Beyond the Ropes

Poaching fresh powder in Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s famous backcountry.

December 2012

More than 20 minutes of hiking in the snow has me out of breath and a touch disoriented. Low clouds and heavy snow hide any landmarks I might use to get my bearings. “Where are we?” I ask. Not that I need to navigate. Along with a small group of other advanced skiers, I’m following Aimee Barnes, a backcountry guide at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

“Four Pines,” she says. Her answer sends shivers through my overheated core.

Four Pines is one of the most hallowed names in Jackson Hole ski lore. Like Arapahoe Basin’s Pallavicini or Vail’s back bowls, the Four Pines powder fields epitomize Jackson’s greatness. Hit these long, untrafficked slopes after a storm, when snow billows over your shoulders for a full 3,400 vertical feet of surfy bliss, and you’ll start scanning the Jackson classifieds for apartment rentals and dish-washer jobs.

But unlike Pallavicini—or even Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole’s famously vertiginous counterpart—no signs point the way to Four Pines, which sits beyond the resort boundary. Finding it requires a series of traverses and hikes that aren’t overly arduous, but do cross a labyrinth of drainages that can be confusing to the uninitiated. The terrain also presents a real avalanche threat, as no control measures are executed away from the resort.

That’s why I’m shadowing Barnes. Her 20-plus years as a climbing and skiing guide include stints in Alaska, extensive avalanche training, and countless forays into the Jackson backcountry—making her more experienced than most of the locals who routinely hike to Four Pines and other choice backcountry stashes. Lacking their local knowledge, I’ve signed on with the resort’s guide service. I’ll get to experience the long, long runs that make Jackson famous the world over. I’ll also get to return, unhurt and unlost, to a civilized dinner in town.