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Travel Every skier needs to ski Jackson Hole - even if it scares you to death

wyoming
Jackson Hole Mountain resort challenges skiers, and offers some incredible views.

Jackson Hole Mountain resort challenges skiers, and offers some incredible views.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Out of the comfort zone

The laid-back 'dirty boots and blue jeans' western vibe of Jackson Hole, Wyo., proves the perfect way to catch your breath after conquering a 35-degree slope

In sports, as in chess, if you want to improve, you've got to compete against players who are better than you. And if you ski, you've got to find a steeper mountain.

My mountain was in Grand Teton National Park at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming.

But right about now – breathless and leaning up a 35-degree slope, a snowstorm cutting my visibility to nearly nil and with more than 2,700 metres to ski before I reached the bottom of this powdery bowl – I wished I'd gone for a beach vacation instead.

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But that was just panic talking. I'd chosen Jackson Hole for a ski getaway because it was time to get out of my blue-run comfort zone.

Discover a thigh-burning 1,261 metres of vertical runs, more than half of it on black or double-black diamond runs Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Discover a thigh-burning 1,261 metres of vertical runs, more than half of it on black or double-black diamond runs Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

The JHMR scared me: It's renowned for its expert-only terrain – a thigh-burning 1,261 metres of vertical runs, more than half of it on black or double-black diamond runs (and that's just inside the resort boundaries; more than 3,000 acres of steeps, bumps and trees await out of bounds).

I had no illusions that I'd be slicing my way through Corbet's Couloir (a narrow gap in the mountain ridge in which hard-core experts simply fall upright for 10 to 20 feet, then ski). But by the time I left, I did want to push myself – to leave a better skier than I arrived.

I also wanted to get out of the familiar prefab ski-resort scene. From what I'd read, Jackson (about a 20-minute drive from the legendary resort) would be a good place to find it.

This town of 10,000 is surrounded by stunning natural beauty; large ranches and protected parks and forest that make up 97 per cent of the surrounding area.

Cowboy and culture co-exist here. While it's home to some of the richest people in the United States – a few billionaires make this area home, and Teton County nears the top of the list for highest average income per capita in the United States – there's a laid-back vibe that you can't escape.

The Grand Tetons overlook Jackson, Wyo., a down-to-earth kind of town that attracts billionaires and ski bums alike.

The Grand Tetons overlook Jackson, Wyo., a down-to-earth kind of town that attracts billionaires and ski bums alike.

Jackson Hole Tourism

Jackson is home to the country's renowned wildlife art museum, a vibrant Center for the Arts, a modern dance company and some of the best restaurants you'll find anywhere – Wine Enthusiast Magazine ranked it one of their top five foodie towns a couple of years ago.

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But the town is far from flashy or pretentious: This is no cowboy Vail. Jackson is a denim and dirty boots kind of town, more friendly than fawning when it comes to celebrity, too. Locals will tell you they barely notice fellow Jacksonites Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart in the grocery store, and they simply nod to Sandra Bullock on the ski hill.

Paused for breath on the steep slope of Laramie Bowl, I couldn't wait to whoop it up at the historic western bars, maybe even try a twirl on the dance floor, cowboy style. But first I had to get off this mountain.

When I met my instructor that morning, he'd asked what my goal was for the day. I wanted a challenge, I said, but, ummm, the mountains did look a lot steeper than I'd anticipated.

Challenging terrain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Challenging terrain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

As we rode up the lift, I learned that my sixty-something instructor, Art Davis, was one of Jackson's first ski bums – plus he'd had a knee replaced earlier this year. Hmm, perhaps I'd undersold myself to the ski school when I put in my request for a guide. And after the second time we cruised down an easy green run, I was frustrated. Then, when we stopped for a lesson on ski mechanics, I sassed him: "Can we please get onto something more challenging?"

Oh, me of little faith. In no time, I was hanging on Art's every word of advice to help me master the now much harder runs. The next time we stopped for a catch-my-breath break, Art said, "So, it's only 11 and you've just skied your first double-blue diamond. That's like skiing a black-diamond run in Vail." Was he serious? I was speechless. He beamed at me, proud, I think, that he'd helped me reach my goal so early in the day. From that moment on, I followed him unquestioningly.

JHMR was the right place to come. Last year, it celebrated 50 years of luring skiers to its mountainous slopes. Intermediate skiers are well served, too, but you've always got to stay focused – some of the drops off "easy" traverse runs are heart-stoppingly treacherous.

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Steep and deep runs at Snow King Mountain offer a killer view of of the Teton range.

Steep and deep runs at Snow King Mountain offer a killer view of of the Teton range.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Last season, a new high-speed lift opened up 81 more hectares of intermediate terrain that skiers once had to hike up to (it also drops you close to expert, out-of-bounds terrain in Grand Teton National Park). Diehards would say the new Teton lift makes the area too easy to reach, but it helps strengthen JHMR as a destination resort for skiers of every skill.

Still, I'm glad I got my ski legs a day earlier in Jackson at the town's local resort: The steep and deep runs at Snow King Mountain are five minutes from the town square (I could watch the skiers from my hotel balcony). And on the Snow King runs, I enjoyed a killer view of the town and the Teton range.

