The ski track ended at tree line, the top of a three thousand vertical foot backcountry ski run called Mavericks at ten thousand feet elevation on the east flank of Buck Mountain, in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. I started breaking my own trail, but quickly gave up. Strong winds were transporting thirty inches of new snow in the lee of a line of trees forming a deep soft slab. Cracks in the snow shot forth from my skis—a sign of avalanche danger. With limited visibility, I am uncertain of my position. This is new ground. The Voice in my head, which has been criticizing me on the climb up, began chastising me for being alone. The Voice said, “You’re sixty six years old! What are you doing up here alone in full storm conditions?” It is January 30th, 2021, the first day of a seven day solo trip to ski the Jackson Hole backcountry.
In his book, Untethered Soul, author Michael Singer calls that voice your “Inner Roommate” and the conscious mind that listens to our “Inner Roommate” he terms, “our Inner Witness.” Singer suggests the Inner Roommate is usually unhelpful, a source of constant chatter and self-doubt. Creating a melodramatic battle between speaker and listener. But there are components of the inner voice that are helpful. Your inner voice is a survival instinct triggered in risky situations or when faced with an important decision.
The slogan for my company, Crooked Thumb, is “Listen to your Inner Voice.” In fifty years of pursuing risk sports, I have been subjected to the doubts, fears, and self-criticism of my Voice. As I aged and matured, the Voice is still there; familiar like an old, but difficult friend. When I am with others the Voice fades into the background. When I am solo skiing, climbing or paragliding the volume dials up. Most importantly, I have learned to differentiate between the unhelpful chatter and helpful Voice. Listening to my Voice in risky situations, in sports or life, has kept me safe while ignoring it has had serious consequences.
Face Shots and Things that Go Bump in the Night
Alone at the top of Mavericks with snow falling, wind blowing, and visibility less than one hundred feet, the feeling of solitude is overpowering. I feel I am trespassing in the hall of the mountain king. A memory triggered… I remember a similar feeling forty three years ago on a winter solo ski up Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton Park. In full storm conditions, I spent the night alone in a tent in a grove of big Ponderosa Pine at the mouth of the canyon. All night long the wind howled mixed with the occasional roar of an avalanche echoing down the canyon. I imagined there was a grizzly bear sniffing and prowling round my tent. My “Inner Roommate” filled my young mind with fear. I didn’t sleep all night
Snapped back to the present, I transition to downhill mode stripping the climbing skins from my skis, switching boots and bindings to downhill mode, and donning hat, heavy gloves, and goggles. Out of the wind, the snow was deep, but stable; the slope angle less than the avalanche trigger point of thirty degrees. The Voice was silent. Pushing off downhill I am engulfed in a white world. Powder snow blows into my face, nose and over my shoulders as I blast downhill.
Photo: Face shots on Mavericks, February 2021\
I choose a safe line down the southernmost rib of Mavericks; three thousand feet of untracked snow, turn after turn of bottomless powder, a skiers dream. Swept up in the euphoria, I ski past the traverse track which leads back to the Taggert Lake parking lot and my car. It is silent on the valley floor, but the beauty of the trackless wilderness is lost on me. I check my GPS, set a course and brake trail through snow up to my knees. Twenty minutes later, I was pouring off sweat, my quads ache, and my hip flexors are on fire. I scream, cry, no one listens, no one cares… except my Voice. It said, “I told you so.” In smug satisfaction it added, “When are you going to learn?” An hour and a half of exhausting labor brought me to the track. Like a wounded dog, I skied back to my car.
Forty Six Years Skiing Edelweiss Bowl
Teton Pass is the epicenter of Jackson Hole backcountry skiing. I pull into the parking lot at the top of the pass at 6:45 am. Still dark and snowing, the lot is full by 7 am. Dark shapes of skiers lit by the glow of headlamps cross the highway heading for the boot track up Mt. Glory. I wait in my car as the sky slowly lightened; dark fading to grey.
