by Ann LoPrinzi

"I've been waiting for ten years to get here," said an awestruck, young Texan in the shuttle that would transport us from the airport to town. Jackson Hole can be intimidating and does have that aura. People come from far and wide to experience the longest continual vertical rise of any ski resort in the country. "It's my favorite mountain," said one hot-dogger from Oregon. "It's all about the steepness."

The Wyoming resort is also known for its snow, but it was not looking good this day. There was more brown than white on the ride to town, there was no snow lining the popular Elk refuge, and the shuttle driver talked about the lack of new snow. So, then, what were all those television and Internet reports we were getting back home about Wyoming having so much snow, and that was the place to ski? Funny how the scenario can be different than you expected. If we had made our trip just two weeks prior to our early February trip, it would have been perfect - just after a week of 50 inches of snow and before a week of rain. One waitress told us, "we usually don't see pavement until March or April." There was plenty of pavement to be seen during our stay. That being said, everyone seemed to find a way to find good skiing and fun, and that wasn't so hard to do.

My husband and I had a grand time despite the snow setback. Grand Targhee, the ski resort on the other side of the Tetons - about an hour's drive - had snow during the week and that's where we spent our first ski day. A shuttle will pick you up at your hotel and take you on the scenic trip through the Teton Pass and Idaho at a cost of $61.00, and that includes your lift ticket.

Grand Targhee seems to get at least a few new inches of snow almost every day. They have over 500 inches annually. The snow was very nice, but we had whiteout conditions at the top of the mountain and missed the great views. Luckily, we were skiing with friends who knew the mountain inside and out; that's key when you don't know the mountain and you can't see anything. The temperature was in the 20's - not bad for Wyoming. There were numerous ungroomed trails, but it was not powder and was a little tough to ski for my timid nature and my low intermediate ability. Lift lines were non-existent. It was a Monday, and we seemed to have the mountain to ourselves. All in all, a nice, manageable mountain (a majority is rated intermediate) with plenty of variety, and you can probably do it all in one day.

Grand Targhee is a full-service, family-owned resort located in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Alta, Wyoming. It has a ski school, and its snowcat skiing is a popular activity. The resort includes three lodges, four restaurants, an entertainment bar, five retail shops, and rental and repair shops. An activity center, fitness center, and spa are located at the base of the mountain. There are four lifts, and the base elevation is 8,000 feet. A lift ticket is $49.

Day two was spent at Jackson Hole. It was a delightful day of skiing and perhaps the best of the week, as there was no new snow at all while we were there, and conditions got a little icy later in the week. The snow on the top half of the mountain is really good even when the bottom half is not, but unfortunately, I did not ski there. The good skiers who come for the steep terrain get to the mountain early for "first run" off the tram, which is made clear that only expert skiers should attempt. Despite hearing several times throughout the week that the skiing is not as tough as they make it sound, it scared me enough to stay away. I started on the extreme right side of the mountain, Apre Vous, which was a nice mixture of blue and double blue, groomed and ungroomed. I didn't attempt the black. Even some of the locals start out there to warm up before making their way to the tougher and steeper hills as you go left, or south. To get to Apres Vous, take the Teewinot quad chair, turn right off the chair, and ski down to the Apre Vous lift for the ride up. Beginners can ski nice green trails off the Teewinot chair. Apre Vous is considered an intermediate haven; it was fun to ski, even for me, and I thought the area was beautiful. Later, we progressed over to Casper for some runs down "Easy Does It" and "Lift Line." The Casper Lodge is a great spot on a sunny day to sit outside, enjoy the view, and have something to eat or drink. There were several people in lounge chairs outside on this beautiful day, and it looked inviting. We had no lift lines during our stay, and that was a treat and a big difference from back east.

The easiest way down the mountain from Casper and Apres Vous is the Togwotee Pass and South Pass traverses, narrow access roads that may be intimidating for beginners but is a quick, easy way to get down for intermediates. I never went any further left than Casper. If I had, they tell me that Amphitheater and Thunder would have been fine for me. I would no doubt have made my way over there had the cloud cover not scared me off.

