words by Marc Peruzzi | photography by Chris Figenshau
The Jackson Hole Air Force strafes the Pass.So there's a woman snowboarder with her board strapped to her backpack and she's kicking lazy steps up the bootpack to the summit of Mount Glory—the most heavily trafficked backcountry ski route on the most heavily trafficked "slackcountry" (easily accessible backcountry) terrain in the Lower 48 if not all of the world: Teton Pass between Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Victor, Idaho. So anyway she's blissing out and the sun is shining on her cute, sandy-blonde braid, which is poking out from her just-so-right knit beanie that her friend made and that you can buy online with 15 percent of the net profits going to a melanoma clinic in Nepal, and there's fresh snow waiting for her and maybe she has Norah Jones on her Shuffle and maybe her yellow Labrador is bouncing along next to her with little Gore-Tex booties on its feet. Or maybe none of that is true and she's just an indiscriminate outdoorsy type from Jackson where statuesque women smile through oversized choppers and little fuzzy Catholic girl mustaches and wear their sunglasses outside their hats. Regardless of the stereotypes, her Outback is parked in the lot 500 feet below with the engine still ticking and the summit is getting closer—but what's the rush since she sets her own hours as a self-employed purveyor of positivity and life coach and her two clients will understand once she blogs—oh so joyously—about this day.
But there's a skier approaching uphill from behind and his ponytail feels a little dated and a scruffy short beard catches the nap of his mid-layer at the collar and he extends his neck to break it free and somewhere on his person is a black sew-on patch with a crude skull and crossbones, the acronym for Jackson Hole Air Force, J.H.A.F., and the words Swift, Silent, Deep. And maybe he's here because the Jackson Hole Tram is out of commission for this strange winter of 2008 and maybe he'd be here anyway because first tracks in the backcountry is what the patch is all about. And besides, quality vertical is quality vertical. Which is why he is rabbiting up the track. And the badge and the sponsored clothing he's wearing that's already fading and the fact that he's been hauling ass up this bootpack for 25 years longer than the "ducks" with their snowboards and shampooed dogs and clinging soft-shell pants and $700 telemark boots and expandable ski poles makes him feel just a bit entitled. And shit the skiing is good today. And he's already passed 10 people who all stepped aside and now this.
Closing fast and not wanting to break stride because he has laps to do, he calls out a simple "comin' through," and then again, "Hey, will you let me by," his cries going unanswered but for the muffled wailing of Norah who sounds like she's buried in the snowpack. Accustomed to this, the skier reaches out with his ski pole and taps the side of the rolling roadblock's snowboard, and then again with gusto like he's knocking on her goddamn back door. The 700-fill down parka (a bright metallic green) stuffed into her pack for the hike only to be slipped into—oh so gloriously—on the summit absorbs the warning. Frustrated now and not really thinking, or who knows, maybe lucid and calm, the skier reaches out with his gloved right hand, grasps the right edge of the board that's strapped to the pack that's buckled to the life coach and applies steady pressure back and to the left. Off balance and off guard on the steep bootpack, the victim spins to the south and briefly eyeballs the skier before centrifugal force deposits her on her back in the deep soft snow. Feet and arms up. Pack and board down. Maybe she is bleating. Certainly she is turtled.
Cursing ensues. Her boyfriend turns back. It nearly comes to blows. In the ensuing days, the skier, a local celebrity of sorts as the current face of the JHAF—a dark cult of Jackson Hole rippers that try to be anonymous but don't succeed much—enlists some friends and sets about building a parallel bootpack up Glory going so far as to pound in a sign at the bottom with two black diamonds on it and the words EXPRESS BOOT PACK! Fast hikers have right of way! And then as an add-on: No Dogs! And at the bottom of the sign—a sticker with skulls and bones and the letters JHAF. An edict issued. The town on fire with it all. Everyone with an opinion. Blogs blowing up. As are the PR flacks at the Outdoor Retailer show who repeat the story to me with a knowing insider's grin. The JHAF skier is identified as Jason Tattersall. The Turtling on Teton Pass as backcountry skiing's Gulf of Tonkin.
