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Powder heaven: Jackson Hole, USA

Adventures

THE LIAR WAS grinning now. Amid the high-end digs and flashy condos, with their uniformed doormen and valet parking, The Liar sat behind the desk of an establishment some might regard as a pimple on the arse of Jackson Hole. It was the antithesis of slick. There were the chocolate carpets and the rough timber beams and the unadorned wood of a dirtbag ski bum’s lair, as if one had stepped out of a time machine into the 80s, if not the 60s. And there sat The Liar, flashing his teeth. He’d seen it before. And he knew, with certainty, he would see it again. In fact, he would even see it again with me. Not just once, or twice, or even thrice. No, I was a sucker. And as a result, my assignment was falling apart.

I’d come to the States for AG Outdoor to undertake – oh, the hardship – a ski safari of America’s west. More specifically, I came to write about the Mountain Collective Pass, which for a measly three hundred something American bucks gives you two days’ skiing at seven of North America’s finest ski hills. My time was short – two weeks – so I decided to limit myself to the five (now eight) US areas covered: Aspen, Alta/Snowbird, Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole. But the problem was this: I started in Jackson. And this, in terms of my ski safari, was a mistake, because I never left.

The initial plan for three days in Jackson morphed into five. Then six. Then eight. Then 11. Then 12. This despite the fact I had lift tickets elsewhere. And each time I fronted up to the desk, sheepishly asking if there was a bed available for the next night or three, The Liar would give another of his broad and toothy smiles. “You’re not the first,” he said after I’d extended the second time.

I should have guessed this was possible. I’d heard the superlatives describing Jackson Hole: of all American ski hills, it was the steepest, the rowdiest and the most challenging. It had America’s most famed ski run, had the most direct vertical and was, arguably, the most influential. The nearby mountains – in particular the stunningly, almost shockingly beautiful central massif of the Teton Range – were the birthplace of American steep skiing. And the resort itself was America’s first to adopt an open-gate policy to the backcountry.

But the thing about Jackson was that despite having heard so much about it, it still surprised me. I’d expected it to be good; in truth, it was far better than that. In part this was because so often the descriptions I’d heard seemed no more than a string of clichés: wild; steep; big; untamed; renegade; iconic… But as I discovered, this is not mere laziness. Jackson, in terms of American ski hills, is the apotheosis. Take wild, for example.

Though I’d heard the description a billion times, Jackson turned out to be considerably less manicured than I’d assumed for such a big-name ski hill. It wasn’t just that it bordered one of America’s famed reserves, Grand Teton National Park. Nor was it merely the wildlife everywhere, like the roadside moose I saw when entering the ski village or the herds of elk near town. Nor the critters that populate the park, including foxes, coyotes, snow owls, porcupines, mink, ermine, deer, bears, bison and wolves. No, what I was unprepared for was that even the in-bounds seemed an amalgam of the controlled and the wild. You look up the hill, and yes, there are ski trails, but glades and sparsely treed bowls and natural chutes are smeared from the very top of the mountain to the bottom, and they meld with the groomers in such a way the latter barely seem obvious.

There was one other thing about the words used to describe Jackson Hole. While many were repeated ad infinitum, other valid descriptors for some reason were ignored. Idiosyncratic, for instance. Also quirky. Eccentric. Bearded. Blokey. Supportive. Community-minded. It is consequential, in that mistakes here – in misreading snowpacks or terrain or abilities – are punished ruthlessly. Interdependent, in that if those mistakes are made, you trust others with your life as they do with you.

But of all the words characterising Jackson, one in particular seemed conspicuously absent from the blurbs and travelogues, a word I should have heard but never did, a word every visiting skier should know if they are to understand the place: deceit.

Plenty of space

“When truth is replaced by silence,” said Russian playwright Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie.” Tellingly, the motto of the Jackson Hole Air Force, whose story I’ll get to later, is Swift. Silent. Deep. And as it turned out, The Liar, aka Robb Maris, was a member. But it was nonetheless hard to fault him alone; in Jackson, if Yevtushenko is right, deceit runs deep. It didn’t just stop with Maris – who if truth be told I liked very much and is actually one of the most straight-up, honest guys you’ll ever meet – or with the Air Force. I skied lines I was told not to name. Told things I was told not to tell. Drank with people whose names I was told not to give, in secret bars I was told not to describe. I was told – frequently – to tell readers that, in short, Jackson sucked.

