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Last Chair: Still Taking Flight

Last Chair: Still Taking Flight

After helping to tear down skiing's strict boundary regulations with the founding of the Jackson Hole Air Force, Benny Wilson asks the new young guns, what's the rush?
By Greg Ditrinco
posted: 09/20/2013
Benny Wilson

Benny Wilson helped found the Jackson Hole Air Force in the ’80s, bringing together a loose confederacy of rope-ducking, patrol-provoking alpine outlaws. They challenged Jackson, and other resorts, to open their boundaries in the late ’90s. Wilson now teaches new generations of Jackson riders. Here's what he has to say.

Jackson’s boundaries were officially opened in December 1998. Did that feel like a victory? 

Kind of a double-edged sword. We had the goods for so long all to ourselves, and now there are moguls out in Pinedale and the North Shore—not really but it’s always tracked up. Then again, we don’t get chased like we used to, and I can’t recollect any one getting their pass yanked lately.

What effect has the open boundaries had on Jackson, now, some 15 years later?

Inbounds has had a resurgence of incredible powder late into the day. All the young and restless head out way too soon after a storm—leaving the goods inbounds to be pillaged by savvy locals.

You’ve been skiing Jackson for decades. What changed?

The high-end clientele. They ski hard for a few hours, eat lunch and then half of them are finished. So in the afternoon, sometimes the expert terrain is vacant.

Are JHAF patches still awarded? You hear that you can buy ’em. Urban legend?

Patches are handed out still to this day. Sure, you can buy one. I have to pay for them somehow, but I only sell them to people who already received one and need a new one for their new jacket. I also trade them for heli ski days and ... new cars and condos... Just kidding. If I don’t like you and you keep bugging me in the tram line like a loser, I’ll try and sell you one for a hundred bucks. Haven’t sold one yet.

On a sweet powder day, do you wait for friends, or are they on their own?

No friends on a powder day. It’s common to ski all day with your buddies and never speak to them till 4:20. But in the summer when you chance meet, you both can relive that one day in January when the snow was flying over your shoulder.

What are the biggest misconceptions about the Air Force?

That you can’t get in and that it’s over.

How was the Air Force born?

In the mid-’80s- we were filming filler for videos that people took home. We decided to make a short movie that would feature Jackson Hole at its finest: steep, deep and big-air fun. We were thinking out loud at the bar and I came up with the “Jackson Hole Air Force.” I had been in the Marines for three years and stole the motto Swift Silent Deep from the USMC’s Swift Silent Deadly. We weren't trying to accomplish anything but having a good time.

The JHAF helped build the mystique of OB skiing. What’s its long-term influence?

I hope we instill a blend of fun, safety and learning. Too many go out too soon—I mean that in every way. We all skied ridges and trees for days after a storm, then ventured into the bowls and chutes. Learning snow and weather and endurance and abilities within the group. We always said, “If you go out, you come back.” We were responsible for each other. If someone thought it might be too risky, we re-evaluated... tomorrow we ride!

Why do you ski? Why does anyone ski? What’s the hook?

Going back to the thrill of those first turns. The adrenaline and the wind in your face. Taking in the scenery. When I’m up on top with my new students and they want to get going, that’s when I make them slow down. I point out a summit or explain the fault that made the mountains or the river below or the inversion and fog. I make them stop and see the beauty. Then I take them over to Corbet’s and say go ahead make my day. Usually they back off a bit and thank me. There is more out there if you slow down the whole experience.

What’s the most common mistake skiers make at Jackson, or skiing a resort in general?

Trying to keep up with a local. Good luck. And not taking a day off to just relax.

reviews of Last Chair: Still Taking Flight
Back in the 1960s Mammoth Mt.'s National Forest snow rangers started leading alpine skiers off the backside, with stops along the way for nature information, including avalanche safety and forest ecology. Then in the season of 1971 72 I helped Andrea Mead Lawrence lead similar backside tours off June Mt. including a fancy picnic lunch, which I carried. We sometimes had a guitar playing folk singer along too. OB skiing and "Side-Country" otherwise was not yet popular. I know because another of my ski patrol duties, with Andrea, who was also our mountain manager, was to check out there. June Mt. had great OB skiing that didn't even require any walking. Later in the 1970s, at Kirkwood, we led XC skiers off the backside. The alpine skiers didn't discover it until the 1980s, which led to at least one fatality. I got to be on the cover of Nordic World magazine in a photo taken on one of those XC backside tours. I'm shown turning "parallel" (actually an open Christiana) on skinny nordic skis. The Telemark also hadn't yet gained popularity, so as Andrea told Dave Beck "we could just ski."
Your software garbled this one. -OpenChristy
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