My first experience through the gates taught me first-hand about what not to do when riding out of bounds. There is plenty to be prepared for in the rugged backcountry of Jackson Hole. Dylan and I decided to exit into the backcountry the morning of 1/20/15. Most of the powder in the resort had been skied out so we were after snagging powder turns where the snow was still fresh. We came upon a powder field immediately after crossing into the backcountry that was too nice to pass up. It did not occur to us why this spot was still unridden. But the terrain began to change as we proceeded further down the powdery slope turning tighter and steeper eventually leading to an impassable cliff zone.
From above there appeared to be a narrow pathway in-between or around the increasingly rocky terrain, and as we descended further the pathway disappeared. There was no path, we discovered. We were cliffed-out and had no idea what were riding toward.
We were faced with a decision; climb down or climb up. I was eying a particular feature which appeared to be a way we could traverse downward. It was a tiny chute of terrain just below and to our left. But that was not going to lead us anywhere promising. The slope just below that feature looked sheer and slippery. We had no knowledge of what hazards there might be going down, but climbing up seemed unthinkable.
After careful consideration and assessing our options, the decision was to climb up. We secured our boards to our backpacks and proceeded to free climb up the way we came. The first 20 - 30 ft were mostly vertical, and for about the remaining first 1/3 of the way up the pitch was greater than 45 degrees. Dylan led the way.
I’ll always remember my first hand grip of the climb. I reached for a piece of rock on my right that broke off into my hand. It was such a storybook, stereotypical signal of danger. I’m fortunate that the only time I chose an unstable grip was my first reach. We punched and kicked hand and foot holds into the snow as we climbed over, first rock and brush, then steep and slippery stretches. The snowpack proved stable enough to hold, and we lunged over the sketchy cliff zone and toward a finish line that was still not in sight. I was in disbelief that I had snowboarded into such trouble.
While hanging on just above the first section, the most vertical and rocky aspect of the ascent, I had to slide down a couple feet to right myself and gain better leverage. Nerves were felt initially, but I maintained control while maneuvering and without doing that I might have slipped off course. My mind was focused and completely fixated about going up. My thick gloves were a crucial luxury against the cold. I only wish I had the presence of mind to take a minute to mount my camera and press record before the 1.5 hour climb we endured.
It would have made an epic shot, and would have saved my camera... My snowboard was tugging on my backpack’s dual zipper which I had fastened in so that the two zippers met top-center. The weight of my snowboard in the board straps pulled open the zippers, and my camera jumped out unnoticed as I shimmied laterally in one of the more sketchy sections. As the terrain slowly began to flatten out, I could finally climb in an upright position. I commend Dylan for taking the lead on the decision to climb up. I’m assuming we are credited for a first ascent as we completed the grueling exercise.
With the climb behind us we continued to pursue the backcountry and proceeded down the ridge in the direction of Cody Peak, a towering bowl cut rock face. We had no knowledge of the area, nor exactly which direction to take. We approached a group of skiers for information about the terrain, and if there were any hazards we should avoid. They showed us little respect after learning we did not have avalanche beacons on as if to take it personally (I understand why). We rode on. Down below was an area known as Rock Springs. A grand rock face was hanging overhead that revealed itself as clouds rolled up the slopes. So picturesque as it presided over a field of boulders. Just beyond was a lovely obstacle course of trees which we proceeded to shred.
We were completely exhausted from climbing. Riding in the backcountry, my snowboard felt much like a survival tool, not the familiar riding mechanism solely used for a joyride. That was a new feeling. We were vigilant as we made our way back to the trail. You can never be too prepared out there.
Knowing the climbing situation was surmountable, and having overcome the unforeseen challenge of escaping danger it provided us with confidence. I felt cultured in backcountry wisdom, but as a result of the punishment we faced for not precautioning and educating ourselves of the terrain. We also had chosen to go out of bounds despite our avalanche beacons having dead batteries - A big no-no. The conditions were quite moderate for avalanches thankfully, but we were unprepared. Often I read news about avalanche deaths in the areas outside of Jackson Hole, and it happens to people without the proper gear or knowledge of the area. We shrugged off the warning signs instead of showing our all-out respect. The appropriate adjustment was made immediately in our minds, however, and we had been thoroughly schooled by nature.
Seeking powder and redemption, two days later we went through the same gates once again. We were prepared with beacons on and ready to make the proper assessments as we exited the resort. We crossed the resort boundary and there on our left was the trail leading to the cliffs of doom as we wisely traversed westward averting what the warning signs were cautioning. Riding in the direction of Cody Peak, we proceeded to the Rock Springs all of which are located inside The Bridger-Teton National Forest.
It was a bluebird day and many features in the mountains hidden in the prior overcast were etched into view. We gazed from afar at the fully unveiled zone we climbed. It was unreal looking at the climb from this perspective. Even more hazards were abundant further below our climbing position. It wasn’t until I saw what we climbed from this vantage point that I realized how exposed we were. We could clearly see our tracks both from our boards riding down into the cliff, and our ascent up the mountain. A feeling of amazement stayed with me the rest of the way. Each time we needed to rest our legs, I took in the scenery with an elevated appreciation, not only for the views, simply for the joy of riding.
Snowboarding is a privilege and a treasure, and seasons are always over too soon. While the Jackson trip was some of my best riding, it taught me not to take safety for granted and to always “know before you go,” and “If you can’t see it, don’t ski (ride) it.” Climbing up and out of a sketchy zone is not the fastest way out, but if you suck it up it can be life saving. It is also okay to not go if the conditions are suspect, or if there is any possibility of danger. Too often the harshest of punishments are suffered. Luckily for us, our punishment was merely a workout and a modest loss of riding time. We are among the fortunate who get to ride again and again.