Still, you can hardly blame them. Tootin’ right, I wouldn’t shout everything from hills if I lived here. But hell, even the snow reports lied. Granted, that’s hardly remarkable in itself. But Jackson, as I discovered my first day there, put its usual idiosyncratic twist on it. I had not rushed up the mountain. Six inches was the official report. Good, certainly better than nothing, but hardly an amount that set you on fire. I lingered in town, drank coffees, took photos of the elk. Thing is though, they were lying. About the snow report, that is. Not the way most Aussie ski hills would, when they say 15cm and by which they mean three. No, here they were underreporting. Locals told me they’d been doing it all season. Six inches today, it turned out, meant 18 at least. It seemed even the marketers wanted to hide how good it was.

And it wasn’t just any old 18 inches. I’d wondered why there’d been such hootin’ and hollerin’ on the tram when I first rode it. I may as well discuss the tram now, because you can’t visit Jackson and not mention it. It is not just another ski lift. “There are not a lot places in the US,” Bill Lewkowitz, Jackson’s Business Development Director, told me, “where you can get on one lift and get 4000ft of vertical with no traversing.”

Jackson Hole Wyoming

Pedro Etchart. (Image: James McCormack)

Bill, in true Jackson style, was being economical with the truth, because in fact, besides Jackson Hole’s tram, there are none. This is unquestionably the best lift in the US, equalled or bettered by few in the world. It accesses Jackson’s rowdiest terrain, and opens out into a cornucopia of options, of cliffs to air or squeeze through – such as its most famed test piece, Corbett’s Couloir – of bowls, of meadows, of groomers. And it doesn’t let up. Fall-line to the valley, a sustained pitch the whole way. That said, the tram attracts the crowds. On powder days the wait is long, sometimes stretching into hours; often locals who miss the first box will take other lifts instead. Even on less crowded days, like my first one, I was still pushed and jostled and sardined into the tram as if I was on a Tokyo subway. But unlike the polite Japanese, here it was getting rowdy. A buzz surged through the crowd, and frankly, it seemed a bit over the top. As far as I knew, it was only a six-inch day.

It took just a few turns and a few face shots for me to realise I’d been bullshitted; this was over-yer-knees blower pow. On my second lift, I got chatting with a Jackson regular, Alex Loeffler – who though an Aspen dweller had parents living here – and he offered to show me the Hobacks. We stuck together for the rest of the day. Not that I could see him for most of it. It was a thick greybird day of low light and, most pertinently, Alex was obscured by powder. It hung in the air like a veil, and I was reduced to chasing approximations of where I thought he was.

After the Hobacks, with much of the mountain still closed, we stuck largely to rides off Thunder. We lapped the steep trees off Tower 3 and the Mushroom chutes, now bumped up into soft pillows. And where, it struck me, were the crowds? This was supposed to be a busy period, just a few days after New Year. Were they still nursing off the good cheer?

Except that, comparatively speaking, the hordes are rarely great. For starters, the busy season here is summer, when tourists crowd the town’s wooden sidewalks before heading out to ogle glittering scenery and diamond-sharp peaks. Winter, in comparison, is low season. That’s not to say it’s dead. Like any of the nation’s big ski hills, there are tourists.

But there is a filter that keeps many away: distance. Jackson is, in US terms at least, in the middle of nowhere; you’ve gotta wanna come here. Wyoming is the least populated US state. The only close major city, Salt Lake City, is four-plus hours away, with plenty of its own resorts.

Jackson Hole Wyoming

Ryan Halversen proving you can actually leave a shadow on No Shadows. (Image: James McCormack)

That distance does more than keep the crowds down; it informs the mindset of Jackson. “The term renegade and cowboy gets thrown around a lot,” said Robb Maris, “but that is one of the mindsets of ski culture here in Wyoming. It’s kinda lawless and free; you do it on your own…”

“It’s like pioneering,” Sierra Scott told me over a beer at the VC. The Aussie expat grew up in Taggerty, Victoria, and skied as a kid in Falls Creek and Buller; she’s been in Jackson 20 years now. “It’s not for the weak-hearted. You have to able to dig yourself out here. You have to be tough.”

