It was time for a gut check. I needed to step back and look at the bigger picture. It's true. I was fit and ready to skimo race. I've been training all season and the upcoming Wasatch Powder Keg was going to be my final race of the year. I was facing the last week before the event and it was time to rest. The problem was that this taper was corresponding with a spell of splitter high pressure which had the high peaks drawing my thoughts and ambitions like the sirens in Homer's Odyssey.
Like a splash of cold water on my face I realized that staying home and skiing in the mountains made more sense than sitting in the car for 10 hours and breathing hard for 2. I would miss my friends and the camaraderie of racing but I would yield to more powerful forces. You see, perfect weather notwithstanding, I was also coming to grips with a life-altering relocation to Alaska. My 13 year relationship with the best ski mountains in the country was coming to a close in favor of a professional opportunity in Anchorage. So much left to do in the Tetons and so little time to do it. I almost felt frantic.
But frantic isn't the way to approach ski mountaineering in a range with a touchy snow pack. I took a deep breath, made my decision, considered partners and lined up some objectives. I called Steve Romeo and left a message about getting out with him and going big. We'd spoken recently about him showing me his playground up north. Shit, how weird, looking back. I remember thinking it odd he didn't return my call. I decided to head up the Grand Teton for a look alone.
For some reason I slept poorly, haunted by a poorly-defined uneasiness. I brushed it off as the normal fear I feel contemplating soloing serious lines. The morning was perfect, clear and still. I was dressed for speed, as usual, clad in stretchy Italian and German touring couture. Don't laugh. My pack was light for the task at hand. I left the rope behind hoping to climb up and down the Stettner and Chevy couloirs if the conditions permitted.
With each passing stride my concerns slipped mostly away. I was enjoying the effort of moving fast, alone. I donned my new ski crampons below the Middle Teton and found out what I'd been missing. Unlike previous trips up this way where I booted, I was able to keep skis on the whole way to the base of the steeper section of the Teepe Glacier. It was here that I came upon fresh tracks of another party and knew I wouldn't be alone.
I took advantage of their boot pack to Teepe and Glencoe Col. Still no sign of them. At the change over before starting up the Stettner, 3:05 into it, I heard voices. As I turned the corner for my first view upward, I saw two climbers tackling pretty lean conditions, roped up and belaying. At the top of the snow cone it was mostly rock and little ice. I hesitated at a short, water polished step, wondering if I was up for the down climb of these moves later. I scummed my way over it, mostly certain I could reverse it. I said hello to the first climber and moved up the easy ground below his partner to another longer step.
It was here that I made the decision that it was not down-soloing terrain for me. I couldn't see the Chevy but what difference did it make? I could go up but could easily get into trouble on the way down without a rope to rappel with. Just as quickly as I appeared within their midst, I said good bye to my fellow skiers, turned around and was relieved when I was below the difficulties.
As I regrouped at Glencoe Col, my phone chirped with an odd message from Zahan about Steve and his whereabouts. Suddenly, a whirl of thoughts bludgeoned me. I instantly knew why Steve had not called back the day before. This wasn't good. I sent out a couple of quick texts and the tragic news of the day started to unfold. By the time I had arrived at my car 38 minutes after pushing off down Teepe Glacier, I knew that Steve and Chris were dead.
There's always a sense of relief to be back at the car after a day out. But with my guard finally down, the first heavy sobs surprised me. The tears came easily thinking of losing Steve. I had never met Chris but Steve was a frequent partner of mine not long ago. My thoughts rushed to Reed and Julia and all the shared friends I knew would be stunned by news. The ski mountaineering community as a whole would feel the shock waves a short while later.
The memorial is done. Hundreds gathered to say good bye. I still find myself surfing around the internet reading eulogies. Guess I'm not done yet, remembering in that acute way that happens in the days that follow something like this. The memories will persist, of course, but they'll be softened by time and the drying of tears. - Brian