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Backcountry Telemark Skiing with NOLS

By Steve Share
Reprinted with permission of the:
Cross Country Skier magazine, January 2004

In the middle of a February snowstorm, we paused on our skis atop a ridge in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the Tetons’ western slope. Huddled together, we looked at our ski gloves. Big snowflakes fell, landing on our black gloves. The white on black contrast highlighted each snowflake's unique array of intricate patterns. "Amazing," I remarked. "Here we are surrounded by a world of snow, but even one snowflake can look so beautiful."

We were midway through a 12-day backcountry ski course offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), headquartered in Lander, Wyoming. Our group consisted of six students and two instructors, Tony Jewell and Deb Payne.

Since late afternoon, Tony, Deb and I had skinned up this ridge four times and skied down three times. Now, as night fell, daylight remained for just one more run down the open slope. We stripped off the synthetic climbing skins from our skis. "You go first," Deb said to me. "We get to ski powder all the time." I chose my line of untracked snow and pushed off, testing my telemark turns in the knee-deep powder. Recalling the day now, I want to whoop and holler all over again.

Just Do It
For me, this trip began as a joke. The first year we were married, my wife left home several times to attend one-, two- or three-week yoga teacher training programs in various parts of the country. "That's great," I consented, "but I'm going to find a ski-mountaineering class." Poking around on the internet one night, I discovered that NOLS offered "Winter Skills Training," a 12-day course for ages 25 and older that blended telemark ski instruction, avalanche safety and winter camping. I visited the website several times to dream. Then, late one September night, I decided to register for the class on-line.

Getting Ready
When a NOLS information packet arrived a few days later providing more details and a lengthy, very specific equipment list, it shocked me. The trip now sounded much more strenuous than the description on the web. With five months to get ready for the trip, I began to take my physical conditioning very seriously. From mid-September through November, I built up my running mileage to seven or eight miles. While increasing the distance, I also added more and more hills on my route to and around Lake Harriet near my home in Minneapolis.

Once winter began, I skied as many times as possible, mixing cross country skiing at local trails and telemark skiing at lift-served ski areas. Always, I skied with a pack, adding more and more weight until I was skiing with 50 pounds on my back. Although I could manage a decent telemark turn with a pack weighing up to 38 pounds, above that, it was pure survival. When a January ice storm made skiing treacherous, I took my pack and did 10 laps up and down the stairwell at my dad's 14-story apartment building.

NOLS Base Camp
The NOLS Winter Skills course began with three days of preparation at the NOLS Teton Valley base near Driggs, Idaho. A former Mormon church, the building housed Spartan dorm rooms, a kitchen that produced delicious meals, dining hall, classrooms, an equipment room and a food rationing room.

Twelve diverse students were split into two groups of six, each group paired with a male and female instructor. Hailing from all compass points--east coast, west coast, Florida, Texas, Montreal--our ages ranged from late 20s to mid 40s with occupations including attorney, magazine editor, homemaker, internet consultant, writer and a fellow fresh from several years in the Canadian military, where he taught mountaineering skills.

Half came from alpine skiing backgrounds and half from cross country. Incredible to me, one woman arrived for the course with no skiing experience whatsoever! Only two of us brought telemark skiing experience along with our own telemark skis and boots.

The NOLS staff kept us busy for those three days before we headed out for our nine-day backcountry trip. In cooking teams of three, we packed our bulk rations for the trip (seven pounds of hot cocoa mix!). After displaying our personal equipment on the floor for our instructors to check, we rented NOLS-issued gear to fill out our needs, including bulky sleeping bags rated to 30 below zero. Illustrated with slide-shows, classroom sessions covered winter camping skills, NOLS' "leave no trace" philosophy, avalanche safety and cold care: preventing, recognizing and treating hypothermia and frostbite. We spent one morning on skis working on basic cross country skills and two half-days at Grand Targhee ski area in telemark ski lessons.

From the first day, we also practiced using our avalanche beacons, since a buried victim will suffocate in just a few minutes unless dug out quickly by his or her companions. The low survival rate beyond those first few minutes is a sobering prospect. Working in teams of two, we practiced trying to find a buried beacon. Learning to walk the recommended search pattern was a lot harder than I expected, while distinguishing when the beep on your beacon grows louder or softer. At lunch, I reflected: You rely on your own outdoor skills for your own sake most of the time--but, in this case, your survival could depend on your group mates' skills. Rated high this season, avalanche danger required picking safe travel routes and avoiding avalanche prone terrain.

