Jacob Urban has a birthday tradition. On the day before his birthday, he climbs the Grand Teton, hoping to best his time from the previous year. This year, to celebrate his 47th birthday, he went from car to summit to car in less than six hours, and he thinks he can knock it below five hours next year.
His place in the annals of Teton endurance sports is unquestionable. He has completed “The Picnic,” which is an informal local triathlon composed of biking from town to Jenny Lake, swimming across the lake, climbing the Grand Teton, and then doing it all again in reverse.
This year, Urban also joined ultra-distance runners Meredith Edwards and Jason Schlarb as part of the first team to summit the Grand Teton twice in one day, something they called the “Double Grand 50K.”
“They were way ahead of me on the running,” Urban says. “But I was the climber, so once we got past the Lower Saddle, I was in my element. We complemented each others’ skills.”
Urban has been a fixture in Jackson since moving here 11 years ago, but his path to the Tetons started in rural Vermont. He attended Lyndon State College, studying outdoor recreation management and leadership, and upon graduation took a position as an adjunct professor of outdoor leadership at Lyndon. He said he thought he would stay there forever, but 20 years ago he took his first trip to the Tetons and was hooked.
The desire to move out West gestated for nearly a decade before he finally packed his truck and left. When he arrived, he picked up right where he left off in Vermont, starting as an adjunct professor of outdoor leadership and avalanche education at Central Wyoming College, running classes in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and the Wind River Range.
In 2010, his work ethic kicked into overdrive. He became a volunteer with Teton County Search and Rescue, where he became deputy director and training adviser, and also created an outdoor education school, the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute. The school offers avalanche safety and rescue courses, wilderness medicine certifications, and First Aid/CPR classes.
“I started the business because I wanted to reach more people,” he says. “There’s a whole other part of the community that I can teach now.”
Keeping recreationists safe is a passion of Urban’s, and this passion helped fuel the creation of Backcountry Zero, a nonprofit venture managed by the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation that strives to reduce injuries and fatalities in the Teton region through education and community
Stephanie Thomas, the foundation’s executive director, and Urban worked closely on Backcountry Zero. They wanted to create a program with a broad scope to give backcountry users concrete tools like leaving trip plans in their car at the trailhead to aid rescuers in the event something unforeseen should happen.
“There were a couple similar programs, but they usually focused on one season, like winter and avalanche deaths,” he says. “We got good funding and wanted to make it a four-season program, so we ran with it.”
I first met Urban in 2013 as a student in one of his Avalanche Level II courses, when the business was a one-man show with a few volunteer instructors. His penchant for education was apparent, and his style was enthusiastic and informative, never condescending. Everything was a teachable moment, an excuse to take a second and learn.
After three days of instruction, snow pit digging, and practice, we
gathered in the main room of Togwotee Mountain Lodge. Urban put maps and pictures on the table and told us to plan the day. He had taught us everything we needed to make safe decisions. The whole day he hiked behind us, whooping encouragement to the person breaking trail.
Urban’s insistence on taking care of students has helped his business grow exponentially, and he is now part of American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education’s instructor training team. In this role, he helps build its scholastic platform and teaches avalanche educators nationwide.
With everything he does, from wilderness courses to crazy feats of endurance in the Tetons, a pervasive love of outdoor recreation propels Urban.
“I’m 47 years old, everything still works, and I get to push myself every day,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. It doesn’t get better than that.”