Life is a journey and it’s the milestones along the way that make it really worthwhile. This past year, (October 2011), I just completed one of those little milestones. I have now skied for the last 12 consecutive months for the first time in my life! Now for some of you out there, this is no big deal. It is something that you do every year. So, why is my story “different”? What makes it a little bit out of the ordinary?
- Well, for starters, I don’t fit the mold of the typical year-around skier:
- I’m not a professional – I don’t do this for a living.
- I don’t live in a resort town that has 12,000 foot peaks where the snowpack stays all year.
- I’m not a “trust-fund” kid – I have a limited budget.
- My job is basically a 45-50 hour a week desk job.
- And I’m over 50 years old.
In other words, I’m just your average, middle class working guy who happens to have a passion for skiing. Whether you fit the “average middle class working guy” mold, or have simply dreamed about doing something like this, then perhaps this article can inspire you to drop that cornice and do something like creating your own endless winter.
The Seed Is Planted
I’m not exactly sure when or how the idea to ski for 12 consecutive months actually entered into my consciousness. I mean, I was well aware of the concept. I knew others had done it, and continue to do so. (In fact, a guy who I’ve skied with, Bob Peters has done 12 months straight for something close to 15 years and counting). I had thought about it before, but had never really seriously entertained the notion. The catalyst for the adventure was perhaps my “mid-life crisis”, which is a return to my roots and backcountry skiing. I grew up in and around the Jackson Hole area. I was hiking for turns as young as 11 or 12 years old in the hills above our ranch. Later, in my mid-30’s I did a couple of trips with some buddies in the Pocatello area on Haystack Mountain and also on Mt. Moran in the Tetons.
Raising soccer playing children created a really big detour in my backcountry skiing adventures. Just about the time that I was starting to embrace the ski mountaineering and backcountry life, my 9 year-old daughter brought home a pamphlet on recreational soccer. Before we knew it, we were sucked completely into the whole club soccer scene, not just with one child, but with 3 of our 4 children. Of course, I “had” to get involved in coaching – initially as a volunteer for the recreational teams, and then eventually for the year-around clubs. Nearly twenty years, thousands of dollars, countless matches, dozens of out-of-state tournaments and 3 college soccer players later I finally got past that “little detour”.
Although raising a family of soccer players tends to detract from the pursuit of things like back country skiing and mountaineering, there was a significant event in our lives that allowed our family too more fully embrace the skiing lifestyle. In 1998 I had the opportunity to move back to Boise, where we had lived in the mid to late 80s. Coincidentally, the year that we moved back was the same year that Bogus Basin revolutionized season pass sales by introducing the “$200” adult season pass. We bought the family version the day that they hit the market, and have held a season pass ever since. As I started to ease my way out of the soccer scene, and back into the skiing scene, I began to embrace the “slack country” concept. Initially, it was short boot-packs out of bounds at Bogus Basin on Mores Mountain. That led to longer forays, which initially involved snowshoes, and finally led to going “all the way” and investing in the full randonee setup with skins, backpacks, and full avalanche gear. I love to climb or skin into out-of-bounds areas around Bogus Basin and Jackson Hole. Those people that know me well were not really surprised when I decided that I wanted to add some more technical ski mountaineering adventures to my skiing repertoire.
The Journey – Part One, the Winter Months
The stars were now aligned properly and the timing was right to embark on the journey. So, this is the story of my “endless winter”.
Due to La Nina, the snow gods, or pure luck, my local ski resort – Bogus Basin opened in November, 2010. We were skiing powder and off-trail on Thanksgiving weekend. This is extremely rare at Bogus Basin. I have been skiing here since the early ‘80’s and this is only the 2nd time that I can remember skiing at Bogus during the Thanksgiving weekend. (They may have been open a few more times that early, but if it is only part of the mountain, I usually don’t consider it really open).
December continued to build above average snowpack and the skiing was excellent for early season conditions. I have a great opportunity that I take advantage of every year in December. My company imposes a mandatory global shutdown from around the 20th of December until the Monday after January 1st. It truly breaks my heart – but I survive. I avoid the mall crowd and ski all but one or two days during this time. This past year was no exception and I think I had around 15 days logged before I had to go back to work.
