On June 15, 1971, Bill Briggs clicked into his bindings. Below him lay Jackson Hole, shimmering in the warm sunlight. But before he enjoyed a return to a Valley revitalized by spring, he had to negotiate a ski slope. And not just any ski slope. Briggs was about to ski the east face of the Grand Teton, the legendary mountain that until then still posed challenges to many of the alpinists who simply wanted to climb it.
Bill had already climbed it that morning. He had left his partners far below, where the Stettner Couloir merged with the east face, and then continued solo to the summit. Now, as he pushed off the top of the 13,770-foot peak on his 210-centimeter K2 skis and began making turns in the sun-thickened snow, he was embarking on more than an extraordinary adventure. He was initiating the start of extreme skiing in North America, on one of the greatest descents in the world to date.
40 years later, on June 15, 2011, another Jackson resident stood on top of the Grand Teton and clicked into his bindings. Those bindings were sophisticated, lightweight, and specifically made for adventures such as the one upon which they were about to embark. In place of 210-centimeter skis were a shorter, more technical pair chosen from an array of options inconceivable in Briggs’ day.
Christian Beckwith had been skiing for nearly forty years himself, and had previously made a number of ski descents of the Grand Teton, but 2011 was different. For one, he had never skied the route he was about to ski—a route now known universally as the Briggs Route. For another, 2011 had produced not only the greatest snowpack in Teton history. It had also marked a shift in how ski mountaineers viewed the Grand Teton.
No longer did a ski descent of the Grand Teton represent the outer edge of the pursuit. Now, as Beckwith began to ski down the mountain with his partners, Hans Johnstone, Dan Nordstrom and Martin Volken, he was executing an objective within reach of far more ski mountaineers than Briggs could ever have imagined.
On Thursday, February 9, at 7 p.m. at the Pink Garter Theater in downtown Jackson, Wyoming, Briggs and Beckwith will offer up an evening of entertainment unique to Jackson Hole. Their presentation “Skiing the Grand”—part of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s Voices of the Valley series—will celebrate what is undoubtedly the pinnacle of skiing in this ski-mad town.
While Briggs and his historic descent are by now renowned, rarely has he talked about it in public, and rarer still in his hometown of Jackson. And while Beckwith is an experienced mountaineer, he’s quick to admit that there are plenty of better skiers in Jackson, and that he is by no means a pioneer of Briggs’ stature.
“Being on the same stage as Bill talking about skiing the Grand is a bit like the local high school quarterback sharing a stage with Tom Brady and talking about football,” said Beckwith. “We’ve both played the game, but at vastly different levels.”
Instead, Beckwith will focus on how skiing the iconic peak has evolved in the years since Bill first skied it. “Equipment, information, and modern ski levels have all made skiing it more accessible to the average skier,” said Beckwith. “But you still can’t fall, and skiing the Grand will always be what a friend calls ‘skiing on the moon’”.
Briggs has long inspired numerous skiers and climbers throughout the valley, and Beckwith is no different. In 1994, shortly after moving to Jackson, Beckwith started his first magazine, naming it “The Mountain Yodel” after Briggs.
“He has been my inspiration for years, and it was rad to ski his line and realize how far ahead of his time he was,” said Beckwith. “It doesn’t matter how strong you are, or how good a skier. Bill’s route is awesome, and it always will be."
Tickets for the event are $10 in advance from the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum and Teton Mountaineering, and $15 at the door. (Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum members get in free.)
For those who are unable to attend in person, the presentation will be livestreamed on the Facebook pages of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, Outerlocal.com, Marmot and other sponsors. Libations and pizza will keep the audience sated beforehand, and ensure a festive event for all participants.