Ski mountaineers are not just born; they are molded. Natural ability, blended with nurture, encouragement and personal drive are the makings of greatness. Here are the stories of two mountain families in which climbing and skiing have been a way of life, and despite this, “these kids are alright.”
Hayden Wyatt got stoked about skiing the Grand Teton around age 12 when his dad said he had most of the skills to do it. Hayden had spent his summers in the shadow of the GT since birth. His parents, Evelyn and Rick, guide for Exum Mountain Guides, and raised their two children largely in a cabin at Guide’s Hill, in the shadow of Mt. Teewinot and the GT. Hayden and his sister, Torrey, had climbed the highest peaks in the Tetons already. Now he wanted to ski them all. It was the logical next step.
He’d wondered if it could be possible (for him) to ski the 13,776-foot monolith for years. Growing up under the mountain, in a culture of guides who made their living shepherding clients up and down it, he was drawn to it. In late June of 2012, when Hayden was 14 and his father was 56, they got it done. It was an ultimate father and son link-up of a major objective.
Rick Wyatt had made history by descending the Grand, sans rappel, in 1982, on freeheel gear. Thirty years later he lived every father’s dream. His son became probably the youngest person (such records are hard to verify) to ski the iconic American Matterhorn, on the 30th anniversary of Rick’s monumental run.
Hayden carried all his own gear, plus one of the 70M ropes. They needed 2 to rappel down. Rick, perhaps at this point becoming the oldest to rip the now popular, Ford Couloir line, shared belaying and leading roles equally with his highly capable son. It was a dream come true, and the culmination of a long build-up to a lofty goal.
In 2011 the two had attempted the imposing line only to turn back. Young Hayden had the endurance, climbing and skiing skills, but was not quite ready physically. His failure only sharpened his determination and commitment. He trained hard and honed his skills over the next year before trying again. He’d found a personal direction early in life, and he pursued it.
In May of ’12 when the pair established camp at the Platforms, in Garnet Canyon, after allotting a few days, and slogging through rain with heavy loads, the conditions just weren’t right. The weather was too unstable. They hung out. Hayden built and hit some jumps, and they chalked it up to experience. But the pair had to come back later that spring to finish the task.
Knowing when to push for the top and being willing to turn round when it’s not safe is difficult. It takes experience, patience and fortitude to bow down in the face of inclement conditions and come back to persevere. The Wyatt’s had to do this on Buck Mountain when lightning and thunder ruled the day. An important lesson that young Hayden has learned under the tutelage of his savvy parents is that it doesn’t matter how bad you want to succeed, or if you have a Go Pro on, you still have to be in tune with Mother Nature. Sometimes she smiles, and other days not.
The Wyatt’s winter in Sandy, Utah, and Hayden’s mother, Evelyn, is a veteran avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center. Hayden’s earliest ski tours were accompanying her as she checked the snowpack, digging pits, investigating avalanches, etc. In the Wasatch Mountains, which dominate the view from their front yard, Hayden later cut his teeth on big lines like the East Face of the Salt Lake Twin Peaks, Heart of Darkness and Mt. Superior with his dad.
He skied the latter on the last day of Alta’s ski season, and had two reasons to finish early. One was that he knew avalanche danger rises rapidly on a solar aspect with daytime heating in late spring. Another was he didn’t want to miss a single run with his pals on closing day. Father and son started early and finished the classic ski descent in time for him to be on the Collins Lift by 9 am with costume on!
At 14, Hayden was a recipient of the Hans Saari memorial fund scholarship to the Exum Mountain Guides Ski Camp. He credits the guides he trained with for helping advance him to the next level in ski mountaineering. Although he’d learned heaps from his talented folks, there is always a certain dynamic between family members that can inhibit the transfer of knowledge. Hayden feels he also learned a great deal from these outside mentors.
The early summer of 2014 saw a deep, lingering snowpack in the Tetons after a snowy winter, and Hayden took advantage of it. He now had the skills, drive and passion for exploring new ski lines. One morning he set off to do so, on his bicycle with skis on his backpack. A ranger friend, living in a cabin near the Wyatt’s, saw the youngster pedal by in the early hours on his recon mission. Concerned, he asked Rick, “Do you know that your son snuck out early this morning, biking toward the trailhead with skis?” Wyatt senior appreciated the heads-up, but assured the neighbor that, “Yes, it was a planned mission,” and he’d discussed it with his dad in advance.
