"Don't fall, or you could cut off your own head, Wesley Bunch, the instructor of my five-day ski mountaineering camp, casually mentions seconds before I drop into a chute that terminates in an outcropping of limestone. There are certain things you don't want to hear while standing on top of a 40-degree coin slot in the Grand Tetons with an ice ax nestled at the base of your skull. "Fall and you'll decapitate yourself is one of them.
If you're in the market for a ski-mountaineering camp that helps you confront your fear of nasty backcountry terrain by offering New Age bromides from guides whose résumés boast quality time in sensitivity-training workshops, don't even consider signing on with Exum. These guys—a legendary fraternity of climbers and skiers who hold the longest unbroken guiding concession in any American national park—are pure Wyoming. They're hard-edged, no-frills, and gloriously unapologetic about their belief that the road to safe, solid ski mountaineering leads directly through your fear.
If you do choose Exum, know that your five-day program won't involve much in the way of après-ski libations or a Barcalounger cruise in which you and your companions admire videotapes of your daily performances. The first two days are spent out-of-bounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort covering basic mountaineering skills: rappelling, setting snow anchors, self-arresting on steep slopes, and—crucially important for this clinic—belaying other skiers. Then Exum drags you deeper into the Tetons, where the snow conditions are variable, the weather is often heinous, the routes resemble elevator shafts, and the price of a mistake is measured by the size of your hospital bill. There, you'll set up a base camp, then climb and ski a major peak.
If your guides deem you qualified, you mighttackle the South Teton or even the Grand (which Exum became the first company to guide in 2004). If you're like me, you'll attempt something a bit less committing—like the 45-degree face of Buck Mountain. In the process, you'll discover that in the Tetons, even minor descents will scare you stupid—an experience that may feel less like an ego boost and more like a laxative, but either way will send you home a better big mountain skier.
Bunch displayed zero interestin coddling my anxieties—and thereby rendered the terrain even more intimidating. At the time, this kind of sucked. (Okay, it really sucked.) Later, though, I could see the value in his approach, which is rooted in respect and, yeah, fear—the essential ski-mountaineering prerequisites.
The results can be damn impressive. A few months after the course, I headed to Silverton Mountain in Colorado for a weekend of backcountry skiing with some buddies. For the first time, I was able to keep them in sight without succumbing to my old method of starfishing downhill while screaming for help.
The combination of terrain, physical challenges, and the mental demands of pushing far beyond your comfort zone can be punishing enough to make you wonder why the hell you signed up. Which is why Exum's failure to include Percocet and a bottle of tequila on its required-gear list is an outrage.
Ski mountaineering isn't something you do casually. In Exum's view, that's why it's so cool. "The problem with a resort is that your actions don't usually have grave consequences, says Tom Turiano, who designed the course (and who wrote Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone, the definitive ski guide to the Tetons). "In the backcountry, it's just you and your gear. It's a total test of who you are and what you can do—and therein lies the reward.
[""]EXUM SKI AND SNOWBOARD MOUNTAINEERING CAMP
STUDENT/TEACHER RATIO: 3 to 1FITNESS LEVEL: HighABILITY LEVEL: ExpertCOST: $1,400LENGTH: Five daysCONTACT: exumguides.com
SELKIRK MOUNTAIN EXPERIENCE; DURRAND GLACIER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Cost: C$1,495—C$1,870 Leength: 7 days Skill Level: Advanced to expertSynopsis: Tours range from backcountry jaunts to steep-skiing instruction on B.C.'s Durrand Glacier. Contact: selkirkexperience.com
SIERRA WILDERNESS SEMINARS; MOUNT SHASTA, CALIFORNIA
Cost: $485—$585Length: 3 daysSkill Level: Intermediate to expertSynopsis: Climb and ski your choice of NorCal summits while learning how to snow camp, self-arrest, and route-find. Contact: swsmtns.com
PRO GUIDING SERVICE; NORTH BEND, WASHINGTON
Cost: $540—$750Length: 3—4 daysSkill level: Advanced to expertSynopsis: Head into the Whistler backcountry or onto the Neve Glacier in Washington's North Cascades with Martin Volken, a young pioneer of Northwest ski mountaineering.Contact: proguiding.com
CHAUVIN GUIDES INTERNATIONAL BERNER OBERLAND HAUTE ROUTE
Cost: $1,950Length: 8 days Skill Level: Advanced Synopsis: Learn your ski mountaineering skills on a hut trip through the Swiss Alps—with guides that have been doing it for 10-plus years. Contact: chauvinguides.com
COLORADO MOUNTAIN SCHOOL; ESTES PARK, COLORADO
Cost: $368 Length: 2 daysSkill Level: Intermediate to advancedSynopsis: The only guiding service permitted in Rocky Mountain National Park, CMS teaches you avalanche safety skills during tours to classic lines like Dragon's Tail Contact: cmschool.com