Beyond the Ropes

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

December 2012

Out-of-bounds skiing is an ironic offering for a ski area that once forbade rope-ducking. In the early 1990s, Jackson Hole management wrangled with a group of die-hard local skiers, known as the Jackson Hole Air Force, who routinely snuck beyond the resort’s boundaries to poach untracked powder. The showdown came to a head when officials banned Air Forcer and extreme skiing instructor Doug Coombs after he’d been caught shredding the illegal side of the border. But as interest in backcountry skiing skyrocketed, resorts across the country (and especially in Colorado) began to open backcountry zones—nicknamed “sidecountry”—adjacent to lift-served resort runs. Jackson Hole reversed its stance in 1999, and now its guided backcountry tours actually invite patrons to sample the vast riches waiting beyond the ropes.

The resort’s half- and full-day options pair visitors with expert guides who know the sidecountry runs and how to navigate them safely. Hiking is minimal: Groups take the tram up, venture out-of-bounds through the access gates at the top, then re-enter the resort near the base. The skiing isn’t what you’d call technical, but Jackson Hole’s sidecountry requires that skiers be fairly comfy on nongroomed black-diamond slopes.

My day began with early boarding at the tram—a perk that, by itself, would almost be worth the expense of a guide (a full day starts at $675 for a privately guided trip). Fat flakes were falling at 8:15 a.m. when I met Barnes at the tram entrance, which is located in the Teton Village base area. It was the first snow Jackson had received in weeks, and the line of powder-starved skiers already snaked around the dock. But Barnes, three other clients, and I took the fast lane to the head of the queue and squeezed into the box 30 minutes ahead of the masses.

Swirling wind greeted us at the top of the mountain, where we shuffled into Corbet’s Cabin for a final bathroom stop and a 15-minute-long safety briefing. Each of us wore a pack capable of hauling our skis while we hiked (in our ski boots) up the liftless hillsides. We also each carried an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe.

“You think we’ll be able to find some safe pitches?” I asked after Barnes laid out the day’s playbook. Twenty inches of fresh snow had raised the avalanche danger, and forecasters had been issuing cautions about instability. “We’ll choose lower-elevation terrain that’s appropriate for the conditions,” Barnes replied. “But we’ll still find plenty of fun.”

Back outside, we clicked into our bindings and followed Barnes down Rendezvous Bowl, Jackson’s signature inside-the-ropes powder run. The storm softened—but didn’t fully bury—the moguls that had formed over the snowless weeks, so my ride alternated between silky and spine-shuddering. Rejoining Barnes at the bottom of the bowl, where a backcountry access gate led to the Rock Springs area, I was eager for cushier slopes.

After a five-minute traverse punctuated by a few short hikes, cushion is exactly what I got. Barnes led us through a series of low-angle meadows that was tracked but supple, and in some pockets I floated through knee-deep fluff. We regrouped every few hundred yards so our guide could point out the next segment. “This is one of the mellower options, but it’s easy to take a wrong turn back here and get cliffed out,” she said. For 30 minutes our group descended, slinky-style, seeing no other riders until we re-entered the resort boundary at the Hobacks and rode the Union Pass quad back to the base area.

Most groups complete three laps in a full-day program; after four, our aggro posse was gunning for a fifth. Barnes was game; her superathlete strength would’ve let her do 20 runs if the tram’s quitting time didn’t limit her. We had the option of another uphill ride, so we boarded the tram for a final run.