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Journeys: Facing Your Steepest Fears

Kim Fredericks

On the first day of camp, Walter Oetzell listens closely as Jackson Hole veteran ski school instructor Rich Lee presents the agenda for the next day: Meet at 8 am, ride the tram to the top of the mountain, and take a warm-up run. “He sounded so laid back,” says Oetzell, a 52-year-old Los Angeles attorney and father of two, “but then he explained that a warm-up run here is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, and that began to trigger fear.” The next morning, Oetzell and the rest of the crew were sitting in a cabin atop the 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain, waiting for the ski patrol to open the slopes. “It was five below outside, and I was thinking, what have I done?” he says.

It is a question that enters the minds of many participants enrolled in the Jackson Hole Steep & Deep Camp. Even before you report for your adventure, you know that this is not going to be a laid-back four days on the slopes. Campers come to Jackson Hole, Wyo., home of the most extreme mountain in the United States—with 4,139 feet of vertical and only 10 percent of its terrain dedicated to beginners—to learn to ski the steeps, couloirs, chutes, and moguls for which the area is famous. The anxiety begins with the pre-camp questionnaire, especially the part that asks if you want to learn to ski off cliffs and cornices less than or greater than 15 feet high and/or ski terrain steeper than 45 degrees.

Anyone worth his weight in snow knows that a 45-degree pitch is more difficult and terrifying than any double-diamond slope, but that is precisely the goal of the camp: to help advanced skiers face their demons by forcing them to ski terrain they view as impossible. To get the adrenaline pumping, you begin with a follow-the-leader warm-up down Bivouac, a nicely pitched black-diamond run. Adding to the excitement, this morning’s leader is Tommy Moe, one of the fastest men on skis. The 1994 Olympic downhill gold medalist serves as ski ambassador to Jackson Hole and host of the Steep & Deep Camp, held this year on January 17 to 20, January 31 to February 3, and February 28 to March 3.

Moe guides the campers to Cheyenne Bowl for a ski-off. With a pack of instructors and a cameraman named “Forrest Jump” watching at the bottom of the slope, skiers pick their line, one at a time, through unbroken snow, around trees, and over buried moguls and an occasional rock. “I fell three times on the warm-up run, which is normally more than I do all season,” says Oetzell.

“The ski-off is intimidating,” admits Jamie Mackintosh, an 18-year veteran of the Jackson Hole Ski School, “but it serves to quickly get skiers into appropriate groups.” Once divided into about five or six skiers per instructor, it is time to get to work. “The goal of most people is to improve their comfort and confidence level,” says Mackintosh, who notes that the camp has a reputation for attracting Type A personalities. “It gets them out of their element of being in control all the time,” she says.

Instructors help you overcome your fears by breaking down challenging terrain into micro situations—guiding you down small patches of difficult terrain and increasing the intensity over the course of four days. “Many skiers feel that they don’t have the ability to manage this terrain,” says Mackintosh, “but they do. I tell skiers that to be successful, you have to be able to visualize yourself skiing [it], and see yourself standing at the bottom of the slope.” She also points out that the group situation allows you to step back, watch, and learn from others’ mistakes.

To aid the instructors, the camp also brings in guest trainers, such as extreme skier Rob DesLauriers, who instructs you on how to master a jump turn, a necessary skill for skiing supersteep terrain. A backcountry specialist shows how to examine snowpack for stability and teaches search and rescue techniques with avalanche beacons. The major celebrity element, however, comes from Moe, who divides his time among the groups, offering tips and encouragement. “It’s a good way for me to give back to the sport,” he says. “I especially enjoy the morning sessions because we get to take the first tram up and have the mountain to ourselves for the first two hours.”

The highlight of the camp comes on the last day, when you take on the mountain’s biggest challenge—Corbet’s Couloir, a famously narrow, steep, and rocky run at the top of Rendezvous Mountain. The couloir is clearly visible from the tram just before it ducks into the unloading area, and each morning members of the group wipe the fog off the windows to check to see if it is open. “The couloir can only be skied when the conditions are right with plenty of fresh snow so the landing will be soft,” says camp director Lee. Unfortunately—although some skiers are relieved—Corbet’s remained closed during the duration of this season’s camp. “When Corbet’s is closed, we try to take campers someplace else where they can challenge themselves,” says Moe.

So on day four, Oetzell and the rest of the group start the frigid morning of their last day just as they had the others—huddled in Corbet’s Cabin. Only this time, instead of waiting for the mountain to open, they start the day with a briefing on the current status of the snowpack outside the ski area boundary. Then, campers anxiously strap on avalanche transceivers, check that they are functioning properly, and follow their instructors outside.

The group’s collective ability determines how far out of bounds you hike. Oetzell’s group ducks under what is known as the high exit gate of Rendezvous Bowl and begins a 30-minute hike along a boot path to get into Cody Bowl, a wide-open skiing area tucked beside Rendezvous Mountain. The camp’s most advanced group hikes higher into the bowl to an area called Four Shadows, named for the four peaks that cast shadows on the vast skiing area, and anxiously waits for its guide, Theo Miner, to saw through a dangerous cornice.

“He knew the cornice was unsafe,” says Lee, “so he used his snow saw to cut through it and then stomped on it with all his weight.” When the thick slab of snow releases, it nearly takes Miner with it and triggers gasps among the campers as they watch a small slide of icy snow chunks avalanche down into the bowl, clearing the way for their passage. The experience is a bit unsettling, but Lee says that this is part of what the Steep & Deep Camp is all about. “We want skiers to go out of their comfort zone, but still remain in the safety zone,” he says.

After skiing the steeps of Cody Bowl, campers drop into Rock Springs Bowl (also out of bounds) and then finish up the morning skiing the Hobacks, a lightly gladed area that is a favorite at Jackson Hole. Skiing beneath bright sunshine and through knee-deep buttery soft powder, Oetzell felt the culmination of several days of intense instruction and practice. “I kept thinking ‘I just can’t believe I am doing this,’ ” he says.

The next morning, back in his Los Angeles office, Oetzell reflected upon his adventure. “I started thinking, this time yesterday, I was in a little cabin on top of a mountain strapping on an avalanche beacon and sharing a seat on a bench with a rescue dog.” For Oetzell, daydreams will not suffice. He is returning this season with two of his buddies to relive the experience, only this time he is prepared for the challenge.

Kim Fredericks is an avid skier and frequent contributor to Robb Report. She is returning to Jackson Hole’s Steep & Deep Camp this season with two friends.

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