In 1975, two friends and I headed off from Teton Pass to ski and winter camp. We skied on wood skis with three-pin bindings and leather boots. With full packs we skied to the top of Edelweiss; dropped our packs and skied a run. We had no maps, no avalanche gear, and no cell phones. We listened to our inner voices and discussed our plan. We made safe decisions because we had no backup. It was three days after the last snowstorm and there were six tracks in Edelweiss. We added three more. Today, you have to be at the Pass before 7 am just to get a parking spot.
Photo: Bob McCord and Tom Leva on Teton Pass 1975.
Waiting for daylight, I check the snow report. Another six inches of snowfall brings the storm total to thirty inches. The Voice said, “You are alone.”
I said, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
The voice said, “Be conservative.” I turn on my avalanche beacon and Garmin GPS, linked to my phone with both mapping apps: Earthmate and Gaia. I have extra food, water, and clothing. Grabbing skis and poles, I head to the trailhead and start up the Pass Ridge skin track. Looks like three people ahead of me, I figure we are all headed for Edelweiss Bowl.
To the Voice I said, “Are you happy? I’m in a group.” The Voice was not happy and continued its chatter.
There is safety in a group and danger. The danger comes with group think: everyone focused on the same reward, or a dominant voice that stifles dissent. Your Voice in a group is there, but ignored. Effective groups and leaders encourage Voices to be heard. Good decisions making requires an open mind. Ray Dahlio in his excellent book Principles writes, “Logic, reason, and common sense are your best tools for synthesizing reality and understanding what to do about it.”
I follow the track up Edelweiss. Still snowing. At the top, I meet three guys from Montana. That quieted the Voice. We chatted while we transitioned to downhill mode. We choose a safe line and ski together down the thousand foot vertical snow bowl. Two more climbs and powder runs and I call it day.
The Hardest Day and the Unhelpful Voice
The third day in the mountains is always the toughest. Tired from the first two days and still not acclimatized, I struggled up the skin track. The track was steep and the snow warmed by the sun. The storm had passed. It is a bluebird mountain day on the slopes of Wimpys, a backcountry ski run in the Teton National Park. Everybody and their sister passes the old man on the thirty five hundred foot climb. The Voice says, “You are old, slow and your climbing skins are slipping.”
I said, “Shut up! Who else my age from the flatlands is out here by themselves?” The voice is silent; no need to respond to that one. The unspoken question: are you stupid for being out here alone at your age?
The view from the summit of Wimpys is breathtaking. To the North are the snow covered slopes of Static Peak and in the distance, the noble summit of the Grand Teton. Spread out to the east and three thousand feet below me is the thirty mile long valley of Jackson Hole, silently sleeping under a blanket of snow. There is a crowd up here today, at least thirty skiers. Tracks grace the summit of Albright Peak just to the south. I remember skiing it ten years ago. That day there were three other skiers on Wimpys and Albright.
Photo: The Grand Teton from Wimpys, February 2021
My Voice snapped me back to reality saying, “Where are you going? I didn’t like the look of that narrow gully halfway down the run.” This time I listen. The snow is perfect: consolidated, but consistent. I pick a safe line down the ridge and stay out of the gully. What took me three and half hours to climb up, I descend in twenty minutes. I am happy. My Voice is quiet.
In Harmony with Your Voice
Two days later the next storm hit. Another early start, 6:45 am on the top of Teton Pass. Winds blowing forty miles per hour and snowing hard. At first light I step out of the car and into the blizzard. I love skiing in a storm. The snow report said fourteen inches of new snow as of 6 am. The Voice is active telling me there is considerable avalanche danger from cross loading and wind slabs. I listen. We make a plan to ski familiar low risk terrain.
I follow the fresh track of three skiers up the Pass Ridge. They keep heading up the ridge and I drop into Powder Reserve for a run to the base of the skin track for Edelweiss. A solo skier has broken trail; my lucky day. Following his track, I catch him at the summit. We switch to downhill mode together and he heads down a run called the Nose. The umbilical cord with humanity is severed. I am detached in a world of grey.
