The creak of hesitant machinery and the scent
of burning diesel signaled a new day at Teton Village, where,
fortunately, I wasnt standing in a typical lift line. Instead
of being sandwiched between foul-mouthed teenagers and bulging
at the belt businessmen I was surrounded by the duct-taped unshaven
hardcores of Jackson Hole. We were waiting for the first tram.
My longtime friend and Jackson Hole resident
Grant Wapiti, along Jared Spackman, another JH local, had dreamed
up an improbable route from the Teton Village Ski Resort to a
fully stocked yurt on Baldy Knoll some nine miles to the west.
Grant had shown me the route - a pencil line on a beer-stained
map - the night before at the Calico Tavern. We dont
know of anyone whos ever done it before, he said
with the mistaken belief that I would take this as a selling
point. As it turned out they had done a brilliant piece of route
finding, but stepping from the Tram on that clear February morning
I was simply embarking on yet another one of Grants go
big or go home (translation - longer and more difficult
than advertised) ideas.
The Tram was as tight as a Tokyo subway, and
we spilled out of the orange box into a windless white wonderland.
I raced to get my skis on. The first turns are always the hardest,
but I managed to find my legs before skiing through a gate labeled
CAUTION - YOU ARE LEAVING THE JACKSON HOLE SKI AREA BOUNDARY
- THIS IS YOUR DECISION POINT. After a year and a half living
in Europe I had become accustomed to the you buys your ticket
you takes your chances mentality, and it was good to see some
of that personal responsibility ethos rubbing off here in the
States. Past the gate we joined half a dozen skiers already scrambling
up a rocky ridge; the line was a bit exposed, but a slip would
have been more embarrassing than dangerous.
Once up the ridge we snapped back into our
bindings and picked our way across a speckled rubble field. When
we finally found some deep white stuff we dropped in and chopped
up a slope of trackless powder so virgin it broke my heart. The
sky was blue, the wind calm and, as my friend Boris once described
the morning after a Peruvian coca tea binge, all was right with
Now came the hard part - breaking trail
through bottomless Teton powder - but with nine people, five
of whom who nearly fought over the pole position, the going was
smooth and the pace comfortable. Though less than four inches
of snow had fallen within the previous seventy-two hours, the
snowpack seemed dubious, so we spread out and moved steadily
towards Housetop Mountain. A quarter mile below the summit we
held up to marvel at, and to give some room to, a mountain goat
that covered in ten minutes a distance that would take us the
next two hours.
At the summit of Housetop we turned into the
wind and began a tightrope walk towards a prominent point above
Acid Ridge. Backcountry skiing occasionally requires you to take
a deep breath, loosen your pack straps and move quickly across
tenuous ground; this was such an occasion.
To my right, the drop was dead vertical, and
to my left the slope was an unconsolidated forty-degree drop
into Game Creek, two thousand feet below. Ill admit to
a sizable sigh of relief when I crested Acid Ridge and began
the descent towards Lone Pine Point. The snow was windblown and
funky and the hour late so we all - save Brandon, Jareds
free-heeln brother - descended granny style - on skins.
While we each did the flying wedge, Brandon
cut textbook turns into the ridgeline; he began drifting so far
left that I thought hed been lured into an east-facing
bowl by the siren call of endless snow.
At the base of the ridge we found sign of
hyper-charged lightweight snow machines. We had been warned about
previous conflicts between skiers and snowmobilers in this area,
but fortunately all we encountered were tracks. The belt tracks
led to ski tracks, which in turn led to the front door of our
yurt; it was four-o-clock. This was my introduction to yurt life,
and compared to a tent our abode was palatial. The place had
a wood burning stove, three propane fueled burners, all utensils,
sleeping bags, pads even a deck of cards; I wouldnt have
been happier in the Hilton.
I sleep cold and typically carry a minus thirty
down bag Ive dubbed Big Red, so I was more
than a little concerned about what Id find in the box labeled
sleeping bags. Fortunately I ended up with a comfy
and clean five-degree bag. My longtime friend Bill Hartlieb,
on the other hand, spent the evening folding his six foot two
frame into a childrens bag.
Bill has, on too many occasions, demonstrated
a physical and mental temperament that is seemingly impervious
to cold and exhaustion, and therefore his comments of this
bag only comes up to my armpits and I think I got
a kids bag were met with snores and unsympathetic
grunts. Kind of a backwards twist on the never cry wolf scenario.