Later that summer, Rick and Hayden skied The Jaw in Hanging Canyon for Father’s Day, and a handpicked line, the Pinnacle Couloir, on SE Face of Teewinot. It takes as certain degree of creativity and mountain sense to select a skiable line that no one else pointed out, and is not in a guidebook. Such was the case with this line that Hayden convinced his “Papa” to attempt with him in the phat spring snowpack of 2014. Linking together tongues of avalanche debris enabled them to ski far down below the summer snowline.
Up high they encountered a discontinuity in the line that required technical rock climbing to circumvent, a common difficulty in pioneering new lines. Having expected no such problem, they traveled light and had no climbing rope. They had to free solo around the small overhang on moderate rock in ski boots. But it proved to Hayden once again that where there’s a will, and the skill (borne from being a mountaineer and skier,) there is usually a way around. Being resourceful and creative makes it possible to overcome most obstacles to a ski descent in the Tetons, and elsewhere.
Angel, Johnny, Jimmy and Deb Collinson spent 10 summers living out of a ’79 Ford Econoline Van (or tent) as they hiked, climbed and explored the West as a family. As Deb says, “We were a unit.” They climbed Mt. Rainier, Shasta and Whitney the first summer, after starting the journey in Baja in May, all as a family. Angel was 6 and Johnny was 4 years old! “We took our time,” says Jimmy. This was probably the key to keeping it fun for the little tykes. Indeed, they spent 4 days on Whitney, 3 on Shasta and 5 on Rainier’s Disappointment Cleaver Route.
Even at this early age, Jimmy had calculated, “Angel and Johnny could hike 3,000 feet and / or 10 miles in a day.” He and Deb stuck by these “modest” parameters as they planned and executed trips. They’d start early and finish by 4 or 5 pm, to give youngsters time to “be kids.” They had crayons and drew pictures of wildlife. They relished the quiet time to read books and relax in the evenings and on days off, because they didn’t have to hike and climb. But they were never bored, and they didn’t question the lifestyle.
“They were just with us as we did what we did,” say Deb and Jim. “Did you burn them out?” I asked. Apparently not! Both kids are way into mountains as young adults. And the mountain sense they absorbed as children has undoubtedly helped them excel. When Angel camped in Denali Park in -40 F temps for a sponsored expedition to Mt. Hunter recently, it was her first full-on winter camping. Yet she intuitively knew how to survive. After all, they had a full tent with a floor.
One late summer, while camping in the Uinta Mountains, the family was beset by relentless rain. They were sleeping in their usual floorless pyramid-type tent, and this time it really wasn’t keeping them dry. As Jimmy was outside trying to bolster the tent against the deluge, he heard a small voice from inside, “Dad, next year can we just have a floor?”
On Mt. Whitney, they established a blueprint that worked for many future adventures. They had two weeks dedicated to help Deb’s mom, Barb, realize her dream of climbing California’s highest peak at age 60. When Jim realized the kids could hike just as fast as Barb, the idea was born to attempt the summit as an extended family. Lacking a permit to climb, they camped in the surrounding high country to acclimate. Then Jim got in line at the ranger station one morning, and sure enough, a group cancelled. They got a 4-day permit and set off.
The Collinson Unit always camped as high as possible, and departed for their summit bids before other parties. They’d get up early, with dad saying, “Daylight’s burning. You can sleep when your dead!” Gradually, other groups would catch and overtake them, but eventually they’d make the summit or turn around due to weather in time to get back down by early afternoon. When they were on a trail, they always kept the slowest member of the party in front, in order to stay together. Off, trail, which was more common, or on technical terrain, Jimmy generally led and Deb was “sweep.”
As they continued north on their road trip, they happened upon a picture of Mt. Shasta. This was all the inspiration they needed. Soon they had spent some quality time and topped out on the 14,000-foot California volcano. On the descent they enjoyed a long stretch of glissading. Angel recalled that, “Sliding for 2,000 feet below the Red Banks on Shasta was a great [early] life memory!” Maybe it was this kind of fun for all ages on a big snowy mountain that set the hook for a life of wild skiing and mountaineering.
Climbing Rainier with perhaps the youngest kids ever to do so (such records are difficult to determine,) was never a specified goal for the Collinsons. “It just worked out,” says Jim. They simply decided, after having fun and success on Whitney and Shasta, and being in the Northwest to see RMI guides / Snowbird Patrol friends, that they should give it a try. Why not? The weather and conditions were favorable.
