Coated with tasty Utah powder, the narrow couloir below us was nothing less than a 2,000-vertical foot statement of nature’s perfection. It begged for glisse like a blank wall taunts a graffiti artist.
Tyson Bradley (this is correct spelling) felt the call of the chute. His eyes glowed through his goggle lenses with zealot’s fire. When such passion burns strong, one will risk all. For Tyson, the price could be a deadly avy mosh down the sharp spirals of the chute. Not today. With a solid sideslip and ski cut Tyson begins his brush strokes. Deeming the snow solid, he cranks a series of slow hop-turns to a rocky squeeze. No extreme-ski-hucks here; no bozos hurling themselves of mountainsides for the sake of adrenal spurts, dubious sponsorships and a briefly famous video. Instead, knowing that even a short drop onto the pillow below the 5-foot rock step could trigger the last avalanche he’d ever see, Tyson wisely removes his skis, downclimbs a few feet, then waits for us in a safe stance tucked into the rocks.
More tracks in this small entrance would be pointless, so the rest of us ski a short slope around Tyson’s line, wiggle down a windrow, and position ourselves to launch the main couloir. Then, one by one, we bag one of the finer backcountry chute trophies in the history of everyone present. Everyone except Tyson Bradley, that is. For this honed multi-discipline alpinist, nailing such a line is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence.
At 31 years old this year of 1997, Tyson is at the height of his career as a backcountry skier and climber. He works as a guide and lives at the base of charismatic Alta ski area: a model, if not fantastic lifestyle. Skiing peaks, climbing, catching legendary powder dumps: a normal day in Tyson’s life might include spending the morning doing avalanche control with the ski patrol (read “powder skiing”), guiding newbies on their first backcountry trip (read “pay the bills”), or strolling across the street and skiing the stupendous 3,000-vertical-foot face of Mount Superior, perhaps the most sought descent in the Wasatch (read “have fun”). For challenge, he skis the biggest mountain faces in the world, such as the 14,000-vertical-foot Wickersham Wall on Denali. Yes, for Tyson, today’s chute was child’s play; once at the bottom, looking up at sets of tracks that would melt the emulsion on any ski film, his smile proved it.
Tyson Bradley was born in 1965 in Madison, Wisconsin, and grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. With backcountry oriented parents (his mother grew up skiing in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains), he had the much envied advantage of learning skiing and climbing as a natural. “I skied Grand Targee and Jackson when I was just 4-years-old,” says Tyson, “and did a lot of cross country skiing and back packing with my parents as I got older, mostly in Idaho and Wyoming.”
With his alpine upbringing it didn’t take long for Bradley to segue into steeper and bigger mountains.” A big turning point for me in ski mountaineering was a descent of Mount Rainier in 1988, by the Emmons/Winthrop route,” he remembers, “this was something I wanted more of–it was about as high as I had ever been.” With more steep skiing and mountaineering experience, Bradley became comfortable with skis as a tool of alpinism. He skied rugged and ice capped 22,205 foot Huscaran in Peru, nailed a number of lines on the Northwest volcanoes, and spent hundreds of days in the couloirs and bowls of the Wasatch. He learned when skis were appropriate, and when to use other modes such as crampons or rappelling.
Despite his impressive resume, Bradley doesn’t consider himself a “steep” skier, but rather a skier of “big mountains.” As testament to that, his choice in gear is rather odd from an extreme skier’s point of view: free-heel bindings skied parallel. But considering his goal of descending big difficult peaks without super-steep terrain, he chooses gear based on simplicity, reliability and comfort, rather than a downhill performance edge. “With today’s lightweight AT gear,” says Tyson, “It’s pretty hard to say skiing big peaks on free-heel gear is somehow better, but it works for me and I like it.”