Except it never happened. At least not exactly like that.Don’t be a duck. Ski the gut. Tattersall on point.
First some background.
Skis were invented in Central Asia's Altai region between 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. And there was much rejoicing. When migrating Reindeer People on snowshoes encountered the sweet new gear they scored some at tremendous discounts and dispersed it across northern Eurasia both west—where Early Norwegians, Finns, and Swedes really took to the skis—and east—where still more Reindeer Peoples followed their namesake ungulates (what we in North America know as caribou) over the Bering land bridge. At some point up there in treeless Beringia, a dad hoping to teach his teenage son an important life lesson burned the People's last pair of skis to "save the tribe from hypothermia." It's a little known fact that ski manufacturing didn't reach this hemisphere during prehistory because that same teenage son—who could shape a sick pair of boards—wanted to teach his old man an important lesson about being an asshole.
Bummer. Anyway, Native Americans had great luck with the snowshoe (zzz) and modified it a thousand different ways, but the ski didn't make it to North America in earnest until the California Gold Rush of the mid 1800s—an event that drew a lot of Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians who—despite the Aquavit and overbearing fathers—remembered how to build skis.
So, while the Crow, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Shoshone-speaking Sheepeater tribes likely snowshoed over what is now Teton Pass for thousands of years, they can't be credited for any first descents. Skis wouldn't catch on locally until the 1920s when Jackson residents started hiking what is today the Snow King ski area in town before straight running using a single pole to turn and brake in the Reindeer People style. Around this time, the Teton Pass road was improved—the first car to drive it in 1910 needed the help of a team of horses to make it over—and eventually a rope tow operator set up a ski hill on the top of the Pass to the south of Mount Glory. When Jackson Hole resort opened in 1964, the Pass lift went away and so might have Pass skiing if not for the fact that by the late 1960s, patrollers and instructors could be found kicking steps up Glory for the spring corn cycle. The Glory Bootpack was formed. And there was much rejoicing.
But nothing much came of it for a long time. By 1971 Bill Briggs would have skied the Grand Teton, kicking off a long history of Jackson-based ski mountaineering, but other than for a few very seasoned anti-social types on skinny skis, skiing the steeper terrain on the Pass in winter would remain almost unheard of until the 1980s.
"It was way mellower than it is now," says Michael Kennedy, the editor of Climbing magazine at the time, referring not to the Reindeer People's scene in Beringia (decidedly chill), but to the backcountry scene on Teton Pass in the 1980s. Kennedy, along with a crew from Colorado and a Jackson local or two, was one of the first to ski Taylor, the windswept dome to the west of Glory, in winter. This was back in 1983 and they did it on old free-heel tele gear that was new then but would have been considered old in the 1930s when telemark skiing—a technique modification the Norwegians made on the Reindeer People's steezy style—went out of fashion the first time. "But it was still a bit crazy compared to the places we skied in Colorado. A few other people were out every time we went. In Colorado you usually slogged a fair distance through the woods before getting into the good ski terrain, so Teton Pass seemed almost like cheating. Get out of the car, skin up for an hour or less and get the goods, hitchhike back to the car or set a skin track and do laps. Plus the snowpack was way better, or at least seemed that way, so you could ski steeper terrain."
Right. So that takes us from 15,000 B.C. (Altai) to the 1980s (Teton Pass). The gear has changed, but with the Telemarking People especially, skiing remains strangely tribal. Enter Modernity: With the advent of fat skis in the late 1990s, supply and demand made virgin snow expensive and hard to find. Resorts were overrun by nouveau powder skiers tracking up terrain that only true experts used to ski. For those with the resources, heli- and snowcat-skiing offered powder at a price, but $500-plus was too expensive for regular Joes. So the regular Joes did what they always do in America—they industrialized. Avalanche education, digital avalanche transceivers, and evermore-efficient alpine touring (AT) skis, boots, and bindings became readily available.