The storms slowed down somewhat in January, (here at Bogus), but we still had great skiing. I was able to get up to the hill every weekend, and on all “powder days”. There are different definitions for what a powder day is, but my buddies and I say that a “powder day” at Bogus is considered anything over 6 inches of snow from after the lifts close until they open. As I said earlier, my job pretty much demands 45+ hours each week, BUT how and when I put those hours in is open to some negotiation. So, I always take the time to explain the “Powder Day” rule to my current manager and team. They pretty much know that if there is new snow in the mountains and there are no mandatory meetings, then I’ll be working early and late on that day. And from 9:00AM till after Lunch, I’m getting my powder fix in! I think I had a powder day or two in January.
February, March and April included many more days of skiing at Bogus Basin, plus a trip to Jackson Hole with the family, and two trips to Snowbird for 20+ inches of fresh “pow”. Huge smiley face on those two days! The cool thing about the Snowbird trips was that I had to be in Utah on those weekends to watch my daughter play soccer matches in the afternoon and evening. (Remember, I was “easing out” of the soccer scene). But these were college matches, so all I had to do was show up. In fact, I was a bit late for the one match. She didn’t really care, because deep down she would have rather been on the mountain anyway. The other amazing thing about the Snowbird skiing was that the second trip was on April 9th and the powder was over a foot and a half of fluffy, dry Utah snow. It’s hard to beat “tram laps” at Snowbird on a “pow” day! If I lived in Salt Lake, I’d probably have to “flex” my hours all winter and just hope I didn’t have many morning meetings. So, now I had skied November through April, but I wasn’t done.
The Journey – Part Two, Fully Committed
Now here is where it starts to get tricky if you live in Boise, Idaho and want to ski every month of the year. Usually in May, the daily temperatures can easily be hitting the 80s, with some 90s thrown in. With the ski area only 16 miles from the city and the top elevation only around 7,600 feet, the snowpack disappears pretty quickly! This last year, (2011), was the exception. My son and I were able to complete a backcountry ski outing in late April that went down into the Dry Creek drainage. This involved about 1,700 vertical of beautiful spring snow (and a coyote sighting) in steep, rocky terrain. Then over Memorial Day weekend we drove up to the Bogus Basin upper parking lot and hiked up to the top of Shaffer Butte, (within the resort boundaries), and skied back down a run called “Injun Joe”. This is a west-facing aspect and we had 3-4 inches of fresh powder! The snowpack was so phenomenal this past year that I even did another hike to the top of Shaffer and skied several hundred vertical on the north facing slope in June!
By now, I was fully committed to completing the mission and getting the 12 months of skiing in. During April and May, I began to plot my trips into the Tetons to complete the summer portion of my odyssey. After a lot of research and a few phone calls, I decided that my first objective would be Teewinot in the Teton Range. I determined that this trip would require a guide, given the potential dangers and my relative inexperience in true ski-mountaineering. I decided on Exum Mountain Guides and they hooked me up with Patrick Ormond. I did this trip on June 18th, and on the one hand it was unsuccessful because I failed to reach the summit. However, I learned some valuable lessons that have already paid off on subsequent climbs. The lessons from this trip are too numerous to get into any detail in this article, but I truly enjoyed the experience, I had a great time with Patrick, and I was now completely hooked on the ski-mountaineering experience.
During the climb, I began to discover how important training, technique and the proper equipment are. I was becoming hooked on ski-mountaineering, and much to my wife’s chagrin, I was going to need to invest in the proper equipment before my next attempt. My equipment for the ski portion of the adventure was much better and even though we only made it to the 10,900 foot level, I still got close to 3,000 vertical feet of awesome skiing! As I discussed options with Patrick, I determined that I would try Teewinot another year and I would focus on the Middle Teton for my August and September trips. But, first I had to get July pegged.
