimpy’s are just beginning to work their way out of the cloak of clouds that has covered them all day. Despite the semi-annoying flats on the way to the cars, part of me is wondering when I’ll get to go out and do it again.
Cat offers me a Big Sky Brewing IPA which I accept and sip on while listening and taking notes as other folks talk about what is new and what is next. Mulling Dylan’s comments over, I think, now having experienced the descent, I can completely relate to where he was coming from, at least with wanting to get more vertical feet of descent into the day. Fuck the plan, succumb to the human factors and get back a little later, what’s another hour. It makes sense now, though I am not sure my personality would let me do it. New learnings, I think, new learnings.
The instructors wrap it up, pass out our certificates and we say our goodbyes. I shake John’s hand, offering him my thanks. “Keep skiing” he offers as I am walking out the door. “I know you had fun out there, I saw you smile” he says with a grin and a laugh.
I push the door open and look back. I can’t help but smile because I know he is right. New learnings, ones I didn’t entirely expect.
“Yep, I probably will.” The powder has persuaded me.