Into Uncharted Heights

07 Mar 2024

Two extreme athletes redefine limits in mountaineering

By Caleigh Smith

Photos by David Bowers unless noted

In the shadow of the Tetons reside two souls who have mastered the art of mountaineering and skiing on a global scale. These intrepid adventurers, whose stories unfold in the pages that follow, have not only made the jagged terrain of their home their playground, but they have also left an indelible mark on some of the world’s most challenging summits and descents, often for the first time. Here we delve into the lives of Adam Fabrikant and Brendan O’Neill, two local mountain guides who have been redefining limits, both individually and as a team, in the wide world of mountaineering.

ADAM FABRIKANT

“Dream big. Anything is possible. Try hard, and when it doesn’t go well — just try again. It’s amazing what hard work can do.”

Although this may sound like the introduction to an inspirational coffee table self-help book or a series of quotes hung in big cursive letters in a coffee shop, mountaineer and Exum guide Adam Fabrikant is merely passing along a few snippets of wisdom to anyone who might one day hope to follow in footsteps similar to his. And these footsteps are no easy task to follow. They lead up and over countless summits in the Tetons and the Andes, the Karakoram and the Alaska Range. They trail up sheer granite walls, down steep, open expanses of powder (or maybe ice, it depends), and he completes many of these feats under the ceaseless and unrelenting constraint of time.

Many of the achievements that the general public might extoll have become a bit commonplace for folks like Adam. He and other local mountaineers such as Brendon O’Neill and Sam Hennessy are frequently linking routes that others would consider to be lifetime achievements, and they often will complete these objectives in the depths of winter when most other attempts are made during the summer months. One of his proudest achievements was when he and the aforementioned two mountaineers established a new route on Denali via the West Rib. “It was a 12,000-foot ski run and I did that over 26 hours, and at that point I realized I can do these really big, committing objectives. I can make it happen.”

Two years ago, a very big and even more extremely committing objective flitted into view, and Adam, Mike Gardner and Sam Hennessy completed a 64-hour push on Denali, climbing up and over the entire mountain. Keep in mind: Denali stands 20,310 feet above sea level. After that expedition’s success, Adam realized, “Ok, so we can really connect techni- cal climbing with altitude, and we just skied a new 15,000-foot ski route.” If you need an iota of perspective, he goes on to explain, “so, you know, put four trams on top of each other.”

Courtesy Image

Adam hopes that he can continue to push the envelope further in mountains all over the world. “These mountains have all been explored, whether it’s the Himalaya or the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” he laments, explaining the ways in which he attempts to find new lines and arrange them into new objectives. “Sometimes we feel like it’s hard to explore in 2023, but we can still use Google Earth and go to places where no one’s ever been, especially with a pair of skis, and see if we can put it all together and have a wild experience.”

Adam definitely hopes that he can explore on his skis forever, and is, of course, humbled occasionally by the annoying fact that he is human and humans age. In the meantime, however, he doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon because, “the Tetons are some of the most inspiring mountains on Earth and an amazing place to train,” he explains. “I love my backyard; I think it’s the best place for the real thing in terms of wilderness familiarity.”

He is certainly taking full advantage of his surroundings here in the Tetons and he also looks forward to an impending expedition to the Andes to chase more summits of 6,000 meters or higher and to attempt more first descents while there. “I just want to continue to push the envelope in a sustainable way and see what’s possible. There’s no reason not to dream big.”

BRENDAN O’NEILL

If you were to sit down with a map of the Tetons spread out on a large table in front of you and then pointed to any summit, couloir or steep set of topo lines anywhere on said map, chances are that it has been climbed, skied or at least attempted by the climbers, skiers and adventurers that call this place home. Chances are, you will also point to a place where Brendan O’Neill has stepped foot during his countless ventures, both personal and professional.

Brendan, who guides for Exum Mountain Guides here in Jackson, has spent most of his life perfecting his mountaineering prowess and tallying up first ascents and descents all over the world. Although his life hasn’t always looked this adventurous, he does ultimately attribute his love for the outdoors to an early introduction to self-reliance outside.

“Our parents wanted us anywhere but in the house ... so they would just drive me to a river or a lake, drop me off, and pick me up like five hours later,” Brendan explains, adding that although he didn’t grow up in a particularly outdoors-centered family, he quickly realized skiing was a passion he would do well to pursue, and thus he landed in Jackson.

Soon thereafter, he also found and fostered a love of climbing and has become a stellar mountaineer, having climbed and skied many 6,000-meter peaks all over the world: Peru, Bolivia, Alaska and beyond. An objective that, to any sane person, would be a momentous lifetime achievement, such as skiing the Grand Teton, Owen and Teewinot in a day, is for Brendon just another day in the office. His most prized accomplishments lie more in the first ascent and descent worlds, notably: the first ski descent of the North Face of the Grand Teton with Greg Collins, or the first ski descent of the Run Don’t Walk couloir with Adam Fabrikant and Brian Johnson.

“I’m still interested in first descents and adventuring around the world, but it’s probably just being in the mountains for me at this point, and finding the best snow in the most interesting terrain,” he says, further explaining that these days, his goals consist less of firsts and more of speed and big expedition skiing. “I’m still trying to do some of those speed ascents ... and I would like to start expedition skiing again and either get down to South America or potentially the Himalaya.”

When asked where this inspiration for pursuing such challenges originates, Brendan explains, 

“I think it’s mostly intrinsic; it’s just because we love it,” he says. “It’s fun! I love the challenge and I’m definitely motivated to stay fit so I can ski and travel in the mountains with my daughters. You know, I have to be able to do this when I’m 65 with them!”

Brendan’s goals in the mountains haven’t always surrounded longevity, however. After both he and a close friend were caught in avalanches, he realized he needed to reevaluate his approach to risk taking and boundary pushing in the mountains. “It’s important to think and discuss a lot with your partners and to not be afraid to back off,” he explains. “This might sound cliché, but you have to stay humble in the mountains. ... Adam and I and other partners are more likely to throw in the towel for the day if not everything looks right than we used to.”

Brendan recognizes that perhaps some of his endeavors might serve to inspire other mountaineers and even mountain adventure novices to attempt similarly onerous objectives, and he advises them to: “Do what you say and say what you do. Hopefully people who interact with me leave with a sense of what’s important at the end of the day. You go out, you have a good time, and you come home at the end of the day. I think that’s a good way to go through a life in the mountains, and hopefully I can pass that on.”

Courtesy image

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