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 Good Karma on Baldy Knoll


Michael McGuffin


                The creak of hesitant machinery and the scent of burning diesel signaled a new day at Teton Village, where, fortunately, I wasn’t standing in a typical lift line.  Instead of being sandwiched between foul-mouthed teenagers and bulging at the belt businessmen I was surrounded by the duct-taped unshaven hardcores of Jackson Hole.  We were waiting for the first tram.

                My longtime friend and Jackson Hole resident Grant Wapiti, along Jared Spackman, another JH local, had dreamed up an improbable route from the Teton Village Ski Resort to a fully stocked yurt on Baldy Knoll some nine miles to the west.  Grant had shown me the route - a pencil line on a beer-stained map - the night before at the Calico Tavern.  “We don’t know of anyone who’s ever done it before,” he said with the mistaken belief that I would take this as a selling point.  As it turned out they had done a brilliant piece of route finding, but stepping from the Tram on that clear February morning I was simply embarking on yet another one of Grant’s “go big or go home” (translation – longer and more difficult than advertised) ideas.

                The Tram was as tight as a Tokyo subway, and we spilled out of the orange box into a windless white wonderland.  I raced to get my skis on.   The first turns are always the hardest, but I managed to find my legs before skiing through a gate labeled CAUTION - YOU ARE LEAVING THE JACKSON HOLE SKI AREA BOUNDARY - THIS IS YOUR DECISION POINT.  After a year and a half living in Europe I had become accustomed to the you buys your ticket you takes your chances mentality, and it was good to see some of that personal responsibility ethos rubbing off here in the States.  Past the gate we joined half a dozen skiers already scrambling up a rocky ridge; the line was a bit exposed, but a slip would have been more embarrassing than dangerous.

                Once up the ridge we snapped back into our bindings and picked our way across a speckled rubble field.  When we finally found some deep white stuff we dropped in and chopped up a slope of trackless powder so virgin it broke my heart.  The sky was blue, the wind calm and, as my friend Boris once described the morning after a Peruvian coca tea binge, all was right with the world.

                Now came the hard part – breaking trail through bottomless Teton powder – but with nine people, five of whom who nearly fought over the pole position, the going was smooth and the pace comfortable.  Though less than four inches of snow had fallen within the previous seventy-two hours, the snowpack seemed dubious, so we spread out and moved steadily towards Housetop Mountain.  A quarter mile below the summit we held up to marvel at, and to give some room to, a mountain goat that covered in ten minutes a distance that would take us the next two hours.

                At the summit of Housetop we turned into the wind and began a tightrope walk towards a prominent point above Acid Ridge.  Backcountry skiing occasionally requires you to take a deep breath, loosen your pack straps and move quickly across tenuous ground; this was such an occasion.  To my right, the drop was dead vertical, and to my left the slope was an unconsolidated forty-degree drop into Game Creek, two thousand feet below.  I’ll admit to a sizable sigh of relief when I crested Acid Ridge and began the descent towards Lone Pine Point.  The snow was windblown and funky and the hour late so we all - save Brandon, Jared’s free-heel’n brother – descended granny style - on skins.  While we each did the flying wedge, Brandon cut textbook turns into the ridgeline; he began drifting so far left that I thought he’d been lured into an east-facing bowl by the siren call of endless snow.

                At the base of the ridge we found sign of hyper-charged lightweight snow machines.  We had been warned about previous conflicts between skiers and snowmobilers in this area, but fortunately all we encountered were tracks.  The belt tracks led to ski tracks, which in turn led to the front door of our yurt; it was four-o-clock.  This was my introduction to yurt life, and compared to a tent our abode was palatial.  The place had a wood burning stove, three propane fueled burners, all utensils, sleeping bags, pads even a deck of cards; I wouldn’t have been happier in the Hilton.

                I sleep cold and typically carry a minus thirty down bag I’ve dubbed “Big Red,” so I was more than a little concerned about what I’d find in the box labeled “sleeping bags.”  Fortunately I ended up with a comfy and clean five-degree bag.  My longtime friend Bill Hartlieb, on the other hand, spent the evening folding his six foot two frame into a childrens bag.  Bill has, on too many occasions, demonstrated a physical and mental temperament that is seemingly impervious to cold and exhaustion, and therefore his comments of “this bag only comes up to my armpits” and “I think I got a kid’s bag” were met with snores and unsympathetic grunts.  Kind of a backwards twist on the never cry wolf scenario.  I awoke well before sunup to find Bill breathing life into the wood stove.

