Lessons Learned: The Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy

Lessons Learned: The Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy

Featured Image: Leslie Hittmeier

We were nearing the top of our line, just 400 vertical feet to go, when all of a sudden, something just didn’t feel right. The color in my face quickly faded and my heart raced at an irregular and alarming rate. My legs shook and my hands were numb. I was having a full-blown anxiety attack, nearly 3,000 vertical feet above the parking lot, with three feet of fresh snow and hazardous avalanche conditions plaguing the backcountry. I had two options: internalize what I was feeling, therefore putting the rest of my group at risk should my internal chaos continue or I could speak up, and let everyone know how I was feeling about the current situation. At the risk of cutting the day short, I communicated with my partners—Exum Guide Jessica Baker, professional skier Michelle Parker and fellow Academy participants Paige Johnston and Devyn Parnes—that I wasn’t feeling well. Where I thought I would face frustration and opposition to ending the “Advanced Ski Tour with Michelle Parker” clinic early, I was met with quick action and reaffirming affection—namely, a group hug to keep my panic from escalating any further. As a group, we made the decision to rip skins where we were on the skin track and make a swift descent back to the car, avoiding avalanche terrain and other hazards as best we could along the way.

Into Grand Teton National Park an Arc’teryx Academy clinic goes. PHOTO: Will McKay

While this experience is certainly on the extreme end of the spectrum, it serves as a great example of what you can learn and experience at the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy. Last week, for a third consecutive year, the infamous ski town of Jackson, Wyoming, played host to the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy. In partnership with Jackson-based Exum Mountain Guides, the Arc’teryx Academy affords hundreds of skiing and snowboarding participants the opportunity to learn, explore and push their personal boundaries in Grand Teton National Park under the watchful eye of skillful mountain guides. 

With clinics spanning all levels, abilities and disciplines, the event is geared toward any skier or snowboarder looking to progress in the backcountry. Whether that’s starting with the very basics or continuing to build upon an already-established foundation, the Arc’teryx Academy is an invaluable resource for all winter backcountry explorers. On top of gaining new skills, like creating anchors and self-rappelling in the beginner “Intro to Ski Mountaineering” clinic and how to utilize Google Earth, CalTopo and Gaia to navigate through an unfamiliar zone in the advanced “How to Ski a New Line” class, participants also have the opportunity to hone-in their backcountry travel with the help of Arc’teryx athletes like Michelle Parker, Eric “Hoji” Hjorleifson, Sam Kuch and Lucy Sackbauer.

Sam Kuch finds himself in the depths of Grand Teton National Park. PHOTO: Will McKay

Beyond the backcountry, aprés-ski events are scheduled everyday to expand the overall experience of the Arc’teryx Academy to the entire Jackson community. Based at the Center for the Arts in town, eager Academy participants and curious locals, alike, gathered to feast on movie premieres, including Colter and Electric Greg, educational seminars like Route Finding with Modern Technology, interviews with backcountry legends like Bill Briggs and musical acts, including Emancipator, to let loose after a long day of schooling.

The highlight aprés event for me was, without a doubt, the Bill Briggs interview, hosted by Greg Hill. Bill Briggs is credited as “The Father of Extreme Skiing” due in large part to his historic first ski descent of the Grand Teton in 1971. In 45 minutes, Briggs shared numerous ski memories, including that of hopping head-first over a cornice on the Grand Teton, not once but twice, and confirmed that he did, in fact, convince his doctor to fuse his hip at the ideal angle to be able to continue skiing. He can’t sit or stand properly but based on the look on the 88-year-old U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer’s face, he wouldn’t have it any other way.  

The author with her “slaydies” crew for the “Advanced Ski Tour with Michelle Parker” clinic.

Back at the Taggart parking lot in Grand Teton National Park, our all-female crew enthusiastically traded high fives for the successful ski day. While I was at first embarrassed and ashamed that my mind and body had turned against me, I drove away from that start zone with a newfound understanding and appreciation of the backcountry, the necessary support system of my partners and the signals my body sends me when something isn’t right. I spoke up for myself and safely made it back down the mountain without putting anyone else in harm’s way. Because of the Arc’teryx Academy, I am a significantly better—and smarter—backcountry skier.

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