Originally published in Skiing Magazine’s 2017 Adventure Guide
As I tour behind Zahan Billimoria up a peak called 25 Short in Grand Teton National Park, he tells me how he became a mountain guide. It involves a Swiss dude named Christophe, three years of seven-day workweeks, and a really hard relay race against world-class skimo racer Kílian Jornet (more on that later). Right now, all I can think about is how lucky I feel to be in the mountains with such an expert. He’s leading and we’re flowing at the exact pace I would be going if I were out alone. I look back at the skin track he’s made. It weaves in and out of the trees, up and around the natural curves of the landscape like it’s supposed to be there. He’s logged an ass-ton of hours setting skinners.
We approach the top of a line called Turkey Chute; the entrance is dicey but the couloir is untracked. Billimoria has a rope fixed to a tree in under a minute. He tells his longtime client Ken and me to use it to get to where the ice-glazed rocks stop and the snow begins. When we’re down, he unties his rope and skips down to us Indiana Jones style. He’s beaming. This is probably his 20th time skiing this chute but it will be Ken’s first, and Billimoria couldn’t be more stoked. He skis the first pitch and radios Ken that he’s good to go. Ken grins at me and says, “Dropping.” When Ken goes home tonight, he’s probably going to crack open a cold one and tell his wife about what a rad day he had. He’s going to sit on his couch with tired legs reminding him of the three epic, untouched lines he skied. He’s going to start planning his next adventure. And as far as I can tell, Billimoria is the only one he’ll want to take him on it.
I get it. Zahan Billimoria, or “Z,” is one of the top ski mountaineers in the Tetons. He’s been skiing them for 13 years and has worked as a guide for the last 11. He’s only 38 years old. He definitely wouldn’t tell you this, so I will: He’s one of the best guides out there right now, a well-known and respected senior guide at Exum Mountain Guides, one of the most prestigious guiding companies in the world. He also has a wife, two children, and a house in Jackson Hole, a town where most people can’t even make rent.
But 13 years ago, Z was just a 25-year-old Indian dude new to Jackson who grew up with lofty big-mountain dreams and a poster of Doug Coombs hucking Corbet’s by his bed. His parents raised him and his younger brother in Geneva, Switzerland and didn’t show a lot of support for his interest in rock- and snow-based extracurriculars. But for high school graduation, they bought him a day of guided skiing. He requested a famous guide named Christophe Profit, not hopeful he would get him, but he did. Profit was, and still is, known for his impressive solo speed ascents throughout the French Alps during the ’80s. He took an extremely eager 18-year-old Z up on Mont Blanc, and the rest of Z’s life has been based on that day.
Z ended up moving to Boston, Massachusetts, for college—an out-of-character choice for him, I thought, but important. Because that’s where he met Kim, a smart natural beauty up for adventure. They got married, moved to Jackson, and, like many, never left.
Two years later, in 2005, Z started guiding on the western flank of the Tetons for a guy named Rich Rinaldi, whose mantra was “Get the clients home with gas in the tank.” Z tail-guided for two full years before Rinaldi let him take a client out on his own. Yes, two years. And the only reason he got to guide solo that first time was that Rinaldi’s wife went into labor.
Around the same time, Z had his son, Alyosha, and his appetite for risk started to abate. He lost interest in big-mountain objectives and took a liking to skimo races. And, well, he got good at it. In ’08 he qualified for the world championship, but ironically that’s kind of why his skimo career ended. Specifically, with a relay race against the Spaniard Kílian Jornet. Jornet is may be the best skimo racer in the world. He went up and down Denali in 12 hours. He’s insane. (I once raced in the same 50k as he did; he was done before I was even halfway through.) “He left me in the dust,” Z told me. “I used to think it was just a matter of how hard I trained. But no, I could never be as fast as Kílian.” Z left racing ready to get back in the mountains and slow down a bit (just a bit). “It was very liberating because I realized, now I can just go do this for fun,” he said. “I came back from that trip satisfied with my racing career and with a high-level confidence in my ability.”
A year later, Z found himself sitting on his porch with a friend, facing one of those change-your-life decisions. He and Kim just had their second child, Gemma, and he’d been offered two really good jobs. One was guiding for Exum Mountain Guides; the other was marketing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort—stable, safe, and lucrative compared to guiding. “Like any young and aspiring guide, I’d always wanted to work for Exum,” Z told me. “When I was growing up, the guides at Exum were guys like Alex Lowe, Doug Coombs, and Kim Schmitz. They were legends. They set the standard. They were what I dreamed of being.”
