“He found the only flat landing in that entire pillow field,” Hoji ribs as I come to a stop before him and the four other members of our party. We’d just descended an incredible 1,000-foot line, beginning in the trees of a north-facing forest and ending in a wide-open ramp with a plethora of mushroom tops to pick apart, and all of it filled with over a foot of fresh Wyoming powder.
The ribbing was well-deserved—I had also needed to pause mid-run to retrieve a rebellious ski pole that had escaped my grasp. But, it was welcomed. Sharing some laughs with a freeskiing idol of mine amidst a ten mile, 4,500 vertical foot tour around Grand Teton National Park was a bit surreal. Yet, I wasn’t the only one in Jackson sharing laughs and deep turns with a professional athlete I admired; there were plenty more afforded that opportunity by the annual Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy.
The event—put on with the help of the amazing staff at Jackson, Wyoming, based Exum Guides—brings seasoned backcountry veterans, rookies, professional athletes, guides, product designers and media together in Jackson for four days of in-the-field clinics, educational seminars, film premieres, live music and more, all in the name of increasing one’s skills (and thereby maximizing fun) in the wild mountains. The clinics range from beginner to intermediate and advanced and are intended to give novice participants the opportunity to build a foundation of backcountry touring skills and snow safety knowledge, elevate advanced backcountry skiers to the next level or simply allow for some one-on-one time with professional skiers and guides in the wilderness.
In addition to the daily clinics, numerous educational seminars, such as Route Finding Using Modern Day Technology with IFMGA guide and Arc’teryx athlete Mark Smiley, allow for learning opportunities in a classroom-like setting. Nightly events, like the Jackson premiere of HOJI and live music from the likes of the Polyrythmics, encourage participants to let loose once school is out.
Perhaps the best event of the extended weekend, the one that brought participants in the Academy and the community of Jackson together the most, was the Jackson Hole Exposed photo contest. Six professional photographers each had three days to capture the essence of the backcountry ski culture in Jackson. The sharpshooters were given one day to edit a five-minute slideshow that was then showed to a packed audience at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts on Saturday night. Luckily for the photographers (and spectators), the most intense storm cycle of the season descended on the region just in time to shoot. The packed crowd brought the noise throughout each presentation, taking the decibel levels higher each time a friend was featured on screen or a favorite zone flashed before their eyes. While each photographer put together an incredible slideshow, it was Aaron Blatt who took home the $3,000 grand prize, thanks to a presentation that included an original song written and recorded during the shooting window, accompanying incredible shots of Michelle Parker and Mark Carter.
Back in Grand Teton National Park, our guide Nat Partridge halts at our final transition point, atop another powder-laden descent that will end our day. After clicking in and taking it one by one through the more suspect slopes, Partridge allows a party ski down the final 500 feet of descent. Bouncing hoots and hollers off of Hoji and the rest of our crew in the conversation of powder skiing is something that’ll be burned in my head for the rest of my days. Heck, that might have been the best run of the season.