Outclassing the Old Guys: The College Student Notching First Descents in Alaska

When Zack Little, Aaron Diamond and Ty Guarino were dropped by plane at the base of Alaska’s Avalanche Spire in April 2021, the trio hoped to make a first descent of the 10,105-foot peak in Denali National Park. It was not a first attempt, however; Diamond, a splitboarder, and Guarino, a teleskier, had been attempting to make the first descent of the spire since 2016. “Our previous trips had targeted the northeast ridge and had been plagued with bad timing, bad weather and accidents, including two crevasse falls, one of which robbed me of a splitboard and my only set of prescription glasses,” Diamond wrote in his trip report.

This time, Little, Diamond and Guarino set out from their camp on the morning of April 21, navigating Avalanche Spire’s glaciated northwest ridge and ascending soft snow on 55-degree slopes to the summit. In doing so, the trio completed the spire’s third-known ascent—making them the first people to stand atop Avalanche Spire since Fred Beckey and Bob Baker in 1965—followed by their first-known ski and splitboard descent (they say they would welcome hearing stories of other parties who have been on the peak). Though Guarino, 31, and Diamond, 30, broke out the rope for about 40 feet of steep, firm snow on the way down, Little, 19 at the time, “outclassed the old guys by making a completely ropeless descent of the entire mountain,” wrote Diamond.

Rise and shine. Zack Little joins the Wasatch dawn patrol club outside Salt Lake City, Utah. [Photo] Calvin Jiricko

Just eight years before Little tagged along with the two seasoned veterans of the Alaska Range, he was a middle-schooler getting his first taste of climbing near his home in Jackson, Wyoming. Garrick Hart, Little’s high-school science teacher—who also heads up the Jackson Hole High School Mountaineering Club and works as a local climbing guide—remembers Little joining the after-school climbing program in sixth grade. On top of being a straight-A student and competitive-ski-racer-turned-freeride-athlete, says Hart, the preteen was “adventurous and strong.” Little was also a natural in the mountains, no matter the season, and became a leader among his peers. By eighth grade, he was bugging Hart about working in the gear room at Hart’s summer employer, Exum Mountain Guides.

While working at the oldest guide service in the U.S. between middle and high school, the 14-year-old Little didn’t hesitate to approach others for advice and mentorship, including Diamond, who’s certified by the American Mountain Guides Association in splitboarding and rock climbing. “I shot him a question one day, asking, ‘Do want to take me out on your off day and go backcountry skiing?’” said Little. “He turned out to be the most incredible mentor I could ever ask for.”

“He was just a thoughtful, inquisitive kid, asking me a bunch of questions about different routes,” recalls Diamond. “I don’t know too many 14-year-olds who are like, ‘Yeah, I’m thinking about going up the Grand Teton to ski it one of these years.’”

Little shows off his freestyle chops in the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort backcountry. [Photo] Eric Balog

Little skied with his mentor more and more throughout high school. At first, Diamond took him on mellow runs in Grand Teton National Park, playing guide and educator. Eventually, the scales began to even out. “He has become more of an equal and less of a mentee,” says Diamond. “It used to be a one-way flow of information. Now, I’d say it’s become pretty darn even in terms of the exchange of information when we’re out there. He definitely has surpassed me in the climbing and skiing movement side of things.” The two now tour together regularly, and Diamond appreciates his partner’s even-keeled personality.

In May 2020, near the end of Little’s senior year, he skied the Grand Teton—a mountaineering test piece with ice bulges, rappels and 7,000 feet of climbing—with Diamond and his other mentors, Adam Fabrikant and Clark Henarie. “It was just a really magical experience, being up there with all my friends that had helped me along the way in my progression,” Little says. “And the cherry on the cake is we got to ski it in the best conditions I’ve ever seen it in.”

That same season, Little assisted Hart on a Level 1 avalanche course for Jackson Hole High School students. To prepare his lessons, Little shadowed another course Hart taught with the American Avalanche Institute, paying attention to his tone and teaching style. When it came time for Little to teach, says Hart, “He put his own anecdotes and experience and insight from his own trips and added his own pictures and things like that.”

The session resonated with Little’s fellow high schoolers. “When somebody in their 40s is talking to them, it’s different than when one of their peers is,” adds Hart. “He’s able to talk about trips that he’s been on and things that he’s done. They really respected hearing it from him.”

After graduating from high school in spring 2020, Little took a gap year. On top of making the first descent of Avalanche Spire, he ski patrolled at Snow King Mountain in Jackson and interned with the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers in Grand Teton National Park. The latter proved life changing. “Before that, I was pretty dead set on being a mountain guide,” says Little. “And then I did that internship. I found that work just so incredibly rewarding from the emergency services side of things, but also the land management and the conservation stuff.” Unexpectedly following a similar path to his father and his grandfather—both are doctors at St. John’s Health in Jackson—Little is now majoring in emergency medicine at the University of Utah while patrolling part time at Woodward Ski Resort in Park City.

In college, Little enjoys having ski partners his own age after spending most of his backcountry career with people more than 10 years his senior. “I had three or four friends in Jackson who were my age that I’d really love to ski with and did so a lot. But they certainly gave me crap for skiing with the old guys,” jokes Little, who says he’s picky about his mountain partners. “Now that I’m down in the college community in Salt Lake, there’s a much bigger crowd of folks my age who are really into this.” With his notable experience and motivation, however, chances are good that Little will continue to make a big impression on whomever he skis with.

This story was originally published in Backcountry No. 145, The Generations Issue, as part of the our feature on young backcountry badasses, “The Kids are All Right.” To read more, pick up a copy at BackcountryMagazine.com/145 or subscribe.

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