One week of every year, I don't want to see the sun.
Winter storms are usually harbingers of doom: transit delays, dangerous driving conditions, back-breaking shovelling, school closings. It's never good news.
But snowboarders worth their salt pray for bad weather. Big storms deliver deep snow, and every inch counts. Snowboarding in powder is a religious experience, like coasting on the wind.
My home province of Ontario gets plenty of storms. There's one problem: There are no mountains.
So I pack up my board every winter and head west. I've hit a lot of the big resorts in Canada and the United States, including Revelstoke, Red Mountain, Fernie, Kicking Horse, Whistler, Big White, Sunshine, Lake Louise, Snowbird, Steamboat and Tahoe.
One feather was missing from my cap.
Jackson Hole, Wyo., the ultimate expert hill in the middle of frontier country. Land of double-black diamonds, narrow chutes, steep cliffs and Corbet's Couloir, which has been billed as “America's scariest ski slope.” Beginners need not apply.
Jackson Hole is doing its best to market itself as family-friendly, with groomers and more moderate runs, but let's be honest, this is a resort that, first and foremost, draws the extreme crowd. The upper mountain is not for the faint of heart.
I've had Jackson Hole on my list for many years, and a favourable U.S. dollar exchange made the timing right for me and my pack of fellow boarders. We booked the trip, and then we watched the weather reports.
When we landed in Jackson in early January, it hadn't snowed for a week. Bad sign? Depends on how you look at it. There would be no powder conditions on the hill, but Jackson Hole has a legendary reputation for big, regular snowfalls, so it must be due. Right?
We could only hope. The resort had measured eight feet of snowfall for the season, but the bulk of it fell around U.S. Thanksgiving. We were disappointed to learn that an upper bowl, Casper Bowl, the chutes, and Corbet's Couloir were closed because of poor conditions (read: lack of snow).
This is, of course, not the fault of the resort. The truly dedicated skier or snowboarder lives on or near the mountains, and waits for the right conditions before hitting the hill. I didn't have that luxury.
And the forecast for the rest of the week wasn't promising.
We made the most of the Sunday, Day One, crisscrossing the mountain to get our bearings and build some endurance. It's a huge, imposing hill, with incredibly varied terrain. We kicked things off with a ride up Big Red, a gondola-like tram, completed in 2008, that whisks up to 100 passengers from the base to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, the highest peak at 3,200 metres, in about 12 minutes.
The view from the top is impressive. You're surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, and low-cloud-cover days act like a blanket over the valley, with only the peaks exposed.
As the wind whipped across our faces, we walked past the infamous warning sign, which reads, in part: “Our mountain is like nothing you have skied before! It is huge, with variable terrain from groomed slopes to dangerous cliff areas and dangerously variable weather and snow conditions.”
We dropped past the entrance to Corbet's Couloir – a two-storey plunge off a cornice onto a 50-degree slope – and into Rendezvous Bowl, a steep, mogul-infested run down the far east side of the resort. From there, riders have the option of going out of bounds to get to Cody Bowl, an avalanche risk, or continue in-bounds toward a trio of steep faces that lead to a traverse back to the base.
The lack of snow cover made for a rough ride down, peppered with crusty moguls and rock hazards. But as I often say to myself in a Zen-of-snowboarding way: “Man, if this had a fresh foot of snow on it, it would be awesome.”
We took another ride back up the tram to test out a series of runs serviced by the Sublette Quad Chair. Cheyenne Bowl is gigantic, an open area several hundred metres wide that empties out into a deep gully, also fed on both sides by half a dozen runs peppered with trees. It's a snowboarder's playground. There's so much terrain in here, you could spend half a day exploring its nooks and crannies.
We stuck to the far ends of some of the runs, picking up sloppy seconds: snow that got pushed to the edges by the skiers and boarders not quite brave enough to skirt super-close to the trees. The trees themselves were tightly spaced, and while tree runs usually preserve snow for a longer period of time after a storm, they had already been tracked out.
We checked the grooming report and tried out a few of the trails below Rendezvous Bowl. Perfect for speed junkies. Very steep. Very fast. A real thrill ride, and a welcome break for legs weary of pounding the rough stuff.
Below Sublette Quad is a series of ridges that lead down to the base, though riders also have the option of ducking across a traverse to avoid the more challenging terrain.
The base also services the Bridger Gondola, which takes riders right up the middle of the resort to a 2,800-metre summit, with a deli, a cafeteria and a patio where you can take a load off on a sunny day. And that's what we got on Day Two.
In this case, it was welcome. By the end of Day One, some of the lower-mountain runs had turned to ice, adding more speed – and danger – to the mix. The sun softened up a lot of the terrain, and made for a much more enjoyable riding experience.
The gondola spits you out to dozens of runs, and while the tram, which takes you to the top, is an experts-only affair, there are more options for intermediate riders mid-mountain. Lupine Way runs from the top of the gondola, and empties out into another gully, Amphitheater, a beautiful, deep section surrounded by black-diamond runs.
Directly behind the gondola summit is Headwall, a bare face that requires a steep hike. (“How long is the hike?” I asked a local. “Are you in shape? 20 minutes. If not…” And off he went.) Conditions didn't make the effort worthwhile, but it's an option halfway through a big powder day, after the locals track out the main runs.
By Day Two, we stopped thinking about where to go and rode on instinct. We dove into the trees to do the Casper Traverse, which led to several runs used by fewer people, with small powder stashes.
From the base we went up the Teewinot Quad Chair and then the Apres Vous Quad Chair, leading to even more terrain on the far west side of the resort, though the elevation, at 2,500 metres, is much lower than the Rendezvous Mountain peak.
We dipped into a pair of runs known as The Stash, a lovely mix of trees, mini-bowls and man-made trick stations.
Day Three: snow in the afternoon! Day Four: accumulated overnight snowfall of 15 centimetres! Now that we knew where to go, we stole as much powder as we could. And, most of the time, we walked right on to the lifts. A major bonus.
We were fortunate to have experienced successively better days. The ultimate test of any resort is whether it's worth a return visit. Even with the toughest, most extreme sections of the mountain closed, Jackson Hole gives me reason to come back and really test my mettle.
Which I will. In the meantime, I'll pray for more snow.
For information on the recent snowfall and accommodations, go to jacksonhill.com.