Anna Olson was tense as she rode away from the tram at the top of the mountain. A longtime skier, Anna was about to take advantage of Jackson Hole’s “open-gate” policy and venture outside the resort boundaries into the great Wyoming backcountry. As she followed her guide into the unmolested powder of the open wilderness, she felt that she might have gotten more than she bargained for. This happens a lot in Jackson Hole.
“It can be a challenging thing to ski the inbound lines on these mountains,” said Olson, communications director for Jackson Hole Resorts, “but it’s a whole other feeling to follow a guide into an untracked line. Crossing your comfort level is part of the culture you experience here, and this mountain will test you.”
Testing, Testing, 1-2-3
Feeling tested is a common reaction to the Jackson Hole experience. Many first-timers tell tales of pain and suffering – but they’re almost always coupled with the exhilaration of unparalleled sights and the incredible terrain that Jackson Hole offers. Riders get hooked on the steep, deep powder, the challenges of runs like Corbet’s Couloir, and they inevitably come back. Soon, the trips to Jackson become longer and more frequent, and it’s not unusual for those who learn to love and respect the mountains to end up settling in and calling Jackson home for the winter.
“The scene in Jackson is actually about riding, in contrast to other places where the scene seems to be about popularity and how to dress on the mountain,” says Lance Pitman, pro snowboarder and co-founder of Illuminati snowboards. Lance made a name for himself hucking tricks in the park and pipe, but when he moved to Jackson 13 years ago he learned a whole new way to ride and enjoy his sport.
“Jackson taught me about riding mountains rather than parks. It’s a totally different scene. We have a tight group of friends that ride together, and when we ride, we’re riding chutes and cliffs and staying away from the park. There are times when the park is the place to be, but most of the time, it’s all about the backcountry,” says Pitman.
With all of this talk about the backcountry (more on that later) it’s easy to forget that Jackson Hole boasts some of the most challenging in-bound territory in the world. The two mountains at Jackson Hole (Aprés Vous and Rendezvous) have a continuous vertical rise of 4,139 feet, the longest in North America, with more than 2,500 acres of riding area. Fifty percent of the runs are designated as expert terrain. Chutes, cliffs, trees and deep, deep powder can all be found in-bounds.
Jackson also has an insane terrain park for freestylers, as well as one of the first super-pipes (taller walls and wider transitions make for greater speeds and incredible airs). There are almost never any lines at the lifts, and on most days every rider on the hill has a full acre and a half all to themselves.
Out On Your Own
As if all this weren’t enough, in 2000 Jackson Hole introduced its “open-gate” policy, allowing all riders access to the area’s 3,000 acres of backcountry via gates located at various places on the mountain. In the backcountry, there are no groomed runs, no chair lifts, and no ski patrol, just acres of pristine wilderness and lots of deep snow.
While the backcountry is the only place to get the feel of really riding among nature’s greatest gifts, it can also be the place to meet nature’s fury – in the form of avalanches, tree wells and quick-changing weather patterns. Outstanding cooperation between the forest and weather services provides up-to-date information about snow conditions and inclement weather, but once you cross that line and go “off-piste” you are on your own.
Backcountry adventures require extra equipment (avalanche transceivers, shovels, tools for measuring snow depth, clothing for the worst kind of weather) and a lot of know-how. Jackson Hole provides classes in backcountry skills and safety. It also has guides, whose expert knowledge of the local terrain could prove to be invaluable. The rewards of riding out-of-bounds are endless, but the chance of danger must always be respected. Jackson’s open-gate policy can be safe for everyone as long as riders respect Mother Nature, as well as the limits of their own abilities.
Ace in the Hole
The area around Jackson (named for Davey Jackson, a mountain man and trapper from the late 1800s) has always been known for its remoteness and rugged beauty. The granite spires of the Grand Tetons loom to the north, challenging your imagination with their majestic presence. Yellowstone National Park, with its geothermal features and abundant wildlife, is nearby as well.