For a brief time the Telemark People tried to make a stand in the path of manifest destiny. Their old ways would soon be overrun by more regimented backcountry skiing. "In the backcountry, let's face it, the tele turn is not practical," says Bruce Tremper, who is going into his 25th year as the Director of the Utah Avalanche Center. "Now telemark skiing is almost exclusively done at the resorts. Meanwhile the AT equipment gets heavier and heavier so the skiers are staying closer to the road. The mindset has changed as well. They'll go to the top of the steepest couloir they can find and they'll set up the video camera and figure 11 down." Tremper guesstimates the number of backcountry skiers (and snowboarders, and snowmobilers, and snowshoers) in the Wasatch doubles every five years.
But popular slackcountry areas were never envisioned as free-to-the-public ski areas. And, as you found in the meatpacking districts and ghettos of the early industrial age, the infrastructure couldn't handle the crowding. The facilities, a trailhead and an outhouse at best, don't match up with the user numbers. On top of Teton Pass—where it should be said the Office of Telemark Affairs has done a wonderful job matriculating more than a dozen tele skiers—the parking lot is packed by 7:00 a.m. Drivers routinely wait 30 minutes for parking spaces. The lot, which only holds 60 cars, turns over three times a day. A conservative estimate would put 400 to 500 hundred skiers on the Glory bootpack.
It became such a cluster that a local advocacy group called Friends of Trails hired a local ski guide named Jay Pistano as a full time Pass Ambassador in winter. "I saw it turning into a junk show," says Pistano. "There's a general lack of trail etiquette. It only takes a few people to make us all look like jerks. If you put a slide across the road you have to fess up to it so we know that nobody is buried in there. You don't want a plow driver to plunge into it with the rotary plow and see jackets coming out."
Beyond the life and death issues of avalanches, most of the troubles on Teton Pass range from the mundane—people not picking up after their dogs—to the type of squabbling and open hostilities one might expect at a Patriots game when the Jets are in town. Yellow holes in the snow banks. Road rage. Fistfights in the parking lot. And on the bootpack, well, it's devolved to turtling.
Right, so as it turns out an old ski buddy from New Hampshire and Alta is renting a shack on the Idaho side of the Pass in Driggs. I buy peanut butter, oats, and apples and drive eight hours to sleep on his floor. On the Pass, my headlights bounce off flakes as big as July moths. My heart thumps.
I've made plans to ski a morning each with the salty mountaineer and avalanche forecaster, Rod Newcomb who has been skiing the Pass since the 50s; the young gun who holds the record for the number of laps on Glory, the snowboarder Luke Lynch; the editor of the local paper whose photo almanac of the Pass is the only real guide, the defacto Pass historian Angus Thuermer; and, of course, the 25-year Pass skier, Jackson Hole Air Force turtle tipper and primary, the pro skier Jason Tattersall.
Except my plans with Tattersall are tenuous since his voicemail has been full for three months and when I leave a message I only get a message in return in sing-song Jackson Hole skier soprano along the lines off, "Hey Marc, be stoked to get out and ski with you. We should try to get out for a sunset ski when the light is good for shooting. And yeah I can spew about the Pass. Call me and we'll connect."
But first I'm skiing with my friend, and hell no, I really don't want to hike up Glory either. Hiking is for people who don't have AT gear. We meet up with a couple of other guys and set out for a tour on the Idaho side. The night sky has robbed the hollows of warmth and the surface hoar is glinting. Our climbing skins whistle as we follow a skin track into the West Mail Cabin area and line up for first tracks on a big face we're calling Super Bowl, but Rod Newcomb will later ID as Windy Pass. And, shit, the snow is good. We drop in one at a time waiting for the first guy to finish and my buddy knocks off about a million tele turns in the fluff.