“And,” she said, “you have to know how to ski.”

Scratching the surface

In those first three days, I didn’t see much of the mountain. Yeah, I skied all over it, but snow kept falling. Day two saw a further 50cm, with another top-up the night after. At the cycle’s end, three feet had fallen. 

“We’ve been benefactors of some pretty good luck this season,” Bob Comey, head of Snow Science (i.e. the avalanche forecasting program) for the last 17 years at JHMR, told me. “There’s been cold Arctic air, and when warm Pacific air smashes into it, it snows. And we’ve been – freakishly – right on that point, that boundary. You don’t have to go very far north or south for that not to be the case.”

While Jackson was getting hammered, most other Western ski areas – in California, Colorado, BC, Utah – were virtually dry. Thus it was that I fronted up to Maris the Liar for the first but not the last time and told him I needed more nights; there was no way I was heading elsewhere to swap pow for hardpack. Besides, I hadn’t even set foot in the backcountry yet.

Now, you could spend two weeks in Jackson never sliding a foot outside the resort boundaries and still have the most amazing skiing of your life. But more than any large ski hill I know in the US, Jackson is as much about what lies beyond the boundaries as what lies within.

Jackson Hole Wyoming

Jay Pistono, the Teton Pass Ambassador, with his dog Molly. (Image: James McCormack)

I don’t merely mean this spatially; it’s an ethos as well, a mindset not constrained by the resort’s limits. Partly, this is simply a factor of terrain. An array of glittering gems tempt you beyond the ropes: wide open powder fields, pillow lines, tree glades, couloirs, and truly exposed, don’t-fall-here steep skiing. “It’s big. It’s steep. It’s heavily cleaved,” Wade McKoy told me. Again, it sounds clichéd to describe someone as legendary, but for Wade it’s apt. A Southerner, he came to Jackson in 1974 for a year of skiing; he’s never left. Never even thought about it. And along the way he’s become one of America’s most iconic ski photographers. “Glaciers have really carved out some steep canyons,” Wade continued. “There’s a lot of relief. Big walls stacked up among peaks that are just littered with couloirs and faces and bowls, all incredible ski terrain.”

But it’s more than the quality of skiing that makes the out-of-bounds here such a feature of life; it’s the proximity. Right off the lifts, you exit the gates and immediately you’re in big line terrain. There’s Rock Springs to the south. To the north are Granite Canyon’s ABC Chutes, Air Force Chute and Mile Long. Climb a little towards Cody Peak and you access Pucker Face. No Shadows. Four Shadows. Once is Enough. Twice is Nice. No Name Face. At most other ski hills, any single one of these descents would make a resort’s reputation; at Jackson, even the sum of those just mentioned is merely scratching the surface.

Local knowledge

“Free heli-skiing, we call it,” Ryan Halverson said with a wave of his arm. It was my fourth morning, and we stood on the ridgeline leading to Cody Peak. I’d taken an early tram with Halvy, Dave van Hamm, George Casaletta and Jason Strong, who’d invited me along after a few drinks last night in the VC. Already by mid-January, Strong had logged 70 days straight skiing for the season.

It was hard not to agree with Halvy. Sure, unlike a chopper ride, we’d taken the tram. And sure, there’d been a bootpack as well, a lung-searing one at that given my Sydney sea-level fitness. But like heli-skiing, an immense amphitheatre of high-alpine delights now awaited, starting with Pucker Face beneath us and ending in the sky-puncturing bluffs of Cody Peak. In between was a pristine collection of immense bowls, cliff bands, and threading chutes, all untouched.

Although a temperature inversion had filled the valley with cloud, the sky above was crystal; after days of snow, today it seemed cracklingly, electrically blue. Halvy and Strong cut a cornice to test stability, and with the all-clear we skied our lines. We split then regrouped, split and then regrouped again. Partly that was to ensure first tracks, partly because some of the guys hit lines way beyond my abilities. Casaletta and van Hamm straightlined Triple Cliffs, Mach-speeding it into the valley below. I did No Shadows and had the entire creamy bowl to myself, while Strong and Halvy aired the fins to the side. Most impressively, after we all climbed Powder 8’s, Van Hamm hit Gothic; a slot chute that, this early in the season, meant entering via a 25ft-plus air before straightlining through high-walled cliffs. In the bar that night, one local told me perhaps three guys in the valley were capable of hitting it in these conditions. Given the strength of Jackson Hole skiers, that is truly saying something.