The only way to get a job at Exum is to be invited. All résumés sent to the company’s office go immediately into the recycling bin. You have to have someone of rank say you’re legit. For Z, this person was Christian Santelices—a longtime Exum guide who taught Z about the importance of fostering real, meaningful relationships with clients. Santelices put in the good word for Z, and a letter from Exum’s owner, Nat Patridge, ended up in his mailbox inviting him to join the team. Holding the letter in his hand, Z decided he couldn’t turn down either offer. So he worked seven-day workweeks for three years, commuting in from Driggs, Idaho, every single day, splitting his time between marketing at JHMR and guiding for Exum.
Fast-forward to right now. I’m touring up Garnet Canyon with Z and Patridge, who was himself a protégé of Doug Coombs. We’re headed for the Nugget Couloir, a steep 2,000-foot line on the south side of Cloudveil Dome with a huge chockstone at the bottom that you have to rappel. I tour behind them, listening to their unrelenting talk about clients, trips, family, and gear—dude stuff and dad stuff. As an aspiring ski mountaineer and climber, I can’t help but wish for their mentorship; they are thoughtful, smart, strong, and undeniably talented, everything I hope to eventually be in the mountains. I tell them about my struggles in learning this craft and they tell me I’m awesome and need to have more confidence in myself. They barely know me, but they believe in me. The conversation turns to my poles, which are old and heavy. This became a theme of the day—Patridge and Z telling me how old and heavy all my gear is. I ask Z where he got his poles. He tells me they were Luke’s, and I feel my heart drop to my stomach.
Last May, Z was booting up the Sickle Couloir with three friends, Luke Lynch, 38, Brook Yeomans, 37, and Stephen P. Adamson Jr., 42. A small slough came down. Z took a step to the left to avoid it, but it knocked all three of his buddies off their feet. Yeomans survived, Lynch fell to his death, and Adamson succumbed to his injuries two days later. Lynch and Adamson were husbands and fathers—they left behind young kids who will never know their dads.
The accident left Z in pieces. I ask him how the community reacted. “I’m not sure how everyone reacted. It was such a hard time in my life that I just surrounded myself with people who I loved and knew loved me.” Z was forced to reevaluate his life.
“I think for a while Z was known in my mind as the guy who could get it done,” pro skier and Z’s protégé Max Hammer had told me before the trip. “Especially on the biggest stuff. Everything seemed to come together for him. I think he brought it all down a notch since the accident.” Z tells me as we tour, “The mountains aren’t Disneyland, and there is no such thing as zero risk in the backcountry. Risk is inherent to adventure. It’s part of what makes the experience authentic. Some risks aren’t worth anything because the reward is too small, and I’m happy to pass on those experiences.“ Now, even more since the accident, he’s trying to balance the value with the potential cost. ”I know how priceless the mountain experiences is, and i’m still willing to risk something or it. There’s no free ride.“
Patridge listens to our conversation but doesn’t say a thing until maybe two hours later. We’ve been quiet for a while, nearing the end of our tour. I’m working hard, so my questions have subsided. He calls up to Z, “You know, I feel the best mentally and physically I’ve ever felt since my accident.” His accident was in 2001. He got sloughed while skiing the Glacier Rond in Chamonix and was washed down into the Exit Couloir. He fell 2,400 feet, broke his leg, and spent five and a half days in a fat embolism coma. During that time, one of his best friends, and the partner he’d gone to Cham with, Hans Saari, died. It took Patridge 15 years to recover, and I can tell by the look on Z’s face, he knows he himself has a similar slog.
The next day, we tour up Albright Peak with Z’s son, Alyosha. He’s 11, and he fucking crushes it.
“Do you have your beacon on?” Z asks as he bends down to help smooth out the tiny skins on Alyosha’s tiny 130-centimeter skis, which make the mounted Dynafit Speedturn bindings look out of place.
“Yeah. Is it OK if I put it in my pocket?”
“Sure. Do you want to start with your gloves on or off?”
“All right, let’s go. Stay in front of me, Alyosha, so I can see you.”
We begin to tour and I hang back and watch as Z and Alyosha set off side-by-side on the road. Alyosha tells Z about his friends in ski club, what he thinks about the Trump campaign, and how he just can’t wait for Easter. This is Alyosha’s first tour in the Tetons. He just got his Dynafit setup for Christmas because his feet were finally big enough to fit in Kim’s tech boots.
Today is still pretty casual for Alyosha, though. He climbed Moran last summer and the Grand the summer before. He recently led his first sport-climbing route and, judging from Z’s plan to guide him on two steep couloirs and skin more than 4,000 feet, he’s ready for the next thing. At the end of the day, Alyosha is probably going to crack open a 7up and tell his mom all about the rad day he had. He’ll sit on the couch, with tired legs reminding him of the two couloirs he skied and the fat cornice he aired. He’s going to start planning his next adventure. And as far as I can tell, Z is the only one he’ll want to take him on it.