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Otter Body Experience: THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

In the minds of every skier, there exist certain undeniable pinnacles of achievement. Life-altering events culminating in days, hours, or just seconds when personal ability, earned knowledge, and training all combine to measure against accomplishments of the previous.

In the world of Teton ski mountaineers, the most prized objective is the biggest, grandest, and most imposing of them all. Ascending high above the valley, the Grand Teton commands immediate and complete attention. Visible from nearly anywhere in the park, or from any postcard, photo, (or logo) of Jackson Hole.

In 1971, Bill Briggs became the first to ski the Grand Teton, inspiring a generation of skiers and directing their eyes upward to peaks previously thought impossible to ski.

Bill Briggs with George Colon, Robbie Garrett and John Bolton photographed before skiing the Grand Teton. Briggs was the only one who summitted and skied the peak. 1971

One day after Bill Brigg’s first descent of the Grand Teton. 1971. Photo by Virginia Huidekoper

Over the years, lines like the Ford, Chevy, and Stettner couloirs have become classic descent routes of The Grand Teton for skiers and riders. The mountain holds other lines, however, which require a higher level of commitment, risk, and overall planning to ride successfully.

The mythical Otter Body line occupies a certain fabled status in the minds of locals for its storied history, extreme exposure, and striking location dead center on the East face of the Grand Teton. The descent starts with steep skiing down the exposed East Face from the summit, leading to a mandatory rappel onto a snowfield shaped like an otter’s body. Following this section, the route requires another series of rappels onto the Teepee Glacier snowfield, which offers another incredible skiing pitch.

Otter Body descent route

First skied by Doug Coombs and Mark Newcomb in 1997, Otter Body is a premiere line with very few yearly descents and even fewer who repeat. There is a man in the Tetons however, who has skied this famous line dozens of times. Doug Workman, who in 2005, skied Otter Body alongside Eric Henderson and the late, great Coombs:

 Since 2005, Doug has skied Otter Body countless times, each experience awarding him more and more wisdom and insight into the alluring yet often treacherous zone.

"The route itself is obviously super special. I think people focus on the fact that there's exposure. But at the end of the day, any exposure is exposure. And it's pretty rewarding to navigate terrain that takes all your skill set and allows you to be in a pretty surreal location. It's a very special place to be."

On May 30th, while shooting for an upcoming film project, TGR athletes Kai Jones and Nick McNutt set out on the Grand Teton alongside the legendary guide Workman, cinematographer Erich Roepke, and Adam Fabrikant, an accomplished skier and guide known for his bold first descents and significant contributions to ski mountaineering in the Tetons and around the world. 

May 30th, 2024: 5:43 a.m.

The crew bivouacked at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides' historic Corbet High Camp beneath the monstrous shadow of the Grand. In the early morning hours, they began their push to the summit led by Doug.

Kai & Nick make their way up pre-dawn. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

Late spring conditions required the group to time their arrival before the sun could warm the snow on the upper face to potentially dangerous and unskiable temperatures. With snow shedding a potential risk as the day drew on.

Kai & Nick make their way up in the shadows of the Grand. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

 "Our primary concern was getting through the terrain efficiently." Doug explained. "Our goal there was to be up there early, we didn't really want to wait because the biggest risk is those wet slides. If you're on it too late and the sun cooks it too much, there could be wet stuff coming down on you."

Doug & Kai summit the Grand. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

Reaching the summit early, just after 9:00 a.m., the crew began skiing before the sun could warm the face completely. With less-than-friendly spring snow conditions, The team’s technical abilities were immediately tested. Given the 1000+ feet of exposed rock under them, any slight differences in snow quality affected the way they needed to ski.

"It's a lot different skiing it when it's really firm," Doug noted. "So that was definitely an added component that kept everybody on their toes."

The wide breadth of skill sets between the athletes and the guide team of Doug and Adam set them up for success. Making it down the initial rollover and into the steep rappel section required extremely technical knowledge and shared focus. The already complicated route requiring multiple rappels is often made more difficult by summertime rockfall, which can damage rappel anchors in the rock.

Nick & Kai work their way down Otter Body rappel. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

For Kai Jones, this mission to hike and ski the Grand Teton presented an entirely new and rewarding ski experience. 15 months after shattering both of his legs in the Wyoming backcountry, requiring a helicopter rescue, four surgeries, and over a year of grueling recovery, he became the youngest person to successfully climb and ski the Otter Body off the Grand Teton.

"It was my first time, actually, ski mountaineering with ropes and riding the High Peak. To get on a more technical line was a dream come true for me. This was never about me being the youngest person. There is another young kid Liam Sullivan who is going off on these crazy lines. For me, the Otter Body was an amazing experience that symbolically has helped me put the last 15 months behind me.”

For the duration of the physical and mental recovery following his injury, Kai could see the top of the Grand towering above the town of Jackson's foothills. The Otter Body constantly visible. It served as a consistent symbol of his ambition that one day, he would return to form and ski the line the way he wanted, on his terms.

“It was so amazing to be out there with Doug, Adam, and Nick and to pull all of this off. Considering everything I had fought through over the last year plus, this was the most surreal experience of my life and also the most rewarding. I think when you respect the mountains, you'll get the respect that's there."

At 18 years old, Kai is the youngest person to ski Otter Body. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

In situations like these, acquired experience is essential. Doug's first-hand insight into this high-alpine world armed everyone with a wealth of critical knowledge, and a flexible shared perspective that things may not go as planned. For first-timers Kai and Nick, Doug's familiarity with the area proved invaluable in preparing the team for anything.

"You can do an enormous amount of planning and theorizing about what the weather's going to do or what the conditions are going to be like. We talked a lot going into this trip about how the best plan is no plan. And you never know what you're going to get out there, but you just got to go. You got to work. You got to be out there."

Nick & Kai make their way down Otter Body. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

Doug is someone who carries with him both a deep admiration and a profound respect for these mountains. After decades of skiing the Tetons, he knows intimately the stark contrast between the euphoric successes, and inherent risks skiing a line like Otter Body can provide.

"I probably sounded super concerned, but I'm a little bit of an old conservative guy who's seen a lot of friends lost in the mountains."

Above all else, Doug prioritizes safety, and would not have agreed to lead this mission were it not for the shared perspectives of the entire crew, Kai and Nick especially. He had no interest in anybody who was only goal-oriented, and who could potentially ignore hazards in favor of skiing this "trophy" line.

For someone who has committed his life to exploring and skiing these wild mountains, Doug understands more than anyone that this lifestyle ultimately has a natural ending. And these days, he gains more enjoyment from seeing others experience the same adventures that he has.

"It was super cool to do it with Kai, who's on the way up in terms of his career, whereas I feel like I'm on the back end trying to severely limit the amount of that type of risk I take. It was super cool for me to see both these guys ski the Otter Body in such firm conditions, and do it so smoothly and in control."

Nick & Kai return after a successful mission. Photo by Chris Figenshau/ TGR

The team successfully returned from the mountains to friends and family awaiting to celebrate their accomplishment. For Doug, it was the end of another successful trip into the Tetons, imparting his knowledge to the current generation of skiers. Kai and Nick became part of a storied local mythology, one that would not exist without those who decided to look upward and create the path. In the words of Otter Body pioneer Doug Coombs, "It's all about the journey, and sometimes the reward is the ski."

More details on the film project will be announced sometime this summer, with an anticipated fall release date.

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