On March 15, I found myself parked at Palisades Reservoir, off Highway 26, staring deep into the heart of Grand Teton National Forest. As the clouds broke, Ms. Jackson lifted her skirt unveiling a playground of virgin lines and monster airs. My heart fluttered, I felt like a freshman locking eyes with the prom queen. Suddenly deep, dormant emotions crashed in like a rogue wave at the beach. My legs were lead weights on broken glass slippers, as the Tetons stare back; we casually share a laugh, while the continuous drags from my dank beverage trigger flashbacks of savage lines. The harder I try to focus, the more it becomes a blur. 250 inches over the previous 40 days. 80 inches during the last 7. It was all time Jackson Hole folks.
It was the last week of February when the call came… Jackson Hole was going off. February was on pace to be the fourth wettest month, ever recorded in Jackson. Immediately I began loading my weapons cache into the car: 10:30 pm. Word on the street: Class IV rager from Cheyenne all the way to Jackson. I shot out of Denver at 11:00 and eighty minutes later I was careening through whiteout conditions across the back roads of central Wyoming between Cheyenne and Rock Springs. For a fleeting moment, I closed my eyes and wondered if this was the by-product of a daydream, a titilating vision sent to dazzle the senses. But the knot in my stomach sucked me back into reality. The speedometer checked in at 90, the clock 2:30 am. I swallowed and commanded my vision forward, then went screaming north to Togwotee Pass.
As I raced against the clock, I battled sleep deprivation with speed, trying to ensure myself first box up Jackson’s craggy 4,000 foot vertical. I charged down Togwotee racing through low clouds mixed with sheets of wind driven snow. My A4 galloped through circuitous mountain roads holding 10 unplowed inches between 15 foot snow walls. I was impatient, overzealous, and hungry. Hill after hill, into another sharp turn; I lost track of whether I was gaining or losing elevation, suddenly I began to ponder if I could even hang with the Jackson all-stars.
I stormed into Moose lot at 7:45, selected the Fatypus D’Riddum out of my quiver, and scurried towards the tram to clink up with budding local legend Ian Tarbox. The stars aligned and we slipped onto a relatively empty first box. Having driven into Jackson Hole during a storm at dawn; I was curious, if given the choice, would I rather watch the Tetons slowly grow through my little car window, or greet the mountain through the clouds and fog as we ascended into the lower levels of heaven.
As the box swung past tower 2, my eyes closed, encouraging Ms. Jackson’s winter cacophony to invade my higher senses. Great islands of icy foam stung my smooth skin, as her cool breath crept down my neck. My most joyous childhood memories paraded in, while adrenaline flooded my cerebral cortex. I was nervous, yet ecstatic. In eager anticipation, every cell in my body began river dancing. The cabin was combustible with excitement, as I opened my eyes a virgin Corbet’s welcomed us to paradise.
Ian and I stepped off the tram into a Category 5 blizzard. We bounded around the bend, clipping in between fist pumps and school girl screams. Ropes were dropping on lines that hadn’t been skiable in a decade. Avy conditions were extreme, with 16 inches overnight, and 120 inches in the last 2 weeks. I watched the raging tempest with some complacency. Billions of flakes darted like bait fish, before a wild current of wind slammed them into the mountain, terrorizing my exposed skin. A sense of danger, which had never been entirely absent since I left Denver, awoke with a sharp urgency. Ian playfully mused, “We’ll warm up by deflowering Corbet’s, then jump into the backcountry.” His shit eating grin made me giggle, “Well, Mark, welcome to Jackson Hole!”
We arrived at Corbet’s to find three onlookers plotting their entrance. Ian slapped my ass, then shouted, “Watch this!” He boot packed up the left wall, strapped in, and flashed a thumbs up. His energy permeated the millions of snowflakes between us: it was game time. Ian dominated a left slash, entered the white room, and went sailing into the coulie. My legs were shaking as adrenaline and nerves exploded through my tight veins. I found my entrance a few feet left of the high dive, dropped into bottomless, and chased Ian down 4,000 some feet of nipple deep, untouched, cowboy powder.
We didn’t see a soul during our inaugural run. We jumped into each other’s arms at the base, let out a war cry of joy, and ran onto another early box for seconds. As we ascended out of the base we looked back and saw a tram line which meandered north; a thousand souls strong, towards the gondola. Ian assured me we didn’t have time for another inbounds run before the floodgates opened. With our sights set beyond the boundaries Ian and I reviewed the avy forecast and discussed terrain options.
Stepping into the backcountry is inherently dangerous and should not be done without the proper training and equipment. Even for the most seasoned backcountry veterans serious injury or death can merely be a mistake away. Your greatest asset in the backwoods is humility. After years of chasing backcountry lines there are a few simple rules I live by.
First, surround yourself with a great team; people you know who perform their best under pressure. Always, always, have a group leader. Someone who knows the snowpack, terrain, and personality of the mountain. The leader must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the group. If one individual does not feel safe about the line; walk away. Meekness is just as deadly as pride. Before I step into the backcountry with anyone new I have a simple test to check their backcountry preparedness. Find an inbounds run that mimics your out of bounds terrain choice. Have the group leader hide a backpack, with a beacon, several hundred feet below. If the group can not locate and dig out the pack, within ten minutes, you have no business venturing out of bounds with them. It’s not a matter of if you will be in an avalanche, it’s when. Always be weary of people who try to coerce you into terrain with the line, “I’ve ridden this line a hundred times, there’s nothing to worry about.” Mother Nature is not afraid to punish those who are innocently comfortable, like the high school love who first broke your heart. The second you think you know everything about her, mother sends that all time storm cycle, and your favorite, “safe” line turns into your last.
