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Report from February 7-8, 2022
Spine (noun): an inherently unique type of terrain formed when sloughed-out snow builds up on rocky ridges or where the geography naturally funnels into a V, as described by Ski Magazine. They’re most commonly found on monster faces in Alaska and BC, but really you can find them on any big backcountry peak.
Juan and I hit a strike mission to Jackson Hole this week to ride some spines that his buddy Jordan had informed him about in a zone dubbed The Serpent’s Maze. I’ve ridden some small spines here and there, but not like the ones here.
The Serpent’s Maze is like a little Alaska except that it’s not so little. Jordan took Juan and me up there on Monday and Tuesday this week, both of us desperate to find some soft snow after weeks of low tide conditions in Salt Lake City. We left Salt Lake at 8 am on Monday and were touring in Wyoming by 1 pm.
When we parked at the trailhead, we met Jordan, who had just come down from the giant face. He looked stoked. He took us back up for another lap and it was sunny, clear, and warm skinning up the gully. We toured until we hit a booter which took us up to another skin track. We skinned for a bit until we hit another booter taking us up to a high ridgeline that connected with the peak, where we switched back to touring. The flip-flopping from skinning to booting several times was actually refreshing and made the ascent shorter and easier due to the availability to take breaks and rest for a moment on each transition.
Once we got to the high ridgeline we picked a shaded north-facing descent down a wide spine on the backside of the peak for our line that day. It was cold, shaded, and fairly wind-protected.
The snow was pow—easily the best snow I had skied in a month. It was a little grabby in spots at the top, but as we went lower it got softer and smoother. A few hundred feet in and we were ripping mid-winter pow turns down a beautiful spine in a wild, isolated mountain range.
Heaven is a place on earth.
We skied back down a heinous gully filled with bumps, rocks, and frozen waterfalls down to the car on the Highway. From there we drove to Jackson and crashed hard at Jordan’s place. Then in the morning we woke up early and got right back to it.
The next day turned out to be an absolutely incredible day of skiing. It was colder, about 10ºF in the morning when we started, but sunny and beautiful with no wind. This time we went for the main face—the eye-grabbing, spine-mecca that is The Serpent’s Maze.
After a few hours, we were on top of the peak and traversing to our line. Some crazy mountain guy was up there with his dog and I watched him and his puppy descend a spine to the gully 2,000-feet below. That dog was fearless.
From the top, there were so many options that it was nearly impossible to choose where to drop. On top of that, almost everything looked like it ended in a giant, life-ending cliff even though we knew it didn’t. Luckily, Juan and Jordan are professionals and brought aerial drones to pinpoint where to place their descents from the air.
On the tops of spines like those, everything looks like certain death. Spines are giant convexities that roll over into the sky and look like they completely drop off on the other side. But they don’t—the go, or at least most of them do. It’s a wicked mind trick when you’re skiing towards the climax of a spine that you know goes on the other side, but your nervous system is screaming at you telling you not to ski over the edge of that thing into Valhalla. You have to fight the urge to bail, and trust your knowledge and own personal training.
Jordan advised me well on which spine to take and I dropped a large one to the left of where he dropped. “Stick to north faces,” I kept reminding myself. Souths were crusty and icky. But norths were soft. Seeing Jordan come out the other side after he went over the ominous edge of his spine was reassuring, so then I dropped.
The snow up high was soft but also a little grabby and a little weird so I skied it like a grandma to start. I really didn’t want to fall. Not up here.
I cautiously skied the first big, jutting portion of the spine where it rolled it over, dropped the steep section after it, and then traversed over to the spine that Jordan went down to my right. The further down I skied, the more the snow was protected from the wind and the softer and better it was. About 400 feet down the line I had found soft, sugary powder in the shaded north-facing part of the spine. The snow got really good here—I could relax.
From there, Jordan and I party skied another aesthetically-pleasing spine with blower powder on its north face. My confidence dial turned back up to 10. We were ripping powder in some of the most elegant terrain I had ever skied. But this was just another day for Juan and Jordan.
2,000-feet later we all reconvened in the gully we had skinned up to get here. Big smiles, big vibes. We were happy. From there we followed the gully all the way home. It was roughly a 4,000-foot day and it couldn’t have gone smoother. The lighting when we dropped was perfect. The snow was really good on north faces. Juan and Jordan got lots of high-quality footage. And we were done by lunchtime. I don’t think it can go much better than that.
From down by the river where we parked, we stared back at The Serpent’s Maze with a sense of accomplishment. This life we get to live is grand. Feeling both light and tired, Juan and I dropped Jordan back off in Jackson and hit the road back to Salt Lake. Our 36-hour strike mission to the mountains of Wyoming had paid off. And we knew we’d be back.