                The morning sky held just enough high cirrus to shade the eastern slopes.  Our target for the day was a north-facing slope on the far side of a deep gorge southwest of the strangely named Zimbabwe Mountain.  Brandon, I and the third free-heeler of the group, Aaron Schultice, lost our heads and dropped into the canyon too quickly, fortunately unconsolidated snow and a funnel-shaped slope coaxed us back onto safer ground a prophetic decision as we later saw that our route ended atop a fifty foot cliff band.  The inertia of a large group and general lethargy had precluded an early start, and by the time we made the east-facing descent into the valley wet snow was pulling at our heels.

                When we finally made it to the bottom we hurried into our skins, and despite a complicated transformation the three snowboarders in our group pushed their way out front and began cutting a too-steep track up the hill.  Midway up I finally took the lead and began laying in a moderately angled track; somebody had to teach these upstarts how to put in an uphill line.  Sadly my lesson on Zen and the art of skinning fell to impatience, because Brain Prax, a local climbing guide, quickly passed me with his split snowboard and resumed the relentless angle.  Taking full advantage of the moral capital granted by my free heels I grumbled all the way to the top.  Finally we had nowhere to go but down.

I’ve found that two types of skiers glide the slopes of this world: those who have skied knee-deep powder and those who haven’t.  Powder, now I’m not referring to six or eight inches above a groomed base at your local lift area, but true bottomless talc, is addictive.  Once you taste it, once cold smoke sweeps up from your knees and billows over your head, you’re a junkie and no amount of suffering, lying or expense will keep you away from the stuff.  Powder vindicates the backcountry skier by making every face plant into wet glop, every base gauge, every sore muscle worth it.  It proves that the sweetest rewards are bought with sweat, muscle and determination.  On this day we skied two runs on powder, and on a cold February day we would each know what it is to fly.

                Because powder skiing is so great the uninitiated believe it to be easy.  Little could be further from the truth.  Powder skiing isn’t for the tentative, it requires unswerving commitment, because if you get scared and turn perpendicular to the fall line you’ll eat snow, take my word I know.

I was the second one onto the slope, and after three turns I saw that I was heading for a small cliff, instead of calmly turning away and picking a new line I lost my nerve and turned uphill.  I didn’t stay upright for long.  The worst thing you can do while skiing deep tenuous snow is to fall down.  Snow, even airy powder, is shockingly heavy and the slough dislodged by my fall was enough to send me gasping for the surface.  Luckily my flailing and tumbling didn’t set off anything of consequence, but my confidence had vanished and I wasted the remainder of my hard won altitude regaining my snow legs.  I recovered a little confidence - and a little face - on the second run.

                The hike back to the yurt was an unexpected misery.  Instead of cruising home after a hard day, we had to climb the windblown crud that each of us had struggled down six hours earlier.  It’s times like these – when you’re faced with a thousand food climb up bottomless windpack – that you remember why backcountry skiing isn’t popular, and never will be: it’s just too damn hard.  Midway up the slope I ran out of gas and began gnawing at a banana flavored Powerbar that I’d found stuck to the bottom of my food bag.  My dentist probably would have been happier watching me open beer bottles with my molars.

                By and by we all got to the yurt, where some Samaritan managed to light the stove.  After passing two, maybe three water bottles of hot Jell-O the lead began to pour out of our legs and soon our circular abode was a flurry (well actually it was a kind of slow motion flurry, but a relative flurry none the less) of activity.  Someone stoked the stove, two gallant souls brought in a galvanized washtub of snow for melting, someone washed dishes and everyone began stripping down and drying out.  After a dinner of all you can eat burritos and three games of euchre, I, along with the rest of my comrades, passed into blissful slumber.

                Jared and Brandon had harbored hopes of getting up early and making turns before leaving for the car, but by the time we boiled four pots of coffee, cooked breakfast, cleaned the dishes, packed, swept and replenished the wood supply a side trip was out of the question.  Instead we climbed to the top of Baldy Knoll where we skied a bit of descent powder down into what the owner of the yurt had named Going Home Bowl.  The sun was bright and the shadow of the powder billowing up from my tails nearly engulfed my black silhouette.  The remainder of our descent was survival skiing through thick timber, which is all I have to say about that.

                Having lived twelve years in the beautiful city of Seattle I’m rarely envious of another’s home, but I will admit that those Jackson boys have us Northwesterners beat on backcountry access.  Forty-five minutes after completing our three-day trip I was, showered, shaven and opening my first beer.  It’s a good life out there in the Tetons.