Friday, June 4, 2010

When you get to meet your hero. Lunch with Bill Briggs.

A few years ago, I was hanging out with my friend Selko here in Jackson Hole, climbing around in the pass, and just kind of rediscovering that I loved tromping around in the mountains, and also discovering that doing it on skis was really quite fun.

One night, he asked me if I'd seen the movie Steep, which had just come out the year before. I hadn't, I actually hadn't seen any ski movies, not even a single Warren Miller film at that point, and realized that maybe it was time to start being a bit more embarrased about that.

Selko was great, very encouraging, pointing me to lots of books and resources, sketching in some history for me, especially in Ski Racing, so that I could go fill in the blanks with more research. I pestered him quite a bit with questions, and his patience and willingness to point me in the right direction was immensely helpful.

We sat down to watch the film, and one of the first people who speaks is a man named Bill Briggs. He is immediately engaging, one look at his boyish smiling face made me wish I knew him. I listened to his story with a sense of growing awe, not only because the feat he accomplished, that of skiing the Grand Teton before anyone in the US had even considered such a thing, was so amazing, but because he spoke from a place of quiet passion.

This was no rabid insane "no fear" extreme dude. This was a man who loved the mountains, and who wasn't held back by ideas of what could and could not be done. His glee at experiencing life was palpable.

I sat there, in Selkos office in front of the computer watching this film, and realized quite suddenly that I was crying. Not crying. Weeping. I was uncontrollably snotting all over myself, and I couldn't stop.

I had never heard anyone express what I had been feeling in my heart for so long. I felt as though Bill Briggs was reading not my mind, but my spirit, and saying the words out loud. I felt, for the very first time, like I was understood.

Selko was kind, I was so far gone, I couldn't even be shocked or mortified that I was crying all over the place, he looked at me and said something like, "Its okay, Kate. I understand how you feel. Its strange to have someone say what you are feeling, isn't it?"

Bill said so many wonderful and profound and simple truths, but one of the things that I've used in my own training, in real time, was the statement that after climbing the whole mountain, the second part of which he had to do by himself, as his partners were too afraid to continue, and skiing back down for five and a half hours, when he reached the valley floor, he said:

"And I reached the valley floor and I'm really tired." I laughed so hard when he said that. What an understatement. I don't think I'll ever say I'm tired again, I thought. I don't know that I've ever actually been tired, now that I think about it.

And now, when I hike around, or I'm training, I hear Bill's voice in my head, happily reporting, "I'm really tired." And because of that, I keep climbing.

I discovered after I came home to Bozeman that Bill is still in Jackson Hole, he's the director of the Snow King resort there. I emailed him because I was making a series of inspirational t-shirts, hoping to raise some money for my own training, and I wanted to make one about Bill. He agreed, and I sent him one as a thank you.

Since then, we've been occasionally emailing, and today, I actually met him.

I came up to Jackson to spend a couple of days while the boys are visiting with their dad, and I thought, what better to do than to continue my quest of filling in ideas on the history of skiing, and saying thank you by listening to those who have lived their lives in this sport.

I met Bill at the Virginian restaraunt, and I have to tell you, I was scared! I sat in my car for about ten minutes before I went in. Now I had a hunch that we'd be fine, find lots of things to talk about, but I wasn't sure. What if it didn't go well? What if he didn't want to talk about skiing and that's all we had in common? What if I asked him all questions that he'd been asked before? What if he didn't like me? What if I didn't like him?!

I seriously considered calling in sick, and then I took a good look at myself. Sitting inside and expecting you, Kate, is a man who inspired an entire nation to go outside and play in the snow. You will GET YOUR BUTT IN THERE and at least say hello.

I plucked up my courage and went in. I wasn't sure that I'd recognize him, and I asked the young kid at the counter, "I'm supposed to meet someone, I'm not sure, he might be here... his name is Bill?" I said, a bit appologetic. The kid looked at me, surprised.

"Bill Briggs? Sure, he's right over here." He took me over to where Bill was sitting, working on his latest project, and Bill stood up and that beautiful, contageous smile lit up his face.

"Hi, Kate!" he said, enthusiastically, and put his hand out. I couldn't help it, I felt like I've known him so long, and I felt like he knows me so well, that I forgot to be scared and I gave him a hug. We sat down and got right to it.

"What are you working on?" I began to ask him questions, and then I had the undeniable privaledge of sitting and listening to the answers. Bill is, unsuprisingly, an incredibly intelligent, engaging dreamer, who tells wonderful stories and has that giddy glee about him all the time.

I got to hear stories of his travels in France, of his journey through the unraveling of ski technique, of his thought process as he looks for new movements in skiing over the years, and his thoughts on what hasn't changed over the years.

We talked about Georges Joubert, as I'm finishing up "How to Ski the New French Way", written in the 60s, about what movement is, and how to teach it, talk about it and ski it.

Bill is currently producing a series of DVDs on Rhythmics in skiing, a fascinating grid of movements with the emphasis on getting that sensation of repeatable, rhytmic movement early on in skiing. It reminds me a bit of PSIA's movement matrix, but its broken down in a very interesting way.

For instance, in what circumstances would you make a long, slow turn? Some of the answers Bill came up with were: On easy groomed green terrain, if you are a low intermediate skier and haven't yet developed the ability to steer your skis when they are also edged, when you are learning to carve, if you are in very deep powder, if you are on straight skis, and if your heel is free.

What I love about this grouping is that there are all kinds of factors that come down to the common denominator of the long turn, from gear to snow to ability to understanding. Grouping movements in this way makes a through line or common thread that is easy to follow, and opens doors for rapid improvement!

It was a fascinating discussion, and he gave me one of the DVDs, which I can't wait to bring home to study with my MA group!

Bill also had brought some things to show me, and I was surprised and very flattered that he'd done this. He was inducted into the Ski hall of fame last year, and I got to hold his meadal, heavy, and beautiful, it was really something to put my hands on. He was proud of it, and I could feel that pride in the medal itself. I wasn't ready to put it back in the box when it was time to go, there was a lifetime of positive achievement hanging on that ribbon.

When I read his Ski Hall of Fame induction, I found out, of course, that he had done so much more than just skied the Grand. He was also the first person to do a modern ski descent of Mt. Rainer. And when I had the great pleasure of walking around the town of Jackson Hole with him later that afternoon, I got to hear the story of what he thought would be the last mountain he would ever climb, his surgery after that climb, and his remarkable recovery.

I'm eager to write more about that story, but Its now very late, and I have to get some sleep as tomorrow, I get to climb up SnowKing with Pepi Stiegler and pester him for some stories. Then, I'll get to meet Bill at the 180 Degrees South film event at the performing arts center tomorrow night, which I'll tell you all about!

The adventure continues!!

OH did I mention he was wearing the T-Shirt? I couldn't believe it, I was so excited and flattered that I got all flustered and couldn't ask him if I could take his picture while he was wearing it. I'll ask again tomorrow. :-)

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