The sense of dread that creeps into my stomach as I land in Jackson Hole has nothing to do with its being the toughest ski area in North America. I’ve had my share of heart-stopping moments here but, as with many Jackson skiers, those are the memories I cherish most.
It isn’t even because I’ve heeded my dad’s advice: The time to ski Jackson, he insists, is in the dead of winter, when Wyoming’s howling winds and subzero temperatures suck every bit of moisture out of the snow. It’s also when much of that dry snow falls, coating the bowls and faces of Rendezvous Peak, filling the crannies that etch its 4,139 continuous vertical feet.
No, this sense of dread is because, being no stranger to Jackson’s extremes, I had meticulously smooshed my secret weapon against the elements—a North Face down jacket—into its own pocket in my backpack. Alas, so brilliantly compact was my packing job that by the time I noticed my jacket’s unfortunate escape somewhere in the Detroit airport, it was 30,000 feet too late. When I arrived at the Thrifty counter in Jackson, the forecast for the next two days—scrawled on the whiteboard—promised a high of five degrees, with lows of minus-20. Tomorrow, I would shop for down. Tonight, I would freeze my butt off.
Natural selection is a formative factor of the Jackson Hole ski experience. Those who live here—or visit often—anticipate, endure and even enjoy some discomfort in the form of weather, sore muscles, bruised egos or life-affirming doses of fear. The place makes little pretense of coddling visitors, who nonetheless eagerly return time and again, as if to say, “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”
When founder Paul McCollister first conceived of a ski area on Rendezvous Peak in 1961, he envisioned a place that could rival the best resorts in Europe. Teton Village, with its white stucco chalets and clock tower, became home to a devoted community of both locals and visitors. They skied hard, then relaxed over fondue at the Alpenhof, ping-pong at the famously low-budget Hostel X or pitchers at the Mangy Moose. Presiding over the scene was the tram—a physical and spiritual focal point that cast a near-religious spell over the world’s most dedicated skiers. It became an icon not only of Jackson, but of the ultimate Wild West big-mountain ski experience.
The tram transcended mere uphill transportation. Shuffling through its frigid maze, surging through the turnstile amidst good-natured “moos” and cramming into The Box with 51 fellow skiers effusing a potent mix of sweat, adrenaline, dopamine and other mostly natural mood-enhancers was merely the prelude.
Gliding up the mountain over jagged ridges and bottomless voids, passengers’ conversations trailed off as they angled for a view. The occasional hover over Corbet’s Couloir, while the tram’s swinging abated, allowed final moments of private contemplation before the car wedged itself into its narrow berth and released its cargo into whatever conditions awaited—glorious to hellacious—at the top of Rendezvous Bowl. Much more than a red steel box, the tram became a visual reminder of Jackson Hole’s ethos: An exalted skiing experience requires some work, some risk and, on occasion, some suffering.
After three decades of running the place, McCollister sold Jackson Hole Ski Corp. to Wyoming’s Kemmerer family in 1992, and the new owners kicked off a near continual process of upgrades—Bridger Gondola, Bridger Center, Cody House, high-speed quads on Après Vous Mountain, improved snowmaking—that vastly improved the on-mountain experience. True to resort economics, real estate development followed: a rush of high-end condos, trophy homes and upscale lodging, including a Four Seasons and (so far) four full-service spas. The resort’s rapid transformation from Euro-meets-cowboy charm to five-star luxury made the devoted wonder if Jackson had lost its focus. Against this backdrop, management dropped the bomb that the tram would be taken out of service after the 2006 season and, considering the potential $25-million bill, might not be replaced. Could the very thing that created its reputation among skiing’s elite be the next piece of Jackson’s identity to fall?
On my way across the country, when I told my seatmate I was going to Jackson Hole, he chuckled. “Isn’t that the place where the millionaires are being run out by the billionaires?” With the median home price in Teton Village averaging $3.5 million, the resort certainly would not be able to tap into federal funds for depressed communities, which provided $1 million of the $1.6 million for the first tram. In the end, management dug deep—$30 million deep—into its own pockets and committed to a sleek new tram, set to open in December, that will be faster, more efficient and twice the size of the original. Skiers breathed a collective sigh of relief, but the notion that Jackson might evolve as another Grey Poupon playground of the ultra-rich lingers, as unsettling as a whiff of sushi at a rodeo. Being a true fan of the mountain’s original tough-love experience, I had to wonder if the comfort-imperative had polished all the charm off Jackson’s rough edges.
