Totally Targhee

Features
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Features
SKgt1099e.jpg

Escape. It's why we ski. To shed the shackles of the ordinary, to flee the bonds of our daily existence. We head to the mountains to defy gravity, to experience flight itself and propel ourselves into a world where the powers that constrict us lose their sway. Escape may be why we ski, but too often our dreams are unfulfilled. We travel great distances and pay vast fortunes only to discover that the world we sought to escape has followed us-even preceded us-and occupied our paradise with the very demons we sought to leave behind. So what's a skier to do?

Go to Grand Targhee. Here you won't find liftlines as crowded as Calcutta. The resort rarely has any kind of liftline at all, more of a lift dot, and the dot is you. Even better than the absence of bodies in the queue is the solitude you'll find on the slopes. Lovely, lilting, tumbling fall lines spill from the mountain top, with scarcely another skier cluttering the slope. Instead of crowded trails that feel like skiing inside a pinball machine, you can experience an entire top-to-bottom run and never see another skier.

Why the glorious under-population? The three lodges at the Targhee base typically house a scant 300 skiers. If every available bed from the 12-mile distant Driggs, Idaho, were occupied, another 850 or so skiers could descend on the mountain, but the condos there are never filled to capacity. How about day skiers? The daily 42-mile shuttle from Jackson Hole, Wyo., delivers about 5,000 more skiers per season. As for the locals, the population of nearby burgs Victor, Driggs and Tetonia together don't amount to 3,000 citizens, many of them farmers with little interest in snow other than as an insulating layer on their potato fields. As Susie Barnett-Bushong, the resort's marketing manager notes, "How many resorts do you know of where skier-days depend on potato prices? When prices are down, our skier visits drop, too." In fact, a good year at Targhee is 115,000 skier visits, compared to 1.6 million at Vail, Colo. In Breckenridge, Colo., there are 22 ski shops. In Targhee there are three.

The main hook here is not only abundant space, but abundant snow. At Targhee, 500 annual inches of fluff is the norm. In fact, if you don't like today's snow, you'll get a refund good for another day-no questions asked. In fact, no manmade snowflake has ever sullied these slopes, as reflected in the resort's famous motto, "Snow From Heaven, Not Hoses." Far from suffering a dirth of snow, it's turning off the heavenly spigot that poses the occasional problem. During the 1997-98 winter the road up Teton Pass was closed a total of 30 days, including one brutal seven-day stretch when resourceful locals resorted to commuting over the pass to Jackson on skis. It took daily doses of bulldozers to finally clear the road, leaving behind snowbanks more than 35 feet high.

The base area at Targhee is tiny, but all the key elements are in place, as though a major resort were distilled to its essentials. In the concentrated cluster of Western-motif buildings are six retail shops, an activity center, conference rooms, a full-service spa and five restaurants, ranging from a standard-issue base lodge cafeteria to the more palate-pleasing continental cuisine served up at Skadi's. Snorkel's, a coffee-and-croissant shop, a pizza joint called the Wizard of Za and the Trap Bar round out the tableau of dining and entertainment options. This may not sound like much-okay, it isn't much-but it does cover the basics.

Grand Targhee Resort was the creation of a consortium of eastern Idahoans who opened it the day after Christmas in 1969. Mory and Carol Bergmeyer purchased the resort in 1987 and built the current base complex (winner of a national ski area design award in 1991) when the original was wiped out by fire.

The new genie of Grand Targhee is Booth Creek, the resort conglomerate that purchased the place in 1997. While hardcore locals fear that Booth Creek, which is headed by evious Vail owner George Gillett, will corrupt the charm of the place and turn it into some kind of Disneyesque theme park, the marks left by the corporate parent are so far invisible. But plans are afoot that will disturb the status quo: Envisioned for next season is the Peaked quad, rising 1,200 vertical feet on Peaked Mountain, transferring some 500 acres from snowcat powder preserve to public playground. The master plan optimistically calls for significant base expansion in the future, including condos, a conference center and more shops and restaurants, but no overnight transformation is in the offing. Frequent-visitor Gillett understands that Targhee won't tolerate too much tampering, acknowledging, "It's a magical place. If you're not in Heaven, you're very close to it."

