Sitting in the corner of the Virginian Restaurant in Jackson, Bill Briggs blends in effortlessly with the regulars. The room is filled with a mix of tourists and old timers, toting Jackson Hole memorabilia and cowboy hats, respectively.
As I make my way across the room, I wonder if the patrons have any idea of the role that the unassuming man in the corner played in ski mountaineering in North America. Then I catch myself—no, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one here that's enough of a ski mountaineering nerd to be star-struck by a man in his mid-70s.
For me, Bill is a bit of a hero. He's the man that arguably pioneered ski mountaineering in the States when he skied the Grand Teton 40 years ago on June 15, 1971. I introduce myself, and Bill jumps up and shakes my hand. His enthusiasm and animation catches me a little off guard. Although his hair is gray and a bit thinning and his face is reflective of the lifetime he's spent outdoors, Bill still speaks with the energy of someone much, much younger. As we begin to talk, I'm relieved to realize that despite the undeniable contributions Bill has made to the sport I love, he's just another guy who loves talking about the mountains.
Powder.com: Even by today's standards, skiing the Grand Teton is still a significant ski-mountaineering accomplishment. Forty-years ago, it was above and beyond what anybody else was doing. What made you think you could do it?
Bill Briggs: I didn't have any question about whether I could do it. Climbing up was a big question. The climb up is a physical challenge. Once I climbed it, skiing down I wasn't worried. Yes it's scary, but could I do it? No question. Did I time the weather right? Is the snow right? This is the big worry. I was a couple hours late from what I'd planned. but it turned out (to be) not bad. But the timing has to be right and all of the preparation that goes into making the thing happen is far more trying, more of a challenge than the skiing.
How often do you still ski? About twice a week, mostly at Snow King.
When did you stop ski mountaineering? I didn't intend to do anymore after the Grand, but Robert McClure wanted to do Mount Owen and asked me if I wanted to go along. He just wanted me for the mountaineering aspect of it. He was a good enough skier, but it takes more than just that. I agreed to go with him to do Mount Owen. That was a big challenge to work that out.
Do you have a favorite moment in the mountains? There were many, but just in the descent of the Grand, there's three of them:
1. Skiing off the summit on the hard crust, in and around the rocks … was one of the finest experiences on skis I've ever had. Everything was working … everything was working perfectly.
2. Then, you go out on the central ridge and it's now corn snow. And it's perfect corn, and then you have this narrowing ridge and the skis are performing perfectly and you do it all in rhythm. That's two in a row, absolutely perfect and entirely different.
3. Then in the Teepee glacier, you have this unreal, surreal scene. First of all, you're all alone and the whole thing is dark. Going into a dark, foreboding situation. You go out onto it and it's all frost feathers. You ski through it and it makes a tinkling sound as it breaks. You can hear them breaking and then skiing through them and the breaking sound that turns into a rush. Now I have the slope rushing by me. Absolutely surreal, I mean, I've never even come close to something like that ever again.
What's your take on the modern era of big-mountain skiing that's less mountaineer focused? I think it's great. When I did it, it was forbidden territory or too dangerous. That's ridiculous. It can be done. It needs to be. It needs to have the stigma taken off of it.
Would you say along with skiing and climbing that music has played the largest role in your life? I decided early on in college that I would do skiing, climbing and music. I was going to do those three things and somehow make a living out of it. I wasn't sure how to do that, and soon after that I got expelled from college [laughs].
How does playing in front of a group of people compare to skiing? It's scary. Just before you go onto play, you get the stomach golly wobbles and soon as you do it, as soon as you get to playing, it goes away. It disappears and you're into doing it. Same thing with skiing. You go to tackle something that's really… you don't know. When you start doing it, it starts coming, it's going to happen. Then, you make mistakes—same with music. But the thing is, don't interrupt what you're doing even with a mistake. You accommodate the mistake and keep it going. It's the same thing with skiing as making music. Once you get going you're okay.
You played with Bob Dylan before. What's he like? He played with me [laughs]. No, I don't know Bob. The situation was it was a wedding reception and he was obviously not enjoying it. You get the feeling, (Bob was thinking) I have to be here but this is not what I want to do, type of thing. (A friend) knew Bob and talked to him and said, "Would you like to play?" I think what he replied was, "Yeah, as long as I don't have to sing." It gave him a chance to get out of the social scene and all he had to do is play mandolin behind the pick-up country band. You get the impression that he enjoyed doing it. I got the impression that he really did appreciate having the chance to play and not have to perform. It made it a good night with him.
Going back to skiing, you were born without a hip joint and overcame it with flying colors. What advice would you give to people facing similar physical setbacks? You do what you can do. Basically you have the conservative mind that advises a person that they shouldn't do such-and-such. As far as I can say, anything you want to do, you can make a way of doing. Whatever the handicap may be, it doesn't really make that much of a difference. You find a way of doing it. Maybe you do it artificially or whatever, but you can still do it. The person that's the quadriplegic, they'll go out skiing. You figure out a system for doing it. If the person wants to do it go ahead and find a way. And don't let anybody talk you out of it, which they tend to do.
As the popularity of ski mountaineering increases, what advice would you like to pass on? The obvious mistake is to tackle something that you're not prepared for. Preparation I think is a huge element and, really, some of the biggest rewards come from preparation. Whether you actually go out and do it or not… you get a lot of satisfaction from getting the preparation down. The logistics, the timing—all the things mentioned before—getting those right (is the important part). Whether you actually do the ski mountaineering is secondary. The big mistake is not being prepared. I'm really cautious, really conservative. I planned my retreat on the way up (the Grand). In other words, how am I going to get out of this? You don't go beyond what you can't count on. That's my view.
Anything else you want to say to people out there? This is really hard to get words around. The idea being, maintain the wealth of the sport or the individual. Anyone that does ski mountaineering, (that does) the preparation to reach what they set out to do, has gained a great deal of knowledge. That's an individual gain. So, that's part of it.
The other part is the concept I've created—an accumulation of wealth in the (community)—that people can contribute to or take away from without contributing. And the game as I see it, is the increased wealth (of the community).
From the point of view of the Grand, the Grand increases the wealth of the sport. It's hard to do anything more with that line, to increase the wealth, so why spend your time with us? You asked before, do I still do it? Well, no, it's done, that contribution is made. Help Robert on Mount Owen, sure, but that's not gaining any more like the Grand did.