Skinning again, I learn that one of the guys lives on the Jackson side and also has the black patch with the skull and bones on it. I tell him I'm to ski with Tattersall and he breaks into a mimic soprano replicating the message on my phone. It's, "Teton Pass is all done. You should have been here 10 days ago." And, "So you drove all the way up here from Boulder and you think you're gonna ski the Pass?" And, "Teton Pass is all done, you should have been here in the 70s."
We cap our tour with a steep shot down the first Do-It. There's a lean woman in her 40s touring up for a one-and-done with a little wire hair dog in her pack and he scampers around for a bit and my old Alta buddy makes a thousand more tele turns and she says so. A few minutes later, we turn to look at our tracks from the lot. The Budweisers are frozen and foam pours from the cans in a slow motion celebration. The JHAF guy has stopped doing Tattersall and is now doing Venice Beach muscleman, pointing at our tracks as he flexes, saying, "I think I left my beach ball on the first Do-It." And Teton Pass is definitely not done.
The first time I ever hike the Glory bootpack, I do so with Rod Newcomb, 75, a longtime Exum mountain guide and one of the fathers of North American avalanche education and forecasting. Rod first skied Glory in the 1950s in low-cut leather boots and wooden skis with strap on sealskins. Like modern AT gear, the old bindings let you free your heel on the way up and lock in for the downhill. Sealskins worked fine except on traverses when the edges wouldn't bite. But on Glory, Rod and company do as we do now and hike with skis on packs. The bootpack leads up a loosely treed spine next to an avalanche path. A more roundabout skin track would put you on the slide path where you'd screw up the skiing and get yourself dead. From the parking lot at 8,400 feet, to the summit of Glory at 10,086, it's a 1,686-vertical-foot staircase of snow—a few hundred feet taller than the Empire State Building if you included the spire. From the summit you can ski nearly 360 degrees. It is the best slackcountry skiing in the U.S.
With Angus Thuermer, the Pass historian and Co-editor of the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in front, Rod and I scramble over the north-side snowbank and put boots to steps. Rod is ropey and gray, but so spry that only the gathering fog in his eyes betrays his age. We chat while we hike. But he'd prefer to only discuss snow science. "I can tell you about avalanches," he says, "but I can't tell you much about the skiing up here." I'm not about to press one of the Joe DiMaggio figures in the sport of skiing. And anyway, I want to know what it is about Glory that draws so many skiers. I suspect it has to do with the avalanche controls performed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT).
To our right are the dual slide paths known as The Twins, which share the same starting zone below the summit before splitting around a stand of trees and running to the road. When the Twins, along with the main Glory Bowl avalanche path, ran uncontrolled the debris would take out anything unfortunate enough to be on the road and often the road itself. As if from a folk song, Angus and Rod mention the deaths of the woodcutter's son and the doctor's son as early awakenings that something needed to be done. But for most of its brief history, avalanche mitigation on the Pass was chaotic. It wasn't until a major avalanche cycle on Glory ripped out a bridge in the 1970s that WYDOT hired a full time avalanche forecaster. But because the person didn't do much during low-snow years, they ended up cutting the position.
That changed 16 years ago with the installation of two remotely activated avalanche control units on Glory called Gaz-Ex blasters. If a storm or wind event deposits snow in an avalanche start zone, a slab of consolidated snow might form. Think of a slab as stored energy being held in place by unpredictable bonds between wee crystals in the snowpack. If you've ever stepped on the surface of the snow only to see cracks shoot out, you've experienced that slab energy. Now tip it to 40 degrees. When the slab breaks free from the underlying layers, the stored energy is released and gravity pulls the snow downhill. The bigger (in square yards or acres) and thicker the slab, the more energy it releases and the faster the speeds, harder the trauma, deeper the burials, until you get avalanches that snap old growth timber and rip steel bridges from concrete footings.