In 1967, Paul McCollister founded Jackson Hole Ski Resort with the idea of creating something unique. “Paul loved the mountains in Jackson more than anything else in life,” says Jerry Blann, president of the resort. “His dream was to create a European village resort, and he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectation.” Jackson’s eclectic charm and ominous natural beauty have been drawing some of the best skiers and snowboarders to its slopes for decades. Skiers like Tommy Moe and Olympic champion Pepi Stiegler call Jackson home, as do snowboarders like Travis Rice and Bryan Iguchi.
Because of its remote location, Jackson retains a real Old West attitude. Both that and a great reverence for nature are reflected in the people who have chosen to live there. “It’s not easy to live in Jackson,” says Anna Olson. “Those who live here do so because they love the mountain. They live for snow sports.”
Historically, the remoteness that has given Jackson this unique character has also presented an accessibility problem. Jackson is in the middle of a vast wilderness, surrounded by national parks, endless forests and daunting mountains. All major cities are at least a day’s drive away, and while Jackson has its own full-service airport, few carriers have offered regular flights. But now, all that is about to change. This year, five major air carriers (including Northwest) are offering daily nonstop flights directly to the airport at Jackson, helping the resort turn an important corner in its accessibility.
The sleepy European village has been undergoing some changes as well. Two new lodges, The Snake River Lodge and Spa and The Teton Mountain Lodge, have recently opened, offering rooms and services to meet a range of needs and budgets. Old chair lifts have been replaced with high-speed quad-lifts, and the new tram can take 63 passengers from the bottom to the top in just 12 minutes.
Although it’s hard to imagine, if you do get tired of riding the slopes at Jackson Hole, there is a wealth of other winter activities to enjoy. A maze of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails weaves around the mountains. The terrain makes for excellent snowmobile adventures, too, and there are other, even more eclectic opportunities. Sleigh rides through an elk refuge, heli-adventures, para-gliding and hot-air ballooning make up just a few of the alternatives to snow sliding. “But if you’re going to experience the real Jackson Hole, you must have an interest in skiing or snowboarding,” Olson points out. “If snow sliding isn’t your thing, you might want to choose another destination.”
Of course, if snow sliding – any kind of snow sliding – is your thing, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better spot than Jackson. Wyoming’s state slogan is “The Equality State,” and that sense of equality and receptiveness pervades the Jackson Hole environment.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is a feeling of openness. The mountain is truly open to all types of riding and all types of riders. Skiers and snowboarders are open to riding together and respecting each other for their abilities (many locals partake in several disciplines). The backcountry is definitely open, and it’s up to each visitor to be open to the challenges offered at this unique resort.
So prepare before you go, and once there, settle in. If you get a chance, ride the lift with some locals, who are always friendly and willing to share the mountain’s hidden treasures. Then cross the gate. Step outside your comfort zone. Go out-of-bounds.
Grand Teton National Park
Towering a mile above the town of Jackson, the Grand Teton stands at 13,770 feet. Twelve peaks in the range reach heights of 12,000 feet or higher and are home to dozens of mountain glaciers. Although this is the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains, it contains some of North America’s oldest rocks.
Yellowstone National Park
A short drive north from Jackson, Yellowstone is home to geysers, hot springs, canyons, pristine forests and abundant wildlife. Snowmobile trips can be arranged in Jackson to take you on a tour through some of the park’s geothermal features and wildlife areas.
Other Area Resorts
Nestled in the Heart of the Teton range, this area gets dumped on, with average snowfall of 500 inches of champagne powder. Take one of their small-group SnowCat adventures and get in up to 20,000 vertical feet of deep-powder riding in seven to 10 runs. That adds up to a lot of smiles.
Located on the edge of the town of Jackson, this mountain is the first resort in Wyoming, and one of the oldest in the United States. The Gros Ventre (French for big belly) mountain has more than 60 percent of its runs designated as expert terrain.
Peeps: An avalanche transceiver (a radio device used to locate a buried victim).
Traverse: Crossing a shallow diagonal line across a slope.
Off-piste: The area outside the boundaries of a resort.
Couloir: A steep mountainside gorge or gully.
Split-board: A snowboard that can be separated into two skis for long traverses.