One slight problem: crampons and mountain boots to fit 4-6 year old kids were not available! Always resourceful, Jimmy lashed construction nail plates to the children’s tiny Sorel boots. They tied into the rope between mom and dad, and worked their way up the glaciers. But on summit morning they could only find one of little Johnny’s “hob-nail” boot soles. How could they go on? True to form, big sis had a big heart, and loaned one of her nail plates to little bro, and up they went in the wee hours. Dad used his ice axe adze to chop steps in the hardest, steepest areas and they got safely up and down. Although Jim and Deb skied Rainier prior to marriage, the Collinsons have not returned to the biggest massif in the lower 48 states. Their m.o. was always to explore new mountains; to look around the next corner. They seldom repeated any trip, except around their winter home at Snowbird.
In winter, the kids grew up on skis, living at the “Hilton,” Snowbird employee’s nickname for the employee housing above Chickadee Lift. The kids shared a 5’ x 12’ “closet” with a bunk bed. Even in recent years, as both became professional ski mountaineers / freeski movie stars, they still preferred these cozy confines, close to family, roots and their home mountains.
Deb home-schooled her children, and the similar-aged sons and daughters of other full-time LCC resort personnel, at the informal “Alta School.” I was lucky enough to teach these 8-14 year-old “dirty dozen” a heli-assisted avalanche class as a Wasatch Powderbird Guide. They were a nice, attentive bunch of little shredders, but I had no idea how far they’d go in the mountains.
Johnny Collinson, the smallest one of all, went on to scale the “7 Summits” in 367 days, setting a record at age 17. Although he was shepherded along by veteran guides, Willie Benegas (also a Snowbird Patroller) and his brother Damian, in this youthful quest, he was not guided. He earned his way partly as a “go-fer,” helping with expedition logistics. He carried his load, climbed independently, and descended Everest on his own while Damian stayed above with a 60-year old client.
John slept little on his first night after the highest summit. Instead he helped an altitude sick adult rehydrate and recover. His extraordinary natural uphill ability had been nurtured, practically since birth, by his patient, mountain-loving parents. The sherpas dubbed him “white sherpa,” a term of endearment and high praise, especially coming from a world-renowned high altitude people.
Angel recalls that, as kids, when her little brother was suffering on a tough ascent, he would always say, “Well, this can’t be as hard as Mt. Everest.” But years later, when he actually climbed the “Big E,” he found it relatively easier than many previous mountain challenges.
A veteran ski patroller / snow safety director at Alta / Snowbird, Jimmy Collinson is a legend in Little Cottonwood Canyon not only for his own exploits as a ski mountaineer, but now for the mind-boggling feats he enabled his children to achieve before they even turned 10. His background as a racer and race coach made him a natural mentor. The first time I met Jimmy was moonlight skiing on the lower aprons of Superior. He had dropped in off the summit and quietly skied up to us, with a casual, “How’s it going?” As a 22-year old first year ski bum at the ‘Bird, he left a lasting impression on me. Apparently this was a common practice for him, before skiing / mountaineering with his kids took over his life.
An early ski-mountaineering milestone for future Junior National champion, Angel, was descending the Pipeline at Snowbird when she was 6. Jimmy says the intimidating chute was “…Reasonable for her at that age,” because, “She had a really solid jump turn”. It was also accomplished in a “phat” snowpack and surface conditions were safe and friendly, rather than icy and “slide-for life.” On a subsequent spring day, the family intended to ski the iconic chute, highly visible from Snowbird’s Tram. But from the summit, they watched ski patroller, Eric Anderson, lose a ski that zipped to the bottom on hard snow. They realized it was not the right day for conditions, and chose to ski out White Pine Gulch instead. “We had a great day,” remembers Angel.
The descent of Pipeline was empowering, she recalls. “At that point I felt like I could ski anything at Snowbird. When I expanded to skiing Superior, the combination of [skiing ability] and skills learned by summer mountaineering made it go easily. It [Mt. Superior’s SE Face] stood above our house growing up, so I had always wanted to ski it.” This backyard ski mountaineering descent, now described as one of the “50 Classic Descents in North America” in Chris Davenport’s book, was the first of many of big ski lines to come, as she and Johnny began adventuring on their own.
Having been home-schooled in the art of climbing and skiing by their remarkably dedicated parents, the Collinsons and Wyatts, have a unique combination of skills and experience for their young years. What they’ve already done is truly amazing, and if they continue to pursue the life-sports of backcountry skiing and mountaineering, it’s inspirational to imagine what they could do.