Before any backcountry excursion your group should meet and read over avalanche reports, so you can formulate a game plan for the expedition. Terrain selection should be made based on exposure, wind direction, temperature, and snowpack insecurities. Once you set a plan, stick to it. Of course you are going to get out there and see a run that just beckons to be pillaged. Don’t do it! I know too many good people who perished because group testosterone started flowing and they jumped onto a face preplanning would have begged them to ignore. It is important to pay attention to group dynamics, the backcountry is not the place to be haughty.
Ian and I have skied the backcountry many times together, yet we treat each time like it is our first. We review topo maps of the areas we are considering, look at pictures of each run, and study the backcountry reports of several snow plots. Ian keeps meticulous daily charts of seasonal snow pack evolution. He also keeps a daily record of slides, where they happened, the aspect which slid, as well as, the depth they stepped down to. After absorbing all this info we plot our day.
With the avy danger being considerable we had opted to choose terrain which featured short chutes with clean run outs. Clean run outs are advantageous because if you are in an avalanche, you won’t be dragged into trees. Our terrain selection lead us into the Rock Springs and Four Pines arena. Upon unloading the tram we scurried across Redezvous Bowl and set up shop above Rock Springs Bench. We checked our beacons, prepped the cameras, and prayed up. We dug a test pit and found instabilities at every level of the snow pack. Notably at 18-24 inches and 5 feet. With such a capricious base we expected everything we skied to sluff down to 24 inches. A little scary but manageable. Sluff can trigger an avalanche which steps down to deeper insecurities, so cliff bands and steep exposed bowls were simply not skiable. Gingerly we moseyed down to Ship’s Prow. I ski cut a small chute and the instability at 24 inches was very apparent.
Ian took the honors on the Prow and enjoyed a few great turns before the run flattened out. He set the camera up in a safe zone as I hopped over to another of Ship’s chutes. For a moment, I could make out nothing distinctly. Time seemed to pause on that glorious second, snowflakes suspended in mid air, as my warm adrenaline laced breaths soothed my nerves.
I dropped in and found waist deep powder, as I barreled through the chute, a small sluff slide laid chase. The sluff rushed up against the back of my legs, throttling me up to full speed. The D’Riddums handled the situation beautifully; as I executed my third turn I was back into low angle, waist deep pow. We boot packed west into Four Pines and surveyed our surroundings. The sunlight flirted with four visible peaks amongst the fog. Each ray illuminating tentacles of billowy crystals. Suddenly, a terrific noise trumpeted across the mountainside, an icy blast of wind wrecked into the snowpack, sending millions of glass crystals exploding through the high alpine. Without warning the storm drank in the visibility and we were left staring at a blank white canvas. We sought refuge from the storm, in a wooded section, just below Four Pines to check our avy gear and clean the camera.
We selected a more mellow, northeast facing chute in Four Pines; hoping to capture some overhead pow shots and boy were we rewarded. I enjoyed snorkel worthy turns and set the camera up just behind a clump of trees. Without the Mountainsmith Borealis bag, backcountry filming expeditions like this would be nearly impossible. The Borealis bag creates such a effortless transition for backcountry photographers. Even in the midst of a raging blizzard I was camera ready in less than 30 seconds. I glanced up realizing Ian was in for the turns of the day. I fought finger numbing cold, as I captured Tarbox gracefully lay down some Pollock like rhythmic brushes, effortlessly slicing up the virgin canvas.
The coolness of the Wyoming air kissing my brittle skin woke me from my delicious memory. I grabbed an apple and stepped out of the car to pay last homage to Lady Jackson. Great currents of wind came swirling down the Grand Tetons, slamming up against my tender shins. I continued my journey against the better advice of my feet. An immense yet lovely noise vibrated through the valley. The white slopes made a wide amphitheater, enclosing a frothy and pulsating band of misfits. There, within that illustrious moment, I felt as though something had happened to my senses, as they were now transmitting information which would, on Earth, have exceeded their capacity. I could process the wholeness, yet individuality of each snowflake; as it molded the Snake, rushing a thousand miles before colliding with the Columbia, and ultimately refilling the Pacific. Then I became the wind storming down from the Gulf of Alaska terrorizing the deep blue Pacific. Finally I marched, reveling with a college of giants dancing, laughing, and roaring back towards Jackson.
After first shock my sensibility took hold, like a captain navigating a violent storm. I exulted. As Ms. Jackson kissed me goodnight, I “understood” the importance of my journey. A pilgrimage of worship and retreat I thought. My mind embraced oneness, then cut to uniqueness. I bit into my apple and expected to be overwhelmed by the very leaves and the sandy soil of the wood. I was full of myself but still hungry. As the sweet nectar of the fruit dribbled down my face, I gradually forced my ambitions down and divorced myself from sense. The last month had been her masterpiece. Years of work culminated by thirty days of pure ecstasy. The Tetons smiled back in mutual admiration.
All photos taken by Mark Wayne Sisk and Ian Tarbox.
You’re an amazing writer. I love your metaphors and pictures. Wow.