Jackson Hole Wyoming

Jackson Hole’s elk refuge is near town. (Image: James McCormack)

It’s part of the reason you don’t just follow tracks in Jackson. Especially if it’s a single set. They could belong to a tourist who ends up cliffed-out above a hundred foot drop, or to a local ripper who’s happy to air that same cliff. Or to someone heading into something like Gothic. “If you don’t know where you’re going,” Strong told me while we watched van Hamm, “you can get into trouble real quick.”

And that is another reason for Jackson’s tradition of silence, or if you accept Yevtushenko’s premise, deceit. It’s not merely that locals understandably want to keep the goods for themselves; it’s safety as well.

This was the reason The Liar got his nickname. On my first night at the Hostel I’d asked about the backcountry here. “I don’t really go out there,” the guy at the desk told me. But Robb Maris, as I would learn later, is actually an alpine guide, one of Jackson’s finest. I would also learn later that, for my own safety more than anything else, he was just sizing me up. He wasn’t about to spill the beans when he’d only just met me, had no idea of my abilities or whether I was backcountry savvy. Because make no mistake, the Jackson backcountry has myriad ways to hurt you.

Mostly, people assume avalanches to be culprit. It’s true they are dangerous. Strong knows this first hand. A year ago, skiing on Jackson Peak, he had a friend carried 2000ft down a slide. “It was a miracle he survived it. He had a shattered femur. He was beat to hell. It was eye-opening.” Even short storm cycles like the two-day event coinciding with my arrival can trigger slides. “But,” said Bob Comey, “if you stretch that storm cycle out across seven, nine, 10 days, you begin getting some large destructive avalanches. And last year one of our cycles lasted 30-40 days. It gets pretty hairy out there.”

“But while the avalanche hazards are significant,” Comey continued, “we’ve had more people die or get injured from mountaineering hazards. Just outside the gates are cliffs and hanging snowfields, but because of the convexity of them, because of the way some of these things roll over, you don’t even know there’s a cliff until you’re airborne.”

Out of bounds

There is one more factor instrumental in cementing silence as a way of life in Jackson: the history of the boundaries themselves. It’s a story that has impacted the entirety of American, if not global, skiing. The official policy is that exiting the gates is neither encouraged nor discouraged. But it wasn’t always that way. It used to be that in Jackson, in fact across the entire US, it was more than merely discouraged; heading out from a ski area into the backcountry got you arrested. Freakin’ crazy, I know.

At Jackson, with all that shimmering terrain just beyond the ropes, the temptation was irresistible. Skiers regularly poached lines but none more so than members of an underground group known as the Jackson Hole Air Force. Founded in the 80s by Benny Wilson, Howard Henderson and a collection of other local rippers, they rebelled against the closed boundaries. They ducked ropes, sometimes after patrol had done their final sweep for the day, sometimes under the cover of storms, sometimes brazenly. The one thing they didn’t do was talk about their exploits. Wilson, who’d served in the Marines, co-opted the USMC’s motto of ‘Swift. Silent. Deadly.’ into ‘Swift. Silent. Deep.’ He drew up a logo, made some patches, and handed them out to buddies.

The group swelled over the years, but you couldn’t simply join the Air Force. Membership was conferred upon you if other members deemed you displayed sufficient commitment to the cause, a commitment to out-of-bounds skiing, to ripping, and above all, a commitment to silence.

The JHAF also set a precedent of how to ski outside a ski area. Earlier skiers like Pepi Steigler had set the bar high, the Liar told me, but Air Force members like Wilson, Henderson, the Hunt Brothers, Jimmy Zell, Dave Muccino and Doug Coombs set about building on that tradition. “In Europe,” he said, “it wouldn’t have been special. But in the US it was a whole new world. Skiers from around the country began seeing Jackson as a nucleus of revolutionary skiing.”