I awoke well before sunup to find Bill breathing life into the
The morning sky held just enough high cirrus
to shade the eastern slopes. Our target for the day was a north-facing
slope on the far side of a deep gorge southwest of the strangely
named Zimbabwe Mountain. Brandon, I and the third free-heeler
of the group, Aaron Schultice, lost our heads and dropped into
the canyon too quickly, fortunately unconsolidated snow and a
funnel-shaped slope coaxed us back onto safer ground a prophetic
decision as we later saw that our route ended atop a fifty foot
cliff band. The inertia of a large group and general lethargy
had precluded an early start, and by the time we made the east-facing
descent into the valley wet snow was pulling at our heels.
When we finally made it to the bottom we hurried
into our skins, and despite a complicated transformation the
three snowboarders in our group pushed their way out front and
began cutting a too-steep track up the hill. Midway up I finally
took the lead and began laying in a moderately angled track;
somebody had to teach these upstarts how to put in an uphill
line. Sadly my lesson on Zen and the art of skinning fell to
impatience, because Brain Prax, a local climbing guide, quickly
passed me with his split snowboard and resumed the relentless
angle. Taking full advantage of the moral capital granted by
my free heels I grumbled all the way to the top. Finally we had
nowhere to go but down.
Ive found that two types of skiers glide
the slopes of this world: those who have skied knee-deep powder
and those who havent. Powder, now Im not referring
to six or eight inches above a groomed base at your local lift
area, but true bottomless talc, is addictive. Once you taste
it, once cold smoke sweeps up from your knees and billows over
your head, youre a junkie and no amount of suffering, lying
or expense will keep you away from the stuff. Powder vindicates
the backcountry skier by making every face plant into wet glop,
every base gauge, every sore muscle worth it. It proves that
the sweetest rewards are bought with sweat, muscle and determination.
On this day we skied two runs on powder, and on a cold February
day we would each know what it is to fly.
Because powder skiing is so great the uninitiated believe it
to be easy. Little could be further from the truth. Powder skiing
isnt for the tentative, it requires unswerving commitment,
because if you get scared and turn perpendicular to the fall
line youll eat snow, take my word I know.
I was the second one onto the slope, and after
three turns I saw that I was heading for a small cliff, instead
of calmly turning away and picking a new line I lost my nerve
and turned uphill. I didnt stay upright for long. The worst
thing you can do while skiing deep tenuous snow is to fall down.
Snow, even airy powder, is shockingly heavy and the slough dislodged
by my fall was enough to send me gasping for the surface. Luckily
my flailing and tumbling didnt set off anything of consequence,
but my confidence had vanished and I wasted the remainder of
my hard won altitude regaining my snow legs. I recovered a little
confidence - and a little face - on the second run.
The hike back to the yurt was an unexpected
misery. Instead of cruising home after a hard day, we had to
climb the windblown crud that each of us had struggled down six
hours earlier. Its times like these - when youre
faced with a thousand foot climb up bottomless windpack - that
you remember why backcountry skiing isnt popular, and never
will be: its just too damn hard. Midway up the slope I
ran out of gas and began gnawing at a banana flavored Powerbar
that Id found stuck to the bottom of my food bag.
My dentist probably would have been happier
watching me open beer bottles with my molars.
By and by we all got to the yurt, where some
Samaritan managed to light the stove. After passing two, maybe
three water bottles of hot Jell-O the lead began to pour out
of our legs and soon our circular abode was a flurry (well actually
it was a kind of slow motion flurry, but a relative flurry none
the less) of activity. Someone stoked the stove, two gallant
souls brought in a galvanized washtub of snow for melting, someone
washed dishes and everyone began stripping down and drying out.
After a dinner of all you can eat burritos and three games of
euchre, I, along with the rest of my comrades, passed into blissful
Jared and Brandon had harbored hopes of getting
up early and making turns before leaving for the car, but by
the time we boiled four pots of coffee, cooked breakfast, cleaned
the dishes, packed, swept and replenished the wood supply a side
trip was out of the question. Instead we climbed to the top of
Baldy Knoll where we skied a bit of descent powder down into
what the owner of the yurt had named Going Home Bowl. The sun
was bright and the shadow of the powder billowing up from my
tails nearly engulfed my black silhouette. The remainder of our
descent was survival skiing through thick timber, which is all
I have to say about that.
Having lived twelve years in the beautiful city of Seattle Im
rarely envious of anothers home, but I will admit that
those Jackson boys have us Northwesterners beat on backcountry
access. Forty-five minutes after completing our three-day trip
I was, showered, shaven and opening my first beer. Its
a good life out there in the Tetons.