By Justin Brendel
James Buehler is a Park City local snowboarder turned backcountry specialist pushing the limits of splitboarding. His dream is to combine technical climbing with snowboarding, something he calls splitboard mountaineering. Last year, Buehler set out to make Wasatch history as we know it: splitboard the rocky Medusa’s Face line on Mt. Olympus without ropes. And he did. Solo.
Here’s his story.
Five years ago, I heard someone had skied the Medusa’s Face Line on Mount Olympus with ropes. I was living in Salt Lake City at the time and was shocked that anyone would go down that face on skis. It was so steep, so out there and honestly out of reach for me at the time. It wasn’t until last year that I started looking into it more seriously. Everything I read and everyone I talked to pinned it as less of a ski line and more of a roped descent that you do with spring-style conditions. No one had ridden Medusa’s Face without ropes on a splitboard as far as I knew. No one would be crazy enough to. But it had to be possible.
So in 2019, I watched. And watched. Every storm I watched. At the beginning of February, I hiked up myself to check snow depths and see if the line was even possible. The snow was 4-5 feet deep on the face. Pretty ideal conditions. A week later I convinced my buddy to come with me and scope out Medusa’s Face on ropes. 10 rappels, roughly 1000 feet, with even more snow than before.
We went up Mount Olympus’ Apollo Couloir, got onto Medusa’s Face, strapped in, made a few turns and quickly realized all the snow was sliding straight off. Our sluffs were creating mini-avalanches around us, reaching to the very bottom of the couloir. It was sketchy. On the fourth rappel, I slid forty feet on a rock slab and fell over a cliff. My rope stopped me. I would have died without my rope, there is just no way to stop on that face. But I was learning the line. I had to do it in one continuous flow. I wanted to go straight down.
The Night Of:
The perfect storm rolled in starting warm and ending cool —everything felt right. My sights were set to ride Medusa’s Face at 8 am on February 23. It wouldn’t be a film thing or even a friend thing – this was a personal project. I had to try. If I didn’t, it would taunt me. So I told my roommates I was going solo. I’d be done by noon. That was that.
Knowing the snow in the past, knowing exactly what was on Medusa’s Face, knowing my line to a T, falling once before, I went up knowing it would work out. I climbed Zeus’s chute in an hour and fifteen minutes, checking snow conditions every fifty feet along the way. Everything was perfect. Everything was lining up. The whole experience was meditative.
At The Peak:
I got to the top of Olympus very relaxed, but when you’re up there, nerves find their way in: “Are you sure you want to do this?” My racing mind calmed the second I strapped in. That’s the thing—I’ve been snowboarding for so long that it just feels right to be in those boots and bindings. I turned my GoPro on, grabbed my ice axe, and dropped in.
The Ride Down:
I took it in. The whole time. My line was steep as hell but I stuck to it—one spine the whole way down. I was flowing nicely and everything felt perfect until the last 250 feet. Snow for the last quarter was not good—only 6 inches deep. My intended line was not where I wanted to go anymore and instead of sticking to a sketchy line, I diverted. I had no idea where I was going anymore, but that’s the adventure I wanted. I had prepared for this—years of thought, research, snow fact-finding—now I was feeling the ride. There’s nothing like that feeling. That’s the pay-off. I was dialed in.
At the base:
Still taking it in. My goal ever since I got sponsored has been to inspire up-and-coming snowboarders to get outside of their comfort zones and go for something huge, while being smart. Medusa’s Face was way outside of my comfort zone five years ago. I never thought I would be the first known person to ride this line on a splitboard without ropes. At the bottom, I felt accomplished—I achieved my personal goal. Yes I celebrated, yes I breathed sighs of relief, but I also felt a weight of responsibility. Once the news got out, people would try it. I don’t want the story of my line to gloss over the preparation that went into it. Medusa’s Face is not for everyone. It’s not even for most. Somehow it was for me.
James Buehler is creating a film about splitboard mountaineering using his GoPro footage on Medusa’s Face, material from his traverse of Chiochetti’s Ribbon on Devil’s Castle and shots of boarding iconic Cottonwood lines like Diving Board and Rampage. When he is not snowboarding or touring, James is likely researching the next big line.