Towards the end of 2021 and into the beginning of 2022, I decided to tackle some BIG adventures I had heard about and always wanted to do. I figured that if I could get in shape for one, two, or three of them, then I would go big, get that fitness level, and do six!
I fortunately had a decent base level of fitness but needed to add consistency and increase volume across a handful of disciplines to complete the events: road/mountain and gravel biking, skinning (uphill skiing with special bindings that allow uphill and downhill travel), alpine ascent (with ice axe and crampons, typically with skis strapped on your back), hiking, and technical rock climbing. I settled on six events in a planned order of completion and named it the Big Belt Buckle Challenge.
After about 10 days of getting in a good routine, I decided to give it a little push and see where my fitness level was. A “little” push turned into something a little more than a little. My friend Tom and I loaded up skis and our brand new, never-been-ridden Ski-Doo 850 powder sleds and headed to Wyoming, where we met his friend John on December 22. I had a snowmobile around 15 years ago and used to ride trails in New Hampshire and Maine so figured that, like a bike I would be able to figure this one out. That was trail riding—powder sleds are a totally different game. However, early the next morning, I got the basics down quickly. We were psyched as about 20 inches of snow had dumped on the Tetons, so we headed into the mountains.
After we parked at the trailhead, it was a seven-mile shot into the woods. We didn’t see a single person all day and ripped a new trail deep into deep powder. We had to keep on the throttle or the sled would slow down and get stuck—it was that deep. Like I said, it was my first time riding a 450-pound powder sled, so it was hard work, intense, exhilarating, and a real thrill. When we couldn’t go any further, we worked to turn the sleds around on the narrow trail to start the skin. Turning these machines around was no easy task. We were working hard, shoveling and lifting and turning them around for the return trip later.
Our objective was Mud Peak. Admittedly, it’s not a very impressive sounding name, nor is the picture online. It looks more like “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” but we figured for our inaugural snowmobile approach, it would be a good day and a good adventure.
By the time we got off the sleds, it was 8 a.m. or so, and we figured on five hours up and two to three hours down, plus one to get out and load up the snowmobiles, so we would be back in Jackson Hole for a huge dinner. There was a LOT of snow as we started skinning and breaking trail. It was beautiful and it demanded a hard, consistent effort. As I often like to say when I am doing these things, there was no place else I would rather be! It’s a serious effort, but there is also no cell service and nothing to worry about: just the mountains, friends, and the clearing of the mind to a much more basic place.
We reached the summit of Mud Peak after a non-stop push at 2:11 p.m., six hours later, and we decided to do a loop rather than ski descend the way we came up. The way we went up was HARD work. We were constantly taking skis off, climbing over fallen trees, and sinking up to our thighs when we took the skis off, so we figured that there must be an easier way to actually ski down. We had one decision to make—which ridge to descend, so similar to Yogi Berra’s saying—when you come to a fork in the road, take it! It was an amazing run down. The powder was up to our thighs. It was a blast, but we started getting concerned. The run out was taking us too far to the west, and the contour lines on the map showed steep cliffs to the south and a big ridge to the north. We knew where our sleds were to the north and started realizing there was no way we could get to them down this ridge.
Here we were in the middle of nowhere, 10 miles from a road, slow moving in huge snow, and we had to strap the skins back on and head north toward the snowmobiles. As we started skinning, we all realized that it was going to be a bit of a haul, but all good. Then, things took a scary turn at 3:41 p.m., When we were traversing the side of a hill, the snow at the bottom gave out, causing a “small” slide. It was small, but if you were in it, it would have been bad.
Then, a couple minutes after that, the snow cracked right under my feet. If you haven’t heard or felt that feeling, when snow breaks, cracks, or gives, it is SCARY A.F. The snow separated exactly on our skin line and dropped about a centimeter, but held on. Just as I finished my traverse of the hill, the second, larger avalanche occurred—I’m talking just as I got to the tree line. The snow we had stood on just a minute before fell down into the lower riverbed. It was very scary.
OK—let’s get back at it. It was now 4:00 p.m. and the sun was going to set in an hour and a half or so. We had to get up and over the next ridge, so we had to focus and moving and not stopping. We put on the skins and started zig-zagging up the steep mountainside. We had around 850 vertical feet to ascend to the point where we’d find our up track and follow it out to the sleds. The vertical uphill was steep—very steep—but we were making progress until we encountered another setback. This one really sucked.
