I’ve always loved outdoor continuing education. Water safety courses, avalanche safety courses, wildness first aid type courses, etc. These courses have been instrumental in helping me develop and grow my skills and to build community in the outdoors. And thus, I was so stoked for the Big Mountain Snow Safety Course with Samsara Experience. Samssara is an athlete coaching and training program founded by Zahan Billamoria (aka, Z), a highly accomplished athlete and world renowned ski guide. I’ve been following and admiring Z for several years and I remember getting the email for this course back in the fall. I vividly recall receiving the email, then forwarding it to my friend Sarah and saying, ‘I haven’t wanted to do something so bad in a very long time’. Just reading about the course really lit me up. But, I sat on it and did not apply. That is until I finally went backcountry skiing in late January. This was a big deal because I was injured (ankle injury) for most of the fall so I hadn’t been running, surfing, or skiing at all. I hadn’t done shit until this first weekend touring and I had such an awesome time that I got back on Sunday and immediately applied for the course on Monday. In order to get accepted, I had to complete a formal application process which basically meant I had to write a full backcountry ski resume which included number of days completing ascents greater than 7,000 vertical feet, number of descent steeper than 40 degrees, and more. So, I applied on Monday, got accepted on Tuesday with the last available spot, then woke up on Wednesday super stressed. How the hell would I get to Jackson Hole in two weeks, in the middle of the week? I had so much work, including in person meetings with senior leadership at Rivian scheduled during the course. Getting out of or rescheduling these meetings would have been tricky. But, 90 minutes later I got the call and was then laid off with hundreds of fellow colleagues and the decision was made for me. I was going to the Big Mountain Snow Safety Course! Dream come true!
Big Mountain Snow Safety Course
I continued onward from Nevada to Jackson Hole and hit the hot springs as I rolled into town. Then I had two days to prepare for the course. I had to prepare my gear and there was also a lot of material I was supposed to review before the course but I was so focused on GETTING to the course that I wasn’t totally prepared for it.
Knowing I had some homework to do, I posted up at the Jackson Hole Library and logged into the coursework: itinerary and logistics for the course, gear list, group assignments, route lists, ropes best practices, mapping and navigation education, and more. I was instantly overwhelmed. For example, the itinerary listed, “meet at GTNP at 7am”. What the hell was GTNP? I literally had to Google it and realized that GTNP was Grand Teton National Park. And my group’s route for Day 1 was the Turkey Chute. I googled that too and my heart sank. This was going to be an intense few days.
The night before the course began was a welcome dinner. It was awesome to meet Z, the other guides, and the other athletes in the course. It was also intimidating. These guys and gals looked the look and talked the talk. Not in a superficial kind of way. It was authentic and it was clear that these were serious athletes. Once again, I felt intimidated and overwhelmed. These athletes were on another level experience wise and fitness wise. I was very worried about keeping up given that I wasn’t training all fall and I only had a few days of uphill travel under my belt so far this season.
The way the course works is that it’s a 4 day course with 16 students and 4 guides, 4 groups of 4 students. The guides are there to help teach, but not to guide. So, each night the groups were assigned an area of GTNP and it was up to each group to come up with a plan for the next day.
For Day 1, my group was with Aaron Diamond. Aaron is an highly accomplished avalanche educator, splitboard guide, and athlete who is hugely respected in the Jackson zone and well beyond. He has a very calming presence and while being a total Teton badass, he is insanely humble.
Our plan was to meet at GTNP at 7am. I hardly got a wink of sleep that night. And it was -10 degrees or so when we left the trailhead. The other folks in my group were super cool guys. They were also very fit. I kept up as best I could and we had a super fun day. We didn’t end up skiing the Turkey Chute, but we skied another quite fun line although a few hours in, my feet started killing me. With each step, my toes were pounding the front of my boots. Ouch. That night I was in so much excruciating pain that even the weight of a bedsheet hurt the tips of my toes.
Fortunately, Day 2 was not on the snow so I could give my toes a little rest. We spent the day at Z’s house, in his infamous “Dojo” where he stores his gear and trains. It’s basically the coolest man cave I’ve even been in. I was taking mental notes of everything, how everything was so dialed/organized, the gear, etc. I’ve seen this Dojo on Instagram for so many years. It was so cool and a total privilege to actually be in it.
