Wild West - Wild Jackson Hole

by Alex Kovell


I waited a couple of months for impressions from this trip to come into proper perspective: the emotions to calm down, the mind-boggling experiences to soften a bit, and the unpleasant ones to loose their bitterness. Now, with the whole thing settled in my memory, I can present it as it should be presented.

Allen Dubovick, my partner in this and many other adventures, (for those who don't know Al (any trip with him is an adventure) had been to Jackson Hole, Wyoming more times than he'd been to Chamonix, France. No, he is not French, as some of you may suspect, but he's skied in the shadow of Mont Blanc more than a few times. Anyway, this was Al's sixth or seventh visit to the Grand Tetons, but for me it was the first. Last year Mr. Dubovick had a blast here and, knowing my tastes in skiing, decided to invite me along to share his fascination by this playground of the steep and deep. As it turned out, we picked the perfect time to come. This was the first season that Jackson Hole has allowed access to the backcountry adjacent to the ski area directly from the resort. That means that people can use area's lifts to save time and energy reaching the untracked powder, steep bowls and couloirs in the unpatrolled wilderness of Teton National Forest.

Jackson Hole is a huge ski domain, encompassing 2500 acres of varied terrain ranging from gentle slopes to challenging cruisers to hair-rising steeps with cliffs, rocks and trees for every ability and degree of sickness (of adrenaline addiction kind). The beauty of this area, in my opinion, lies in its completely natural appearance, as if not altered by man. Apart from the lifts, which are not that numerous and somewhat hidden by evergreens, the trails don't look like they were cut through the woods, but more like natural clearings or bald spots on the flanks of the mountain, in the gullies, or on the ridge tops. In fact, the trail network is barely discernible amid the wilderness when looking from the access road.

The day before we started skiing it snowed eight inches, so although the popular trails quickly became tracked out, in the trees we continued enjoying stashes of freshies for another few days. Al wanted to methodically work all the nooks and crannies, so we started from the Casper Bowl chair to skier's left û Moran Woods, to Moran Face, and eventually all the way to Saratoga Bowl. Aprez-Vous quad is a hidden treasure for the adventurous. It is used primarily by intermediates and kids because it serves mostly wide open cruisers and some mellow glades. Traversing north all the way to the boundary rope and dropping down from there, reveals radically different territory (called the Saratoga Bowl) perfect for adrenaline junkies. The numerous lines through the trees are steep, but not intimidating, continuously offering surprises in the form of narrow gullies, drop-offs, open faces, cascading down to the catch-all traverse back to the quad lift. The best feature, though, was the powder. Not too many people ventured into that part of the mountain, leaving plenty of untouched knee-deep fluff for us to devour. And devour it we did! The woods off of the Sublette chair were steepest I've skied, surpassing even the Palivaccini area at A-basin. Excellent untracked sections were found in the Cirque and the Dog Face turned out to be anything but.

By the end of the third day, there was no untracked lines left within the confines of the area, coincidentally, there was no strength left in our legs. After one day break from skiing, spent on a leisurely drive around Wyoming and Idaho's scenic mountain passes and valleys, we decided to go out of bounds.

One can enter the backcountry from the patrolled area through several marked gates located along the boundary rope. By each gate loud signs warned the unwary that they are leaving the safety of Jackson Hole ski area and are now responsible for their lives, actions and decisions. Avalanche bulletin, weather forecast and latest wind/precipitation reports along with the danger meter attached to the gatepost provide sobering information.

Originally Al and I planned to hire a guide for a day or two to give us the lay of the land, but after a few unsuccessful attempts to contact the guiding company, we resolved to use our common sense, our mountaineering skills and past experiences and go alone. Equipped with avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels we passed through the gate into the backcountry.

There was a well-defined ski track leading out, a sight not exactly inspiring the feeling experienced by the great explorers of the North. Nevertheless, the realization of being totally on our own in the unknown territory made my heart beat faster. The farther we traveled, the less pronounced the track became, as people spread out to their favorite routes. We planned to ski down from the north-facing ridge into the Rock Springs Bowl - the continuation of the Cody Bowl û the one we descended into upon leaving the gate.

Traversing across the Cody Bowl led us to a small cirque, where we passed the site of the yesterday's slide, described in the avalanche report. The cirque had its entire middle part stripped off of snow almost down to the bare rock. The thickness of the slab at the fracture line, just below the exposed cliff band, was over three feet and the debris - dense chunks piled at the bottom - were the size of small cars. An impact of a skier who jumped the forty-foot cliff band above the cirque triggered this slab avalanche. Incredibly, he was lucky to survive a tumble among the accelerating crumbling blocks of snow. This up close display of nature's power had even more profound effect than the warning signs observed half hour ago.

