In early April dozens of skiers, hikers and Snow King enthusiasts gathered at Cowboy Coffee for a fundraiser to groom the Town Hill once a week throughout April. The party, a celebration of an epic season and the expression of a wish for it to continue, was organized by Brenton Reagan, with a little help from his friends.
Spurred by one great late-season groomed run in 2018, Reagan led the charge to keep Snow King skiable for as long as possible to give the community an easy place to get some after-work exercise.
The motivation wasn’t totally altruistic. His wife, Jessica Baker, is a Professional Ski Instructors of America examiner, meaning she teaches ski instructors, and she had noticed something in Reagan’s form.
“She gave me a tip on my skiing,” he said, “and I didn’t want to walk away from it.”
Though he harbored a small amount of selfishness in wanting Snow King to keep grooming, much of the push was grounded in a desire to extend the season for the entire community. Reagan espouses an ethos common in alpine guides and rescue professionals, that whatever you’re good at or passionate about you should keep improving, that each time you go out is an opportunity to practice your skills.
“As a ski instructor and guide I want people to be better,” he said. “It’s really about mastering the craft.”
Like many who have spent their lives working in the mountains, Reagan strings together several gigs. The Exum guide also works for Arc’teryx as an athlete and ambassador, which includes organizing the Backcountry Academy that Exum and the high-end outdoor retailer have held the past few years. He also does some heli-ski guiding in Alaska most springs and worked his way from being a ski instructor to a backcountry guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Though he grew up in Atlanta, his connection to the Tetons is familial. His mom climbed the Grand Teton with Exum in 1981, which led to more family trips to Jackson. On a 1988 vacation, when he was 14, Reagan took his first trip with the guiding company, starting a trend of going out on trips whenever he was in Jackson.
As he spent more time with the guiding company he moved past the introductory ascents most clients do, asking to lead on routes like the Black Ice Couloir, a classic mixed climb that requires proficient mountaineering skills. As he progressed Reagan began to understand that he wanted to pursue his teenage passion, and he points to one trip that solidified that idea.
“The summer before I joined the Marine Corps, I went out with Alex Lowe,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that was the inspirational trip that I remember knowing what I wanted to be.”
Lowe was a premier alpinist who died in an avalanche on Shishapangma, a Himalayan peak. He put up first accents all over the world, from Pakistan to his home in Bozeman, Montana, and he also cataloged expeditions, writing about other mountaineers’ exploits.
Though it could be argued that he was the best alpinist in the world, he preferred to categorize that kind of superlative differently.
“The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun,” Lowe wrote.
Watching Reagan teach a clinic on efficient, redundant rappelling at the Teton Boulder Park, it was clear he takes Lowe’s spirit to heart. The class, which taught how to extend the rappel device and tie a back-up knot, covered a skill that might be new to some climbers but is old hat for Reagan. Still, he bounced between groups, chatting people up and redirecting mistakes, enthusiastic to see people learning how to be safer in the mountains.
Reagan sees teaching clinics as a sort of community service, but they also help him hone his skills as an alpinist. He spends most of his time guiding, which he prefers to teaching, but he appreciates the interplay between the two facets of his career.
Teaching is “a different type of brain activity. It keeps me sharp,” he said. “Being a guide then helps you understand what’s most effective.”
Some people who transform their passions into careers find themselves burnt out, forgetting what drew them to their job in the first place, but Reagan loves the life he has built for himself in the mountains. His wife is also a guide and instructor, so they’ve been able to pursue climbing and skiing together, and though they have two young daughters, which has made scheduling “quite challenging,” they still find time for Arctic Circle or Alaskan adventures.
Even with his decades in the mountains, Reagan still understands that alpinism requires a mindset focused on learning and growing. If that’s true for someone with his experience, it should be a reminder to the rest of us to never be complacent with our skills.
“The reality is you’re not practicing to get it perfect,” he said. “You’re practicing because you need to know what to do when something doesn’t work right.”