Jackson Hole humbles you. Before you even get on the snow, before you reach the top of Rendezvous Peak and are carried out of the tram by a surging mob of helmeted speed freaks, you realize that this mountain is not like other mountains.
In the early morning in Teton Village, the windows shook in their frames. The depth-charge booms of Ski Patrol’s avalanche blasting seemed impossibly close, and, even though I’ve heard those not-so-distant explosions countless times before, at Jackson Hole they rattled my nerves. On such a massive mountain, with extreme terrain hiding behind every corner, the thrills are close at hand, but so are the dangers. But before I indulge this blog’s melodramatic impulses, let it be known that there is no shortage of fun and accessible intermediate terrain at Jackson Hole. Runs off of Apres-Vous can keep families and skiers and boarders of any level entertained for days.
The resort invited us onto an early tram (these “Yoga Trams,” are so empty you can go right ahead and stretch into your best Warrior II, if that’s your thing), and our day started out mellow. Gandolf didn’t break any records, and high-winds had scoured a lot of what fell overnight, but as we followed Felix through the trees above the Sublet base, we found protected pockets of fresh and knee-deep snow. Felix knows the mountain, and when, in a moment of uncharacteristic charity, he offered us some different route options, our response was always the same: “Just ski what you ski, and we’ll follow.”
And we did: traversing across bowls, tucking into tight glades and screaming back to Thunder and Sublet lifts for lap after lap. I followed Felix into a line that snaked through tight pines at just the right pitch where, even as the glades got tighter and the turns smaller, I fell into their rhythm and accelerated through until I popped out near the lift and skied up to Felix with a massive grin on my red, wind-burned face.
“Are you satisfied?” he said.
“Aye. Let’s do it again.”
But at this point, nearing noon, the early tram was a distant memory. Rabid locals were devouring the abundant powder like this was the last snow on Earth, and we decided it was time to go out of bounds. Just a tram ride and a 15-minute boot-pack away, you can find outrageous, varied, and incredibly beautiful backcountry terrain, no climbing skins or packed lunches needed.
The joys of such easy access are obvious. But following a rise in avalanche deaths in recent years, so is awareness of the risks. These are not the things that should have been on my mind while I waiting for a tram on a powder day. But even as the morning laps proved I could still keep up with my old friend, heading out of bounds brought a whole new set of anxieties. I asked Felix’s friends, Travis and Trey, about the safety of the snow pack. They assured me it was sturdy, the most stable it had been in years. They wouldn’t be going otherwise.
The temperature at the top of Rendezvous read −5. Within less than three minutes our noses had all gone white with frost nip, and we headed along the ridge to a high out-of-bounds gate. We tested our beacons and dropped about 300 feet when my local guides realized that we weren’t where we thought we were. Patrol must have moved a rope, they agreed.
“Which way?” I shouted into the wind and blowing snow.
“Not this way,” Felix yelled back at me. “You will have a screaming fit if we take you down here.”
We doubled back and I followed them down to a spot where I could look up and see the route we avoided. Spacewalk, as they call it, is an open face that funnels into a narrow rock chute that. Halfway down, the chute is broken by a 10-foot cliff.
Pointing up to it, Felix calmly explained the Spacewalk technique: “You have to drop the cliff, stick a 60-degree landing, and then once you reach terminal velocity, make a sharp turn right at the end to avoid smashing into that other rock wall. Don’t worry. You’re good enough. You could have done it.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, thankful that I didn’t have to prove him right, or wrong.
We shouldered our skis and started hiking to the ridge. It’s not a long hike, but above 10,000 feet, in temperatures hovering around zero, the air was empty and useless, and my sea-level blood started to show. I wheezed and coughed and stopped to catch my breath and felt 100-years-old as my guides zipped up the ridge and out of sight. As I inched my way upwards, my hands and feet ached with numbing cold, and I stopped to look back at Spacewalk, at the peaks surrounding us, and told myself to remember how good this felt.
By the time I stumbled to the top, Travis and Trey had been waiting so long, they were doing pushups and jumping jacks to stay warm.
“Finally,” Felix said. And then we were off.
Next Chapter: Day’s End in Jackson and the Road to Alta
Editor’s Note: Liftopia travel bloggers Michael Ames and Michael Sesko have just embarked on the road trip of a lifetime. In a mere two weeks, they’ll be hitting up all four Mountain Collective resorts: Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Alta and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows. They’ll be documenting their journey right here on the Liftopia blog in a series called The Mountain Collective Chronicles; from early mornings to late nights, from snowy slopes to ski towns, from meetings with Mother Nature to close encounters of the local kind, follow along each week as bits and pieces of Ames and Sesko’s story are revealed. Want to play a hand in shaping their adventure? Keep an eye on the Liftopia blog, Facebook page & Twitter handle— we’ll be asking YOU to suggest the gnarliest trails, the best places to grab chili cheese fries, and the coolest après bars near each of these four legendary ski areas. Now, without further ado… The Mountain Collective Chronicles! For the first chapter, click here.
About Michael Ames: Michael Ames is a reformed Idaho ski bum. But thanks to Liftopia and the Mountain Collective pass, he recently fell off that wagon. To see his non-ski-related work, visit www.michael-ames.com.
About Mike Sesko: Mike is a sustainable agriculture entrepreneur with a penchant for discount lift tickets. He grew up skiing the icy peaks of southern New England but often hopped on planes, trains and automobiles to get his Western fix. Sesko often dreamed of making these bigger and steeper mountains his home but could not leave his roots behind. After 32 years of New England clam chowder, he is ditching the double agent lifestyle and moving to the Bay Area in search of more fertile ski fields.