Many patrollers respected the group, but many did not, making it a mission to catch the scofflaws. Air Forcers responded by eavesdropping on patrol radio conversations; in return, patrol began transmitting false locations. It became cloak and dagger. In 1997, it came to head when Coombs – arguably North America’s most influential skier at the time thanks to his profile, skiing prowess and larger-than-life personality – was caught in a closed area. His season pass was pulled, and the uproar placed even greater pressure on the closed boundaries policy.

At the same time, however, other forces were at work. As the 90s wound up, new fatter skis made powder skiing easier, and the inbounds began tracking out quickly. “It was no longer just the Air Force breaking the boundary in search of powder; it became widespread,” says Bill Lewkowitz. “And ski patrol didn’t want to chase them around anymore. We said, ‘Hey, let’s give them what they want.’” In 1999, in a decision that Lewkowitz says came easily, Jackson Hole became first resort in the US to open its boundaries.

It changed the way America skied, and not just in the backcountry. Other resorts quickly followed Jackson’s lead. The increased access to powder drove further ski development. Skis became fatter still and better adapted to deep snow; in turn powder became accessible to the masses.

In Jackson, the reaction was a mixed bag, Maris told me. “Some people were elated; they could finally access all this terrain they’d heard about. But others weren’t. They were like, there goes my candy store. [And] they lost the allure of getting away from rules and guidelines and safety margins. It’s a rare commodity in the United States. As silly as it sounds, because it wasn’t legitimate, just going 10m outside a boundary felt like exploration. So when those boundaries opened, it was the end of an era of exploration.”

First tracks

But there is simply so much ski terrain, exploration is still possible. Early in my stay, I caught up with a par exemplar of idiosyncratic Jackson, Bill Bowen. Wild Bill, as he’s known, arrived 36 years ago. “Like so many people,” he told me, “the first time I was here I was awestruck. I said this is it. I went back home, closed down my business in Pennsylvania, came out here and got a menial job.

Bill spoke with an omni-present grin hinting of mischief and of being a very naughty boy. “I don’t get into trouble, but I get right next to it constantly. I’m a little outlandish. I still throw in the occasional flip.” Wild Bill, it should be added, is in his 60s. He struck me as surprisingly sensible, but I’d been assured he gets the name for a reason. Even now, every year on his birthday, on skis he crafts himself, he hits S+S Couloir, Corbett’s next door but far more serious neighbour; a mandatory 25ft air, or more, into the narrow slot couloir makes Corbett’s – supposedly America’s hardest ski run – look like a trifle. One other thing about Bill: he still has a reputation for getting the ladies to nude up on the snow. “All girls, deep down inside, wanna ski naked. It’s a very refreshing feeling. And somehow, they trust me. It’s an art. It’s an art.”

Since it’s not an artistic talent I possess, I wanted to ask Bill exactly how he does it. But fearing this was improper, I asked instead how Jackson Hole has changed over the years. “Well, there are more people in the world,” he replied. “But what hasn’t changed are the Tetons themselves. They’re still empty, nearly as empty as when I first came out here.”

I learnt this first hand when I went with Jason Strong, Halvy et al into the more distant backcountry; for an entire day we saw no one, or even one other ski track. On another day, when I climbed to the stupendously alluring No Name Face – granted the traverse is preposterous, a narrow bench on a hanging snowfield, with towering cliffs above and nothing but air below – first tracks awaited despite it being days after snow and in clear view of the resort. But even when I went up supposedly one of the most crowded backcountry destinations in the state, we saw virtually nobody. Except, that is, Jay Pistono.

The official Ambassador of Teton Pass had hitched out to Jackson from Illinois back in ’78. He had 11 bucks in his pocket, and in his words, couldn’t ski a darn. But he soon began skiing Teton Pass. At 2560m and open year-round, the pass offers some of America’s best and most accessible backcountry skiing. To the north, less than an hour’s bootpack sees you summit Mt Glory, from where you can ski to the highway beneath the pass. Depending on your line, the descent can be close to a vertical kilometre. Then you stand by the road and thumb a ride back up; rarely would you wait 15 minutes. “Less if you’ve got a girl with you,” laughed Pistono.

