Eventually, in the parking lot, gear and people sprawled everywhere, Jim came clean. “Jared, I need to tell you something.” The wry, maybe it was sheepish, smile on his face immediately put me on guard. “It wasn’t Jesse’s idea. It was mine.” I lean in with raised eyebrows, listening intently. “I was on the phone with Jesse, I was worried about the ice conditions in Cody and we were talking about skiing. I raised the idea of this to her and she was in. I then told her I would have to go broach the idea of it to you and try to get you to buy in. . .” He trails off in a bit of laughter, trying to suppress a smile.
Lying as I was in the warm parking lot, Coors at hand, basking in the afterglow and pain of a day in the mountains, I had already forgotten about falling ice, collapsing waterfalls and wading cold, icy rivers. Cody had seemed like a good change from the normal sport climbing routine of Sinks Canyon and despite the disappointing, not cold looking weather forecast, we had made plans to travel that way. So, in truth, when he showed up at the kitchen table the day we were supposed to leave and brought up the subject of skiing with Jesse and Greta in the Tetons, I didn’t actually need that much convincing; though I wasn’t sure if my technique was up to the terrain.
“Well Jim, thanks” I said without much emotion, the perma-grin etched onto my face from the day’s travels not-with-standing. “I think the truth could have sold me. I just wanted to get out of Lander and change up the scene.” I too devolved in a small chuckle to match my smile, mostly at Jim’s earnestness. A day of skiing in the mountains with Jim, Greta and Jesse seemed like a wonderful way to have fun. I had wondered if they knew what they were getting when asking me to go, but none-the-less this novice skier would have been hard pressed to pass up the invitation.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Greta and I loaded ski gear, a half eaten pizza, burritos, and various types of alcohol into the back of my truck, swung by Jim’s, then caravanned over the pass and into the Park. We pulled into the darkness of the Colter Bay parking lot ten minutes earlier than our scheduled 1030 rendezvous with Jesse.
We talked gear, packed our bags, shed layers and skied off onto the snow and slush covered lake. We navigated the uncertainty and darkness, first tentatively, then with more gusto as we accepted the slush and just plowed southwestward toward the moonlit, hulking mass of Mount Moran.
After six miles of lake travel, caching gear and changing our skins, we started the almost 6000 foot uphill trek. We zig zagged upward, occasionally sliding backwards, but our low-risers, ski crampons and skins mostly proved effective at keeping us from prematurely sliding down the hill. Unfortunately those tools did little to stop the doubt I had from going the wrong direction; with each step and hard kick, I further doubted my ability to descend safely. I outwardly debated stopping to wait, but Jim convinced me to continue. “You don’t have to ski down” he said convincingly enough. “Don’t you want to go to the summit with us?”
We were boot packing up the far reaches of the Skillet Glacier by the time the sun finally broke the horizon. With the four of us trading the arduous joy of kicking steps, the ridge top, with its accompanying winds, was encountered not long after 0800 hours. We shed the skis, donned layers and rambled upward for the requisite summit tag.
I have often written about why I climb, but never published a post on why I ski†. There, high on handle of The Skillet, the sun’s morning rays softly painting the landscape, it dawned on me that I couldn’t differentiate between skiing and climbing and the motivations associated with the endeavors. As I have written before: “for me the place or type of climbing has begun to matter a lot less. My favorite type of climbing is any type done with good friends.” So it goes for skiing too; there is no discounting the human factor, the people who make up my life. So why then, I contemplated aloud, does where I am rate higher than a day of sport climbing. Sure it was different; that was probably a factor. The days I have spent skiing on Togwotee or in the Tetons had been different and they had been fun and with good folks. It wasn’t about the skiing though. As I employed the rest step, struggled for breath, plunged the ice axe, kicked the boot, over and over again it came to me. It was about the up. It was about the mountain. It was about the climb. I was climbing a mountain. In the alpine. This was a combination of things, some old, some new, in different ways. The alpine is a quality I can’t discount, for it is the alpine that makes my heart sing. And it rarely sings louder than when in the mountains with friends (though often its voice cracks with fright when doing so).
The just under 6,000 feet that took us over six hours to gain, was lost in about 60 minutes. There was nothing pretty about my turns. In fact I plunged stepped down the upper 700 feet of the couloir, looking for a bit more wideness and less angle to “practice” my turns. Burning quads and shaky turns quickly ensued as I inched my way down the occasionally soft, but mostly firm, crusty and windblown steeps. Five-thousand feet and only three falls later though, I arrived at the treeline to share high fives.
Our exit was punctuated by a lakeside picnic replete with IPAs, chips, salsa, Reese’s Pieces, and great company as well as a cocktail hour on the slush covered Jackson Lake, where we sipped maple bourbon sours on ice while snacking on various hors d’oeuvres.
Later I would learn that both Jesse and Jim had spent much time thinking about this objective. For me, it had only earned less than 48 hours of forethought. I didn’t know what I was getting into; I didn’t know its been called “the biggest backcountry line in the US“‡ or it made Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America. Maybe I can’t appreciate it as much as others, at least not for the skiing. Perhaps it was out of guilt on Jim’s part, but I can’t help be thankful for the other three allowing me along on what may rank as one of the finest days I’ve spent in the mountains.
† Two things: First my apologies to my brother for never having finished my post on our day out at Wildcat. The same sentiments apply however, spending time outdoors, doing things we enjoy, with people I like and care about. But mostly, having fun. Second: well that is because in the past 15 years I have hardly skied at all. It hasn’t been much a part of my life. Maybe that will change.
‡ A bit of an exaggeration, but a good selling point for them none the less.
Featured Image: Jesse Quillian skiing across Jackson Lake with Mount Moran and the Skillet Glacier behind. Photo: Greta Mills