Flying into Jackson Hole provides a spectacle so stirring it might herald one’s arrival in the pristine outer reaches of the universe. Especially on clear winter days, when capes of angelic snow whiten the horns of glistening stone so lyrically named the Tetons.
Youngest of the Rockies, the Tetons are still being broke by nature in this, the state that features a bronco on its license plate. No foothills soften the tough-as-nails mountains that have bucked glaciers and quakes—just their bolder cousins, moraines and buttes. The glacial-scooped rock brims with a chain of reflective lakes, barely decipherable from land in snowy winter.
Nearly everything that is good and pure about Earth is in this 60-mile-long valley in brash western style—from epic mountain wilderness to cultural riches.
I had come for the piles and drifts of snow on slopes, in chutes and canyons. But just minutes from the airport, dwarfed by the fault-blocked jags, is the National Museum of Wildlife Art, doubling as a natural rock outcropping. En route to Jackson proper, the three-year-old museum is a fitting prologue to the raw and broken landscape beyond its doors.
Constructed of mortared shards of red sandstone like a modern-day Anasazi ruin, the museum surrenders its bulk to the plumb line of a butte. Not so, the giant crouching bronze cougar dominating the bright, spacious lobby. He and other archetypes of the old and new American West anchor the permanent collection, which holds some of the world’s finest wildlife art, including masterpieces by Catlin, Bierstadt, Clymer, Rungius, Audubon, and others. The yellow eyes of Ken Carlson’s brooding wolf would haunt me for days, as if it might pounce from the trees I skied among.
As the departure point for a popular horse-drawn sleigh ride to the National Elk Refuge, the museum twice blessed our stop. Established in 1912, when famished elk were dropping by the thousands from competing development, the refuge is the feeding ground for 11,000 elk, which herd down from the high country in winter. From the road they appear as a spine of hedges on the battened snowfield. Close up you can watch them lock antlers or do nothing as a sly coyote wanders through.
In the near distance the Teewinot, "many pinnacles" as the Shoshone Indians aptly named the Teton Range, rise abrupt as razorbacks from the valley floor, their architecture following one everywhere in the "hole"—mountain man jargon for valley. Even as we checked in to our lodging atop Gros Ventre Butte, the sky had drained of color, but not before flushing the Tetons’ savage east face a showy vermilion and lavender.
It was more in the spirit of the spectator than the exhibitionist daredevil that I had my day at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Teton Village. "This mountain is like nothing you have skied before. Its terrain presents everything from groomed slopes to dangerous cliffs. And its weather is just as variable."
I didn’t need to hear this safety message twice. The mountain boasts 4,139 feet of vertical, revokes lift privileges from the reckless, and its contours and grades, I confirmed from the tram, were no illusion.
I found enough gentle terrain suited to my comfort level. Ball bearings couldn’t have added more free slide than the rented pair of parabolics. Up the face of 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain on the day’s last tram ride with a crush of others, I went, watching cruisers carve snow in and out of knots of pines—no conveyor belt skiing on this mountain. I was flush against a guy who said to his girlfriend, "Honey, I’m going down Corbet’s Couloir."
From my aerial perch, I saw the famous couloir, named for Barry Corbet, an extreme Jackson Hole skier who conquered Everest in 1963. Corbet’s is a nearly vertical chute near the top, softening to a 50-degree pitch, but giving none on its vertical drop of 500 feet. You pray for a powder dump to ski off it, but if not you take your chances negotiating a ten- to fifteen-foot jump, followed by a quick left turn to avoid the rock wall.
Although you don’t experience the same "Tetonic" grandeur at the older Snow King, some local alpine skiers choose its 7,871-foot mountain over Jackson, because it combines steep, cheap ($28 lift ticket vs. $48), and no-wait lines. It’s right in Jackson, off the town square, and has night skiing and an advanced mile-long cruise from the top (it has nothing like Jackson’s seven-and-a-half-mile catwalk, which laces back and forth across the mountain face).
Snow King’s relative tranquillity might be summed up in its day lodge specialty—comforting grandma-style chicken soup. At Jackson Resort, set in the faux Swiss-style village, I was willing to brave the crowds at the Mangy Moose for live cowboy poetry. Echo Roy, a woman who made deliberate referrals to herself as a cowboy, recited a saga of cattle ranching. A guitar-slung father and his ten-year-old son’s witty iambic pentameter kept us chuckling along.
