Giles Augustine holds down two jobs in Jackson, Wyoming, working 70 hours per week. At night, he stocks shelves at a grocery store; during the day, he's a lifeguard. When he's not working, he's out skiing the Teton backcountry. This year he figures he got in about 90 days. No season pass at the resort, he says. Too expensive.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Augustine spent the last seven years honing his skills in the backcountry between Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. He moved to Jackson last year to pursue his goal of being a ski guide—he got his Avy II and Wilderness First Responder. Then, while attending an avalanche awareness lecture, he learned that Exum Mountain Guides would be giving out a scholarship for its inaugural Live to Ski Camp this spring—a high-level backcountry and ski mountaineering camp that would honor the late great Steve Romeo, whose mantra was "Live to Ski."
Before he died in an avalanche in March 2012, Romeo, a longtime Jackson resident, ran a blog called Teton AT. The blog acted as an expression for his deep love of backcountry skiing, especially in the Tetons. The site brought new exposure to the steep skiing movement in Wyoming and helped inspire a fresh take on ski mountaineering in the U.S. To honor his memory, Exum hoped the camp would serve other skiers who, like Romeo, blazed their own trail.
With the four-day camp costing $995, Augustine says it was out of his budget. But it seemed to reflect his goals as a skier: A field-intensive course that would include instruction on how to handle big objectives in the high alpine, including skills for being on rope, belay, crampons, dynamic snow and weather conditions, and dealing with exposure. Wanting to achieve that next level, he applied for the scholarship. Four months later, Exum told him he'd won.
"We picked Giles from a rich selection of applicants," says Zahan Billimoria, an Exum guide for the last five years who was instrumental in forming the camp. "We were looking for the Steve Romeo from 20 years ago—someone who had all that motivation and made sacrifices to pursue their skiing career. We saw that Giles had the drive to get into bigger terrain, and we wanted to be part of his education at a time when he was primed for it."
The camp had space for roughly a dozen people. Because Exum looked for skiers with a certain set of skills—advanced backcountry skiing, high fitness level, and motivation to learn ski mountaineering—Billimoria says they turned down 30 to 40 percent of applicants.
"When we announced this camp, people knew exactly who they were," he says. "People said, 'That's me. I can't go any further by myself.' We heard from people all over the country."
On day one, May 8, the group met at 5 a.m., skins on and packs tight. Though the snowline was still a few thousand feet up, they followed Romeo's philosophy of "Teton Style," meaning ski boots went on at the car. They hiked quickly up Garnet Canyon, the gateway to the most prominent Teton peaks. After splitting into two, the first group summited 12,240-foot Spalding Peak and skied the 50-degree north face. The other group climbed and skied the West Hourglass Couloir, off the North Face of Nez Perce. Throughout the day, the skiers learned how to apply quick snow anchors, rope work, and belay. "With this camp, we are not trying to train guides," says Billimoria. "We're just trying to help people manage terrain in a real-life scenario. We want to help them be safer climbers and safer skiers, and keep it very applicable."
By the end of the day, the skiers had climbed more than 6,000 vertical feet. For anyone not a guide or Steve Romeo, this was significant. As they hiked back to the car, Augustine says he grew tired and tripped and fell into a creek.
The next day, half of the camp climbed and skied Albright Peak, which, at 10,552 feet, has a shorter approach, but which also included an 18-foot-thick cornice to navigate.
For the third day, the group ascended and camped near Timberline Lake, below Buck Mountain. Rising in the dark on day four, the team approached the knife-edge east ridge of the dramatic 11,938-foot peak, which author, guide, and historian Tom Turiano describes as a "monarch" of the region. Following protocol, the campers skied one by one down the East Face of Buck, a big achievement for even the most seasoned ski mountaineers.
"It's not something I'd ever do on my own without someone coaching me through it," says Augustine. "It's one of the best routes I've ever done in my life."
Looking back on the camp, Augustine says he learned more about backcountry skiing in those four days than he had in all seven years on his own. "The Live to Ski Camp is a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to elevate their skiing," he says. "It's one of the best experiences of my entire life."
The camp will continue for many years, as Billimoria says Exum has received funding to donate a scholarship ever year for the next decade. It's certainly something Romeo would be proud of.
"Many of us skied with him, and were friends with him," Billimoria says of Romeo. "We wanted a way to remember him as well, and pass on the stoke he had for the Tetons. He just loved his home range so much."