If you want a really weird, yet amazingly fun adventure, go skiing with the family at Snowbird, Utah over the 4th of July Weekend! It just doesn’t seem right to be walking up to the tram in July in your shirtsleeves, (or bikini if you are young and have a great body)! By the way, I’m not young or female, so you can rest assured that I was NOT wearing the bikini. Anyway, the snow was great, especially early in the morning. The upper mountain had plenty of choices for skiing. And the sounds of songbirds and smells of fresh pine and mountain flowers were truly invigorating. The day was topped off with my son and me golfing at one of the Salt Lake area golf courses and my wife and daughter getting some retail therapy in at the local shopping centers as our après ski activities. I think the retail therapy was far more successful than the golf outing if success is determined by clothing purchased and low scores.
As mentioned earlier, the Middle Teton was the objective for August. I talked my son into accompanying me and we set out early on the morning of August 12th. Just under 7 ½ hours later I hit my objective, which was the top of the glacier at the dike pinnacle, (12,307 feet). This was significant, because on my third attempt at a Teton objective, I was finally successful! (The objective was not the summit, due to lack of snow and exposure during that time of year). Now the interesting thing, which reinforced a theme of the importance of equipment and technique is that my son, who is obviously much younger and in better shape was not able to ascend the final 350 feet. Due to equipment deficiencies and inexperience in technique, he developed some severe muscle cramps and couldn’t continue. (These were the same symptoms that I experienced two months earlier on Teewinot and several years earlier in the failed attempt to summit Mount Moran). The skiing was extremely technical in the upper portion due to hard snowpack and pitch, (45 degree plus sections). However, the primary glacier was fantastic and I got in over 2,000 vertical feet of skiing in mid-August. The hike out was interesting, to say the least. There were literally hundreds of climbers on the trail that day and almost everyone that we passed or met wanted to hear the details of our ski adventure. I’m sure my son was just wishing that I would just shut-up and hike. This adventure also had a great finish because we pulled of the Feuz trifecta and got in some great fly fishing at a location never to be disclosed and then the final event was a golf game in Idaho Falls as we returned to Boise.
While doing the Middle Teton Glacier I had scouted out the Cave Couloir, which is accessed just above “The Meadows” area in Garnett Canyon. Patrick had said that this was a fairly low risk objective, especially during late summer/early fall. The partner for this adventure was my wife, Ann. I convinced her that we would be in non-technical terrain and that it would be a fun trip. So she agreed to be the camera crew and we set off over Labor Day weekend. The climb and ski descent was cool and the snow was decent, except for some pretty good sized runnels in some sections.
The only excitement was that I forgot to tell her that in spite of the fact that from the bottom of the couloir it looked like you could see the whole thing, in fact there was a good sized crown that I had to climb over prior to the “top”. When I “disappeared” from view and didn’t reappear for several minutes she began to think that I had simply “dropped off” the other side. I also failed to communicate in advance of the large boulder fields that we would need to negotiate. One of these did cause a small slip and fall by Ann that resulted in a pretty ugly cut and bruise on her shin. I also had a pretty large scab on my elbow from a prior mountain bike wreck. At some point I bumped that pretty good and it was bleeding a bit. I think we kind of freaked out a few other climbers with our bloody wounds as we descended the Garnett Canyon trail.
This trip also included kayaking around Jenny Lake in GTNP and biking in and around Teton Village. We finished it off with a breakfast at Nora’s café in Wilson Wyoming. If you want the best pancakes anywhere in the world, then you need to visit Nora’s. Actually, some of the best meals anywhere can be had at Nora’s. If you are ever in the Jackson Hole area I highly recommend that you put Nora’s on your list of “must do” dining options.
Initially, I had figured that I would either run back over to the Tetons, or maybe hit the Wind Rivers in Wyoming for the final month of October for the 12 consecutive months of endless winter. However I was a little concerned about weather in Wyoming in October. It can be somewhat unpredictable at any time, but as the days get colder and shorter, the margin of error decreases. As I contemplated the alternatives, I checked into Timberline at Mount Hood and the more I looked, the more appealing it became. The thought of lift-served terrain on Halloween just seemed more appealing than battling the elements in the Tetons. Plus, I had never skied in Oregon, so this was the perfect opportunity.