Grand Targhee Ski Resort, on the Teton’s gentler west face, is reached by driving into Idaho over 8,000-foot Teton Pass, then back into Wyoming. More than one local declared Targhee a favorite, with adulations running to "snorkeling" through the powder.
Near the 10,200-foot summit of Targhee, my friend later reported, he met with white-out conditions that give the area its nickname, Grand Foghee. If not for the skiers on his chairlift, who showed him the way down, he might have ended up like another solitary skier, reported lost a day later.
Not quite Aspen
No worry of getting lost as we cross-country skied in Grand Teton National Park, with our constant beacons, the French fur trapper-named Trois Tétons, just a few thousand feet to our west—Grand Teton, at 13,770, and Middle and South, both over 12,000 feet.
A quad-burning, nine-mile round-trip to Jenny Lake took us through blinding snowy meadows and past a historic homestead. We brushed limbs of Engle-mann spruce and subalpine fir, gave lodgepoles the right-of-way. Every glide had close-up views of named peaks—Teewinot and Mt. Owen, for example.
Browsing the park’s Moose Visitor Center with its relief model of the valley (including the once-embattled 52 square miles given the U.S. by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.), we saw how only about three percent, or 70,000 acres, of Jackson Hole is private land.
Even so, it’s enough to encourage a trendiness comparable to Aspen’s, notwithstanding the 1932 Rotary Club’s arches of tangled elk antlers around the town square. Jackson flaunts its Wild West persona, running from tasteful to cliché, with hides, beads, feathers, pottery sometimes looking more like trinketry than art.
Lodgings run the spectrum, too. The upscale Spring Creek Resort offered rustic elegance in its lodgepole-pine suite with large stone fireplace, while the Rusty Parrot, a few blocks from Jack-son’s planked walks, was elegant in an uptown way. Its hot tub was on a deck facing night skiers at Snow King. Both places had an outdoor spa for the mind-altering sensation of going from knife-cold to needle-sharp hot.
We spent a couple nights at the famous gable-roofed Wort Hotel with its Silver Dollar Bar, inlaid with 2,032 real silver dollars. Its corridors echoed with bygone gambling days, but today the Wort buzzes with après-ski activity, such as the trio of women we caught one night singing 1940s standards, bluegrass style. Our best meal came from the Silver Dollar—excellent duck, elk, and filet mignon. The Range and the Cadillac Grill were close seconds.
A few demerits: Anthony’s has copious servings but mediocre Italian dishes with heavy tomato and cream sauces. At Bubba’s, the ribs did not live up to rave reviews, nor did the waterlogged corn, pedestrian salad bar, and un-garlicky garlic bread. I’d expected better from cowboys. But Jedediah’s was the place for breakfast—delicious tart sourdough pancakes, great biscuits and gravy, and much rib-sticking cold-weather fare.
On your telemark...
A strong intermediate Nordic skier who wanted to learn telemarking skills, I didn’t mind that everyone else on this side trip was advanced and I’d have to stick to less steep terrain. But when I saw the equipment of the four others, I swallowed hard. Their stuff must have been fed steroids. Not to worry, we had two guides, Diane and Connolly, for times when the pitch would separate us.
I met the owners of the intimidating gear at the solar-powered Guest House in Teton Valley, one valley west of Jackson Hole in Idaho, near the west slope of the Tetons. rriving from points east, they wisely had spent a night or two in the romantic three-bedroom inn, with snow up to its eaves.
From the Guest House, we drove to our trailhead in Grand Targhee National Forest, then skied leisurely up-canyon through fir, spruce, and pine for three miles, each of us carrying 20- to 30-pound backpacks to the Commissary Ridge yurt. We stopped for lunch, then slipped skins on our skis for the last steep mile to the yurt. By the end of the first day, Connolly was affectionately known as Yurt Meister, Diane as Lady Di or Yurt Mistress. Obviously, owning chunky, high-tech gear doesn’t mean you don’t know how to have fun.
The yurt, rearing only its roof above the snow like a mushroom cap, was hearth and home for three days and gave evidence of having been so for many seasons to many others. Its rough-hewn furniture, planks for our sleeping bags, and old porcelain camp utensils were well broken-in. We stoked its wood-burning stove, melted snow for cooking/drinking water, and called the floaties in it "camp spice." One night Connolly mixed snow with sweetened condensed milk and treated us to "camp ice cream."