A good chunk of Targhee's charm is all the people who aren't here, but a larger allotment is all the people who are. Take the case of J.D. Mosiman, 38, a Chicago-area artist. Two years ago, J.D. packed his gear into his pickup and headed west for a six-week sabbatical on snow. He ran the gamut of Rockies resorts, often bedding down in the back of his truck to stretch the budget. Of all the treasured experiences of that trip, it was a short sojourn at Targhee that struck deep. Memories of a blues band rocking the Trap Bar inspired J.D. to kick off his '99 Tour of the Rockies at Targhee, which is how I came to be sitting one stool down from him at the same Trap Bar. I ask him what makes Targhee special:

"It's the absence of any glitz or phoniness," he says, stroking his trim beard. "There's an honesty to Targhee. It feels more real than the other resorts I have visited." This from a man sporting a good foot of silver-streaked pony tail, who regards sleeping indoors as the height of luxury, a man with a low-glitz threshold for sure, but he's right on. Targhee is skiing simplified. Skiing boiled down to its elemental parts. Skiing the way pioneers like Alf Engen and Dick Durrance envisioned it. Even the lift system supports the old-school milieu: Just three chairlifts and one surface lift ply Targhee's 2,000 acres. (For comparison, Aspen Mountain has less than half of Grand Targhee's terrain but more than double its lifts.)

When J.D. and I hit the slopes at the opening bell the next morning, we encounter one of Targhee's perverse pleasures: a storm cloud hanging so thick over the 10,200-foot peak that all sense of direction is obliterated. Even standing in this vertiginous stew is a challenge. As we creep downhill the light improves, until we're pouncing through powder and slipping through pines. By the time we reach the bottom of Targhee's 2,200 vertical feet we've forgotten how grim life was at the summit, so we re-enlist for another round of exploration by Braille.

It's late when I remember what the marketing manager had told me about storm days at Targhee: Often the last hour of the day is the best, with the sun appearing just as the lifts close at 4 pm. How prescient of her. The last four runs of the day the snow falls straighter and lighter, with the fog lifting to reveal an abundance of uncut lines through trees that punctuate Nasty Gash, along the steeper south face of the mountain. It's like a day at most ski areas in reverse: Here, he who cuts last tracks wins.

Catch Targhee on a sunny day and you'll find its layout easy to master. A single high-speed quad leaps from base to summit, serving terrain accurately rated as intermediate to expert. There are a few groomed avenues (try Crazy Horse and Wild Wille) parading down the peak, but most of the acreage is left in its native state. Off the lift to skier's left lies Happy Hunting Grounds, a selection of fairly steep lines segregated by fingers of evergreens. To skier's right, a north-facing headwall rims the south edge of Chief Joseph Bowl, a shallow canyon separating the main summit from a lower shoulder of the same ridgeline. It is hard to think of another single chairlift in America that provides such immediate access to so much terrain.

The mostly open face that forms the opposite wall of Chief Joseph Bowl is served by an old double chair that also brings the northernmost quadrant of the area into play. Because the lift is slow and offers access to less terrain it is often overlooked, creating ample opportunity for first tracks well into a powder day. At the base, a short but wide enough beginner's arena has its own fixed-grip quad.

On those glorious days after a storm lifts and the sun hangs in a sky impossibly blue, the view of Grand Teton range from Peaked Mountain is one of the most stunning winterscapes in all of nature. Targhee powder tends to fall light and dry, but as the sun bakes southern exposures, the fluff condenses to fondue. Yet it's still a gas to ski this uncut goo, tearing it up in chunky waves that break against the thighs in candy-bar-sized clumps.

Grand Targhee might be the best place in the world to learn to ski powder. There's a copious supply, and the pitch, for the most part, is mild. When you think you've made it all the way to bad-ass, take a day to head 42 miles over Teton Pass to Jackson Hole. It's no knock against Targhee that Jackson Hole is its neighbor. In fact, it's another compelling reason to visit Wyoming's best-kept secret. (After a day of eating humble pie at Jackson, enjoy the simple yet savory fare at the Knotty Pine in Victor or drop by the Dewey House, where the goat cheese sprinkled on your salad is produced on site.)

The small, scattered burgs that dot the Teton Valley below Targhee are as unpretentious as the resort. There isn't a single stoplight to impede the flow of pick-ups from Tetonia to Victor. This is high-plains ranch country, where the local drive-in is called the Spud-its entrance adorned with a giant tater on a truck-and the roof at Mike's in Driggs is decorated with a life-size, plastic bison. When the ground blizzards blow and the surrounding mountains are obscured, there's a desolate, hardscrabble, end-of-the-earth feel to the valley villages.