Bradley’s first world-class success was his and John Monteccuco’s premier ski descent of the Wickersham Wall on Denali. According to Tyson, it was Monteccuco’s idea: “He was sitting out on a hiking trip in Alaska, and looking up at the wall he thought ‘yeah, I think it’s doable.’ We got together a short time later, and he asked me If I’d ever thought about skiing the Wickersham Wall. Yeah right, I thought, it’s humongous, it’s super steep, it’s an avalanche nightmare–I don’t know! After that, back in Utah a friend told me that Rick Wyatt had been to the Wickersham, so I spoke with Rick for several hours. He showed me all his slides, was enthusiastic, and told me he would have skied it except for the accident they’d had on the route [one of the party members was injured in a brutal fall, and the group’s mission changed to a major self-rescue]. After I got the beta from Wyatt I thought, yeah, we can do this.”
Amazingly, prior to his and Monteccuco’s success on the Wickersham, Bradley was a virtual virgin of Alaskan mountaineering. He figures Brian Okonek, the seasoned veteran who later hired him to guide the peak, was probably shocked by their going after the Wickersham. “Brian no doubt wondered if I had a clue, or was I completely out there?” says Tyson, “It may have been a fine line between the two… But I felt skiing the Wickersham was possible, even though for eleven years people had decided it was not. Also, we were lucky to hit the conditions we did (good snowcover with little exposed ice), because we were at the limit of what we could do in terms of skiing.”
For their descent of the Wickersham Wall, the men skied in stages between each camp as they climbed the route, then exited via an escape route near the summit, an unusual but effective style. The idea hit Bradley in an epiphany while he was planning the trip. “I thought, whoa, now this is what we can do,” he thought, “We’ll just ski it from the bottom up! That’ll be a wild accomplishment in itself, and if we have to crampon back down I don’t care! The thing was, this was a route that lent itself to that formula since we could exit by crossing to the West Buttress–many other big mountains do not have an easy trade route you can escape to.”
Human powered vertical ascent has been Bradley’s mode of choice, but he’s not a purist. “I’m not extreme at either end of the scale,” Tyson says, “I like to fly in a helicopter–it’s truly exciting and an opportunity to make a living–but hiking up and skiing down adds a great degree of safety and saneness to any ‘big peak’ skiing. Also, it rankles me to see so much media attention paid to sponsored snowboarders and skiers who are just jumping out of helicopters to do their descents. I respect mountaineering so much more, even if it doesn’t involve skiing. It would be sickening to drop skiers off from a helicopter on top of Denali or St. Elias–and trying to ski something like the Wickersham without climbing it first would be foolhardy.” Bradley also takes a the pragmatic view of snowmobiles: “If you can’t find terrain to ski where snowmobiles can’t go, you’re hurting,” he says with a jocular gleam in his eyes.
Bradley is optimistic about ski alpinism’s future. “More people are getting into it, the gear’s getting better, and more skiers with climbing skills are overlapping sports. So the envelope will continue to get pushed,” he says, “I’m enthused to see people repeating my routes, such as the Wickersham. I’m also lucky to have gotten into it when and where I did. If a bunch of those amazing climbers and skiers from Europe came over here, they would clean up. If they put their focus on the North American peaks, we’d be hard pressed to compete. Slovenian mountaineer Iztok Tomazin was on Denali last year, he summited the peak three times in a week (including a solo in a storm), and skied the Messner Couloir, Orient Express, and West Buttress. There are thousands of lines yet to be done on all our big peaks; a magical thing for me is a line with 10,000 feet or more of drop, and there are plenty of those to be had. Ski&snowboard mountaineering is a much more open sport than climbing is now, and you’ll see a lot of things done in the next few years; something really cool would be a one-day climb and ski descent of the Wickersham Wall. Adrian Nature’s recent ski of the Wickersham straight down the upper part of the Harvard Route, (though he took a slide for life and was lucky to live), shows what’s possible.”
Regarding the future of glisse alpinism, Tyson doesn’t have much to say–he’s too busy creating the present! He does state he wants future generations to have the same opportunities he’s had to “get out in the woods.” And he’s optimistic. Though he’s concerned about population growth and dwindling space on the planet, he acknowledges that such crowding, at least when it comes to ski mountaineering, is not happening at a great rate. Perhaps the limiting factor, Tyson suggests, is that while you can take risk out of climbing with controlled sport-climbing, ski mountaineering will always have natural snow, and thus always be influenced by the “lurking snow science monster” of the avalanche factor.
