It was Christmas day and I was yearning for a piece of patch: a patch of powder that is. So when my buddy called me up and suggested going to Jackson Hole the next weekend, I jumped all over it. Since the mid-Atlantic was only starting to make snow, Jackson Hole, with over 150 inches already, seemed like a good place to go.
Jackson Hole is everything you’ve ever heard: great snow, advanced skier’s dream, and in the middle of nowhere. With all that going for it what could be bad? Your first ski day of the season. This mountain is way too big and steep to take on for your first ski days of the season. I just wish I had known that before I got there.
Flying into Jackson Hole airport is a thing of beauty. Beautiful mountains surround the landing strip with the resort in the airport’s backyard. Across from the airport is the Teton Wildlife Preserve. There are hundreds of Elk out in the pasture. Turns out, we’re staying on a ranch that resembles the preserve in our backyard.
I’m up at 5:30 a.m., partially because my body is still on East Coast time, mainly because this is my first ski day of the season! I finally get my buddy up and out of bed and by 8:30, we’re on the way. First Chair at 9 a.m.
Jackson Hole is a humongous mountain with 2,500 skiable acres and 4,139 vertical. They’ve been in an inversion for over a week now (warmer at the summit than at the base). We turn on the road to go to the Teton Village (Jackson’s base village) and there she is. Like everywhere else, it’s flat, then there’s the mountain. We drive about 3 miles along the road just looking at it. The excitement is building.
We start our day on the Bridger Gondola. The Bridger Gondola goes straight up the middle of the mountain, with a vertical rise of 2,370 feet. It takes you up to some blues and blacks, which can lead to easier stuff or more difficult stuff. We decide to warm up on some blues; after all it is our first day of the year.
There is nothing like this mountain anywhere. There are no green, blues, and blacks. There are greens, single blues, double blues, single blacks, and double blacks. And don’t think you know how to classify that before looking at the run. You can’t. You must go to the run and ask yourself, “Am I ready for this yet?” But don’t go too far to look. You may have to take that run anyway.
We started out on Sundance. It’s a blue run, but it’s a double blue. At this point, I had not grasped that concept. It goes beside the black run Ranger and it’s really hard to tell the difference between the two. Hard run, out of shape, legs screaming. This will be my day, all day long.
We took Sundance down to the Casper Triple chair. The Casper chair is surrounded by blues so we thought this to be a safe idea. It would keep us out of blacks until we get warmed up. However, I still had not grasped this concept of double blues yet. We skied between Sleeping Indian and Wide Open, both double blues. The main trails were like corn chowder. Even though Jackson has had over 165 inches this year, they haven’t had a dump in a few weeks. In between the trails, there was some nice soft powder in the trees. It had already been tracked, but being the first runs, that was ok. I was just happy to be skiing.
We decide to head over to the Apres-vous quad, which leads to more blues. We take the South Pass traverse, which we will hit many times as it covers almost the entire width of the mountain. We come across the Hanna trail which will lead us down to the chair. And since that’s my wife’s name, I have to ski her once. Great choice. This was finally a single blue that had been groomed yesterday. It was a little scraped out in the middle but the left side had just enough snow on it to make it a great run. I went all out, traversing the entire trail until it ended at the lift. It was the first run I felt good about, legs were screaming louder (yes I’m really out of shape!).
We take the Werner trail down from the lift. It goes from double blue, to blue, to double again. It’s after this run that I have an epiphany. If I’m going to ski this stuff, I should bite the bullet and go hit the blacks. We ski down to the Tram. It’s time for the stuff that makes Jackson famous.
We begin to load the Tram and I try to get to a window, but riding a tram is like deciding to become a sardine. Your stuck with what you got and you just made a bunch of new (although smelly) friends. I did manage to get two people away from the window. The views were incredible. I went from looking at a Warren Miller movie to extreme skiing in the Alaskan backcountry (ok maybe not that extreme but you get the idea). Even though things are not normal here, this is the reason that safety message is everywhere.