Part of the uphill required a 45-foot ski down a steep grade on a little ridge of the mountain. As I went down that small section, I discovered that I lost a skin. It just came off my ski—something I had never experienced before and NOT a good thing with 800 vertical feet to go! I dug and searched for 30 minutes in snow that was literally over our heads. It was a real winter wonderland. However, the skin had vanished.
We were deep in powder and had no way of finding it, so we tried the only thing possible: cutting the other skin in half and securing it with duct tape. Well, that didn’t work at all, so I started boot stepping up the mountain. Every single step required indescribable effort. I would sink up to my ankle, knee, thigh, hip, or chest with every step. Literally – powder up to my chest. If I could make three steps up to my knee, it was a huge win versus sinking in. More often than not, I sank deep up to my hips and chest. It was BRUTAL. I was sweating like crazy, working like mad for every foot of progress.
And then—it started nuking! It was a full-on blizzard. I couldn’t see anything. Occasionally it would let up for a second and I would see Tom out front. John was wayyyy out front. Tom was a godsend. He carried my skis, and we just kept pushing. It was the most difficult ascent of my life. My heartrate was throttled. At times when I was up to my chest, I could not move and felt completely hopeless. I admit that at this point I was having some desperate thoughts—looking back, pretty pathetic really. These words do not do the scene justice nor the feelings that were going through me. I was scared—it was maybe one of the top 6 moments when I was the most scared for my life – along with a Mt. Whitney summit avalanche, Whitney summit traverse, skydiving mishap, road bike near head-on collision in California, and an off-roading near-flip situation at Mammoth. All these come to mind as the top.
I didn’t know if I could go on. I planned on going until I couldn’t go any more. I hoped and kinda sorta prayed, even though I’m not religious, and made all sorts of deals with myself—”If I make it out of here…” I thought about my parents, brother, and girlfriend. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that the thought of dying in the snow on the side of Mud Peak was definitely front and center for that hour. It was one of the top 10 hardest pushes of my life.
I finally got to the summit at around 6:00 p.m. as the sun was setting and the blizzard kept coming—when the snow stopped and I found Tom and John, I was so grateful. We were all so happy, but also knew it was going to be blackout dark shortly and we still had to descend, skin out, snowmobile out, and get to the trucks.
Long story short, we ski/hiked through deep snow down the mountain and found our uphill track, which was another huge win. It was very difficult and can barely be called skiing, but we did have skis on and were going down the hill slowly, over fallen trees, roots, saplings, and branches. It was a mess—and did I mention it was not easy?
To give you an idea: John, who is a worldwide experienced climber and skier, got his ski caught on a branch under the snow when he was right in front of me. He flipped like a slingshot, flew about eight feet down into a gulley and landed directly on an exposed log, ribs first. He broke three ribs. It was brutal to watch—it looked awful. We had to get him out of that gulley, back on his skis, and off that mountain! He was in a lot of pain. If you have ever cracked or broken a rib – you get it. Every breath hurts. Every core movement hurts. The ski part lasted about another 45 minutes, then skinning back to the sleds took another hour and a half or so. Then we had to get back to the trucks, load up the sleds, and drive back to Jackson Hole.
It was an eye-opening adventure, and we were grateful to be done and back to safety.
Worth mentioning that:
Our meal at The Bird in Jackson was awesome – some of the best burgers and wings that money can buy! http://www.thebirdinjh.com/
So is Sidewinders https://www.sidewinderstavern.com/
And Persephone bakery one of the best….ever! https://persephonebakery.com/
Mountain Modern hotel always does me right https://mountainmodernmotel.com
I love Stio gear based in Jackson WY https://www.stio.com
New West KnifeWorks for a splurge https://www.newwestknifeworks.com
The hotsprings near the Snake River Sporting Club worth a visit https://snakeriversportingclub.com
The next day, I started feeling sick. I was drained mentally and physically from Mud Peak, there was no new snow at the Jackson Hole ski resort, and there was no way I was going back into the mountains without a chairlift. So, we decided to head home to Utah and cut the trip short. When I got home, the sickness turned into a Christmas and New Year’s serving of covid-19—my second round—so training was really put on hold for a month. We have all heard the stories: my first time was basically nothing, but my second bout with covid left me exhausted for a month. Around mid to late January, I started slowly getting back on the training track.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column] [/et_pb_row] [/et_pb_section]