Department

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.

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.

The hike to Four Pines is a long one, about 45 minutes from the top of the tram, but it isn’t unpleasant. Brief bursts of sunshine light up the falling flakes and make the air sparkle. Fleet-footed locals cheerfully thank me for stepping aside on the boot-packs to let them pass. Strangers all, they greet me with conspiratorial grins confirming that, although I am a visitor to this mountain, I am participating in one of its most cherished rituals.

After a few moments at the top, Barnes gives the nod and we drop into the most luscious turns of the day. A fountain of snow cascades over my shoulders as my legs spring down the untracked slope. We regroup, then dive into another pillowy run. I hear no droning motors from lifts or snowmobiles, just silence—broken only by my whoops. No, it wasn’t the steepest run at Jackson, but I never felt like we were risking death by avalanche, and the freedom from worry let me enjoy the powder with total abandon.

When we cruise back to the base area this time, my new pals and I head for Cascade, a chic après spot in the Teton Mountain Lodge that caters to locals who have outgrown the frat scene at the legendary Mangy Moose. We rest our muscles in upholstered armchairs, devour a plate of nachos, and drive into town to the Alpine House, where we’ve booked rooms.

Run by former Olympic skiers Hans and Nancy Johnstone, who liked the European inns they frequented on the competition circuit, the 22-room Alpine House includes public lounges where guests mingle. A cash bar serves beer and wine, the library’s armchairs and fireplace invite relaxation, and the bedrooms’ French farmhouse decor feels comfortable and crisp—like your grandmother’s spare room (if she lived in Provence).

Skiers find it to be an especially welcoming spot since the staff freely shares suggestions for nearby ski runs likely to hold the best snow. Hans Johnstone, an accomplished mountaineer and guide for Exum (one of the most famous and respected guide corps in the nation), is the first person to have skied all the major routes off the Tetons’ tallest summit and holds a wealth of knowledge about other, easier adventures that guests might want to attempt. In fact, Alpine House started offering its own backcountry packages that present an alternative to the resort’s lift-assisted excursions: Pairing a week’s lodging with Exum-led powder missions to some of the most spectacular parts of the Tetons, the Alpine House’s ski weeks appeal to folks who want to delve deeper into Grand Teton National Park and the big backcountry runs surrounding Jackson Hole.

That could make a fitting sequel to today’s sidecountry exploits, I think. But for now, I’m content to sit in my socks by the fire and sip a glass of Pinot Noir. I gorged myself on powder, and the feast should keep me sated for a while. At least until tomorrow.

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IF YOU GO

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Guided Backcountry Tour from $400; 307-739-2779,
jacksonhole.com

Cascade 3385 Cody Lane, Teton Village; 307-734-7111, tetonlodge.com

The Alpine House 285 N. Glenwood St., Jackson; room rates start at $135; 307-739-1570, alpinehouse.com

Exum Backcountry Ski Weeks offered January 27 to March 8, 2013; packages start at $1,450, including accommodations, guides, yoga, massage, and most meals; 307-733-2297, exumguides.com