Don't Fence Me In

Features
Author:
Publish date:
Jackson Hole A 1100

Jackson Hole, Wyo., is the most honest mountain in the country-the one that refuses to sugarcoat your abilities with faux double black-diamonds, the one that tells it like it is. It was telling me I was out of shape. No surprise, considering the toll new-parenthood had taken on my recreation schedule. I had come partly just to have the mountain whip me back on my skis. Together with my husband, Chan, my sister, Anne, and two friends from Seattle, Mike and Bill, we had approached Jackson as weekend warriors in need of a system cleanse. We had chased each other rabidly down bowls, into chutes and through trees until early afternoon. Now, we were huddled over lattes, contemplating a switch to groomed runs. Surely, in this paradise of wild terrain, that was like admitting defeat.

It was then that we discovered this mountain's most overlooked secret stash: the unbelievable corduroy. All these years I accepted the Jackson I knew, the one with no mercy, as the only one that existed. But a walk on its tamer side suddenly revealed that there was a recuperative yin to the masochistic yang. I never had bothered to notice that the boulevards that skirt the chutes and cliff bands are buffed to rebuild even the most heavily trampled egos.

his visit started like all my previous ones, with a ride up the tram and a mad dash for vertical. Technically, Jackson's 4,139 feet of vertical is not the most in the country, but it is by far the most continuous, capable of putting anyone into oxygen debt. That first morning, we had hooked up with a group of friends who'd hired two guides. Jackson is one of the few resorts in the United States where, as in Europe, newcomers are well advised to employ such services. The line-cutting is nice on a powder day, and on any day of the season there are endless nooks and crannies-hidden entries, better exposures, stashes of powder-you'd miss or simply dare not explore without someone leading the way.

Rendezvous Bowl, immediately off the top of the tram, was our welcoming committee. It's wide and friendly, yet deceivingly steep, and a good taste of the challenge that awaits. At the bottom of that first warm-up run, I was exhilarated and totally breathless, which made me question my ability to survive four days of Jackson. As out of shape as I was, however, I had maintained my powers of momentum management. My tactic would be to go like hell and earn extra recovery time.

Our friend who'd hired the guides was adamant that the first stop be the Hobacks. People seem to come to Jackson with a checklist of classic runs. Topping those lists are Corbet's Couloir, an enticing chute with a steep, narrow hero-jump entry directly beneath the tram, and the Hobacks-North, Middle and South. The three dreamy, even pitches dropping 3,000 vertical feet are legendary for epic powder days but can be interminable when conditions tighten up. Even the guides paused. "It'll be pretty rugged." But we were hostage to someone else's checklist, so off we went. As anticipated, it was not an ego boost, and, in fact, I am quite sure I heard at least one of the group muttering "sucked." At least then, however humbled, we were free to follow the leaders to good skiing. The strategy for the day was to stay up high on Thunder and Sublette, the two quads that access the meat of Jackson's advanced inbounds terrain. Making loops on these quads is an efficient way to deplete your own.

On this day the typical Jackson inversion was in place, so while the lower mountain was frigid-about what you would expect from Wyoming in the dead of winter-the top two-thirds of the mountain were downright balmy. As we rode up Sublette, the highest and southernmost quad, our veteran guide Dave Miller ticked off the names of the Alta chutes, each of which increases in difficulty and decreases in width. "That's Alta 3 and 2 and 1A and Alta 1 and, uh, Alta Zero." By the time he got to Zero, Miller's perma-grin had given way to a chuckle, and I knew he was recalli past episodes. Rather than recount his own exploits, he led us to our own in the Alta Chutes, Tower 3 Chute and the Mushroom Chutes off of Thunder. These areas, nestled beneath cliff bands, looked shaded and forbidding, but the snow stays cold and chalky, so even the steepest terrain is negotiable.

The best advice to Jackson newcomers is this: Follow someone, or you may never figure out where to go. Make that: Follow someone you trust. Jackson is rife with characters who have a warped sense of reality when it comes to skiable terrain. Fortunately that attitude is oddly tempered with a universal respect for the mountain. If ever there was a perfect fit for Jackson, it is Olympic downhill champion Tommy Moe, the resort's ski ambassador. Like the mountain, he is the genuine article-friendly, happy and hardcore. When Tommy skis off Corbet's and makes four GS turns down it with the apparent ease of walking to the fridge, it puts cool-guy into perspective.