The Gaz-Ex units look like something Dr. Seuss dreamed up: two giant bathroom faucets sticking out of the slope in the prime avalanche-birthing zones. When WYDOT closes the road (usually at night) and an avalanche forecaster flips a switch, a mix of propane and oxygen floods the faucet, an igniter clicks, and you get an explosion very much like the one had you left the top down on the gas grill before lighting it. Except here the ground is the lid and there's a lot more gas. The hope is that the downward whomping on the snowpack will release small slab avalanches so that devastating climax slides can't build up.
Gaz-Ex units work well, but because they're fixed in place they can't control the entire slope. Perhaps a slab is forming in a tertiary starting zone. Maybe the small slabs aren't big enough to disturb weak layers 70 yards down slope and two meters deep. To augment the Gaz-Ex, WYDOT still had to drop charges from helicopters and fire howitzers. Then in 2004 they installed the first two remote control Avalanche Guards in the country. Called blaster boxes by locals, they look like inconspicuous electrical boxes mounted on poles. But inside each box is an assortment of three-kilogram charges, similar—but bigger—to what a ski patroller would throw at a resort. Except instead of a baseball throw, the black powder launches the charge 230 meters. The forecaster decides on a direction and a distance. The door opens. There's a puff of smoke as black powder propels the charge. A fuse ignites. And—POW, BOOM, ZOINKS—avalanches run downhill.
Rod points out the blaster boxes and Gaz-Exes as we hike. I find the site of all the avalanche control infrastructure reassuring. To ski an unmitigated Mount Glory in the height of winter would be a serious undertaking that if done properly would require every bit of a weathered backcountry skier's skills. Pits would be dug, islands of safety would be identified, group protocol would be followed, nerves would be wracked, and afterwards there would be a great sense of accomplishment. But with the crowded lot, well-established bootpack, tracks all over the place, and the constant reminder that WYDOT is controlling much of Glory, I can't shake the feeling that we're within ski area boundaries.
We aren't. The blaster boxes and Gaz-Exs aren't there to make my ski day more fun. They were installed to keep huge slides from destroying the road and hindering commerce. It only takes a small slide to push a skier into a tree, breaking his back, or into a gully, burying him. But the tracks and the bomb holes do inform. And frequently Glory bootpackers use that information to ski alone. Which is fine—except for the part about nobody being around to dig you out. The last avalanche victim to die on the Pass was buried in January of 2003. A 27-year-old Czech in his third winter in Wyoming, he headed out alone without a transceiver. An avalanche dog found his body days later.
Still, for whatever reasons, avalanche control, a savvy user group, nuances of terrain or snowpack, or just plain dumb luck, the death toll on Teton Pass is low. It's that perception of safety—which Michael Kennedy noticed in the early 1980s—that adds to Teton Pass's popularity.
Clicked into our bindings, Rod, Angus, and I find stable snow for our descent. An edgeable layer topped with loose powder breaks over the cuff of our boots. We ski together down a gentle ridge before cutting left and lining up a shot in north-facing trees that we'll ski one at a time. Rod kicks his tails into the snow in a classic Alta Start position before arcing round guide turns through the refrigerated leftovers. We traverse a bench and then drop another 1,500-feet through glades to the road. Angus flags a car and a young German woman out skiing the Pass solo pulls over. In five minutes we're back at the lot. Less than an hour of casual hiking—we stopped to check out the Gaz-Ex and let faster groups by on the bootpack—earned us a heli-ski quality run.
I want to tell the fräulein that Teton Pass is kaput. You should have been here before the Sheepeaters tracked it up.
Turtles make frequent appearances in Native American creation stories. But turtles have no real connection to this story. The turtling never happened. There was no woman bleating in the snow belly up. No woman involved at all. The incident that did occur is discussed at great length by nearly every skier in Wyoming on the blog jhunderground.com. The snowboarder was a guy and while he did get turned around abruptly by an impatient Tattersall, he didn't land on his back. He claims Tattersall never called out a warning. Tattersall claims otherwise. There was some yelling. But new snow covers old tracks. If there is still tension on the Pass, I certainly didn't feel it.
