By Jessica Baker
As a young girl, I was slow to learn how to ride a bicycle.
My training wheels were attached to my two-wheel for two years longer than most of my peers. Although devastated, I was determined to make it work. Hours, days, months, were spent trying to balance on two wheels, only to crash and burn every time. Road rash on my hands and knees, I watched all my friends ride past me.
Defeat fed my fire. I fell and got back up countless times, for over a year. I was hospitalized for an injury to my groin while trying to master the balance needed.
Finally, one day, it happened. All the hard work, all the scrapes, and bruises, all the humiliation, came to a head as I rode down a hill on two wheels, finally triumphant.
I can remember the feeling, the freedom, and relief, as I coasted down the hill balanced over my two-wheel bicycle. From that day forward, I had a respect and love for riding my bicycle, deeper and more ingrained than most of my peers. It meant something special to be able to ride my bicycle freely, and I still feel that way today. I went on to become a champion mountain bike racer, and have since dedicated much of my time commuting sans car, with bicycle.
The first time I climbed the Grand Teton on July 1997 via the Exum direct route, I found a new goal in which to dedicate my focus. As I scaled the peak, I saw the Stettner and Ford Couloirs filled with snow and thought to myself, “I will ski this mountain some day…” In 1999, I moved to Jackson, WY. I dedicated my life to my skiing and mountaineering pursuits. As I met accomplished ski mountaineers like Bill Briggs, Mark Newcomb, Stephen Koch, Doug Coombs, and more, I gathered their stories of their Grand Teton ski descents, and cataloged every detail in my memory. I studied the aerial photos in the Teton climber’s guide, and made it my mission to attain the skills necessary for a clean ascent and descent of the mountain.
At one point someone pointed out to me that I could be the second woman to ski The Grand Teton, and the first in a non-guided capacity. While this appealed to me, I knew that success would not come without hard work, and that I would need to be patient and focused, as I worked towards my goal to ski The Grand.
For the next four years, I gained necessary skills to get myself up the Grand in full alpine style. And then it was time… I first attempted to ski The Grand Teton in early May of 2004. I started from the Lupine meadows parking lot, with my ski/climbing partner, at 1:00 am. Our packs weighed almost 70 lbs each, as we had ice tools, skis, ski boots, crampons, food, water, first aid, ropes, and light bivy kits, all of which was on our backs while we walked up the first 2000 vertical feet without snow. We reached the Teepee Glacier at 5am after a mixture of slogging on dirt, scree, rocks, then skinning. The weather was clear at the moment, but a bank of clouds was peering out from the West. We ascended the Teepee in crampons, came around the col to the Stettner Couloir, and I began lead climbing water ice and hard snow in the Stettner’s first pitch. As I led a fierce wind picked up, and the cloudbank from the West began to envelope the top of the Grand. Within 30 minutes I could barely hang on to my ice tools as the wind threatened to blow me off the mountain. Ok, strike one, retreat, and try again.
I could take up the next six pages with stories of my following attempts at skiing The Grand Teton. Perhaps some stats would suffice. Total attempts: 7. Vertical feet climbed: 35,000+. Vertical feet descended: 35,000+. Total Pounds Carried on my back: 360. Number of sleepless nights: 10. Number of close calls: 3. Attacks by bears: 1. Number of 12:00 am starts: 5. Calories burned: 72,000. Number of women who skied it while I was still attempting: 3. Total miles traveled on foot/ski: 70.
And finally, finally the weather, the stamina, the mental capacity, the fitness, the partners, the snow conditions all came together June 18, 2006. My goal to ski The Grand Teton came to fruition. As I finished the last lead of climbing up the Ford Couloir and ascended to the top pillar of rock on The Grand Teton, I took a deep breathe and let out a cry of relief, of accomplishment, of victory. I clicked into my skis as my ski mountaineering partner cheered on, and I skied all the way down the Ford Couloir in perfect corn conditions, without rope or belay, pure freedom on skis.
I was skiing a castle in the sky; floating on a cloud of bliss. All the effort, two years of attempting, seven years of a dream and preparation, had all come to fruition through pure unadulterated perseverance. All the disappointment, the failure, the hard work, was superceded by the perseverance, and the ultimate goal behind it.
To persevere is to consciously suffer. It is the backbone of a true athlete. It is a suffering with purpose in mind, with the completion of a goal as reward at the other end.
Perseverance instills humility and generates respect and perspective in my pursuits. Through perseverance I have found meaning and true appreciation for my accomplishments as a professional athlete.
More will come, and I will embrace it, for I know what lies on the other side of the storm.
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