Toward the end of the morning, as our large and largely male group scrambled from the bottom of the Expert Chutes and through the trees to be the first over Toilet Face, my sister hung back, more amused than intimidated. "Did these guys all have a shot of testosterone before they got here?" she wondered aloud.

Indeed, Jackson's known as a man's mountain. But let the record show that the girls were here first. Present-day Teton Village was a girl's ranch called Crystal Springs before a Californian named Paul McCollister arrived around 1960, fixing his eyes and dreams on Rendezvous Peak. He bought the land and by 1965 had built the tram to the top, opening Jackson Hole as a ski area. Austrian gold medalist Pepi Stiegler came on as head of the ski school, bringing international recognition and setting the standard of excellence for skiing the monster mountain and its copious amounts of feather-light Wyoming powder.

McCollister's instincts as a skier were visionary, and Jackson quickly established its reputation as having the best lift-served expert terrain in North America, the lightest, deepest powder and the strongest skiers to track it up. In the cult of powderhounds, Jackson became the Promised Land.

Running such an operation turned out to be an expensive business, and as the resort grew through the Eighties, it was notoriously undercapitalized, with the facilities and the lift system desperately in need of an upgrade. In 1992, Jackson was bought by the Kemmerer family, which has operated a coal and oil company in Wyoming for four generations (and for whom Kemmerer, Wyo., is named). The Kemmerers brought a plan to upgrade the resort to modern standards and, more importantly, the necessary cash to do so. Over the past six years, they have invested $50 million in on-mountain improvements, such as the Bridger Gondola, expanded snowmaking and upgraded lifts, as well as new skier-service, childcare and retail centers at the base.

Our group was pared to the original five when we stopped for caffeine in the afternoon. The raw terrain of McCollister's dream had worked us all morning and now the Kemmerer refinements would rejuvenate us. We gathered enough energy to climb onto the new high-speed Après Vous and on the way up agreed to make it just one run. Reconvening at the bottom-because it was impossible to stop ourselves before then-we looked at each other with a "What took us so long to find this?" look of wonder. Our friend Bill, whose job perks include more than his fair share of time at Sun Valley and Whistler, and who is not prone to superlatives, said simply, "That was the best groomed run I have ever taken."

The man responsible for Jackson's daily manicure is head groomer Grant Fleming, who has worked at the ski area since Day 1. Fleming is as local as they come. His father was born at the base of the mountain, and his grandfather's uncle had a gold mine at the top of Thunder lift. With its preponderance of expert terrain, Jackson presents a formidable challenge to groomers. "People who come here from other areas have to learn to get everything out of the machine," explains Fleming, who exerts his own exacting standards through high-speed grooming checks. "If you can't ski it at 60, it's not worth it." Après Vous, we discover as we approach our own terminal velocity, is worth it. Our one last run turned into three of our most pleasant of the day.

Our second morning was again "full metal jacket" skiing, but the need for rest and caffeination came earlier. This time we switched modes without apology and took to the boulevards. Instead of negotiating Gannett Woods to reach Sublette from Thunder, we skied the wide, sunny Grand. Where we had earlier tipped into the tight trees of Bivouac Woods, we stayed the course, carving super G arcs on Rendezvous Trail.

Again, we finished with a roll down Après Vous, then pulled into the massive and inviting Mangy Moose. Good music, loud conversation and a cold beer at the Moose are as much a tradition as the first tram on a powder day-and far more attainable. The Moose, along with its neighbor The Hostel X (where a ski-in/ski-out room with four beds and a bath goes for $61), is an institution at Jackson and a lovably quirky vestige of Jackson's modest roots. To pay for the tram, McCollister sold pieces of Teton Village. In this age of soup-to-nuts Big Brother developments, the Moose, the Hostel and the Alpenhof Lodge (a must-do lunch spot) have preserved a rare taste of the original ski flavor.

That said, Jackson Hole Ski Corp. is looking for some return on the land it does own and has a master plan that could boost the bed base from 2,000 to 5,000. The first phase, completed for this season, is the Teton Club, offering fractional ownership beneath the tram. On the south side of the village, Moose Creek Townhouses-38 units with their own chairlift to the slopes-all sold within the first month.

The toniest hotel in Teton Village is the Renaissance Resort, but that honor will go in the future to a to-be-determined high-end signature hotel, which should be in place sometime around 2003-04. The current red-hot real estate market, breaking records in all categories, supports the case for luxury lodging. At Granite Ridge, a subdivision of 37 single-family homes and 30 townhouses on the northern edge of the base area, a "smaller" spec home sold for $4 million, and when 24 new townhouses were proposed, they sold within a week. What was once all ranchland has become a most precious commodity, and Baby Boomer land barons abound. Ironically McCollister got his loan money because this was a depressed area, and now workers commute over Teton Pass from Idaho, where land is more affordable.

