Addictive undertones: Reflecting on the darker side of skiing

There is an element to the sport of skiing that people tend to forget: the addictiveness. And I don’t mean addictive in a good way. It is the addictive aspect of skiing that drives the world’s greatest ski mountaineers to continually push not just their personal boundaries, but the boundaries of the entire sport. Skiing can be scary at times, but gradually terrain that once appeared impenetrable becomes boring as one’s ability levels improve. That’s when the darker feature of the sport kicks in. Deep down, skiers and snowboarders long for the rush of adrenaline that comes with descending a puckering slope. That’s what keeps them coming back. That’s what pushes them into increasingly demanding terrain and that’s what inevitably kills the great athletes of the sport.

I can personally speak to the addictive power of skiing. It has driven me to ski increasingly dangerous and technical big mountain lines over the course of the past few years, ultimately culminating with a descent I made on the last weekend of March of this year. On that day, my friend Wylie Picotte and I made a successful summit bid of the Middle Teton via the mountain’s Southwest Couloir, and then skied down the East Face Glacier Route. The East Face of the Middle Teton is considered one of the 50 classic ski descents of North America, and for good reason. The route drops fall line right off the 12,804 foot summit of the Middle Teton for 2,000 vertical feet into the North Fork of Garnet Canyon. The slope angle exceeds 60 degrees at times.

By the time we reached the summit that morning we had been ascending for close to six and a half hours. The morning had started in moonlight in the valley before dawning cold and clear as we skinned through the Meadows below the Middle. My legs were tired from breaking trail up the Southwest Couloir, but the lure of the summit helped push me the last few steps to the top. On top of the Middle, the sky was a brilliant blue, extending uninterrupted by clouds in every direction to the edges of the horizon. The great peaks of the Teton Range sparkled white beneath a fresh coat of snow, illuminated by the radiant March sunshine. However, we dared not dwell long, as the sun would soon warm the shimmering snow, potentially destabilizing it in the process. It was still cold at the summit, but in the mountains, it is always later than it seems.

Clicking into my skis on the top of the Middle Teton was surreal. The South Face of the Grand Teton and the aesthetic Ford Couloir stared me right in the face as we prepared to begin our descent. I gingerly slid off the summit and made a calculated hop turn onto the exposed Upper East Face. From there, I traversed over to the notch between the false and true summits, before hopping over a couple rocks into the notch itself. The heart of the East Face opened up below the notch; 2,000 feet of seriously steep skiing that wrapped down around the Dike Pinnacle and onto the Middle Teton Glacier. The drop-in from the notch was more or less straight down.

In that moment, my fatigue faded as did my hunger. I felt no emotion, no sensation of pain or thirst. I felt absolutely nothing. I was so dialed and focused on the task at hand that my brain blocked out absolutely everything else. With this absolute state of mind, I dropped in to some of the best turns of my life. The snow was bottomless blower from top to bottom. As I passed the Dike Pinnacle some slough released with my turns. For a second I thought about waiting to let it pass, but ultimately decided to point it. I came flying down to the slopes of the glacier, arcing fast GS turns through the silky snow back into Garnet Canyon. A line I had been drooling over for years was over in a matter of minutes.

My mind still felt calm and emotionless even after we were safely off the face. I was in a state of shock to some degree, as the realization that we had nailed one of my dream lines in all-time conditions had yet to materialize. However, the first real thought that popped into my head afterwards was, “What’s next?” And that’s the problem with skiing bigger and bolder lines. It’s never enough.

I understand how great ski mountaineers are driven to continually push into steeper and scarier terrain. There’s no better feeling than nailing a crazy line in good style. Yet, this drive is an addiction, and like most addictions it can consume a person to the point of death. Steve Romeo. Andreas Fransson. Doug Coombs. All three were modern-day steep-skiing pioneers who were ultimately consumed by their passion. I think most great ski mountaineers at some point acknowledge that this too could become their ultimate fate, myself included. We recognize that the path we walk rarely has a happy ending, yet we continue anyways because we are addicted to the rush of skiing great peaks, of towering high above the clouds.

Eventually there comes a point when risk in the mountains can never be entirely eliminated. Lines like the East Face of the Middle can only ever be skied in safer conditions; they are never 100 percent safe. Paradoxically, this is also what makes lines like these so appealing, so addicting. The day we skied the Middle Teton conditions were about as stable as they ever get during winter, but risk is all relative. A dangerous line is still a dangerous line, even in stable snow. Myriads of other problems can arise, and at times it seems that all that separates life and death in the mountains is luck, and I don’t like that. I strive to leave nothing up to chance through meticulous planning and observation, but accidents happens. I have no intention to ever stop skiing big lines, but I hope that by acknowledging that I have a problem, I will be able to exercise a level of objectiveness and control over my decision making that will allow me to return safely from each line I ski in the future, and hopefully avoid the mistakes that cost the lives of those who came before me.