Photos and extended captions by Ryan Dorgan
Making a successful ski descent of the Grand Teton is a bucket list item that only some of the most committed skiers can say they've accomplished. Even with the right gear and the proper knowledge, conquering the Grand on skis is no easy task. Now, imagine being the first to ever descend the 13,776-foot peak on skis (sans the latest Dynafit boots and Black Diamond harness, of course), which is exactly what Jackson Hole legend Bill Briggs did on June 15, 1971—47 years ago today.
At 86 years old, Briggs, who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of big mountain skiing in North America, might not be bagging as many peaks as he used to, but his spirit and love for skiing, Jackson Hole, music, and the Tetons still shines just as bright as ever.
Today, on the anniversary of Briggs' historic summit, we recognize Briggs with this photo gallery offering a glimpse into his daily life, where he continues to seek answers and deeper understanding. Today, we raise our glass to Briggs and all of the other brave pioneers of our sport who were daring enough to reach for the sky and touch it. —Jillian Queri
Bill Briggs is known worldwide as of the father of extreme skiing in North America for his notable first ski descent of the Grand Teton. His pioneering attitude toward ski mountaineering opened up previously untouched terrain for skiers of later generations, including a 100-mile ski traverse of Canada’s Bugaboos and first descents of Mount Moran, Mount Owen, and Middle Teton in Wyoming. But since moving on from his life as a mountain guide and ski mountaineer in the early 80s, Briggs has spent the last few decades in his home valley of Jackson Hole building upon his understanding of Scientology and using the Church’s teachings to help guide him through his new lives in music and ski instructing. “What I’m living right now is three or four lifetimes at the same time,” he says.
Briggs began this lifetime in Maine and struggled as an adolescent in New England. Despite a birth defect that left him without a fully-functioning hip, he kept active through school and traveled across the Northeast and the country working seasonal ski instructing and mountain guiding jobs. In 1961, 10 years before skiing the Grand Teton, he traveled to New York where he had surgery to permanently fuse his hip in place. It was a period of rebirth in that he also found the Church of Scientology on the same trip. “Scientology works from the basis of the individual becoming more able or more well-educated on his own,” Briggs says. Its teachings have been the foundation of Briggs’ instructional methodology in his ski schools, which he often spends his mornings writing out within sight of the photo of his Grand Teton descent ski tracks at his favorite restaurant in Jackson.
After spending close to a decade working summers on and off in Jackson Hole as an Exum guide in the Tetons, Briggs moved to the valley permanently and soon after bought the ski school at Snow King Mountain in 1967. “Jack Dornan told me once: You’re not going to do anything in this life until you put down roots,'” Briggs says. He served as director of Snow King’s ski school for decades, and is now leading a group of ski instructors in a massive effort to archive his Certainty Training Method of ski instruction onto a series of DVDs.
For close to a decade, Briggs has been working alongside Sava Malachowski to film his series of ski instruction videos. “What we're putting down in the DVD has never been put down, so there are no words for it,” Briggs says. “The work has really been about figuring out what the hell is going on on a pair of skis and getting it defined.” His dedication to the sport of skiing and various pioneering accomplishments earned him inductions into the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame in 2003 and the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2008.
Now 87, Briggs is decades-removed from his ski mountaineering days, but still makes an effort to spend time skiing and hiking Snow King Mountain. “The last time I skied in the Tetons was Mount Owen in 1974,” he said. “There’s still a lot left for me to do in ski mountaineering. I won’t get to it this lifetime, but hopefully in the next one.”
Look back to our interview with Briggs seven years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the descent.
Just as he’s done almost every Sunday evening for the past 49 years, Briggs clears the dance floor at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, where he began leading the now-famous Stagecoach Band in their weekly “Sunday Church” show on February 16, 1969. “In college, I decided I would make a living out of music, climbing and skiing. I would simply devote my life to that,” he says. “I’m still living that decision.”