Into the Backcountry
The morning of day four, our two groups loaded packs, skis and sleds atop of two vans and departed for two different trailheads. A 30-minute ride brought my group to South Leigh Creek. After waxing our skis, we set off on a snow-covered road as a light snow fell. Routinely, each time we started off on the trail, one person set his or her avalanche beacon to "receive" to ensure each skier beeped as they passed by. In addition to carrying our backpacks loaded with 40-50 pounds of personal gear, each cooking team of three students pulled two sleds, weighing 50 pounds each, packed with food, cookware, stoves, fuel and a tent.

No doubt about it: Skiing uphill, in the mountains, wearing a 40-50 pound pack, pulling a 50-pound sled, was tough work indeed. For steeper ascents, climbing skins affixed to our skis allowed us to go nearly straight up the slope, although a zigzagging "skin track" made the going easier. Still, each climb was a challenge for everyone. We pushed on and on, sometimes wondering how we were going to go the next ten yards.

We moved camp six of the next nine days, skiing anywhere from a short haul to a full day. After spending the first two nights at the Commissary Ridge Yurt, we camped in the snow for the next six nights, including four nights in tents and two nights in snow shelters we built. As we later learned, the other group chose to move less often, instead taking day trips from a base camp.

When you're winter camping and on the move, we learned, you spend a lot of time shoveling snow. At a new campsite, some people went to work digging out a "snow kitchen" while others dug into the snow to make tent platforms, each an hour job for two people. The day we made our snow shelters--eight-foot high hollowed out mounds of shoveled snow called "quinzhees"--we shoveled for more than four hours.

Even on our layover day at the yurt, we spent the better part of an afternoon shoveling snow to make avalanche study pits--a real education! Picking a spot on a hill we had skied the day before where a "rollover," a convex part of the hill, created a 30 degree incline, we dug down four or five feet until we reached the ground, then dug out an eight-foot trench. We clearly saw the different layers of snow, caused by temperature changes, wind and new snow layering on top of older snow. Then, stabbing a shovel into the snow and pulling it back towards us (a shovel compression test), we identified the weak layer where the snow would slide. Next, a ski-length apart, we dug two cuts uphill from the trench extending one ski length. This "rutschblock" test next called for someone on skis to stand in the middle of the area which was now dug out on three sides. A knee bend, a jump, a second jump and then --whoosh!--the cut out block of snow slid on the weak layer. I now had a new appreciation for the real dangers posed by backcountry skiing.

In spite of the avalanche danger, instructors Tony and Deb assured us that plenty of skiing slopes below the 30-50 degree high risk slope angle awaited us. And they were right. Our camp for three nights on Tin Cup Creek below Green Mountain sat between two great ski slopes. On our last layover day, we declined Deb's suggestion to attempt an ascent of Green Mountain and spent the entire day free skiing. My journal recorded 19 runs that day, perhaps 15-20 minutes skinning uphill to gain 400-500 feet in elevation and five minutes down. Not heroic terrain, by any means, but skiing untracked, knee-deep powder was a thrill. Towards the end of that day, everyone else had headed back to camp, except Tony, Deb and myself, who kept making run after run. Finally, Deb asked, "Steve, just how many more runs do you want to do?"

The high point of the trip--literally and figuratively--came the day we summited Beard Mountain. With temperatures in the upper 20s, sun accompanied us as we set off. For several hours, we skinned up an exposed ridgeline heading towards the skier's summit. To the west spread the wide open Teton Valley. With increasing and then dropping temperatures, we replaced sun hats with wool and added other layers. Using a 10-foot long probe to test the ridgeline snow, avoiding the edge of a wind-blown cornice, Tony led the final approach to 9,000 feet where Grand Teton commanded the view to the east.

When time came to go, I lingered last at the top, savoring the moment. Finally, Tony along with several hundred waiting powder turns called to me to leave.

Skiing - NOLS Instructor Tony Jewell carving some fresh turns in Wyoming's backcountry.
© John Fitzgerald
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