From the Mongolian-style dwelling each morning we’d ski deeper into forest, higher up the ridge, to a trackless, sparsely timbered 25-degree slope. The others would climb and float, splashing down like surfers, each in his own nebula of powder—true telemarkers, full of grace and balletic poise, weightless even when they fell.
One of them said it was on this ridge last year he’d learned to link turns. Bend knee, lift heel, alternate, rise. It looked seamless. I admired the series of italics each left on the clean slope, so I tried. Bend knee, lift heel. Fall. Repeat. I left, not italics, but a series of full-body prints. Clearly, I needed basic lessons on real telemarks—my fishscales were too long to turn. Resuming my old kick-glide or skate was no heartbreak.
On the second morning, a blizzard moved in, wiping out our view of the Tetons. "A kahuna," Diane said repeatedly. But it replenished the forest and made the remoteness more appealing. We had come to be snowbound, so out we went, tracking the virgin layer, genuflecting, raising heels in the high piles.
In the toasty wood-fired yurt, Connolly and Diane (a former figure skater) cooked up hot meals to stoke our inner furnace. The primitive dwelling afforded comfort, even as we zipped up our down bags at night and the fire kindled to cold ashes by dawn.
Our last day, the others were keyed up to do the infamous "traverse," a rugged up-and-down route to the east side of the Tetons. They settled for skiing back to the trailhead by way of 10,000-foot Mt. Beard. Diane and I skied through new powder, down Beaver Creek, a V-shaped canyon. Its walls sloped high above us and we made lots of narrow turns through winter greenery, over frozen streams.
Back at the Guest House alone, I slipped onto the deck, into the hot tub surrounded by apple trees from an original homestead. I leaned back, let the steam heat soak in, and imagined my own italics on a distant slope.
We break for buffalo
It was too tempting to pass up—a sidetrip, north of Jackson Hole, to the nation’s first and the lower 48’s largest national park, Yellowstone. The grizzlies are asleep in winter, traffic-clogged roads a faint summer memory.
The sky was polished to a molten glow by sub-zero cold and the scenery was bright as silver. Fresh snow molded to sagebrush hills and the Tetons. We layered ourselves in wool, down, and fleece-pile and drove north to Flagg Ranch.
Ten years earlier, I’d done this trip from the park’s west entrance in Montana, and every December since longed for the quiet of forest, rivers, lakes stilled by deep snow. And of course, there are the bison, moose, wintering wildfowl, coyotes, and the ravings of a giant magma chamber that even snow and ice cannot still.
At Flagg Ranch, we parked our vehicle and joined others in a ’65 Bombardier ski coach that would take us to Old Faithful. Up Lewis Canyon we rolled, the Pitchstone Plateau welling up to our west.
Our driver stopped often to let us admire the winterized wilderness, like 37-foot Lewis Falls, edged with crystalline tusks of icicles. Stars of sunlight glinted off the snouts of ice, rime frost coated bare branches, and snow nested like pillows in pines. We spied four trumpeter swans inured to the bracing cold river and hoped to see one unfurl its eight-foot wingspan.
The packed snow, as deep as 12 feet, couldn’t stop the action at Yellowstone’s thermal area. The fumaroles, mudpots, and steam vents hissed and gurgled as we stood safely on the boardwalk over walls of vapor. Scalding pools were rimmed in turquoise, coral, and yellow, a rainbow of minerals, algae, and bacteria.
Our ski coach halted then crawled by one affable bison in the middle of the road. At Old Faithful we had enough daylight left to clamp on our skis and glide around the geyser. Old Faithful’s predictability has slipped slightly, but she still spouts off about every 77 minutes, gushing up to 8,400 gallons of water, as high as 180 feet in the span of two to five minutes.
The cold night lit up warmly with one yellow wolf eye, a fat moon, clearing a ridge. We sat down to a good old-fashioned American dinner of roast chicken, steak, corn, and potatoes in the basic though comfortable Snow Lodge.
The little cabins I’d stayed in ten years ago had burned in the ’88 fire, which affected 36 percent of the park. However, the trails—to Fairy Falls, through snow-muffled forest, past the herds of bison or moose—were intact.
We left early morning, again slowing for that lone bison at the same spot in the road, our noble symbol of the American West.
Photography courtesy of Ams100272/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in January 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.