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Far Out Places: Kai Jones Discovers Ski Mountaineering in GTNP

Watch Kai Jones ski some of Jackson Hole's gnarliest terrain.

On a cold and snowy Saturday morning this past February, Kai Jones finished buckling his ski boots and strapped a 30-meter rope to the top of his pack. With a huge smile on his face, and little bit of nervous anticipation, he clicked into his skis and took a final look to make sure his beacon was actually on. He started skinning into the woods, passing Exum Guide Nat Patridge, who was performing beacon checks on our whole group.

Kai Jones, 12-year-old TGR grom, was about to go out on his first ski mountaineering mission in his backyard of Grand Teton National Park. He was all business, ready to put his new skills to the test. The day before, he was sitting in school finishing a math test. 

By age 11, Jones had already ticked off a handful of proud lines in the Jackson Hole sidecountry, and after eagerly absorbing as much avalanche education as possible during TGR’s annual athlete safety session IPRW, was ready to step up his game on some bigger foot-powered lines in the Park.

"The biggest thing I learned that day was pacing," recalls Jones. Max Ritter photo.

The challenges of skiing in the backcountry are clear: avalanche danger is ever-present, everything must be accessed under your own power on foot, and February mornings at 9,000 feet in Wyoming are bitter cold. All those challenges compound when you take into account the fact that Jones is about half the size of your average skier.

Jones grew up in a place with a storied past, as Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park are arguably where steep skiing became a thing in North America. Like certain towns in Europe (La Grave and Chamonix, to name a few) Jackson exudes a certain rawness factor. It’s the kind of place where someone’s reputation as a skier precedes just about everything else, and Doug Coombs and Bill Briggs are household names. Jones wanted to be a part of it, and was setting himself up for success.

Explore the history behind Grand Teton National Park and TGR's hometown of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Back on the skintrack, our group moved at a steady pace into the woods, and were constantly discussing changing conditions. The Tetons had been experiencing a bit of a dry spell, and now it was snowing really hard, so our options for skiing were somewhat limited, and we moved our way up the mountain carefully.

A few weeks ago, looking back on his first GTNP experience, Jones shared some insight, saying, “The biggest thing I learned that day was pacing. It was really hard to not go too fast, especially since it was so cold and I wanted to stay warm.” By the top of our first lap, it seemed like Jones had already figured it out, something that takes many skiers years of refining.

Jones and Patridge eye up the line of the day. Max Ritter photo.

We took a break about halfway up Wimpy’s, a famous backcountry run on the flanks of Albright Peak and thought about our line choice. Patridge, who probably knows his way around this terrain better than anyone in the Valley, suggested a more direct approach to our objective: a couloir with an overhanging cliff guarding the entrance, and we beelined it there.

Jones remembers that moment, “I was a little scared about the rappel we were going to go, but I was so eager to learn how to do it properly and that got me really stoked!” Maybe he was just stoked to shed the weight of the rope from his pack, and take a little breather from skinning to learn some rope skills. One by one, we skied up to the entrance of our line, and Jones quickly saw its potential for a beautiful freeride line. On his first lap, he planned to air a cliff in the entrance, and ski the whole thing in one go, then climb back up for lap two to work on his rope skills.

Jones shows us why freeriding is literally in his blood. Max Ritter photo.

With the camera rolling, Jones styled the entrance, and kicked up huge sprays of snow in the couloir as he made three turns down the whole thing, stopping to wait at the bottom. With a huge grin on his face, he radioed back up and said the conditions were awesome. Patridge yelled to him something along the lines of, “Nice work Kai, but remember to get out the way of your slough next time!” A slough can do some damage to a skier, especially when there’s not much weight to push around in the first place. Jones took note.

Booting back up, Jones was eager to get into the real lesson of the day: technical ski mountaineering skills. Grand Teton National Park is filled with a lifetime of huge lines that require technical ropework to access, so the small chute like we skied that day made for a perfect introduction. First, Patridge went over basic belay and rappel skills, which Jones already knew about from rock climbing during the summer. Nevertheless, he absorbed some new ski-specific tricks like extending your belay device to add friction and storing your poles between your back and your pack.

"Is this thing going to hold?" Max Ritter photo.

However, when it came to lower himself off the edge of a 40-foot cliff, there was some hesitation. “Is this really going to hold?” he asked. Patridge assured him that, yes it would, but that it was really good to be in the mindset of making sure everything was perfect before trusting an anchor. With that, Jones gingerly lowered himself over the edge and slowly slid down the rope to the ground. Enjoying the safety of the ground, Jones let out an audible sigh of relief.

With the technical aspect of the day finished, Jones was ready to have fun on some cliffs and enjoy some soft snow on the way back to the car. Skiing like it was just another resort lap, he linked a handful of super-exposed turns on a giant fin into a clean 20-footer. He made it look easy. Freeriding is in his blood, after all.

With a real full-day ski tour under his belt, Jones had his eyes opened to a whole new world of skiing possibility. Through mentorship from respected mountain professionals like Patridge, who instilled a sense of both wonder and a keen eye for safety and the importance of being patient, the young gun was ready to follow in the footsteps of his idols. A few months later, with better stability and some extra experience, Jones returned to the park for a much bigger project: skiing the Skillet Glacier on Mt. Moran. Again, he made it all look easy.

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“Duck!” my partner, Ben, told me as he tightened the rope that connected us. I buried my head into my chest as a waterfall of heavy, cold snow cascaded around me. It collected everywhere there was space: in between my sunglasses, down my jacket, and in my helmet.  "Is this what a river rock feels like as water flows undisturbed by its presence?” I thought to myself as I waited for it to end.My existence on this wall of ice on the final pitch of the Chevy Couloir on the Grand Teton was