Jackson Hole – a masterclass in terrain

I left Big Sky on a nice clear and a cloudy but calm sky, but it wouldn’t last. The winds picked up and did their best to push me around, which doesn’t take much with a vehicle with such big, flat sides. Some 3/4 of the way to Jackson I followed the GPS off the main highway onto a secondary road that ran though desolate farm area, and the storm was causing drifting bad enough that this little traveled road all but disappeared a few times, leaving me to follow the telephone poles that lined the road. Then I got to Teton pass, which crosses the mountain range I would be skiing the next day, and between the storm and 10% grades it wasn’t a pretty sight. But I made it with a minimum of sliding, so all was good.

When I did arrive however, I checked saw lifts closed to high winds, and a forecast for even stronger winds tomorrow. As much as I hated to screw up my schedule, I chose to take a day off, and wait for the slightly calmer Thursday.This at least gave me time that night to go to the town of Jackson, some 10 miles away, to do laundry and have a good hot tub and shower at the rec center. The next morning I stopped in at a local RV dealer to see about getting my furnace fan balanced. Sounds like a whole new motor is the only answer. Not the cheapest solution, and one that wasn’t in stock anyway. My chores done, I made my way back towards the ski resort. Stopping at the farther $5 parking lot, I was informed there was no overnight parking (contrary to what I had read) so found a spot just off the highway to get some work done for a few hours. That didn’t last, as it turned out to be a private road (wasn’t particularly clear). I can actually appreciate the owner’s annoyance as I’ve experienced my share of people barging onto the property back home, usually because they wanted to go see the lake, and sometimes going so far as to walking onto a neighbour’s deck and staring in the windows. So I moved on to a mostly empty parking lot at a closed business down the street, until everyone was off the hill, at which point I moved back to one of the other resort parking lots to spend an undisturbed night. This may all sound trivial but it has become a big part of the experience. Finding a place to stop, especially overnight, is frequently a major task each day.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is a sizable but compact cluster of hotels and associated services at the base of the lifts. It is swankier than I expected, having always got the impression that this place was a bit more plain jane, a hard core resort for those that just wanted to ski gnarly terrain. While it does retain some old west, cowboy style as others have written, it is clearly not on a cowboy budget, indicated in part by the $95 lift ticket. This didn’t stop people from coming though as it was plenty busy this morning. People were lined up deep on the gondola and tram, the two quickest routes to the top section of the hill, itching to get at the powder that was dropped last night, and there was quite alot of it. Jackson has actually been having a great season for snow, decidedly better than the bordering states. I wasn’t about to spend my time standing in line, and didn’t have much time before tours started, so took a run off the zero lineup north end of the mountain, and was rewarded with an absolutely blissful near untouched powder run (starting at the most clever communications station I’ve ever seen, with green painted antennas mounted to a tree… virtually impossible to see until you really look for it).

I got back down just in time to catch a tour with Dick and a couple elderly but strong skiing guests, one of which had a oxygen feed in place, presumably to operate at the elevation reaching over 10,000 feet. I think a “you go girl!” is in order. Despite the relatively long and efficient tour that covered the mountain fairly well, I found myself feeling that I had just scratched the surface of the 2500 acres here. Partly this is due to it being another case of multiple valleys and bowls that break up the terrain, but mostly because so much of the terrain is skiable. This mainly comes down to their not being all that many thickly treed areas. There are trees here certainly, only the peak is alpine terrain, but they tend to be pretty heavily gladded, naturally I presume. End result is the by far the biggest 2500 acres I’ve seen. I certainly had my work cut out for me as I explored the more advanced terrain in the afternoon.

After lunch (which included a sticker on my window notifying me of no overnight parking… this really was the hardest place I’ve come across when it comes to finding a place to park) I made my way back up the gondola, which wasn’t lined up anymore, unlike the tram to the peak which was still pretty heavily backed up. After talking to a few people on the lifts I discovered part of the reason (besides locals wanting to get to all the powder this storm dumped) was because president’s week, as opposed to weekend, was still in full swing for visitors from the east coast, where schools are out for the whole week. We’ve always been extremely busy for the entire President’s week back home in Whistler, so had been surprised to find Big Sky so quiet on Monday. Perhaps the recent top magazine rankings Jackson has received have made it the destination of choice for more travelers.

I started to make my way around the hill, trying to be efficient in my routes as I knew I had alot to cover in a few hours. The lift layout doesn’t always make this easy unfortunately. While the layout is generally OK, they are not very efficient when it comes to trying to cover the hill in a hurry, as opposed to just skiing one area. Less efficient is the amount of hike in terrain, which was looking VERY attractive with the largely untouched 18″ of snow from the last couple days, but it became apparent quickly that I would not have time to do any hiking today. In fact I would soon realize that I needed another couple hours to do this mountain  to my satisfaction.

There’s no shortage of great expert terrain without hiking or the tram, which was still busy. This is certainly what I had heard about Jackson Hole and I was quite happy to see it proved true, especially with a load of new snow. Although after yesterday’s winds it was heavily windblown in places, and as it also got quite warm the day before it was extremely heavy, in fact downright spring snow, on the bottom section, rather a shame as the massive southern bottom half of the mountain held alot of fairly open terrain which would have offered a ton of fresh lines.  But there were enough faces in good condition that I certainly wasn’t complaining. I finally made it onto the tram just before it closed, the very last tram in fact, and found the storm still blowing hard at the top. I got a few nice turns in the wind blown field coming off the peak, a good thing sometimes as it erases tracks of those before you, and made a run all the way back to the bottom via the deep spring Hobacks on the south end of the property.

While I would have loved to stay another day to explore the place better and do a couple hikes, I knew I couldn’t afford to take more time, and I couldn’t park here another night anyway. The weather having cleared up pretty nicely as the mountain closed (this just seems to be the standard weather pattern on all big mountains) I decided to make a run over the pass and to Idaho Falls, where I had read there is a sani station and free park to camp. Pulling out I had to chuckle at quite a coincidence: parked a few spots down from me was the same RV that I was parked next to at Baker, a big corporate bus from Trew Gear. What are the chances? I drove away trying to actually calculate the odds (I’m an engineer, I can’t help it), found the weather just to the south where the pass was had not cleared up, but made it over without incident and arrived at the park in Idaho Falls as the dark took firm hold of the sky.

Top of Jackson Hole (Rendezvous Mountain peak), just above the tram's top station. Click to view 360° panorama.

Looking down the tram line from the top of the Thunder Quad chair. Click to view panorama.

Looking at Bernie's Bowl and the top of the Sublette chair, with the peak looming above, and the huge Rendezvous Bowl coming off our left of the peak.

Looking at Cheyenne/Bernie Bowls (unclear where one ends and the other begins) and the top of the Sublette chair, with the peak looming above, and the huge Rendezvous Bowl coming off our left of the peak.