A former Olympic biathlete and an inaugural member of the Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club Hall of Fame, Erich Wilbrecht is a Nordic force to be reckoned with.
Erich grew up on wildlife refuges and moved to Jackson at the age of 16 when his dad took the job managing the National Elk Refuge with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Erich grew up cross country running, and when Jackson didn’t have a cross country running team, he thought he should learn how to ski and joined the Nordic team, eventually getting recruited to ski on Dartmouth College’s Nordic team.
With national team athletes in Jackson, Erich was first exposed to biathlon in high school. Then his coach at Dartmouth, a biathlete himself, encouraged his team to give it a shot (pun intended). Erich thought that his experience hunting as a kid would prepare him to excel at biathlon, but “target shooting is not the same as hunting–it’s a completely different deal,” said Erich.
After dabbling in biathlon in college, Erich attempted it more seriously and made the US National team. He spent the next eight years training and went on to make five World Cup Teams and the 1992 US Olympic Team.
“Nordic is kind of like flying”
“I just love the motion of Nordic skiing on groomed tracks–it’s kind of like flying when everything clicks–not all days, some days it’s like pulling a car behind you with a rope,” Erich said laughing. “It keeps you super fit and there’s something about track skiing–the equipment is light and responsive. It’s really fun and you can do it up on the groomed ski trails in the Park or in the spring on crust and explore and get out on skis without having to go either straight up the hill or downhill in certain areas. It’s just a great life sport.”
He made his way back to Jackson after missing the Olympic team in 1994 (by one shot) and thought he was done skiing. But his old high school coach, Peter Ashley, was starting a cross country team for ski marathons in the US, which they called the Fischer Factory Team. It allowed him to continue racing for seven years (without living out of a duffel bag) and go on adventures around the country with Olympians, world cup team members, and high-end collegiate skiers.
Erich met Nancy (JHNordic) at a Nordic event many years ago when she was starting the Nordic website and updates, and it was a natural opportunity for him and his wife to get involved.
“I thought it was great, someone who’s trying to bring the community together outside of the kids racing with the ski club,” Erich said. “It raises the visibility and the opportunities of nordic and coordinates the grooming, which is so critical to Nordic to make sure of that in our pathway system and all of the different Nordic centers.”
Erich’s Favorite Place to ski: Trail Creek Nordic … & Norway
In Jackson, Erich’s favorite place to train and ski is Trail Creek Nordic—where it all started for him. The challenging terrain and cruise-able woods make it his go-to spot. Though going to a ski clinic is the best way to polish your Nordic skills, Erich recommends an easy way to train the upper body for Nordic: take ski poles on summer hikes. It will engage the upper body and supply some of the strength needed to excel as a Nordic skier.
As for his other favorite places to Nordic ski, Erich never stops dreaming of Norway.
“Someplace I’d like to spend more time skiing is in Norway—north of Oslo and all around,” Erich said. “All of these towns, when you get up north, are connected by Nordic trails and a hut system. And to be able to just ski truly cross country on groomed trails, it’s a different experience from what we have here. And the culture is so deeply steeped in Nordic skiing.”
Erich added that it would probably be the same in Finland and Sweden: “I don’t want to offend the other Scandinavians.”
The Peace of Nordic Skiing
Erich loves the peace of Nordic skiing.
“It’s so different from the alpine experience where you’re at a busy ski area with lifts and machines,” Erich said. “It’s quiet, really soulful, relaxing. I always just feel relaxed yet energized when I’m done. And you need to have these peaceful things to do to clear your head as life gets more complicated, and it’s certainly complicated right now,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Erich thinks Nordic skiing offers a unique solace and quiet compared to other, more mechanized sports.
“When you’re outside away from noise, motors, and mechanization, you realize what a beautiful place it is and how peaceful and calm it is and yet how loud and distracting our lives are and it’s hard to get away,” Erich noted. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but fossil fuel sports are just loud, and I don’t think you have the same endorphin rush when you’re breathing fumes and when you’re listening to motors roar.”
With that peace and quiet, Erich loves to just listen and pay attention to his surroundings while he skis.
“When I was in college, I got a walkman, and I thought it would be so cool to train while plugged into music, but the first time I did it, I thought I was at the worst heavy metal rock concert and my ears were getting blown out,” Erich said, “and I realized that when I go outside, I just want listen to everything: my breathing, the birds, and the wind blowing through the trees.”
Erich graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in biology and went on to work as a bird biologist for some time. Though birds aren’t as active in the winter, the chickadees are always out and the grouse are here year round. In the spring, Erich says the eagles are all over the place.
Olympic Training in Austria
One of Erich’s fondest and wildest Nordic skiing memories was Olympic training on a glacier in Austria. It was in August during a particularly warm spell. Of all the national teams there, this one particular morning, Erich and the US team were up first to head down the first steep, icy hill.
“All of a sudden, I see this skier in front of me jump up a little bit and so I jump up, and there’s a little crack in the snow,” Erich said. “The speed picks up, and as we go down, the cracks keep getting bigger and bigger, and right at the bottom, there’s a 25-foot crevasse. I watched two skiers just slide right into it, so we all hit the brakes and pulled them out. It was only about 10 feet deep, but it was like, ‘well that was a good morning ski.’”
That’s one way to really wake up for an early morning of training.
Birds, Moose, and Wolves
Aside from the birds, Erich also enjoys the wildlife that skiing in Jackson has to offer, always remembering to make sure he doesn’t get trampled by a moose. Erich had one particularly memorable interaction with a pack of wolves while crust cruising in the spring. After hearing a howl, he looked up and saw a pack of wolves within a mile of him, but he decided to just keep skiing.
“I skied right at ‘em,” Erich said. “And this one wolf—I don’t know if it was the matriarch or not—she just sits down like a dog would and her tail starts wagging. She’s turning her head from side to side, looking at me, thinking ‘oh what’re you doing?’ We just stopped and looked at each other for a while, and then I skied off. She never really moved.”
Protection of land, space for wildlife in Jackson
That moment of calm and mutual acknowledgment with the wolf was special, and just one of the reasons that Erich values the protection of land and space for wildlife in Jackson. In his work as a real estate broker, Erich understands the importance of the strict development standards in Jackson that allow for a balance between maintaining critical spaces for wildlife while also allowing some private development. Erich and his wife Chris always try to contribute their time, effort, and resources to support local land trusts and trail building and maintenance projects.
“I think in the time of COVID, it’s incredible how people have flocked to our public pathways and trails,” Erich remarked. “And those who weren’t real huge advocates before or were just casual about it, now they’re saying ‘oh wow where would we go?’”
Erich was previously on the board at Friends of Pathways and has continued to support their efforts, as well as the efforts of the Nordic Alliance to improve Nordic trail access in Jackson.
Even though Jackson does boast a prominent ski resort, Erich likes to think of Jackson outside that box or classification.
“But really what [Jackson] is, it’s a little community in a pristine valley on the edge of a huge protected ecosystem. And so I think it’s our responsibility, as we grow, to grow really responsibly in terms of wildlife and open space. And I think that has definitely happened here, but there are always threats to it too.”