To Jackson Hole, In Search of Snow
By David McKay Wilson
On the third day, it snowed.
It wasn’t an epic Jackson Hole storm, like the ones that dumped 557 inches at the Wyoming resort the previous year, or the storm that began as we departed, and left more than five feet on the mountain before it ended. But in the snow-starved winter of 2012, when mountain bikers in mid-January were making turns at Squaw Valley, the low-pressure system that brought a few inches to the mountain’s upper slopes provided just enough cover to provide a taste of Jackson in full snow dress.
While there was no shooting down Corbet’s Couloir or darting through the chute called Meet Your Maker, we discovered a powder stash in the trees in Wally’s World, made sweeping turns down the Cirque, and found a soft blanket of white stuff in Tensleep Bowl, where I found my rhythm in what my father liked to call “ballroom skiing.”
We’d come to Wyoming to test our Eastern ski legs on the mountains out West. With 4,139 vertical feet of terrain, and a $31 million aerial tram put up in 2008 that whisks you to the summit in just nine minutes, Jackson Hole had long been on my bucket list of skiing destinations.
With so little snow in the Northeast, I’d done most of my training on my road bike, knowing I’d need considerable muscle tone in my 58-year-old legs so I could chase my two teenage sons and their cousin down some of North America’s toughest terrain.
As my boys become teens, these skiing adventures have grown progressively more fun, and more demanding, as they’ve developed their skiing mojo, and lusted for the steeps. Skiing is one of the few recreational pursuits that families can enjoy together, over extended periods. Skiing together all day can cement bonds, and provide the kind of outdoor challenge that builds character, confidence and endurance. I declared victory after making it to 4 p.m. each day.
Lodging runs the gamut – from $37 for a bunk at The Hostel at the mountain base, to $1,249 for a one-bedroom suite the Four Seasons Jackson Hole.
We stayed in a comfy three-bedroom unit at the Nez Perce condominiums in Teton Village, which rent for $460 a night, and was serviced by a shuttle that takes you to the mountain base. Across the street, we soaked our weary muscles in the outdoor hot-tub and watched the clouds turn from mauve to orange one night as the sun set behind the mountain and Venus rose sparkling the West.
Dining options abound at the mountain – from sausage-stuffed olives and Kurobuta pork chops at Il Villagio Osteria to the Couloir at the top of the Bridger Gondola. Lunch can hit the spot: braised bison sliders with roasted garlic-horseradish aioli, roasted golden beet and apple salad, and grilled natural chicken Cubano, with shaved apple, caramelized onions, melted brie, topped with wild arugula. My boys stuck to the hefty Couloir Burger, with its juicy Kobe beef, smoked bacon, and Ballard cheddar.
Upon our arrival, talk quickly turned to snow, and the lack thereof in most of the United States. The coast-to-coast snow drought in December through mid-January had skiers across the nation making tracks for the northwest corner of Wyoming, where Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee boasted some of the nation’s best snow cover.
It has proved a bonanza for the Wyoming tourist industry, with powder hounds we met from Colorado, Utah and California abandoning their home hills for a holiday in the Tetons.
Grand Targhee, the resort outpost high up on the western face of Wyoming’s Teton Range provided an unexpected delight on our trip’s second day. It’s a breathtaking 70-minute drive from Jackson over the Teton Pass, and up a winding road to the resort, perched at 7,800 feet.
Those feeling the pinch from Jackson Hole’s $95 lift-ticket can find solace at Targhee, paying just $69 for a day on the slopes, with an array of high-speed quad lifts to cover its 2,100 vertical rise with alacrity. If you didn’t rent a car, hop the Grand Targhee Express shuttle from Jackson Hole for $95, which includes a lift ticket.
The wide-open bowls are mostly blue runs – broad open expanses that are plenty steep to get you moving, but gentle enough to make intermediates into heroes on powder days.
We favored the north-facing shots off the Headwall, where the snow on a run called Bad was particularly good. Lines were non-existent on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. By mid-afternoon, my 13-year-old-son, Tom, was looking for adventure.
He’d heard about the peak called Mary’s Nipple, which rises to close to 10,000 feet on the resort’s eastern boundary, with its steep bowl offering enticing opportunities and a spectacular view of the Grand Teton beyond. To get there, you ski from the Dreamcatcher lift, and then climb 20 minutes up a ridge that turns steep near the top.
“Can we do Mary’s?” Tom asked with serious intent, and his boyish smirk.
What’s a Dad to do when his 13-year-old declares he’d like to climb Mary’s Nipple? Here was a chance for bragging rights upon his return to middle school. Here was an opportunity for him to test his mettle. And here was my time to see what I had left in the tank for my son in mid-afternoon.
We hoisted our skis to our shoulders, and Tom followed me on the climb, moving slow and steady, in the frozen-over boot tracks left by earlier climbers. A step off the hardened path sank us into thigh-deep snow, just as a powerful wind-gust peppered us with icy pellets.
“It’s scary, Dad,” said Tom, as he struggled to his feet. “But I’m not scared.”
We rested for a spell at the top, then clicked on our skis. Tom took the lead, traversing along the cornice to the north-facing wall, where a foot of a steep field of powder lay, untouched. Tom had found his edge, which alpine vacations can lead you to. He had the legs, and the moxie, to experience the scary. And Tom wasn’t scared.
Grand Targhee: www.grandtarghee.com
Jackson Hole: www.jacksonhole.com
David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.