Girl Crush: A Human-Powered Adventure in the Tetons

If adventures always went the way we planned, would it still feel like an adventure?

Last March, Mali Noyes, Mary McIntyre, Jessica Baker, Nicole Jorgensen, and Leilani Bruntz set off for a four-day ski mountaineering trip in the Wyoming backcountry, their sights set on some of the most remote and challenging descents in the Tetons. A deep snowpack and promising high-pressure window had the crew giddy with excitement for the terrain ahead, eagerly pointing out ski lines as they skinned the five miles across Jackson Lake with sleds in tow.

The premise was simple: the girls would set up a basecamp underneath Mount Moran and spend the next four days exploring big objectives, pushing themselves in challenging terrain, and dialing in some ski mountaineering skills under Baker’s guidance and support, the crew’s official “Girl Crush.”

The Crew

Baker, a professional skier and Exum mountain guide, has spent over 20 years in the Tetons, but she had yet to ski some of the lines the crew was eyeing in this remote part of the park. With championship titles in the Freeskiing World Tour, first descents on ski lines all over the world, and a history as a heli guide in Alaska, the rest of the team was eager to learn from Baker’s fluency in the mountains, as well as how she was able to balance a ski career with family life.

“I haven’t had a ton of female mentors, aside from my mom of course, who is a huge mentor to me,” says McIntyre, a professional skier and photographer who co-produced the project alongside Mali Noyes. “But I think it’s really powerful to have someone outside your family to look up to, who’s making a living in the industry you’re working in and seeing how they’ve made it work is really inspiring.”

Noyes, McIntyre, Bruntz, and Jorgensen all work as professionals in various parts of the ski industry—Noyes as a professional skier and nurse, McIntyre as a professional skier and photographer, Bruntz as a ski guide, and Jorgensen as a ski patroller and EMT at Sun Valley—all four of them striving to achieve the balance and skill that Baker has honed over decades in high mountains.

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Setting Up Basecamp

The high peaks in the Tetons across from Jackson Lake are hard to access without overnight gear, and as a result, see far less traffic than the popular trailheads an hour south. Mount Moran, which is one of the most sought-after objectives in the zone, typically requires a two-day push (or a very long single-day slog), and most of the ski lines further up canyon remain lofty dreams for locals and visitors alike. Due to the steep, cliffy nature of the Tetons, many ski mountaineering objectives require a rope to rappel into or through the choke of a line, something McIntyre said the crew was really looking forward to. “All of us had done some of that on our own, but we were really looking forward to having Jess there to talk through how to work through those things more efficiently as well as skiing in steeper, exposed terrain.”

The girls pored over maps of Mount Moran, Mount Thor, and Mount Woodring, studying lines they’d boot up, which they’d rappel into, and the possibilities of exploring deep canyons that didn’t have much beta at all. After setting up camp on the shore of Jackson Lake, the crew fell asleep early the first night, ready to wake before dawn to go deeper into the mountains.

Dealing with Unexpected Weather

Flurries were forecast, but the crew woke up the first morning to high winds and a foot of fresh snow. Not the stable high-pressure weather they were expecting. Stoves were fired up, tents were cleared of snow, and they chatted about alternate routes over breakfast. Instead of heading for the alpine, they dialed it back and explored the low-angle trees on the flanks of the towering peaks shrouded in cloud cover, deciding to wait for the snow to settle before pushing higher.

But despite the promising forecast, the unexpected storm raged on, and the group realized they would have to shift their objectives for the trip completely. “I think we all faced it alone in our own heads but also together in discussions around what we should do,” recalls McIntyre. “Everyone was disappointed we weren’t going to ski big lines, but everyone was trying to put on a good face and be part of the team. We kept wondering if maybe tomorrow things would be different, but it just never let up.”

As the wind howled and the snow stacked up day after day, the crew tried to shift their plan, using Offline Maps downloaded on the onX Backcountry App to navigate safe, low-angle terrain and at least make some deep powder turns in protected zones. Bruntz recalls that it was hard to let go of their initial objectives, and although it took time to accept the reality of the surprise spring storm, they were able to work as a group to stick to safe terrain and find some fun powder turns. “Once we were able to embrace what the weather was doing and make the most out of getting to ski three feet of powder in a really remote area, that’s when it became enjoyable, when we could let go of those expectations.”

Lessons Learned

Dealt an uncertain hand, the storm forced the group to make tough calls over the next few days, challenging their patience and communication skills in ways that at times can feel tougher than rappelling into couloirs or climbing 6,000-foot faces. “Patience is a big one that we all get reminders of,” says McIntyre. “Trips like this where you’re filming and have lofty expectations are where it hits harder—we wanted this movie to be filled with super badass women skiing—but seeing Jess’s patience was really inspiring. The way she practices that patience and restraint without questioning herself was super beneficial for all of us.”

It can be hard to play it safe, especially when you see others taking risks and getting away with it. McIntrye said they saw the glow of a headlamp occasionally, someone who had decided to try and ski the Skillet on Mount Moran despite the dangerous conditions, and it was hard not to wonder if they’d made the right call.

“It was just a nice change of perspective to realize that it was an accomplishment and that it’s more than just about the skiing.”

–Ski Guide Leilani Bruntz

It soon became clear they weren’t going to be able to wait out the storm for the weather windows they’d been counting on. Over and over, they’d bring up new ideas, come up with a new plan, and ultimately decide it wasn’t possible. Bruntz says the trip had her thinking a lot about the normalization of risk and the culture around it. “Whether it’s at home in Crested Butte, the Tetons, or Chamonix, people are pushing it day after day and we get away with a lot. When that’s the culture, it can be really challenging to dial it back and make that conservative choice.”

On the last day the sun finally popped out. Bruntz said one of the highlights came at the end of the trip, when they were skiing back across the lake, feeling tired and a little demoralized, and they ran into a group of 10 women on a guided snowshoe tour. When the snowshoers saw Bruntz and the rest of the crew they stopped them to ask questions, blown away by the fact that a group of women would go into the wilderness to go winter camping. “It was just a nice change of perspective,” Bruntz said. “To realize that it was an accomplishment and that it’s more than just about the skiing. So much of it was an adventure and it’s truly amazing to go out camping with a group of girls for a few days.”

McIntyre says that once they had some distance from the trip, it was easier to reflect. “I realized that we honestly learned the hardest lesson of them all,” she said. “If we’d gone and done exactly what we’d wanted and it all went perfectly, I don’t know if we would have learned as many hard lessons. Discussing, analyzing, and realizing you have to back off even when you really want to ski something; that’s a skill that will serve us in the long term.”

While “Girl Crush” didn’t turn out to be the ski mountaineering expedition the skiers had hoped for, in a way it’s a more refreshing and relatable story, one that accurately paints the picture of the uncertainty the backcountry holds. Sure, it’s awesome to go out and crush every day, but part of a long lifetime of skiing in the backcountry means practicing patience, and adapting to what mother nature delivers, no matter the outcome. The best backcountry adventures are the ones that everyone comes home from.

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Lily Krass

Lily Krass is a freelance storyteller based in Jackson, Wyoming. Her work has been featured in SKI Magazine, Powder Magazine, The Ski Journal, Freeskier, Teton Gravity Research, and Ascent Backcountry Snow Journal. In addition to an all-consuming addiction to powder skiing, Lily takes snacking seriously, and when she’s not writing or sliding on snow, she’s likely deep into a baking project in her tiny kitchen. She is the co-author of Beyond Skid: A Cookbook For Ski Bums, a collection of dirtbag-friendly recipes inspired by life in a mountain town.