The Stagecoach Band’s founding members are etched into Jackson Hole history.
While tuning his autoharp before the band’s 2,437th Sunday set at the ‘Coach, Briggs chats with Lisa and Jeff Mattsson, of Minneapolis, who visit Jackson Hole a couple times a year to see the Stagecoach Band. Travelers like Jeff, whose father Briggs guided up the Grand Teton in 1968, often approach him with stories and questions about his life as a mountain guide and ski mountaineer. “I don’t become overwhelmed by the fame thing,” Briggs says. “That’s a benefit I got from Scientology, is that I learned to handle the fame by learning to stay who I am. You don’t change. You don’t put up a barrier to it. You don’t put up a defense. You let it come in.”
Briggs signals to Derrik Hufsmith, who has played alongside him at the Stagecoach for more than 30 years. Always looking to challenge himself in new ways, Briggs has been studying various performers over the past few years in an effort to not only improve his own musicianship, but also improve the experience for the band’s audience.
The ‘Coach has changed a bit over the years, as have aspects of the Stagecoach Band’s performance, but they can always guarantee a packed house with a mix of local cowboys and ranchers, seasonal workers, and tourists all vying for two-stepping space or an elbow at the bar.
“It's a different venue. It's a dance theme at the ‘Coach, which I love,” Briggs says. “At the Stagecoach, we never rehearse. The spontaneity aspect of it is outstanding.”
Never one to take much of a day off, Briggs sets up the weekly Monday evening schedule for the 1,029th Jackson Hole Hootenanny at Dornan’s, in Grand Teton National Park. Briggs and longtime friend Dick Barker, who passed away in 2012, began what is now known as the Hootenanny in the late ’50s when Briggs was living under the bridge that spanned the Snake River. “I’d have the guys come by and I’d play folk songs on my banjo and cook up what we called Teton Tea,” Briggs says. “We called them Teton Tea Parties. It more or less got cancelled by the Park Service because it got too popular.” Following a long absence, Barker and Briggs talked Dornan’s—a popular bar and private inholding near the park headquarters—into letting them resurrect the open mic-style Hootenanny in 1993.
With the bar at capacity during an indoors springtime Hoot, local musician Ashley Colgate pleads for a two-song slot with Briggs, who reluctantly tells her there’s only time for one. Musicians usually perform the Hoot on a first-come, first-served basis, and the setting is that of a formal concert—completely opposite of “Sunday Church” at the Stagecoach Bar—where guests are asked not to speak, sing along, or dance during performances.
Briggs and Barb Barker laugh along with the audience as he is introduced before the 1,029th Jackson Hole Hootenanny at Dornan’s.
“The whole idea has been to set a standard—to keep it going to become a tradition,” Briggs says. “What happens here ripples out of here. I said a long time ago, 'I'm not going on the road. I'm staying here. If people want to see me, they come here.'”
“It's the individual's responsibility to make things better, and we can all make things a little bit better. Each little bit goes into the commonwealth. We in Jackson have a lot of commonwealth. This place is very rich. But we can make it richer. We can set the bar higher, and everybody that comes through here can see it and say, 'Boy, I want to take this back to my house.' They come to the Stagecoach and they have a blast at the Stagecoach and they want to take a piece of that back. They go to the Hoot and they say, 'God, this is marvelous,' and they want to take a piece of that back. My idea is to build it here as an example for others to pick up and do, not because I'm telling them to or forcing them to, but if they want to, I'll do everything I can to help. This may sound sort of pollyanna, but that's really what it is. You're trying to help out and make it a better world a little bit at a time. Not by ordering it to happen, but by making it that way.”
On the 45th anniversary of his Grand Teton ski descent, Briggs and Venti Joosten toast to their experiences at a downtown Jackson restaurant. “I have enjoyed being an inventor, solver, explorer, and going into areas that had never been looked into,” Briggs says. “It’s been a big adventure all the way along.”