Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bill Briggs says Goodbye: Acceptance Breeds Possibility Pt. 1

Earlier this spring, I had the honor of spending a few days in Jackson Hole with Big Mountain Skiing legend Bill Briggs. We all know Briggs (and if you don't, you should) for his heroic and single minded ascent and first ski descent of the Grand Teton. This seminal event in skiing opened the minds of people in the US to what skiing could be.

Bill said it beautifully in the movie, Steep, when he said, "Its not that I thought I would be the only one doing this. My thought was everyone should be doing this."

When I went out to spend some time with Bill, I joined him  at his favorite lunch spot, where he was working diligently on his next installation of ski maneuvers for training ski instructors. Its a fascinating project, one that pulls from Bills long history of curiosity and investigation. He carefully culls his experience for movements which were relevant in skiing as far back as the fourties, and are still relevant today, as well as looking at "modern" movements. Nothing is thrown out in favor of the new, things are shuffled and examined for their efficacy.

To be honest, I wanted to ask Bill what it was like to climb up the West Face by himeslef, how it felt to fall in a no fall ski, if he watched the avalanche... I wanted to know what it felt like in his heart to fly in a plane the next day and see his ski tracks. "The beauty of the mountain, enhanced a bit by human contact."

On the other hand, everyone asks him these questions. And I knew that while he was an extraordinary pioneer for all of us, that he was also a person outside of that singular accomplishment. I was taken by his intense intelligence, his acrobatic and creative thinking, and his willingness to be his own person, outside of the rules and boxes that everyone else wants to define as "right" (read as "comfortable to me, because I can understand you this way.")

I feel it is just this singularity of spirit which must have given Bill the (pardon the colloquialism, but there is just now other word for it) cajones to look at that big rock and decide to go ski it. In a dress shirt. With a surgically fused hip. By himself when his friends chickened out because of the incredible danger.

Plus, he has the good fortune to posses the winning-est smile and ease of spirit that you would wish for in a friend, I found myself instantly at ease with him, and totally engaged by his youthful exuberance.

We went for a quick walk all over downtown Jackson, and by quick, I mean, Bill deals with a difficult issue with his hip, which causes him not to limp but to sort of pole vault over his fused hip with every step, and I had to walk at a brisk clip to keep up. Nothing is going to stop this guy.

We didn't really talk about the Grand, surprisingly enough. I thought we'd get around to it, but I found myself, when confronted with the reality of the man on my right, and the poster of the impossible feat he had accomplished on my left, and the pile of paper on how to turn your feet right and left in front of me, completely unable to find the courage to be like everyone else and ask, what was it like?

Instead, I dove into what was comfortable, the queries on how to turn, and we talked happily about that, the visage of his incredible accomplishment staring down at me all the while, and me trying to ignore it so I wouldn't just dry up, choke, and run stammering from the restaurant.

During our walk, we did end up talking about skiing adventures, Bill is certainly not at a loss for good stories, and I love to listen, so we made a good team. One of my favorites had to do with Bill standing on a snowfield in Alaska looking up at possible lines to ski from one of Mike Wiglies' helicopters in the 80s, when another skier came up and started harassing him. Noting Bill's seeming handicap of his hip, and the lines he was scoping, he scoffed at Bill, "Come on, man, you may be good, but you are no Bill Briggs..."

Well, actually...

But my favorite story was the story of Bill saying goodbye to skiing and the mountains forever in the late 1960s. Bill had been a ski mountaineer guide and a top level instructor for years. He had already accomplished more than the doctors ever thought he would, he was born without certain important structures in his hip socket, causing the incredibly painful situation of bone on bone every time he took a step. The doctors had told him he wouldn't walk, and so he did. They told him he wouldn't run, and so he learned how, and they told him he couldn't climb, and so he became a certified mountain guide.

But in the late 60s, the pain of his hip was becoming unbearable, he was on medication, and it was time, everyone agreed, for him to do the unthinkable, and get his hip fused together.

It was a known fact that Bill would not walk again after this surgery, but the pain would be greatly reduced. He certainly would never ski again.

For his last ski, several ski guides and his instructor friends;  John Ahern, Roger Brown, Gordie Butterfield, Joe Marillac, Roger Paris, Jim Whittaker and Lou Whittaker took Bill up Mt. Ranier, where they were going to attempt the first modern ski descent of that mountain. In this manner, Bill would say goodbye to skiing for the rest of his life.

The climb was brutal, Bill described to me this immense feeling of gratitude, it took a huge support party of eight people to get Bill to the top, and during the course of the climb, twice he thought he would not be able to make it. Once he gave into the pain and took another pain pill. They reached a crevasse which proved to be quick work for the rest of the party, but a major production to get Bill across.

With some ingenious rigging and the continuous support of the entire group, Bill made it across the crevasse and finished the climb. That day, he became the first person to ski Mt. Ranier, in the company of his mountain bretheran.

Bill said that getting back across the crevasse should have been much easier, he was planning just to jump it on his skis, it was only 10 feet across. But the group insisted on having him on belay, and they caught him short just as he landed. The scariest part of the whole trip should have been the easiest.

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