I did wait in line and go up the tram for the view later in the week, and that was nothing short of spectacular. That is, if you take away the jammed-in-like-sardines ride on the way up. They say there are a lot of great skiers at Jackson Hole, but I can't say I saw any of them. Saturday was the worst day for conditions, as it got icy and there was flat light. That combination had me quitting after two hours in favor of shopping.

The vertical drop at Jackson Hole is 4,139 feet and there are 2,500 acres of skiable terrain. An adult full-day lift ticket is a hefty $61. Half the runs are for expert skiers; in addition, there is access to more than 3,000 acres of backcountry skiing. About 40% of the terrain is rated for intermediates. Besides the tram, there is a gondola, six quads, one triple, and one double chairlift. The biggest new addition for the year will be the Four Seasons Resort, now under construction and scheduled to open in December (2003). Apre Vous and Rendezvous are the two mountains that make up Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The uphill capacity is 12,096 skiers per hour.

On Wednesday, we took the Flagg Ranch snow coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. Those folks picked us up at our motel at 6:30 a.m. and returned us about 6:00 p.m. The cost was $109 per person, and that was a bargain. It was a fabulous day and satisfied a life-long desire to go to Yellowstone. We saw bison and coyotes, watched Old Faithful, had chili and a box lunch in a warming hut, stopped for waterfalls, and took lots of pictures.

On Thursday, I spent the day cross-country skiing along the Grand Tetons and, again, a fabulous sunny day with a beautiful, scenic tour with a guide. This cost $100 each for two people. There's a bus in and around Jackson that costs $3 a ride, but if you want to venture further, such as cross country skiing along the Tetons, you would have to take a cab. The tour, complete with guide and lunch, seemed cost-effective given the alternative. A facial at the Snake River Lodge spa completed a perfect day.

You have a choice of staying at the more upscale Teton Village at the mountain, or the more moderately priced lodging in Jackson. We opted to stay in town at the Antler Inn for the apre-ski options and found it very convenient. It was about $70 per night, with tax. The same room in the summer, which is the busier season, would cost $110. A free shuttle took us back and forth to the mountain, a 12 mile, 20-minute ride. We had a basic hotel room but had all the amenities - a hot tub, fitness room, laundry facilities, and a friendly and helpful staff. Friendly, helpful, and laid-back was how we found everyone to be during our stay, and that added to its charm.

It was fun to gad-about this rustic cowboy town with wooden sidewalks; we made sure to take in a beer at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar where the bar stools are saddles, and we made it a point to have a burger at Billy's Burgers and were not disappointed. Bubba's is a great breakfast/lunch spot. There are some nightspots that offer live music. To rub shoulders with the locals, try the Cadillac Grill for Friday night happy hour.

A trip to Jackson would not be complete without also having a beer in the Mangy Moose in Teton Village. There, we had the opportunity to meet extreme skier Glenn Plake, whom we had seen on television the day before. He was charming and friendly and readily agreed to have a picture taken with my husband.

Living in Jackson Hole is not for everyone, but like our friends said, "a low-maintenance, outdoorsy type" likes it here, or the "very wealthy." If you're not wealthy, it helps to have an
"entrepreneurial spirit." The nearest Home Depot or Target is 2 hours away in Idaho Falls. The average home in Jackson is $1.2 million.

There are plenty of places to eat in and around Jackson and plenty of opportunities for winter sports. There are even die-hard skiers who will park along the Teton Pass, hike up the mountain, and take a run down before going to work. There are snowtubing and snowmobiling opportunities, including one to a hot springs where a snowmobile is the only way to get there. Snowshoeing is another popular activity, as is dinner sleigh-rides.

We are still in search of the perfect champagne powder snow, and one of these days we'll hit it right. In the meantime, we skied the toughest mountain in the country, saw Yellowstone, loved it all, and that ain't so bad!