Quite frankly, the talk of multi-million-dollar homes and "exclusive" developments seemed incongruous at the Moose, where we were sitting directly beneath the large, well-decorated ungulate that hangs from the rafters. But 10 miles away in the town of Jackson, the dichotomy is more apparent. The wooden-plank sidewalks and the antler arches of the town square exude the Wild West, while Polo and Gap stores behind wooden facades attest to modern domestication. The preponderance of real estate offices and art galleries, the availability of espresso and the existence of a Super K-Mart complete the picture of a paradise discovered. But all the chi-chi restaurants and stores that come to town can't override Jackson's raw Western appeal,which seems to say: "Go ahead and eat your sushi and peppercorn-crusted goat cheese because you'll end up hitching yourself to a saddle at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar tonight anyway."

After a shower and Advil hors d'oeuvres, we retreated to the civilized sanctity of Stiegler's. The Tyrolean restaurant and bar is run by Peter Stiegler, Pepi's younger brother and a smooth wedeler in his own right. A hard day of skiing is easily cured by a good plate of schnitzel and spaetzle (or pork loin à la Mama Stiegler, or elk, or frege to groomers. "People who come here from other areas have to learn to get everything out of the machine," explains Fleming, who exerts his own exacting standards through high-speed grooming checks. "If you can't ski it at 60, it's not worth it." Après Vous, we discover as we approach our own terminal velocity, is worth it. Our one last run turned into three of our most pleasant of the day.

Our second morning was again "full metal jacket" skiing, but the need for rest and caffeination came earlier. This time we switched modes without apology and took to the boulevards. Instead of negotiating Gannett Woods to reach Sublette from Thunder, we skied the wide, sunny Grand. Where we had earlier tipped into the tight trees of Bivouac Woods, we stayed the course, carving super G arcs on Rendezvous Trail.

Again, we finished with a roll down Après Vous, then pulled into the massive and inviting Mangy Moose. Good music, loud conversation and a cold beer at the Moose are as much a tradition as the first tram on a powder day-and far more attainable. The Moose, along with its neighbor The Hostel X (where a ski-in/ski-out room with four beds and a bath goes for $61), is an institution at Jackson and a lovably quirky vestige of Jackson's modest roots. To pay for the tram, McCollister sold pieces of Teton Village. In this age of soup-to-nuts Big Brother developments, the Moose, the Hostel and the Alpenhof Lodge (a must-do lunch spot) have preserved a rare taste of the original ski flavor.

That said, Jackson Hole Ski Corp. is looking for some return on the land it does own and has a master plan that could boost the bed base from 2,000 to 5,000. The first phase, completed for this season, is the Teton Club, offering fractional ownership beneath the tram. On the south side of the village, Moose Creek Townhouses-38 units with their own chairlift to the slopes-all sold within the first month.

The toniest hotel in Teton Village is the Renaissance Resort, but that honor will go in the future to a to-be-determined high-end signature hotel, which should be in place sometime around 2003-04. The current red-hot real estate market, breaking records in all categories, supports the case for luxury lodging. At Granite Ridge, a subdivision of 37 single-family homes and 30 townhouses on the northern edge of the base area, a "smaller" spec home sold for $4 million, and when 24 new townhouses were proposed, they sold within a week. What was once all ranchland has become a most precious commodity, and Baby Boomer land barons abound. Ironically McCollister got his loan money because this was a depressed area, and now workers commute over Teton Pass from Idaho, where land is more affordable.

Quite frankly, the talk of multi-million-dollar homes and "exclusive" developments seemed incongruous at the Moose, where we were sitting directly beneath the large, well-decorated ungulate that hangs from the rafters. But 10 miles away in the town of Jackson, the dichotomy is more apparent. The wooden-plank sidewalks and the antler arches of the town square exude the Wild West, while Polo and Gap stores behind wooden facades attest to modern domestication. The preponderance of real estate offices and art galleries, the availability of espresso and the existence of a Super K-Mart complete the picture of a paradise discovered. But all the chi-chi restaurants and stores that come to town can't override Jackson's raw Western appeal,which seems to say: "Go ahead and eat your sushi and peppercorn-crusted goat cheese because you'll end up hitching yourself to a saddle at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar tonight anyway."

