On the evening of June 15, 1971, Virginia Huidekoper, founder and owner of the Jackson Hole News, heard that Bill Briggs had made the first ski descent of the Grand Teton.
According to Huidekoper’s daughter, Zaidee Fuller, the newswoman understood the importance of the accomplishment and acted quickly to document it, calling News photographer Roger LaVake first thing the next morning.
“She generally didn’t get up early,” Fuller said last week. “She called Roger and said, ‘Roger get up. We’re going up to take a picture, immediately.’”
Huidekoper had a plane — a Cessna 182. LaVake had his medium-format camera. Fuller said they flew to the top of the Grand and saw Briggs’ tracks from the day before carved into the southeast face.
Two weeks later, on July 1, 1971, one of the most famous photographs in ski mountaineering history first appeared in muddy newsprint on page 12 of the Jackson Hole News next to a full account of Briggs’ history-making descent.
“We didn’t know it would become this sort of icon,” Fuller said. “Although my mom had an eye for things like that.”
Since then, the story of who took the photograph has become complicated. Ever since it was first published, it has been credited to Huidekoper. There was just one problem. According to Fuller, “she didn’t actually push the button.”
At the time, it was common practice for someone who had hired a photographer and told them when to take a photograph to take credit for the image, Fuller said. So Huidekoper, who flew the plane and shouted instructions to LaVake on when to shoot, proudly took credit for the photo of Briggs’ tracks.
“Nobody had the nerve to argue with her about it, including Roger,” Fuller said. “Roger used to joke, ‘Well, Virginia took the picture, I just pressed the button.’”
Former News reporter Cammie Pyle, who was living on Huidekoper’s ranch in Wilson at the time, said she was invited along for the ride and flew with Huidekoper and LaVake.
“Bill was going to let [Huidekoper] know if he made [the descent],” Pyle said Saturday. “Which he did.”
So there were three people in the plane. LaVake took the photo, Huidekoper took the credit, and Pyle watched it all happen. Right?
Maybe. Both Huidekoper and LaVake died in 2010. And Briggs remembers the story differently.
On Friday, Briggs relayed his version: When he got back to town after his ski descent, nobody believed him. He went to the airport the next morning and could see his tracks on the Grand. He said he called Huidekoper and told her about his feat.
“She said, ‘Stay right there. I’ll be right up,’” Briggs said. “She got there as quick as she could, and we got in the plane and we flew on up.”
Briggs said Huidekoper made a couple passes around the peak, and as they flew past the south side he said Huidekoper needed both hands free so she could shoot.
“She had me fly the plane,” Briggs said. “I’d never flown a plane. She said, ‘Put your feet on these pedals, hold onto the steering wheel, and don’t do anything.’”
Briggs said Huidekoper then took the photographs out the window herself.
“Roger had nothing to do with taking the picture,” Briggs said. “Virginia took the picture, all Roger did was develop it.”
But that’s not what Pyle remembers.
“I was in Virginia’s plane [with Huidekoper and LaVake],” she said. “Bill wasn’t there."
But Pyle concedes that both stories may, in fact, be true.
"It’s entirely possible she took him up another time,” Pyle said.
And that is the most likely scenario. LaVake almost always used a medium-format camera, Fuller said, while Huidekoper used a 35mm SLR. While the negative for the iconic photo of Briggs' tracks is from the larger format LaVake favored, a set of 35mm negatives in the News&Guide archives — likely Huidekoper's — also show the ski line on the mountain taken from the air.
While the stories of how the photograph was made — and who took it — are good, the image itself is what matters. Just a single set of tracks, a beautiful line that descends into ski mountaineering history.
“I mean, skiing the Grand was just like, ‘Are you kidding me, he did that?’” Fuller said. “Plus, Bill Briggs with his fused hip? It seemed incredible. It was extraordinary. He was old. He’s kind of a crazy mountaineer, tough as nails. He thought he could do it, and he did.”