I haven't been skiing since the late '90s. So, for my first time back, a trip out of bounds though the backcountry outside Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the US was a safe, practical thing to do, right?
Like a lot of people, I grew up going on family ski trips or with the Scouts or school or friends. I was never as good as the people who spent all winter on the mountain, but it was a sport I was able to enjoy. And, living first on the east coast, then in Europe, I'd only ever had a chance to read about the American west's supposedly fantastic skiing in magazines. As far as I knew, there were two kinds of snow: ice and slush.
Then I went to university in London and started paying for things myself. Then New York and then LA. Cities where you can get involved in plenty of other sports, but not really skiing. Not easily anyways, so it fell by the wayside.
Flash forward to this week and I figured I'd be all pizza-French fries on the bunny slope the first day, then maybe be good enough to tackle a blue by the second.
But, the group I was skiing with just got on a lift and all of a sudden we were at the very top of the mountain, with the easiest way down being a steep, intimidating blue. So, I just sucked it up, pushed myself over the edge and — this was a huge surprise — I didn't immediately die. In fact, I was capable of controlling my speed and turning and generally skiing with enough confidence that my friends didn't immediately ditch me.
After lunch, we tried a few blacks, I didn't die on those either, and then the subject of skiing out of bounds came up. We had a guide booked and everyone seemed to think I'd be fine, so I said yes.
Cody Bowl. People (not me) drop right down that chute in the middle of the peak. Photo: Ian Sanderson.
Fast forward to the next day and we're eating waffles in a mountain top cafe, listening to our guide talk to us about stuff like "slide for life," teaching us about avalanche survival and telling us stories about all the people she's rescued where we're going. Apparently one particular section out here has been dubbed "Jersey Shore", for all the Tonys and Vinnys who ski right off the side of a 30.5m cliff.
There's some epic, epic stuff in the Jackson Hole backcountry, a lot of which is simply way too challenging for mortals like me. Just after passing through the gate at the top of the tram and leaving the boundaries of the resort behind, we were able to watch people going off the top of the Cody Bowl, which involves a vertical drop in and a mandatory jump out. And the slope section is angled at maybe 50 degrees, so even when your skis are connected to the mountain, it's pretty tenuous.
People get up there by climbing the mountain's side and then hiking along its precarious ridge. We took a much easier path, skiing down to Rock Springs Bowl, then threading our way a few miles down the mountain and back into the resort to use its lifts.
Trails out of bounds in the state forest are unmarked, obviously, but our guide, Aimee Barnes from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and Climbing School, was able to thread around the dangerous stuff, through the trees and rocks and to the slopes good for actually enjoying skiing. At the bottom of Jersey Shore, she pointed up at where we'd been, just on the top of the cliff. I'd had no idea it was there and can totally see how it'd be easy to just head down hill and find yourself about to fly off it.
It hadn't snowed for a week or more, so I didn't get to experience Wyoming's legendary powder. We were skiing in something the locals called "Mashed Potatoes." Different from the ice or slush I've known before, this snow had grip, which was sort of freaking me out. It turns out that skis have the ability to make turns without digging your edges in hard. It took the entire two days I was out there to get used to that; just sliding your skis around on their flats. The lack of fresh snow also meant there were tracks down the hill, handy for figuring out how to navigate through trees when you're lagging behind everyone else.
Was it hard skiing? I think that at least this portion of the backcountry was actually easier to ski than many of of Jackson's black diamonds (and particularly its double blacks like Courbet's Couloir), but the trees and rocks left me intimidated and that slowed me down. And going slow was not the solution to tackling the bumpy, uneven, ungroomed snow. So I fell over a bunch, but it was all pretty silly and fun and I made it down the mountain in one piece.
Before we went down, I told my girlfriend I was going to ski off-piste and she mentioned that to our friend Jeff, who's from Long Island and has skied here before. Long Island is technically (or at least culturally) a part of New Jersey, so he told her I stood approximately a 99 per cent chance of dying. Thanks Jeff, I had a lot of texts to answer when I got back to to the resort and looked at my phone.
Being able to tackle a real challenge like this and do so safely even with my limited skill is one of the unique things about Jackson Hole and something made possible by skiing with a good guide. If I managed it, you probably can too.
Hardshells form local brand Stio kept me dry even when it was 45 degrees or while I was scooting through the snow on my back.
Want to do it yourself?
Jackson Hole is open through the first week of April, so you still have time to visit this autumn (US spring), but we'll probably talking next summer (US winter) for most people.
We stayed at Hotel Terra, right at the bottom of the slopes. But, that can get expensive and there's many cheaper options in Jackson, just 19km down the road. Many hotels there offer free shuttles to the resort.
Lift tickets for Jackson Hole start at around $US100/day and you can rent full ski equipment there for around $US35/day. I took advantage of the nicer "performance" ski package, which was $US50/day. Ski technology has advance hugely since I last skied and the ability of the good equipment was a big part of why I was able to do all this.
Travel to Jackson can get very expensive with all the connections necessary to reach such a small airport. Jackson Hole Central Reservations is able to throw its weight around with the airlines and negotiate steep travel discounts.
If it's your first time backcountry skiing or if you've never been here before, then you'll want a guide. Prices vary widely based on what you want to go, where you want to go and how many of you there are.
You can see the little slice of Jackson's expansive backcountry that we skied over to far left. The yurt is in those woods near the bottom.
What we'd do differently
There's a backcountry yurt a couple kilometres up the mountain and it'd be amazing to stay there. It's actually reasonably affordable (for a nice ski resort) if you're travelling in a group and you can start skiing amazing terrain right off its porch.
Other than that, my only regret is not staying longer.