After a shower and Advil hors d'oeuvres, we retreated to the civilized sanctity of Stiegler's. The Tyrolean restaurant and bar is run by Peter Stiegler, Pepi's younger brother and a smooth wedeler in his own right. A hard day of skiing is easily cured by a good plate of schnitzel and spaetzle (or pork loin à la Mama Stiegler, or elk, or fresh trout, or anything on the Austro-Wyoming menu), along with some of Peter's flammable slalomwasser, a.k.a killer Tyrolean schnapps.

The third morning we ventured out of bounds because we felt like exploring and because settling into the hypnotic rhythm of hiking sounded comparatively restful. Last season, Jackson initiated an open-boundary policy, allowing free access to 2,500 acres of wild backyard terrain. The snow in north-facing Granite Basin would be lightest, but we were too lazy for the long traverse out and instead exited through the gates at the south side of Rendezvous Bowl to hike up the side of Cody Ridge. After about 20 minutes, we dropped into an area called Four Pines, where we still managed to find fresh (albeit thick) powder. More than the turns, it was the sense of being out there-away from machines and cut trails and chairlifts and "slow" signs-that appealed. The well-worn trail at the bottom was an indication of just how many people enjoy this same experience. It deposited us at the tail end of the Hobacks, sufficiently mellowed and restored.

The next day, we skied with locals John Gute (known simply as Gute) and Todd Broadhead, both Alaskan transplants. We'd gotten to be good friends with Gute over the years, entirely due to time spent skiing together. He is sort of a Forrest Gump of Jackson's extreme culture-happily and capably in the midst of it, but not the least bit impressed by it. Todd spends summers on his fishing boat in Alaska, then heads back to Jackson in winter with a bank account full of cash and two freezers full of salmon that he barters throughout the season for everything from ski tuning to equipment.

"See this jacket?" he says, pointing to his bombproof red beauty. "It cost me 15 pounds of smoked salmon." Todd started skiing 10 years ago and is as much hooked to Jackson as to the sport. The privilege of living with both is worth any amount of hard labor. When the light got flat in the afternoon, Todd took a wrong turn beneath Alta Chute and caught a tree that initiated a series of spins and backward flips. From the bottom of Laramie Bowl, we heard him laughing and periodically saw his white teeth flash in a broad grin. He was getting beat up-and enjoying every minute. I have to say, I know the feeling. fresh trout, or anything on the Austro-Wyoming menu), along with some of Peter's flammable slalomwasser, a.k.a killer Tyrolean schnapps.

The third morning we ventured out of bounds because we felt like exploring and because settling into the hypnotic rhythm of hiking sounded comparatively restful. Last season, Jackson initiated an open-boundary policy, allowing free access to 2,500 acres of wild backyard terrain. The snow in north-facing Granite Basin would be lightest, but we were too lazy for the long traverse out and instead exited through the gates at the south side of Rendezvous Bowl to hike up the side of Cody Ridge. After about 20 minutes, we dropped into an area called Four Pines, where we still managed to find fresh (albeit thick) powder. More than the turns, it was the sense of being out there-away from machines and cut trails and chairlifts and "slow" signs-that appealed. The well-worn trail at the bottom was an indication of just how many people enjoy this same experience. It deposited us at the tail end of the Hobacks, sufficiently mellowed and restored.

The next day, we skied with locals John Gute (known simply as Gute) and Todd Broadhead, both Alaskan transplants. We'd gotten to be good friends with Gute over the years, entirely due to time spent skiing together. He is sort of a Forrest Gump of Jackson's extreme culture-happily and capably in the midst of it, but not the least bit impressed by it. Todd spends summers on his fishing boat in Alaska, then heads back to Jackson in winter with a bank account full of cash and two freezers full of salmon that he barters throughout the season for everything from ski tuning to equipment.

"See this jacket?" he says, pointing to his bombproof red beauty. "It ccost me 15 pounds of smoked salmon." Todd started skiing 10 years ago and is as much hooked to Jackson as to the sport. The privilege of living with both is worth any amount of hard labor. When the light got flat in the afternoon, Todd took a wrong turn beneath Alta Chute and caught a tree that initiated a series of spins and backward flips. From the bottom of Laramie Bowl, we heard him laughing and periodically saw his white teeth flash in a broad grin. He was getting beat up-and enjoying every minute. I have to say, I know the feeling.

Related