For the Love of Mountains
|Code white: A snowboarder leaves a wave in his wake (Nathan Borchelt)|
My father taught himself to ski in Colorado back in the early '70s, when ankle straps were the rage and no one had ever heard of a half pipe. He took me along as soon as I was big enough to slide under the radar of any safety-conscious ski patrollers. I "skied" strapped to his back around the age of two. In the ensuing years, I'd graduated from an arms-out snowplow stance, and had recently been making due on the Mid-Atlantic's often icy slopes. My father, meanwhile, had been cutting turns in Utah, Colorado, and damn near anyplace else he could ski by tagging an extra day or two onto business trips. But we hadn't hit the slopes together in over ten years.
By dawn on our first day, the stage was set, and when I looked out the window and saw gray clouds lining the valley, my spirits soared. Despite the local forecast, it looked like snow. But that was another trick Jackson had in store for us: In addition to trumping D.C. with warmer temperatures, the entire Snake River Valley was undergoing a temperature inversion, caused when warm air rises and cool air stays on the valley floormeaning that the top of the slopes were nearly 20 degrees warmer than the mountain's base.
We boarded the Bridger Gondola, a tank of a lift protected from harsh winds by an adjacent ridgeline so that it runs regardless of the weather. Mid-way up, we broke through the dense carpet of clouds and entered a world of dazzling sunlight and radiant, Caribbean-blue skies.
Bridger deposits you at 9,095 feet, about 1,000 feet shy of highest point, and temps that day hovered in the balmy mid-30s. We shed a layer, adjusted our goggles, and tore into the mountain. Even though the resort hadn't seen fresh snow in over a week, they had received a massive dump between Christmas and the day after New Year'sas much as six feetwhich created a solid base. During the a.m. we stuck to the groomed runs lining the top half of the mountain, weaving down double-blue and black runs. We tore through Amphitheater and into a natural half pipe, jumping in and out before sliding over to near-empty lift lines at Thunder, riding up, then traversing over to Sublette (both lifts are mid-mountain quads, which we rode all morning to take advantage of the temperature inversion). We cut down Dog Face and hip-hopped between Bird in the Hand and Two in the Bush (for the record, the former was the better one that day), before jumping into Cheyenne Gully, a sweet black run weaving through a narrow, tree-dense valley where the snow was surprisingly soft and my father and I were the only skiers in sight.
By midday the sun had softened the otherwise crusty runs, so after refueling on Polish sausage and the local Snake River Ale near the base of the gondola, we took the Aerial Tram straight to the summit, breathed in the surrounding viewa snow-swept landscape interrupted by the jagged peaks of the Tetonsand then schussed down Rendezvous Bowl. We spent most of that day, and much of the rest of the trip, cutting down the north-facing slopes, which are sheltered from the blinding sun and therefore dodge the thaw-and-freeze cycle that transforms other slopes into a teeth-chattering, crusty affair.
At the end of our first day, one thing was clear: Jackson Hole inviteshell, it practically begs forexploration. You can stick to the routes on the map, but some of the most interesting and challenging terrain can be found by linking together two or three different runs, ducking into the narrow, serpentine paths in the trees between marked slopes, zigzagging from one to the other.
In nearly five hours of skiing, we knew we'd only scratched the surface. Tomorrow would be different; we'd have a local showing us his version of the mountain.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication