It’s Been a Big Adventure All the Way Along Bill Briggs, North America's Father of Extreme Skiing and legendary Jackson Hole musician, reflects on a life well-lived

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Bill Briggs is known worldwide as the “Father of Extreme Skiing” for his notable first ski descent of the Grand Teton. His pioneering attitude toward ski mountaineering opened up previously untouched terrain for skiers of later generations, including a 100-mile ski traverse of Canada’s Bugaboos and first descents of Mount Moran, Mount Owen and Middle Teton in Wyoming. But since moving on from his life as a mountain guide and ski mountaineer in the early 80s, Briggs has spent the last few decades in his home valley of Jackson Hole building upon his understanding of Scientology and using the Church’s teachings to help guide him through his new lives in music and ski instructing. “What I’m living right now is three or four lifetimes at the same time.”

Briggs began this lifetime in Maine and struggled as an adolescent in New England. Despite a birth defect that left him without a fully-functioning hip, he kept active through school and traveled across the Northeast and the country working seasonal ski instructing and mountain guiding jobs. In 1961, 10 years before skiing the Grand Teton, he traveled to New York where he had surgery to permanently fuse his hip in place. It was a period of rebirth in that he also found the Church of Scientology on the same trip. “Scientology works from the basis of the individual becoming more able or more well-educated on his own,” Briggs said. Its’ teachings have been the foundation of Briggs’ instructional methodology in his ski schools, which he often spends his mornings writing out within sight of the photo of his Grand Teton descent ski tracks at his favorite restaurant in Jackson.

After spending close to a decade working summers on and off in Jackson Hole as an Exum guide in the Tetons, Briggs moved to the valley permanently and soon after bought the ski school at Snow King Mountain in 1967. “Jack Dornan told me once, ‘You’re not going to do anything in this life until you put down roots,'” Briggs said. He served as director of Snow King’s ski school for decades, and is now leading a group of ski instructors in a massive effort to archive his Certainty Training Method of ski instruction onto a series of DVDs.

Now 86, Briggs is decades-removed from his ski mountaineering days, but still makes an effort to spend time skiing and hiking Snow King Mountain, where he has instructed since the late 60s. “The last time I skied in the Tetons was Mount Owen in 1974,” he said. “There’s still a lot left for me to do in ski mountaineering. I won’t get to it this lifetime, but hopefully in the next one.”

For close to a decade, Briggs has been working alongside Sava Malachowski to film his series of ski instruction videos. “What weÕre putting down in the DVD has never been put down, so there are no words for it,” Briggs said. “The work has really been about figuring out what the hell is going on on a pair of skis and getting it defined.” His dedication to the sport of skiing and various pioneering accomplishments earned him inductions into the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame in 2003 and the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2008.

Briggs and Valerie “Spark” Malachowski walk together to Valerie’s office, where the two spend their summer mornings writing and producing Bill’s ski instruction DVDs.

Just as he’s done almost every Sunday evening for the past 49 years, Bill clears the dance floor at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, where he began leading the now-famous Stagecoach Band in their weekly “Sunday Church” concert on February 16, 1969. “In college, I decided I would make a living out of music, climbing and skiing. I would simply devote my life to that,” he said. “I’m still living that decision.”

While tuning his autoharp before the band’s 2,437th Sunday set at the ‘Coach, Bill turns to chat with Lisa and Jeff Mattsson, of Minneapolis, who visit Jackson Hole a couple times a year to see Bill and the Stagecoach Band play. Travelers like Jeff, whose father Briggs guided up the Grand Teton in 1968, often approach him with stories and questions about his life as a mountain guide and ski mountaineer. “I don’t become overwhelmed by the fame thing,” Briggs said. “That’s a benefit I got from Scientology, is that I learned to handle the fame by learning to stay who I am. You don’t change. You don’t put up a barrier to it. You don’t put up a defense. You let it come in.”

Briggs signals to Derrik Hufsmith, who has played alongside him at the Stagecoach for more than 30 years. Always looking to challenge himself in new ways, Briggs has been studying various performers over the past few years in an effort to not only improve his own musicianship, but also improve the experience for the band’s audience.

The ‘Coach has changed a bit over the years, as have aspects of the Stagecoach Band’s performance, but they can always guarantee a packed house with a mix of local cowboys and ranchers, seasonal workers and tourists all vying for two-stepping space or an elbow at the bar.

“It’s a different venue. It’s a dance theme at the ‘Coach, which I love,” Briggs said. “At the Stagecoach, we never rehearse. The spontaneity aspect of it is outstanding.”

Never one to take much of a day off, Briggs sets up the weekly Monday evening schedule for the 1,029th Jackson Hole Hootenanny at Dornan’s in Grand Teton National Park. Briggs and longtime friend Dick Barker began what is now known as the Hootenanny back in the late ’50s when Bill was living under the bridge that spanned the Snake River. “I’d have the guys come by and I’d play folk songs on my banjo and cook up what we called Teton Tea,” Briggs said. “We called them Teton Tea Parties. It more or less got cancelled by the Park Service because it got too popular.” Following a long absence, Barker and Briggs talked Dornan’s – a popular bar and private inholding near the park headquarters – into letting them resurrect the open mic-style Hootenanny in 1993.

Not finding much free time to warm up, Briggs greets longtime Jackson Hole resident and late friend John Cooke as he finishes a conversation with newly-returned Jackson resident Timothy Anderson before emceeing the 1,029th Jackson Hole Hootenanny at Dornan’s.

With the bar at capacity during an indoors springtime Hoot, local musician Ashley Colgate pleads for a two-song slot with Bill, who reluctantly tells her there’s only time for one. Musicians usually perform the Hoot on a first-come-first-served basis, and the setting is that of a formal concert – completely opposite of “Sunday Church” at the Stagecoach Bar – where guests are asked not to speak, sing along, or dance during performances.

Bill and Barb Barker laugh along with the audience as he is introduced before the 1,029th Jackson Hole Hootenanny at Dornan’s in Grand Teton National Park. Barb, whose husband Dick frequented Bill’s early Teton Tea Parties and later helped start the Hootenanny, has been helping Briggs run the weekly Monday show since her husband died in 2012.

“The whole idea has been to set a standard – to keep it going to become a tradition,” Briggs said. “What happens here ripples out of here. I said a long time ago, ‘I’m not going on the road. I’m staying here. If people want to see me, they come here.”

“It’s the individual’s responsibility to make things better, and we can all make things a little bit better. Each little bit goes into the commonwealth. We in Jackson have a lot of commonwealth. This place is very rich. But we can make it richer. We can set the bar higher, and everybody that comes through here can see it and say, ‘Boy, I want to take this back to my house.’ They come to the Stagecoach and they have a blast at the Stagecoach and they want to take a piece of that back. They go to the Hoot and they say, ‘God, this is marvelous,’ and they want to take a piece of that back. My idea is to build it here as an example for others to pick up and do, not because I’m telling them to or forcing them to, but if they want to, I’ll do everything I can to help. This may sound sort of pollyannic, but that’s really what it is. You’re trying to help out and make it a better world a little bit at a time. Not by ordering it to happen, but by making it that way.”

On the 45th anniversary of his Grand Teton ski descent, Bill and Venti Joosten, a new friend he met during a Sunday set at the Stagecoach, toast to their experiences at a downtown Jackson restaurant. “I have enjoyed being an inventor, solver, explorer – going into areas that had never been looked into,” Briggs said. “It’s been a big adventure all the way along.”

Intersection Journal

3 Comments

  1. Ryan, I love how you capture the images of people’s faces and the surroundings are like a perfectly placed scene. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing at the location. Very interesting man and a great story.

  2. Wonderful story of a wonderful man. Proud and happy to call him uncle.

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