We get off the Tram, but not before the operator tells us the safety message again and how to get down if we’re chicken. My legs are turning to jello; I pay close attention to the operator. The easiest way down is to traverse Rendezvous Bowl from side to side. While this does sound easier, after putting all my weigh on my downhill leg for 5 minutes, this is more painful than making turns. I check myself to make sure I’m still a man and I head down the bowl. Cruising between bumps, hitting a little air (not on purpose but I pulled it off), and ignoring everything my legs were telling me.
I meet my buddy at the bottom. It’s lunchtime. We look for a nice place in the woods, protected from the wind but still getting some sun. We look up the side of the Rendezvous trail and see the ski boundary and a gate. Jackson is one of the few American resorts to embrace the European tradition of off-piste skiing. There are warning signs, “If you want to go beyond this gate, it’s your decision”. Over the gate are beautiful views, acres and acres of untracked powder, and absolutely no one around. We decide to go for it. However, we’re only going for lunch because there are some good trees just beyond the gate.
After lunch, I become a wus. I know my legs are not going to make it much longer. I call last run and we head down the mountain. Now this isn’t the last run, 500 feet and we’re at the base. We’re still at the top of Jackson so we still have over 3500 feet to go. We scout the map and the South Pass Traverse looks to be the easiest.
For those of you who are not afraid of heights, this is one of the most beautiful runs I’ve ever been on. As I said before South Pass covers almost the entire width of the mountain. There are points on the traverse that are 4 feet wide and a cliff on your right. When your skidding the cliffs, it take you into the forest where you can see where the snowmelt runs during the summer. And it is a winter wonderland in there. I promise myself I will ski that before I leave. And then my legs scream and I go into a pain-induced coma. There is nothing I can sense except the trail in front of me and getting home. But I can’t wait for day two!
We decide to start out a little easier today. Warm up with a few cruisers to get the legs going. We take the Gondola up which drops you off at a plethora of blue runs. We scrutinize every trail sign. We only want the single blues, not the doubles. 6 inches of fresh powder and grooming make these runs smooth as silk. We glide down Lupine Way and Amphitheater to the bottom of the Gondola, load up, and take Lupine Way which is beside the one we just did. This run was just as smooth as the last one. We get back to the Gondola, feel warmed up, and decide to finally hit some blacks.
So we’ve done 2 runs. In Jackson Hole terms, that’s about 6,000 vertical feet already. We head over to the Thunder Chair to drop off at Laramie Bowl. Laramie is probably the 4th largest of the 5 bowls at Jackson. It’s amazing to ski these bowls with sheer rock faces surrounding each side. My dreams of being in a Warren Miller film begin to cloud my thinking. I want to start looking for jumps. Then my legs remind me whose getting us down the mountain.
After Laramie bowl, we decide it’s time for the famous Hobacks. The Hobacks are 3,000 vertical feet of wide-open terrains. They sit on the lower left of the mountain and are just 3 simple ridges that spend the winter collecting snow. They are also some of the steepest territory on the mountain. There hadn’t been much snow lately so the tops were covered in crunch. At first look, I thought this is going to be icy and ugly. But don’t read a book by its cover. A few short turns and the crunch popped open like the pastry crust on chicken potpie. It was barely a cover that held wonderful, delicious powder underneath. There was nothing left to do but point the skis downhill and cruise. When we started at the top of the Hobacks, there were 5 people picking lines. About 10 minutes into it, there was no one but my friend and I. I think we saw one other person the entire time.
Ok extra, extra cups of coffee and lots of stretching and I think I convinced my legs they can ski again. Our goal is to ski the Saratoga Bowl/Glades. This area has only been open since 1993. Before that, it was part of the out of bounds area. After two blue runs, my buddy cries uncle. Yes I’m not the only one hurting. We decide to stick to the blue groomers today.