I didn't expect an isolated alpine outpost such as Targhee to hold much appeal to those uninitiated in snow sports, but events prove me wrong. On the shuttle with me from the Jackson airport are two enthusiastic women from Miami, Fla., who have traveled from the tropics to Targhee just to see snow. If their ambitions go beyond making snow angels, Targhee offers a litany of sliding devices anyone can attempt, including cross-country skiing on 15 kilometers of prepared tracks, tubing, ice skating, dog sledding, snowshoeing, skiboarding, ski scooters and the Fox, a modern version of the old ski-bob. All are more instantly intuitive to the good-hearted non-skier or boarder, and all are a hoot.

The atmosphere here is like a socialist country club: Personalized service is a given, without a trace of elitism. Skiers, snowboarders and telemarkers mingle without rancor.

Echoing the adage that life may be short but it's very wide, the base area is small, but the spirit here is large. The menu at Skadi's, the best dining option on site, is cosmopolitan and, well, delicious. Attend the Trap Bar almost any night and you're likely to hear a ripping blues band that could hold its own with any act from the urban world. On my last visit a three-piece jazzy-bluesy ensemble rocked the rafters with masterful improvisations, setting the night on fire and the whole place on its feet, stomping, sweating and swirling until some unrecorded hour. Yeah, it was the only game it in town, but what a game it was. Strangers thrust together for a Saturday night felt a sense of community, as if we shared a common secret. Far from the maddening crowd, Targhee doesn't offer much. Just everything you'll ever need. America that provides such immediate access to so much terrain.

The mostly open face that forms the opposite wall of Chief Joseph Bowl is served by an old double chair that also brings the northernmost quadrant of the area into play. Because the lift is slow and offers access to less terrain it is often overlooked, creating ample opportunity for first tracks well into a powder day. At the base, a short but wide enough beginner's arena has its own fixed-grip quad.

On those glorious days after a storm lifts and the sun hangs in a sky impossibly blue, the view of Grand Teton range from Peaked Mountain is one of the most stunning winterscapes in all of nature. Targhee powder tends to fall light and dry, but as the sun bakes southern exposures, the fluff condenses to fondue. Yet it's still a gas to ski this uncut goo, tearing it up in chunky waves that break against the thighs in candy-bar-sized clumps.

Grand Targhee might be the best place in the world to learn to ski powder. There's a copious supply, and the pitch, for the most part, is mild. When you think you've made it all the way to bad-ass, take a day to head 42 miles over Teton Pass to Jackson Hole. It's no knock against Targhee that Jackson Hole is its neighbor. In fact, it's another compelling reason to visit Wyoming's best-kept secret. (After a day of eating humble pie at Jackson, enjoy the simple yet savory fare at the Knotty Pine in Victor or drop by the Dewey House, where the goat cheese sprinkled on your salad is produced on site.)

The small, scattered burgs that dot the Teton Valley below Targhee are as unpretentious as the resort. There isn't a single stoplight to impede the flow of pick-ups from Tetonia to Victor. This is high-plains ranch country, where the local drive-in is called the Spud-its entrance adorned with a giant tater on a truck-and the roof at Mike's in Driggs is decorated with a life-size, plastic bison. When the ground blizzards blow and the surrounding mountains are obscured, there's a desolate, hardscrabble, end-of-the-earth feel to the valley villages.

I didn't expect an isolated alpine outpost such as Targhee to hold much appeal to those uninitiated in snow sports, but events prove me wrong. On the shuttle with me from the Jackson airport are two enthusiastic women from Miami, Fla., who have traveled from the tropics to Targhee just to see snow. If their ambitions go beyond making snow angels, Targhee offers a litany of sliding devices anyone can attempt, including cross-country skiing on 15 kilometers of prepared tracks, tubing, ice skating, dog sledding, snowshoeing, skiboarding, ski scooters and the Fox, a modern version of the old ski-bob. All are more instantly intuitive to the good-hearted non-skier or boarder, and all are a hoot.

The atmosphere here is like a socialist country club: Personalized service is a given, without a trace of elitism. Skiers, snowboarders and telemarkers mingle without rancor.

Echoing the adage that life may be short but it's very wide, the base area is small, but the spirit here is large. The menu at Skadi's, the best dining option on site, is cosmopolitan and, well, delicious. Attend the Trap Bar almost any night and you're likely to hear a ripping blues band that could hold its own with any act from the urban world. On my last visit a three-piece jazzy-bluesy ensemble rocked the rafters with masterful improvisations, setting the night on fire and the whole place on its feet, stomping, sweating and swirling until some unrecorded hour. Yeah, it was the only game it in town, but what a game it was. Strangers thrust together for a Saturday night felt a sense of community, as if we shared a common secret. Far from the maddening crowd, Targhee doesn't offer much. Just everything you'll ever need.