Learning crucial skills at the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy in Jackson Hole
WORDS • Frederick Reimers | PHOTOS • Angela Percival/Arc’teryx
When you are in a backcountry skiing clinic in the Tetons and Eric Hjorleifson, who stars this year in an entire movie featuring steep skiing exploits, leans over a couloir and exclaims, “it’s steep,” you can be excused if you find the edge of your comfort zone rushing headlong towards you. Standing on the airy Northeast Ridge of Buck Mountain on a cold February day, staring down into Buckshot couloir plunging 2,000 feet into Avalanche Canyon, I may have wobbled a bit.
“They all have a good turn, though,” replies Nat Patridge, the Exum guide who’d picked the route, and was leading the Steep Skiing with Hoji clinic on the second day of Jackson Hole’s Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy. Patridge means us, the trio of clinic participants, and hearing that, my head ceased its unsteady backstroke. After all, Patridge is as good at picking appropriate challenges for clients in the mountains as Hoji is at skipping down Alaskan snow spines. “Just remember,” says Hoji, getting ready to drop in, “take it one turn at a time.”
It’s the sort of simple advice that, bestowed at the right time, can feel like a revelation. That’s precisely the experience that the Backcountry Academy is going for. The four-day series of backcountry and ski mountaineering clinics is a partnership between Arc’teryx and Exum Mountain Guides, based on the gear manufacturer’s annual rock climbing event in Squamish and mountaineering event in Chamonix. Daytime consists of clinics like crevasse rescue, steep skiing techniques and the 7,000-vert big mountain objectives associated with Steep Skiing with Hoji. Most programs are paired with an Arc’teryx pro. Evenings at the camp are filled with multi-media presentations and late-night music.
This year, the event is expanding by sixty spots to 300 participants. People make their own lodging arrangements in Jackson, but rendezvous after the clinics at a couple of local venues to foster the event vibe. The event has been tailored this year to fit feedback from last winter, says Exum’s Brenton Reagan. “People mentioned they wanted more coaching on decision making in the mountains—when to drop in, when to turn back,” he says. “So we are consciously going to build that into all our backcountry days.” They’ve also designed a clinic called How to Ski a New Line, which takes participants through all the research and tactics it takes to complete a ski objective in a new mountain range.
Back by popular demand are the evening presentations by sponsored athletes, and a film night featuring clinic participants like Hoji and Christina Lusti, as well the results of the Photo Showdown, showcasing the work of the half-dozen pro photographers attached to the event; sharp shooters like National Geographic veteran Andy Bardon, who tagged along with our group and dolled out their work to participants. “People loved having those pro shots as souvenirs,” says Reagan.
Also the same, of course, are clinic staples like Extended Column and Propagation Saw Test, a photography clinic and Intro to Backcountry Touring with pros like Forrest Coots, Michelle Parker and Greg Hill. Prices vary according to the level of guiding required, but are priced a la carte, ranging from $80 to $435 for an all-day guided backcountry experience. The clinics attract a different breed from their normal clients says Reagan. “There’s a stigma for good, young skiers when it comes to being guided, but they’ll happily sign up for a little education,” he says.
High on the shoulder of 11,939-foot Buck, about to drop into Buckshot, I’m grateful for both the guiding and the education as I begin to link turns deliberately down the 40-degree couloir. Though I do notice that Hoji’s definition of “one turn at a time” is extremely different than mine—40 of my turns are roughly equivalent to four of his. This is fine: inspiration is also a sort of education.