As we got underway, everyone introduced themselves and we started the day talking about the subject of risk. Very intense stories were shared, including stories where partners did not survive. It was very raw and emotional and being a worrier myself, I carry a lot of fear with me and spend a lot time thinking about risk. What are the risks I can see/know exist? What are the risks I can’t see? How can I mitigate the risks? Am I comfortable taking the risk? Honestly, I even frequently think, how likely am I to die if I do this? Backcountry is downright dangerous and intimidating and I’ve really questioned why I even backcountry ski in the first place. Is the sport worth the consequences? These are the kinds of things we were talking about and it was a tender and beautiful discussion. We then transitioned to lighter topics, including snow safety and ropes skills. My favorite part of this next session was the subject of, ‘when to send’. To me, this is so critical and something I constantly think about. When the hell can I actually send? This is one of the main differences between this course and a typical avalanche safety course. The regular courses basically educate you to stay off terrain beyond 30 degrees, while this course recognizes that that is not practical for serious athletes and helps you navigate how to proceed with independent decision-making for high angle complex alpine terrain.
I actually ended up dipping out earlier on Day 2 to address my feet issues for the course would be over for me if I did not figure something out with my boots. But first, and before I left to get my feet figured out, I connected with a woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth heard I was in my old VW van without heat and given the very cold temps (-5 to -10 degrees each night), she said she might have a place for me to stay. I don’t love being a guest, but we exchanged info and I didn’t think much of it.
I then continued onward on a mission to figure out my feet before the shops closed. After several stops, I was able to find the same boot, 1 size bigger. It must have been the last 25.5 Tecnica Zero G in all of Jackson, WY. I was very lucky to find these boots and snagged them immediately. It was an $800 expense I was not thrilled about, but was absolutely necessary. So, I grabbed these one size larger boots and threw my Zipfit liners into them. A bigger shell with the same size liners was not perfect, but at least my toes had some room in there. Boots and feet continued to be an issue throughout the remainder of the trip as my old beets seemed too small, and my new boots seemed to big and couldn’t not figure out the right fit. While not the ideal fit, these boots allowed me to stay in the course and keep skiing, thank goodness!
Later that night, Elizabeth checked in on me and insisted I stay at her little spot in town. And thus, I did. Upon arrival to a gorgeous log cabin in downtown Jackson, Elizabeth texted me, ‘stay as long as you are here’. Are you kidding me?! That is what I call, a random act of kindness. A complete stranger offering me a house to stay in, I was blown away. And, after the feet ordeal and my heater in the van not working, having a warm place to stay was a blessing. Elizabeth will be dubbed forever in my mind as my Jackson Hole Angel. I really needed this place to crash more than I realized.
Anyways, on to Day 3 of the course. I was in a new group and Z would be our guide. I was so stoked to ski with my hero, Z. We set out into Grand Teton National Park with the intention to leverage the rope skills we had learned the prior day. I had no rope experience at all so I was excited for my first day of ski mountaineering. We had a gnarly objective in mind, but unfortunately we got shut down by my old friend, Gusty Wind who showed up with great intensity. The cool thing about this course is that it was OUR call to turn around, not the guides, not Z’s. Ultimately, our group decided to back off the objective and we recalibrated to Plan B. It wasn’t as awesome of an objective, but we got to practice our rope skills (making an anchor, repelling, belaying, belayed ski cut, and more). This was definitely one of the highlights of the course. We then found some great chutes in the Park and got some awesome turns in. I recall leading at one point and Z would ask me questions about the snowpack as went. I would then stop to answer his questions and he would say, ‘don’t stop, keep going’. It was pretty funny. It was a privilege to spend intimate time with Z and to watch him in the mountains. He’s like a ninja, moving swiftly and with great intention through the terrain. He also told me that I had a ‘really nice turn’ which basically means he thought I was a good skier. This was a welcomed compliment given all of my insecurities about being the course. the best compliment in the world. I even shared it with my mother, brother, and all my friends haha. I was quite proud that Z thought I was a good skier.
Day 4 was here. Wow. It was such an intense course it was flying by. With early mornings, super cold temps, and big days in the Tetons. It felt so good to be go go going like that. So physical. So mental. No time at all to think about anything outside the course, except for the passing of grandmother. Of course I thought about her, but that’s the only thing present for me beyond the course.
And on Day 4 we were with Billy Haas. Another awesome educator and guide and our last day was another epic day in the Tetons.
Overall, this course was beyond amazing and it had a super profound impact on me. Skiing with the other athletes which included the likes of Kit DesLauriers who is the first person to ski the highest peak on every continent, including Everest really helped me grow. It was like instantly going from the minor leagues, to the big leagues, at least for the duration of the course. In addition, it really set me up for the best winter of my life. I left feeling so inspired by the other students and guides and built a community that I know I will (and have already) adventure with for the rest of my life. INFINITE GRATITUDE.
After the course I planned to hit the road, but Jackson fully sucked me in and I ended up staying for another 2.5 weeks before rolling up to BC.