Breaking Trail

Skiing a few runs with backcountry and avalanche expert Nancy

“Mountains all covered in snow… it’s like heaven to me.”

Nancy Bockino breathes a contented sigh as she pauses for reprieve, gesturing towards today’s destination: a secret aspen glade tucked somewhere on the iconic backcountry peak called 25 Short. Imagine a tough, uphill hike in the park, but add several feet of snow on the ground, almost zero other visitors, avalanche danger, skis underneath your feet and a 40-liter pack on your back. Nancy dutifully breaks trail in Grand Teton National Park every single day, an adventure most skiers only dare a handful of times each season.

“Breaking trail on skis is my favorite thing in the world,” she adds, interrupted only by clicks of her bindings and the satisfying sound of untracked snow giving way to the weight of her skis. Today the snow is light and deep, the weather holds, and there is time for thoughtful silence and time for storytelling. Nancy lets loose her signature giggle, remembering seasons spent in the mountains of Idaho, and takes us back to the beginning of a life spent out-of-doors.

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“I had sort of an unusual childhood,” she laughs. “I grew up in rural Northern Idaho, there was no real town. My parents were both teachers, so we would spend all summer together, with my brother and sister, living and travelling in an old VW bus. We spent all our vacation time in the mountains.”

One summer, Nancy returned home with a juvenile pine tree she picked out on a trip to the nursery with her family. Nancy nurtured the seedling, which later died of a fungus. “Some people are just on their path, whether purposefully or on accident,” she laughs, musing over the synchronicity of life. “Mine was an accident.” These days, Nancy spends summers working as an ecologist for Grand Teton National Park, scaling whitebark pine trees to collect pinecones as a part of her lifetime effort to save the endangered tree. “Those are my passions,” Nancy laughs. Trees and snow.”

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Nancy learned to ski shortly after learning to walk, and her first pair of skis was an adorable 12 inches long. “Skiing is just engrained in who I am,” Nancy explains. “I am also a climber, and I’m the kind of person who reads a book, finds a partner, and then goes out and tries something. I applied this to backcountry skiing. It was self taught at first, with my dog as my partner.” Before her arrival in Jackson in 2000, she took an avalanche course in 1995, which sparked her interest in snow science and led to countless backcountry adventures with local legends including Tom Turiano, Bill Anderson, and Gary Falk, who became trusted mentors.

The clouds break for a moment, revealing the Grand Teton blanketed in virgin snow, a sparkling contrast to the profound blue of the wide Wyoming sky. Nancy’s skin track begins to slope upwards, steadily gaining altitude. She points her skis up a relatively low angle slope with a low risk of sliding, and is careful to avoid terrain in the run out of any slide path. “Mountains are dynamic,” she explains. “When you go into the backcountry, you need to have a plan and understand what you do have control over. Even then, you must be patient, appreciate the journey, and approach them with humility and respect.”

Nancy has worked as a firefighter, search and rescue volunteer, bike mechanic, EMT, Exum mountain guide, wolf researcher, and even tracked foxes south of the border, but underneath her jack-of-all-trades persona is a deep understanding of the natural world. Her work teaching avalanche safety courses through AIARE and Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute is a testament to a lifetime spent in the field. For Nancy, there is no greater joy than looking at a far away mountain all covered in snow and knowing she can go there. She feels compelled to impart her knowledge and experience in the mountains with others who share the same passion, and her hands on wisdom has undoubtedly inspired a new generation of careful backcountry enthusiasts. Avalanche safety courses coupled with mentored experience are absolutely invaluable in the backcountry, and may well save your life.

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Nancy stops, eyes scanning the incandescent backdrop that is her classroom, playground, and “the keeper of her soul.” She strips the skins off of her skis, adjusts her bindings, and prepares to ski an aesthetic line speckled by barren aspen trees. An hour and a half of uphill challenge is about to reward her with ten minutes of powdery bliss, but for Nancy, the entire journey is her destination.

Trees, snow, and the glittering unknown whiz past Nancy in a well-earned blur of blower powder. Nancy lets loose, arcing turns through cold smoke with an ever-present smile and the occasional delighted giggle.

Clouds momentarily obstruct the sun and a new wind carries the breath of another storm. Nancy’s smile travels all the way to her eyes. She zips on an extra layer, and turns south towards the distant Taggart Lake trailhead. Behind her, perfect tracks mark the paper white snow like divine calligraphy. A solemn, respectful nod takes the place of her usual carefree laugh.

“Thanks Mama Mountain, for letting me play, and for letting me come home.”

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