But while Mt Glory receives most of the attention, it’s far from your only option. The pass is the only major crossing of the Tetons for well over 100km, and you can tour for hours or even days either north or south without touching civilisation. Echoing Wild Bill, Pistono said, “There are so many wild areas here, you couldn’t ski all of it in your life, no matter how hard you go.”

Even back in the 80s, the pass was extremely popular, and it became so crowded skiers’ parked cars often spilt onto the highway. Wyoming’s Department of Transport responded by temporarily shutting the carpark. Pistono began mediating voluntarily to help manage the crowds, and the carpark has remained open ever since.

For the last dozen years, Pistono’s role has been paid. The pass is now more popular than ever; Pistono estimates it sees perhaps 80,000 backcountry descents a year. In addition to keeping an eye on the 50-space carpark, he doles out guidance on snowpack danger, beacon safety, backcountry etiquette and, importantly for me, on where to ski. I was heading up Mt Glory with Simon LeBron and Predo Etchart, skiers I met at the Hostel when we bumped into Pistono by chance. None of us being local, we asked for advice.

We’d been thinking the obvious option, Glory’s main bowl, but Pistono suggested Coal Creek. Glory, for starters, was tracked out. And the aspect was wrong. “We don’t usually get tricky powder here, but because of the wind, today’s different. You want a north-facing slope. Take this ridge to the west from the summit. But you don’t wanna get sucked down to the left too early; stay on the ridge, then go right.”

And so we did. While the bootpack was well trodden, tracks dispersed in all directions from the summit. Following Jay’s directions we began descending to Coal Creek. It had been five days since the last snowfall, but it wasn’t long until we had completely untracked fields before us. The snow shimmered in the afternoon sun, dreamy and honey soft. Dropping deeper into the drainage, the trees closed in and the pitch steepened. In shadow now, the snow was cold and dark, and we left trails of blue smoke as we weaved through the old growth forest.

We got to the bottom and were laughing. After leaving the summit, we hadn’t seen one other person, nor, until the ski out, even crossed a track. And this in primo snow. But when I’d asked Pistono what Aussie skiers should know about Teton Pass, he’d laughed, “Don’t come. It’s too crowded.”

Was it just another piece of Jackson deceit? Perhaps. But more likely not. Crowds exist only as a state of mind, they’re always relative. For some locals, sure, perhaps the pass is crowded. For the rest of us, probably not. But that doesn’t mean deceit is non-existent. “Go do your run,” Pistono had added. “Catch your buzz, then shut up about it.” But if silence is a lie, what I discovered on Teton Pass that day was that I’m not a very good liar. I told everyone about that run. And I’m telling you now. When something is as good as that, or as good as Jackson in general, as free, as wild, as challenging, as consequential, it’s hard to stay quiet.

But I also learnt that day there was one lie I had been telling. It was a lie I’d been telling myself, the lie that I was still going to leave Jackson sometime soon, still going to complete my original ski safari assignment. Teton Pass put an end to that. I went back to the Hostel, found the Liar and booked myself in for the rest of my trip.

Jackson Hole Wyoming

(Image: James McCormack)

The hostel

I may jokingly have referred to The Hostel as a pimple on the arse of Jackson Hole, but really, it is a jewel in its crown and arguably the single most influential building still standing in North American skiing. The Jackson Hole Air Force changed the way America skied, and they divided their time between here and the (now demolished) Bear Claw Café. Benny Wilson, founder of the JHAF, grew up here, literally. His father Colby built and ran Hostel X, as it was then known. Although Jackson’s founder Paul McCollister envisioned a high-class resort, Wilson wanted to create a European, family-style pensione, one anyone could come to.

During their heyday, that meant the Air Force. “They lived here even when they weren’t living here,” says Robb Maris, JHAF member. They would rock up late at night asking to crash on the floor. Or be hanging out in the lobby early morning to shoot with photographers Bob Woodall or Wade McCoy, whose company, Focus Productions, had an office in the building. “If you put it in terms of atomic structure,” says Robb Maris, “for the Air Force, this building was the nucleus.”

This article was originally published in the May-June 2016 issue of AG Outdoor.