Reflections with a Pioneer: Bill Briggs

'So I got in to Jackson... and camped under the bridge, which was a nice place. It had pretty good acoustics.'

By John Clary Davies

Outside of Sylvain Saudan’s descent of Mount Hood, ski mountaineering didn’t really exist in North America in 1971. Then Bill Briggs skied the Grand. It was such an unbelievable accomplishment he had to ask a local newspaper photographer to take a picture of his tracks, just to prove where he had been.

Forty years after pioneering the sport, ski mountaineering is a widespread winter activity. Now 79, Briggs has been a ski instructor for 56 years. He’s working on instructional DVDs for teaching people how to ski, and he and the Stagecoach Band still play every Sunday at Wilson’s Stagecoach bar. Briggs is on the banjo. Here’s his story.

I started skiing in the winter of ‘39. My sister took me out, which was really disappointing. I came back in tears. I determined that I would do this on my own.

Bill Briggs on his home mountain, Snow King, overlooking the town of Jackson and the Tetons. Photo: Sava Malachowski
Bill Briggs on his home mountain, Snow King, overlooking the town of Jackson and the Tetons. Photo: Sava Malachowski

Bob [Bates] was my English teacher and from a teacher standpoint, I wasn’t very impressed, but we went rock climbing. How he went about creating the atmosphere of it just got to me. I liked the character that he was—very positive in the damndest situations. He handled things extremely well and I thought OK, that’s the kind of person I really want to be.

That got a start for me with Bob Bates getting us all skiing, and then I went to Dartmouth and linked up with a German-born Jewish roommate, and he was really quite brilliant and he wanted to play guitar and yodel, and so I went along with him. The two of us just built up a background of alpine music and country music and what not. I came out here to go climbing in the Tetons and decided OK, I’ll hitchhike out and take the banjo and learn to play the banjo while I’m waiting to be picked up.

So I got in to Jackson and got a job working on road construction and camped under the bridge, which was a nice place. It had pretty good acoustics. I invited people in from the road crew and served up some Teton Tea, which was half tea and half wine. It was a terrible mixture.

Word got out and people started coming by to experience a Teton Tea Party, so that was the beginning as it were for what we are doing now—which we have every Monday night at Dornan’s bar.

I took a free lesson from a certified instructor in the late 40s, and I was so disappointed with how that was done. I thought I really ought to do something about the ski teaching profession.

I’ve been a ski instructor since ’55.

They said, ‘you’re going to be in a wheelchair or behind a desk by the time you’re 40.’ Well, the hip gave out in my 20s—it became arthritic. Then numerous orthopedic people determined that a hip fusion was the way to go, rather than a hip replacement. I got fired as a mountain guide and fired as a ski instructor. I didn’t expect to get back professionally and I’d have to look for something else in life. I was very depressed at the time, not knowing what I would be doing. But I found out when I got out of the cast and went skiing, I could ski virtually as well as before. In both cases where I got fired, they hired me back.

[The Grand] is a classic undertaking. I’m not that great of an athlete. I do OK. I generally keep up. I was never really a strong climber, but I was clever. What I lacked in shear muscle, I could make up for in efficiency. Climbing up to ski the Grand utilized a bit of that.

[The east face] was very steep—65 degrees probably. You go to take a foothold and your knee hits the slope before you can get up past it. You can’t get your knee up past the slope in order to take a step and all I could do is go up with the left foot, because you can’t get the right foot up. You take three steps and rest, three more and rest.

I skied down the ridge and it narrows between a rock and a cornice and my skis are performing and the snow is perfect corn and it’s just a neat ski right through that, and then I got onto the east face and I had predetermined just where the tension zone was going to be on the east face so I could cut it. I had my position of where I wanted to cut it and have it slide out, and sure enough that’s what it did. The whole east face just went.

I came up behind my friends who were waiting there and they were surprised to see me. They figured I‘d gone off with the avalanche.

I knew it was big, that this was a big thing in my life, that this will probably be the big thing I would do. It was a good one. I didn’t expect I would do anything bigger. I was 40 years old at the time, and I was at my peak.

Basically, I was calling it quits for ski mountaineering. The body wasn’t going to get any stronger. I was still doing very well for another ten years before any indication of decline, but it was no better. It had peaked out. You can push only so far before the body just can’t handle it. It’s too fragile.

I came down and I tell people I skied the Grand and, ‘naw.’ No one could believe it so the next day I went up to the airport and I could see the tracks and I called up Virginia at the local paper and she said, ‘stay right there, we’ll go up and take a photo.’ One of them became the poster. It pretty much became a classic. Anyway, without that picture, I would have had a hard time convincing anybody. It was a little bit on the unbelievable side.

I saw it as a classic. This is a classic ski descent. It will become the thing to do.

I thought at the time, boy this is going to be popular. It was way overdue. Let’s face it, the stigma of skiing steep mountains is just ridiculous. You can certainly ski these things. We do it at ski areas, and what’s the difference?

Back at Dartmouth my German roommate and I would take a look at various stories and things that had happened in the Alps and so on, and it was charming. It was a charming dream to be able to experience alpine adventures. So I worked up to it, all the way up to skiing the Grand.

It was sort of an ultimate adventure. It had all these things going one after another, which I was ready to handle. It was a perfect match, a perfect challenge.

Special thanks to Sava Malachowski for assistance in pulling together the gallery of historic images.

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