The parallel bootpack didn't survive the 2008 season. When I take a morning Pass run with Luke Lynch, the snowboarder who on a whim brought a dozen donuts and a jug of chocolate milk to the bottom of the bootpack and knocked off 12 Glory laps in 12 hours, he tells me how one day he watched Tattersall and some friends put in the Teton Passing Lane. Luke made three full laps before they got to the top. Going slower certainly wasn't Tattersall's point and the experiment failed. As crowded as it gets—Luke routinely passes 50 hikers on a single climb—most people obey the age-old tradition of stepping to the side when someone faster comes by. For those in iPod oblivion, a sharp whack to the poles suffices. Turtling is more of a vague but tantalizing threat.
Four ski days after the storm that dogged me as I drove in, Luke and I find only two sets of tracks in the bowl off to the north of Glory called Little Tuckerman's. The bowl skis fast and spongy. The snow in the lower trees is now crusty but manageable. We hitch back to the lot. Luke gets to work by 9:00 a.m. I eat a peanut butter sandwich as I sit on my rear bumper and watch the ducks. There's a group of women that appear to be fashion models walking around gawking at the snow and climbing the bank in tight jeans. With their thin knees and plumage for hair, they look like exotic water birds blown off course—more crane than duck, though. They migrate and a group of guys from Colorado with shiny new AT gear and gel in their hair spy my Colorado plate before I can shift over to hide it. They ask me where they should go. These must be the ducks. Starting to get a little protective, I ask them if they've been to the resort and then reluctantly point them toward the heavily tracked Twins. After only four days of Pass skiing I'm acting like a local.
What is it about backcountry skiing and this sense of ownership? Does getting someplace first give you more rights? (Probably not.) Can I lord it over the ducks because I have more experience? (Maybe a little.) Am I really that big of an asshole? (Without a doubt.) But there's more to it. The backcountry and even the slackcountry is all about earning it. Every sweeping turn through powder is paid for with long kicked strides on touring gear; for every momentary brush with weightlessness there is the gravity of the hike. Surely there was infighting back in the Altai when a newbie on his first pair of boards poached a veteran's favorite cache. The problem, if there is a problem, is that everyone on the Pass, with the exception of Rod Newcomb who is above the fray, sees himself as the seasoned skier—not the newbie. How big of a deal this is I don't know. Easy-access backcountry skiing is getting more popular, but the slope above me isn't exactly crowded.
I finish my sandwich and dial Tattersall again. Perhaps taking the "Silent" creed more literally this season, he's not returning my phone calls. Or more likely he's just too busy ripping around in the backcountry. Skiing with him is out. But my buddy pulls up and we tour off to the south with our eyes on a short face clawed with lines through shadowy pines and cliffs. A leisurely 40 minutes later we're dropping into more untouched cold snow. After a long run-out, I try my hand at hitching and get passed by a Wyoming State Trooper. Hitchhiking is illegal in Wyoming. He gives me the "you moron" stare and keeps going. A few more cars splat slush on me and then a Jeep Cherokee with Mass. plates pulls over. We pile in, barely able to close the doors. The vehicle is packed with three college-age ski bumming kids from Jackson, sleeping bags, pillows, and gear. They borrowed the Jeep from their roommate on a whim and are heading to California to catch a jam band. During full moons they ski the Pass at midnight. Everyone in the car is bug-eyed and grinning. The kids are clearly on ecstasy.
Everywhere I look there are widely spaced tracks in the snow. Furrows in some erratic harvest. The sun is shining, snow falls from branches in clumps, and inside the snowpack, stellar crystals are losing their fernlike arms. The hippie chick is calling out to friends. My legs are pleasantly cooked and I'm hungering for a cheeseburger and a pint so I can ski again tomorrow. Skiers are scrambling over snowbanks and sticking their thumbs out.
For today, at least, Teton Pass is all done.
From the Winter 2009-10 issue