Well he decided to stick to the blue groomers. I am a tree hound and just cannot ski groomed trails when I know there’s powder in the trees. So as Rodney skied the grooms, I darted in and out of the glades. And I was right. There was lots of calf-high powder still sitting in the trees between the groomed runs. The trees were not close together either so there was lots of room to play.
As we got close to lunchtime, we decided to head to the Casper Lodge for lunch. I’m staying closer to the trail so we don’t lose each other. However near the bottom, I see a tree patch I just have to hit. As I come to the end of the patch, there appears to be a cliff at the end. I look out and see Rodney. “What’s below?” I yell. “A ten foot rock” comes the reply. I ease my skis up to the edge and look down. I’m in Jackson Hole, home of some great extreme skiing and I haven’t done anything stupid and dangerous. Now’s the time. I leap off the rock, hit the ground, and tumble losing both skis. There’s enough powder around to break the fall and I get up laughing.
Now that I know where that rock is and that there is enough powder below it, I have to hit it again. I convince Rodney to go back to a good spot to take a picture. If I break my legs, I’ll at least have something to look at. I hit the trees and come to the spot where the rock is at, staying back about 10 feet so I can get some momentum. I get some speed (whatever 10 feet can really afford me) and hit the lip with the spring of an Olympic ski jumper. However, I land like an Olympic broad jumper, hands and legs flailing. I land (or fall, whichever you want to call it) and laugh again. I love this sport.
After a couple more blues, we decide to call it a day. We’ve had 3 outstanding, beautiful days of skiing. We’re tired, hurting, and satiated. Tomorrow we fly home. However the flight is not until 3 p.m. Surely we can get another day in!
Even though our legs do need a rest, we can’t come this far and not ski every opportunity. This is one of the arguments I present to Rodney. We really only have time for one good run, going the entire 4,139 vertical top to bottom. Rodney argues that it’s a $69 lift ticket for one run. I argue that we could have a plane crash going home and the last thing on our minds would be “I should’ve skied today”. I win.
From there we hit the Cheyenne Bowl. The top of the bowl has rock face about 300 yards long and 100 yards high, which is closed off. We ski around to the side and drop in. After skiing halfway down, I look up at the rock face, knowing that before the Chugach range was discovered, Powder Magazine was taking photos of guys jumping off this thing. We ski through the bottom of the bowl, not yet halfway through the run.
We head for the Lower Sublette Ridge. This ridge is beside the Hobacks and is a lot like them. It’s not as wide and it’s not as steep. It’s still steep enough as I learn when I fall losing both skis. I slide on my back for about another 50 feet thinking how am I going to stop without skis. Luckily there’s enough powder that I can dig my feet in and I stop, buried up to my waist. What a lucky break.
Well not really. It was soft enough that climbing back up to my skis was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done on a slope. Every step put me more and more into groin deep snow. I’ve done this on flat land before and it’s not that easy. Going up a mountain requires you to really start using your brain to engineer a way. I discover I can use my poles to balance and stick a knee into the snow until I find something relatively stable. This moves me along at a wonderful rate of 1 inch per step. What time was that flight again? Eventually I find my first ski about 35 feet up and 5 feet to the left. I put this ski on and almost triple my uphill climbing rate. Another 15 feet up or so there’s the other ski. Totally exhausted, I get it on and we finish out the run.
We go to the bottom and take the Union Pass Quad: the last chair, leading to the last run, on the last day, of one of the best ski mountains I’ve ever been on. I look into the woods, watching the white take over the trees. And I spot to peculiar logs that have fallen. Then one of them moves. It’s not logs at all but two moose relaxing in the woods. A perfect ending.
There are many runs and slopes we did not hit on this mountain. I didn’t even talk about the signature Corbet’s Couloir, a 10-foot wide slope between two rocks. There’s only a 20-foot drop into the couloir, nothing major.
Jackson Hole is a skier’s dream. It it’s not on your list of mountains to hit, it should be. One trip and you’ll be addicted. But do yourself a favor: don’t go on your first day of the season. Your legs will thank you.