The voice returns. It says, “I’m worried about avalanches.”
“Me too.” I replied.
“The wind is strong at the top, the bowl loaded with twenty inches of fresh snow.” It said.
I said, “I know. Let’s work our way down the ridge and drop into the bowl where it’s not wind loaded.”
The voice muttered something unintelligible. Skiers coming up the far ridge. Discussion over. Time to go for first tracks in Edelweiss.
I ski down the ridge, cut right, and drop into the bowl. With limited visibility, I ski by sense of feel: turn after turn floating in space. Towards the bottom of the run I hit a steep rollover and I felt the snow move— loose snow avalanche! I skied left and out; just a sluff. My heart is pounding when I stop. Three skiers at the base of the skin track greet me with smiles and laughter. You can’t beat the human connection.
Photo: First tracks on Edelweiss, February 2021
Light snow filtering glimpses of sun and blue sky. The Voice and I are happy; two runs in Edelweiss Bowl and now headed down the Nose. After another thousand feet of untracked powder, I am deposited in the drainage of Trail Creek on the West side of Teton Pass. A skier passes me and heads down and into the trees. Which way to go? I start to follow her. Snowing again, hard. The Voice comes back. “Where are you going?” It says.
I said, “This is a route that traverses to Trail Creek and then up to the Pass.”
“Have you done it?”
“Are you sure she is going back to the Pass?”
“No, but pretty sure.”
“Pretty sure is not good enough. It’s late, snowing, you are tired. Don’t make a mistake.”
I grumbled…whined. The Voice was right. I put on my climbing skins and headed up the drainage breaking trail until I reached the egress skin track and slogged up the final climb to the Pass.
The Last Run
Back on the summit of Mavericks the clouds break and February sun makes an appearance. It’s the last day of my trip and the only day skiing with a partner. Jack is a close friend and college buddy of my oldest son, Max. We skied together twice before. On the climb up, Jack breaking trail and me following, we share stories of our current lives and past adventures. It feels great to have a partner.
There are two other parties at the top. One of them is a Park ranger and his wife. He works with a ranger who is a friend of mine and saved my life: https://crooked-thumb.com/2017/11/01/genesis-on-the-grand-a-near-ending-is-a-new-beginning/ Jack and I make a quick transition to downhill mode and head down—first tracks on Mavericks. Unlike my solo ski seven days ago, this time I can see the run. The Voice is silent. It is happy I have a partner. Me too. I missed the human interaction.
Jack picks a line down the central spur. There is six inches of new snow on top of fourteen inches the day before and thirty inches earlier in the week. After two dozen turns in perfect powder, we stop. He points out a line down through the clearing past a big dead tree and into an open glade. I pause to take it all in. The Voice is content. I head down a two thousand foot pitch at a constant angle of thirty degrees; similar to the world famous Hobacks at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. There is one big difference: not a single track and no pressure from a horde of powder-hungry skiers. Endless turns later we reach the Valley Trail, the egress I missed the first day, and ski back to our cars.
Photo: first tracks on Mavericks, February 2021. Credit: Jack Henley
What I Learned
It proved to be an epic week. Over eight days two separate storms dropped a total of fifty four inches of light, dry Wyoming powder. Avalanche conditions were rated moderate to considerable. Most avalanche accidents happen during these ratings. During my stay in the valley there were seventeen reported avalanches, four burials, and one injury requiring a rescue. I used all my skills developed over forty seven years of backcountry skiing to stay out of trouble. Good judgement learned from bad judgement.
I am at peace with my Voice. We battle, but we are not at war. I have learned to listen when my Voice speaks. I know the difference between the unhelpful voice and the helpful voice. If you face risky decisions, share your thoughts with your partner or group. Listen to the thoughts of your partner or group with an open mind. Be a realist and keep your emotions in check. For me, this is the way to make good decisions, minimize risk, and stay out of trouble.