As for future equipment, Bradly speaks highly of the snowboard: “It’s a great tool. You can stand your feet on the same edge, angulate better than you can on skis, and now split-boards take away the problem of ascent in deep snow. There will always be skiers, but snowboarding will eclipse skiing. The fad part of it will pass, but the idea of riding a single stick down the slopes will last. Even so, skiing will forever be the best way to travel off-piste—two-planks certainly have a future.”
Tyson’s survival on some of the world’s most brutal mountains–while on skis–attests to his mastery of wild snow. As a guide, he’s quick to share a few things he’s learned along the way. Avalanche safety: “Most importantly, practice healthy conservatism. Then look at the basics, such as how long it’s been since any wind or new snow. Follow routes on protrusions and ridges, and always ski slow and conservative. When things are suspect, I’m always stopping after one or a few turns, and slides have always gone below me. With every turn I’m feeling the snow, and I ski cut a lot as well. Reading the snow is ultra-important. Pay attention to what’s a pillow and what’s hard–I think slides-for-life are as much a risk as avalanches if you’re doing much steep skiing. In that case, you’ve got to read the snow and know by the texture and color whether it’s carvable or not. “Steep skiing:” Use a tool strapped to your ski pole or a self arrest grip such as the Black Diamond Whippet. It’s all psychological–don’t look too far down the hill–look where you’ll be landing your next turn. This will help you focus and read the snow. And make the shortest turn you can. Sometimes I think about making my jump-turn and landing uphill from where I started. I’m trying to gain the least momentum. Many people need to learn to slow down in the backcountry; there’s no shame in stopping at every turn on steep terrain. I ski a wide stance with short poles, with a pole always in the snow. With free-heel bindings, tension pulling the ski tails up to your heels is crucial as well. Taut cable bindings help with that.”
Last summer Bradley tried one of the more ambitious goals of his career: Mount St. Elias (18,008 feet) in the Yukon. Truly a huge world-class peak, St. Elias presides over the largest icefield in Alaska, the Malaspina, which is more than 1,500 square miles in area. St. Elias is known for horrendous weather and huge avalanches, and has only been climbed a handful of times. Skiing the peak was an outrageous goal. But if anyone could do it, Tyson and his tough companions Julie Faure and Jim Hopkins could.
Nature had other ideas. After climbing Mount Newton (a 13,811 foot sub-peak connected by a long ridge to the main peak), and hauling 15 days worth of supplies to camp on the summit, the trio were faced with a long, double corniced ridge covered with bottomless sugar snow. After discovering that their only climbing protection would consist of “placebo pickets over deadly exposure” they wisely turned back. Not without angst, however.
Tyson knew that the route had been climbed in 1964, and was frustrated to find a previously explored route to be in such bad shape. “It definitely was harsh and bummed me out,” he says, “in a way it was climbable–just not protectable. I was wrenched by it. We were in position with perfect weather in the Elias Range! Julie made the point that if I wanted it, since there was no protection I might as well solo it. That put the decision in perspective. There is guilt too. I still feel bad about choosing a route that was beyond us.”
To deal with the inevitable disappointment and lingering doubts, Tyson looks back on his successful trips. He knows that other mountaineers fail; that it’s admirable to turn around and live to climb or ski again. “I feel good I’m humble enough to stay alive,” he states, “to not let my goals override the survival instinct.”
Indeed taking a survivor’s view, Bradley explains that he’s not trying to outdo his Denali descent–he knows one-upping himself will only lead to failure or worse. “It’s quite probable that the Wickersham could be the most significant first descent I do in my life, I’m not trying to outdo that, I want to be skiing powder when I’m 80 years old! I’m only looking at the next few challenges, because my focus may be different after that. I see myself winding down by getting into smaller concentric circles and doing stuff closer to home.”
First the challenges. As this ink dries Tyson is in Asia tackling an impressive line on Pobeda Peak in Asia. Angst of failure is a fading memory; the comfort of his past success a shadow of the next challenge. For this lover of far away couloirs on big mountains, closer to home will wait.
(A version of this article was originally published in Couloir Magazine, 1997)