I knew the moment I dropped into Spacewalk Couloir, a backcountry ski run in Jackson Hole, that my recent avalanche class was both serving me well and scaring the crap out of me. The snow gods had delivered 19 inches overnight, delighting powderhounds while also creating high avalanche danger.
Spacewalk is a gnarly 12-foot-wide chute that drops at a nearly 50-degree angle between jagged rock bands. You don’t want to fall. It’s so steep that my husband brushed his hip against the slope on his first turn. If I’d looked up at this run before doing it, I probably would have chickened out.
Fortunately my husband and I were in good hands with a Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski guide, Bill Anderson, who had accompanied us on a backcountry ski tour the year before. He knew our capabilities—perhaps better than we did. Last year, our day had been markedly different. Bright sun, brilliant blue skies, and a stable snow pack invited us to thrilling high-alpine terrain that pushed my limits. We climbed and skied ridge after ridge, filling my heart with joy and bringing my legs to a quiver. I knew I’d be back for more.
This year was entirely different. Ski patrol had to delay opening the mountain while they blasted inbound runs. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other eager skiers, we crowded in Corbett’s Cabin at the top of the ski area, waiting for the coast to be clear. Our steamy exhalations fogged the rickety structure’s windows, coating them with the vaporous residue of our excited chatter.
But the coast is never clear in the backcountry. In Jackson Hole, skiers can access vast backcountry terrain using the ski area’s lifts, which can lead to a sense of complacency about safety. Proximity to inbound areas, a high volume of skiers in the backcountry, familiarity with an area, and the assumption that others know what’s safe can lull skiers into taking unnecessary risks.
Once you exit the ski area gate, you’re on your own. The key is to read avalanche forecasts, study current conditions, choose terrain carefully, and carry safety gear—beacons, shovels, and probes. We had all this—plus a guide—and proceeded with caution.
At the approach to Spacewalk, the slope folds over a convex roll before plunging into a gulley, so it’s hard to see what’s coming. Our guide went first, and I followed—carefully. My internal voice talked over the noisy babble of my monkey mind, brushing aside the fear building in the pit of my stomach like a tangled knot.
“Don’t look down,” I told myself. “Just focus on making good turns and don’t fall.”
I know from experience that to acknowledge fear gives it power. By ignoring it, you can push it back into the dark recesses of your subconscious, leaving it to languish before it can metastasize into full-blown panic.
Then I was rudely jolted. As I made my first few jump turns, the snow face cracked and started to slide. The foreboding slope dissolved into powdery chunks that gained momentum under my feet, dredging up textbook terrors from my avalanche class just weeks before. Terrified that the slough would turn into a full-fledged avalanche and carry me into the rocks below, I pulled to the edge—panting, heart pounding, the tingly rush of adrenalin coursing through my veins. I forced my labored breath into deliberate meditation—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—trying to reclaim order from the internal chaos that threatened to paralyze me.
Bill motioned me to continue, although I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying over the wind that whipped at my helmet. I started to understand why this run is called Spacewalk. It felt a bit like being in outer space—somewhat disorienting—with flat light, and the soft calm of the backcountry interrupted by sharp gusts that kicked up swirling spirals of snowflakes.
Digging deep for courage, I skied down the narrow gulley toward Bill, who had pulled out of the bottom under the safety of a rock band. Magic flowed into my soul as I floated through the powder. My husband came next, grinning from ear to ear and bursting with exuberant glee.
“That was awesome! What happened?” he asked. “You weren’t linking your turns at the top.”
“I was terrified the slope was going to slide!” I exclaimed. “Bill, how did you know it was okay to ski?”
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He explained how he had studied the terrain and conditions and was confident that we wouldn’t produce a large enough slide to carry a skier.
Avalanche safety education is critical, but it’s worthless without time in the field. Hiring a guide and asking a lot of questions is a great place to start. I need a lot more time in the backcountry before I feel confident making my own assessments.
Looking up at Spacewalk, I swelled with pride, feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment at what we had skied. There’s something very empowering about pushing yourself and overcoming fear. Plus it makes you feel so alive. This amazing day helped me build character, boosted my confidence, and cultivated an inner strength that I can tap in many other aspects of my life.
Next up: I’m returning to Jackson to climb the Grand Teton with Bill and then ski down. Stay tuned.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.