I wake to a crystal clear November day. Outside, the snow squeaks its sub-zero tune beneath my boots, and the air is so cold that it bites my lungs if I breathe in too deeply. I would be wise to sacrifice 15 minutes to buy something more substantial than my uninsulated shell, and four high-end sports stores—all displaying yummy puffy jackets—entice me on my three-minute walk from Teton Mountain Lodge to the Bridger Gondola. But the sun is shining on Rendezvous Peak, promising that an inversion is warming the upper mountain to humane levels. I stick to my mission: Ascend, descend, repeat, until my middle-aged body can take no more. Like the rest of the devoted, I am hard-wired for this routine.
Historically, I have skied Jackson in the slipstream of men I was trying to impress: behind my father as I disappeared into a frozen avalanche bomb hole in Rendezvous Bowl; behind Pepi Stiegler, the Olympic gold medalist and former JHMR director of skiing, as he demonstrated the “cahhving” turn; behind my brother, who raced—and beat—the tram on Gros Ventre, then jumped into Corbet’s, “because we really should.” Then, after a 20-year hiatus, I resumed the lemming-like chase after my future husband. I tore down Alta Chutes at top speed, feigned nonchalance when guide Dave Miller led me through the blind hourglass of Zero G, and then, a few years later, let momentum carry me down the Hobacks while six months pregnant. I admit this not to portray those acts as wise or heroic, but to confirm that on this mountain, women are as apt to fall prey to their egos as men.
Today I am with fellow former U.S. Ski Team downhiller Andy Chambers, a Jackson local whose grandparents homesteaded here on land where buffalo still roam. Given his pedigree, one would expect Chambers to be my toughest guide yet. Quite the contrary, he leads me on the nothing-to-prove tour, sticking to inbounds runs without mandatory drops. “The key on this mountain is to teach people how to enjoy it and not have it beat them up,” he says. We tick off the standard north-facing chutes: Alta, under Sublette; Tower Three, off Thunder; and Expert Chutes-to-Paintbrush-to-Toilet Bowl—places where the sun, indeed, don’t shine, and where hero snow cradles your skis even at ridiculously steep angles.
Chambers precisely manages gravity. He adapts his edge angle and pressure to nuances underfoot, and knows when and how to throw out the anchor. Riding up the Sublette chair, he quietly grins at the race boots that betray my current skiing mode. At the top, he reaches down and buckles his boots with one finger. I pound on mine with both fists. Point taken.
Later we will ski the Hobacks, a never-ending descent comprising nearly all of Jackson’s vertical, then put a cherry on top of the day with an autobahn cruise down Après Vous, Jackson’s manicured mountain. But now we head to the East Ridge Chair, the interim lift installed to take skiers to the summit while the tram is out of commission. Snow crystals sparkle in the air, making the scene atop Rendezvous Bowl resemble the inside of a freshly shaken snowglobe, with 10,753-foot Cody Peak as backdrop. Many times I have watched Jackson’s extremists drop into Central Couloir, the thin, near vertical slice of snow on Cody’s face, launch off a 30-foot cliff, then rocket into Cody Bowl. Voyeurism is the extent of my extreme aspirations.
So when Andy turns right at the top of the chair, I tense, suddenly realizing that if my last time down Corbet’s Couloir was my last time down it ever, I’m OK with that. We peer over its edge, down the polished vertical shelf that transitions into a shadowy shaft of undecipherable snow texture. We smile at each other, and then with a laugh and a simultaneous “Nah!” we back away, unremorseful.