As Ann and I drove up to the Timberline area, we encountered an extremely heavy downpour by Idaho standards, but it was probably closer to a persistent drizzle by Mount Hood standards. It seemed pretty cold out, and so the other naïve thought that I had was that I’d be enjoying some bluebird powder the next morning. What a fantasy! The next morning was bluebird alright, but the snow was really frozen glacier snow with a thick glaze of ice on top of it. After the first couple of turns, I was tempted to take one run, and call it good. I had my 12 months in and that was it. But by the time I got down to the lift, I was just having too much fun carving super-G turns on the glacier. I had to make a quick pit stop to retrieve the Go Pro from the Explorer and a quick run to the ski shop for a couple of mounting parts that I had forgotten to bring. I think every ski shop in America now carries the Go Pro and all of the gadgets that go with it. Yes! After that I made several more runs and each one was a little softer. And then it was done. I had skied 12 consecutive months, I still had a job, my pocketbook wasn’t really that much lighter and best of all the “fun meter” had been cranked up all year long. Yes!!!
The Formula for Success
How can you do this? Realistically, if you don’t live within driving distance of year-around snow, then doing the 12 consecutive months of skiing would be pretty difficult. (The obvious exception to that is time and money. The more of those you have, then the further you can travel to make this happen). Aside from that, I think there are 3 key areas that you should focus on to make it happen:
- Setting the goal and committing – Even though I didn’t start with the end in mind, once I consciously thought of the idea I set some concrete goals, made plans and committed to the adventure. I would be reticent here if I didn’t also give credit to my wife and family, (especially my son) for taking on a huge portion of this commitment. You need a top-notch support team.
- Getting/staying in shape – When I began this odyssey I was 30 pounds heavier than I am today. I realized that my weight would be a detriment and I made sure that especially by the time I was doing the mountaineering trips that I was in excellent physical condition.
- Finding the right equipment – Equipment really does matter. This subject is too large to cover in a couple of sentences here, but you need the right safety and technical gear to allow you to travel safely and effectively in difficult terrain and conditions. It’s not just the skis, but it includes boots, bindings, packs, avalanche gear, tools and clothing.
As I set out to determine where to go in order to accomplish my 12 consecutive months, I researched or considered the following areas. This is not a comprehensive list, but it may give you a good idea of the types of areas that hold the most promise. I haven’t even mentioned any of the high peaks in Montana, Colorado or most of the west coast, but all of these areas have potential snow fields for “getting in your turns” in almost any month of the year. On a normal year, where would I go to get my 12 months in?
- Mt Hood in Oregon, (many years all 12 months).
- The Sawtooth range and White Clouds in Idaho, (May-July, August on the high north facing pitches)
- West Mountain in Idaho, (May & June)
- The Tetons and Wind Rivers in Wyoming, (many couloirs and snow fields in May-August. Glaciers year-around).
- The Wasatch and high Uinta ranges in Utah.
- Or, you can just relocate to Argentina or Chile from June – October.
As I finish writing this article, I’m into another winter and fresh off of 8 days of skiing at Jackson Hole. I am having a great winter, but due to the record breaking year for lack of snow here in Boise, I missed both November and December. So, I’m not going for 2 straight years of 12 consecutive months. Bob, your record is safe from me for quite a while. Remember, it’s always snowing somewhere! Ski hard and have fun.
What a great post! You’ve inspired me…to get more snow-shoe climbing for tracks in…and to visit Snowbird in July. At least the first inspiration is due to snow. 🙂
Are there any good places to learn more about back-country risks and strategies to avoid them?
Thanks Nick! online resources would be avalanche.org and sites like http://www.wildsnow.com. I also picked up a book titled “The Avalanche Handbook”. Two other great resources are guide services and courses. I have used Exum, http://www.exumguides.com/ and i don’t have the site, but I think locally/Sun Valley is where Sawtooth Mountain guides operates. What we REALLY should do is some of us get together early next winter and get a course set up with them. I think they will come to Bogus if enough people are interested. NOW there is an idea. I can use this new site to get that interest worked up, and i have a few months to do it!
Thanks for the references. I’d definitely be interested in a course on the subject; especially if I don’t have to range for it!