The sweet reward for slow, altitude-gaining traverse was the choice of lines down the ridge with north-eastern exposure, which preserved the best snow by never facing the warm rays of mid-afternoon sun. The powder was somewhat dense, but consistent and about foot and a half

deep. It came up to mid-thigh during the turns and floating on this bottomless fluff was pure heaven. Continuing down toward the valley floor we kept to the flanks of the drainage seeking the shady areas with unskied lines and finding many. The possibilities of chutes, gullies and sheer drops were endless. Towards the bottom, veering left we eventually caught one of the traverses leading back to the Hobacks section of Jackson Hole where a short lift brought us back to the tram base. "Leading" is a great understatement in this case. In reality, it entailed crossing over two buttresses, changing directions countless times in order stay high enough so not to miss the lowest traverse, thereby averting serious problem getting home. The lap took about two hours, so the next day we did a couple such trips, each time exploring new lines.

With time our anxiety of being in the backcountry somewhat decreased, but nonetheless, we

remained constantly aware of the surroundings - snow, slope exposure, sounds. The Powder Eight bowl (where they stage powder eight competitions) was our next goal. One can see it clearly from the top of the Rendezvous Mountain looking 180 degrees away from the tram. Skinning up (ascending using the climbing skins attached to the bottom of skis) took about forty minutes and the view that opened up was breathtaking (and not just because of the climb). Dozens of various exciting routes opened up from that point. A few lonely, daring descent tracks on some unreal pitches stood out like signatures of the local Evel Knevels on the rugged landscape of the Grand Tetons invoking awe and inspiration from all observers. We too left our marks on the pristine snow of that spectacular bowl. The perfect slope inclination and the powder quality made us hoop and holler all the way down.

The last day was slated for an epic expedition. On the last run of the preceding day we spotted a small group of locals heading out to the back side of the Powder Eight bowl on a traverse across another, much bigger No Name bowl (seriously, "No Name"is the name of that bowl). The traverse appeared well used and extended beyond the edge of the bowl, where it gained altitude, and ended up at the foot the vertical bare cliff of another summit. Below was an expansive face of what looked like a thousand vertical feet of sustained pitch of about thirty-five degrees with a single track upon it. Exposure of that face seemed promising, as it appeared to be getting only oblique rays of the sun and only in the afternoon. Also the orientation of the slopes with avalanche potential was not the same as this one, giving us some comfort.

The saying "Getting there is half of the fun" proved to be more than true in this case.

The traverse (mentioned earlier) appeared well used, and turned out to be a completely iced ledge situated in the deep shade and about ten inches wide, postholed by snowboarders' boots, with a hundred-foot rock wall on the right (directly above the traverse) and a steep bowl of sun-baked crusty snow on the left (below us and in the sun). At one of the demolished parts of the traverse I caught an edge, somersaulted off the frozen track, and managed to arrest my slide on the face below. Extricating my skis, putting them back on and climbing back up onto the traverse was quite exhausting, humbling and time-consuming ordeal. Al was following on the traverse -- this time a safe distance behind me (inside joke (), but wouldn't you know - BAM, he wipes out at the very same rotten spot! And, of course, he too goes crashing down the bowl! The last (ascending) section required taking off the skis and attaching them to the backpack in order to leave hands free for balance and support. My hat is off to the boys and girls who consider this routine, but for us, Easterners, only Tuckerman Ravine experience offered some comparison.

Anyway, two and a half hours later Al and yours truly clicked into our bindings ready to rip the well earned paradise run û not so fast! What looked great yesterday was at best mediocre now.

Although I would not call it crust, but I would not call it powder either. I admit, I did struggle on the way down, while Al seemed to have easier time during his descent. Regardless of conditions, I thought it still was a formidable run just due to its scale and remoteness, to say nothing of its beauty.

We made it back to Jackson Hole base by five-thirty. The lifts were closed for over an hour

and dusk was fast approaching since the sun set behind the jagged peaks long ago. What a day! What a week! At the Mangy Moose (our regular apres-ski hangout) we celebrated another exciting adventure.

Backcountry skiing is not everyone's cup of tea. There is always some huffing and puffing

involved in addition to having to deal with decisions more consequential than choosing at which base lodge to have lunch. We did a lot of that type of skiing in Chamonix, but there we had a guide to help us. This is the way skiing used to be, on wild snow, without crowds, alone with nature. On a good snowy day, midweek at a huge ski area like Jackson one can feel as if in the backcountry too, but actually, for some, as they say, "there is no substitute."