Self-preservation, rather than self-aggrandization, is the code that binds the locals, and “local” is defined by a shared sense of privilege among those lucky enough to coexist in close proximity to The Big One. With Andy as ambassador, we meet up with a cross section of locals, old and new. The younger set scurries out the boundary gates to thousands of acres of open backcountry. But many of the strongest skiers we see today are near or beyond retirement age. I briefly meet Peter Wagner, a New Hampshire apple farmer, while he waits for his group atop Sublette. Wagner and his wife spent 11 winters searching the Rockies—from Taos, N.M., to Kicking Horse, B.C.—for the perfect escape, according to a matrix of attributes weighted most heavily with skiing terrain. Even with affordability as a factor, Jackson was their clear choice. He echoes old-timers and newcomers alike when he describes the deal-sealer: “We didn’t want to just go to a resort. We wanted to be out West. This is cowboy country, with no glitz. Only the animals wear fur.” It is the meat of Jackson, not the béarnaise, that lures him to the table.
And while it’s Jackson’s no-frills charm that still defines my experience here, I am not entirely averse to the creature comforts. Does dining on a buffalo flank-steak Caesar at the summit make the arcs on Gros Ventre any less thrilling? Do a massage and soak in a hot tub under the stars detract from the exertion of logging miles of vertical? The weekly cocktail party in the lobby of Teton Mountain Lodge feels a lot like the scene my parents described at the Seven Levels Lodge, Jackson’s original hotel, 30 years ago. And as the night wears on at the Mangy Moose, I see Prada and Patagonia, Carhartt and Cloudveil commingle on the dance floor.
The next day, as I head out for my last morning of skiing, it does feel a bit perverse that I can get a handcrafted latte and have my boots prewarmed before going to get my body bruised on a merciless mountain. I hammer out gondola laps with Chippy Sherman, a local who arrived in 1987 to ski and wait tables. Two decades later, she owns a catering business—and still thrives on the Groundhog Day quality of this record season. “I wish it would stop snowing so I could take a break,” she jokes.
On the last run before my 11 a.m. cutoff time, I hop in a gondola and find familiar faces—locals from my hometown of Squaw Valley, Calif. Their pilgrimage—during Squaw’s own epic winter—is perhaps the highest tribute to The Big One. That and the fact that I am halfway to the airport, looking across the wind-glazed plains that end at the lower Hobacks, before I realize that I never did replace that down coat. I guess Jackson will always be about being beyond your comfort level. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SIGNPOST: JACKSON HOLE MOUNTAIN RESORT
2,500 skiable acres; 4,139 vertical feet; summit elevation 10,450 feet; 459 annual inches; 116 runs; 11 lifts, including the Bridger Gondola and the new tram. Lift tickets: $77; young adult (15–21) $63; child/senior (14 and under/65 and over) $39
Getting There: Direct flights into Jackson arrive from two international airports: Salt Lake City and Denver.
Lodging: For luxury in Teton Village, The Four Seasons Resort has no equal (from $350 per night; fourseasons.com/jacksonhole; 800-914-5110). Or go green with the new Hotel Terra, an eco-hotel (from $250 per night; hotelterrajacksonhole.com; 800-631-6281). High on a butte between town and the Village, the Amangani attracts a star-studded clientele (from $700 per night; amanresorts.com/amangani; 877-734-7333). The Inn on the Creek is a romantic B&B in town (from $200 per night; innonthecreek.com; 800-669-9534). For families, The Parkway Inn is three blocks from Town Square; the kids will love the pool (from $109 per night; parkwayinn.com; 800-247-8390).
Dining: Hop the gondola to Couloir Restaurant and Bar (307-739-2675). Or hit The Peak at the Four Seasons for the best steak in town (307-732-5000). In the heart of Jackson, Trio does comfort food right (bistrotrio.com; 307-734-8038); and Blu Kitchen serves Asian fusion and sushi (307-734-1633).
Après: We know, we say it every year. But The Mangy Moose is a must. It’s just beer and nachos, but the scene is classic Jackson (mangymoose.net; 307-733-4913). Other top spots: Rub elbows with ski stars at The Village Cafe (or V.C.; 307-732-2233). After dinner, saddle up (literally) for a brew at The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Bring your dancing boots (milliondollarcowboybar.com; 307-733-2207).
Info: jacksonhole.com; 888-DEEP-SNO
- SKI Magazine, November 2008