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First 1-legged ascent up Jackson Hole’s Bridger headwall

Posted Mar 05 2011 9:48am

Photo by Stephen Koch

OK, we don’t know officially if it is first 1-legged ascent but the people that know Jackson Hole well think so.

Through good friend, mountaineer, skier and snowboarder extraordinaire Stephen Koch–the first to descend the highest peaks on 6 of the 7 continents on a snowboard ( http://stephenkoch.com )–my brother Mike and I had a strong in with the ski patrol. We were invited to climb, watch them blast and clear avalanche danger and then take a few runs with ski patrolman Kevin P.

We were to show up at 6:30 am when, on this March 4 morning it was still dark. Driving up to the mountain it was still pitch dark and I counted no fewer than 7 big snow cats still working hard way up on the mountain to finish grooming before they were forced off by the mountain’s imminent opening to the public. At the main home for the ski patrol where they had offices, a huge locker room, and meeting rooms, we were to meet Stephen and Kevin. We were each required to bring the new air bag back packs that inflate all around you if you get caught in an avalanche as well as a shovel, probe and an electronic beacon that ski patrol and search and rescue teams can use to find you even under many feet of snow. Stephan had extra air bag packs for us and Mike had extra beacon, probe and shovel for me. We also had to sign waivers of liability that had the words ‘serious injury’ and ‘death’ in several places.

Next was the morning briefing. Whereas Hill Street Blues had the bald sergeant barking about the rape, the murder and the car-jacking, here the ‘sergeant’ of the ski patrol barks about the snow depth, the slabs that slid recently, and the areas they might be able to open after teams secure those areas from the foot of fresh powder from the previous 48 hours. Assignments were made, teams were formed to cover designated routes and everyone was out the door.

Us too. And we headed to the gondola where the ski patrol force and their observers were riding up to hike up the steep boot path to the headwall above the Bridger buildings and Gondola. Most of the problem areas and all the assigned morning routes began from the top of this hike. We and 20-some patrollers were assembled at the flat staging just below the hike. It was not quite 7 am. It was steep. I need to say that again. This was so steep that my maniac 22-year old super-skier nephews get to the headwall from the longer but much more gradual hike from the tram. Not an option this day as only the gondola runs this early.

I was not sure the best technique to use to climb this with outriggers. I climb or hike very occasionally at ski areas mostly if a run I really love is only accessible that way. At Alta Catherine’s is worth the gradual, skis-on 100-yard hike. On super powder days I would also do the Devil’s Castle hike there if I was skiing with someone who carried my ski. It was short and moderately steep but I could flip the outrigger skis down and place them in previous hikers boot steps and it went pretty well. Even the old Telluride’s Gold Hill hike (before the lift), was a long but very gradual hike we did once a day but again this was a walk with outriggers used as crutches on the very hard pack trail. For this Jackson Hole hike skis were strapped to the hikers back so you knew this was more serious than any of those others. And even these fit, super-experienced ski patrol were flailing a bit on the first big step to start the hike. I wanted to wait until all the patrol had headed up for two reasons. It would mean more packing of the boot steps and I, at my much slower pace, would not keep important workers from their appointed tasks. As it was I knew Kevin would be up at the top waiting for me. But I still had no idea how and if I was going to pull this off.

But there is no substitute for just going for it with a can do attitude. And so I did. But even getting up that first step was a challenge. I needed a boost. Luckily so had several of the ski patrol! Now the question was how was this going to work? Should the outriggers be in flipped up mode as they were for walking? That presents the ground with the tail of the short ski that has sharp screws sticking out for traction. They are more like crutches in this mode and won’t slip around but will sink in if the snow is not very hard. If the little skis are flipped down they are, well, skis and are designed to slip so I doubted that would work especially on such a steep hike. So I started up. I would put the outriggers down and try to step up with my single foot as high as I could trying to match up to those existing boot steps. What would happen is that the outriggers would sink and that would destroy my progress. Or my foot placement would not hold and it would slip backwards. On a good stretch I’d get five steps before I had top stop from exhaustion–mostly I was gasping for air. I think I was fighting lack of acclimation to altitude as well as my diminished lung capacity. But I have never breathed so fast for so long as this hike.

Photo by Stephen Koch

A little ways up we realized the boot was slipping too often so we put a mountaineering crampon on it and that helped enormously. I could slam my boot toe into the steep hillside and no matter where I placed it, the crampon would hold me in place. That gave me one less thing to worry about slipping or sinking in. But those darn outriggers still kept finding no bottom and would sink way down and provide me no platform to move up from. A couple of times that dramatic sinking caused me to fall backwards and scare my climbing partners to death. In the end I settled on a technique that was crampon on the boot plus use just one outrigger trying to be very careful to place it where the base was firm and keep my other hand on the snow to keep me low and stable. It still felt like I was basically hopping so it was incredibly exhausting. My lungs have never worked so hard. But I made it to the top only about 500 vertical feet after the hardest hour of effort I can remember.

Photo by Stephen Koch

Kevin was there waiting and ready for his tasks. He had us go out to the very tip of a buttress that had at least a 500 foot drop so no room for error. Meanwhile Kevin and his partner Jason threw charges over the cliff. One of them really set off quite a slide which later we would ski through. Kevin had us ski around the rocks to an area way above the gondola terminus. He had Jason cut across the slope above us and he easily made it slide. It was just about a 6″ slab about 30′ across that slide down a 100 yards or so. Saved a charge with that move. A few more charges thrown and both Jason and Kevin were done. Now we could ski. We had about a foot of fresh powder intermixed with some slide debris. It was fantastic. Except I had really blown a lot of my leg strength for the ski day doing that climb.

Kevin skied with us a few more runs and then had to go do real ski patrol work. Stephen stayed with us and after a couple of very fast cruisers, he took us out of bounds for some incredible back country stashes. Incredible day. But it required several people have some real patience and a great attitude. I have to really acknowledge Stephen Koch and Kevin P as well as my brother Michael to make this day possible.

But the lesson for me and others was clear: I didn’t know if I could do this thing but I went straight at it with a positive attitude and with persistence and determination (and patience of those with me) I did it and it felt good. Remember what Scott Hamilton, the olympic skater says, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

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