It's on top of this mountain – a respectable 2,380 metres – that I truly understood how wickedly rude French-Canadian trappers were when they arrived here in the early 1800s and named the highest range les trois tetons (the three breasts). The Tetons overlook what was already known in trapper/mountain man parlance as the "hole," the wide, flat land that spread out between the surrounding mountain ranges. It still makes me giggle to think about it.

But I wasn't laughing in the midst of this run – snow blind and with my ski edges jammed into the fresh powder – I could barely see the lodgepole pine not two metres in front of me. "Just remember what we've worked on," Art said. "Maybe it's better you can't see anything below."

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is renowned for its expert-only runs.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is renowned for its expert-only runs.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Maybe he was right. This was much more than I'd bargained for, but it was exactly why I'd come. And I'd never make it to my first real western bar, never mind the skin-saving facial I'd booked at the end of this run, if I didn't start moving soon. I took a deep breath and turned my skis downhill.

My legs were still shaking and my heart still pounding when I unsnapped my skis. Thankfully, I'd booked myself into the calm serenity of Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa, where a lovely long facial treatment gave me time to think. I replayed that last run in my mind as the lotions repaired three days of dry mountain wind.

Later, as the hot tub loosened locked, aching muscles, I thought about how much more confident I'd become on the slopes. The lifts hadn't closed yet – maybe I still should be up there? – but pampering has to trump powder sometimes, even at Jackson Hole.

Grand Teton National Park.

Grand Teton National Park.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

That night, when I finally made it to the historic Silver Dollar Bar & Grill at the Wort Hotel, I traced my hand over some of the 2,032 silver-dollar coins embedded in the bar (it's really quite something) and listened to my colleagues' ski stories, all wilder and crazier than my own.

As the whisky worked its way through me, I understood that, sure, the mountains and the terrain here were addictive, but so, too, were the foot-tapping, hip-swaying country tunes of the house band.

And they offered a new challenge. The dance floor was already crowded; I'd need a cowboy to lead me through the triple two-step. Yee-haw!

The writer was a guest of Jackson Hole Tourism. It did not review or approve the story.

The resort’s bright red tram carries 100 eager skiers at a time to discover the expert runs on Rendezvous mountain.

The resort’s bright red tram carries 100 eager skiers at a time to discover the expert runs on Rendezvous mountain.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort


If you go

The resort opens in late November and it's courting Canadian skiers with currency-at-par deals on lift tickets, lodging and even some flights, throughout the season (details at jacksonholewy.com). Fly into New York, Chicago and Seattle to catch seasonal direct flights on Delta, United or American Airlines into Jackson Hole. Book a window seat on the right side of the plane and you'll get your first grand view of the Teton Range.

WHERE TO SLEEP

Fireside pits sit slopeside at Four Seasons Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Fireside pits sit slopeside at Four Seasons Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Four Seasons

Town: A modern boutique sleep in the midst of cowboy country, there's nothing else like Hotel Jackson in town. Steps from historic town square and its very cool antler archs. Rooms from $329 (U.S.); 120 N Glenwood St., Jackson; hoteljackson.com

Teton Village: A 20-minute drive from town, sleep in slopeside luxe at Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa. The hotel is a short clomp in ski boots to the lifts and famous tram up Rendezvous Mountain. Rooms from $259 (U.S.); 3385 Cody Ln., Teton Village; tetonlodge.com

Or ski in/ski out at Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole, which among other notable features has heated outdoor whirlpools with views of the mountains. Rooms from $389 (U.S.); 7680 Granite Rd, Teton Village; fourseasons.com/jacksonhole

WHERE TO EAT

Settle into saddle seating at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson for live music and even livelier dancing.

Eric Seymour/Jackson Hole Tourism

Town: There are a lot of monied folk in Jackson, and that means the restaurant scene is shockingly top-notch. Rendezvous Bistro takes the fun, laid-back atmosphere of the town and serves up excellent French-American bistro staples, the beef tartare comes "Carter Country" style, with egg yolk, capers – and potato chips. 380 South Broadway, rendezvousbistro.net

One of the best things about ski towns is that they're full of culinary artisans who could work anywhere in the world (but they'd rather ski every day). Case in point, the bakers at Persephone Bakery, probably the tastiest place to indulge in Jackson. 650 Elk Ave., persephonebakery.com

Teton Village: Inside Hotel Terra, Il Villaggio Osteria serves very fine Italian meals, including house-made charcuterie, cheeses and pizzas in a comfortable, casual restaurant. Ski boots not only allowed, but wiped up after. 3335 West Village Dr.; jhosteria.com

WHERE TO APRÈS

The historic Silver Dollar Bar, in the town of Jackson.

David Agnello

Town: Go dancing at the Silver Dollar Bar & Grill in the historic Wort Hotel, a must-see even if you're just there for the locally brewed whisky. Live bands and dancing just about every night. A people-watching paradise; 50 North Glenwood St., worthotel.com/silver- dollar-bar

Not far from the Silver Dollar is the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. A tourist draw if ever there was one, but saddle bar seating is hard to resist, and the dance floor is hopping most nights. 25 N Cache St., milliondollarcowboybar.com

Teton Village: The Mangy Moose is a great local ski bar with live music and, as the name says, it's a little on the grungy, funky side. 3295 Village Dr., mangymoose.com

Want something classier with a better view? Settle into slope-side lounge chairs around outdoor fire pits or move indoors onto the leather couches of the buzzing Ascent Lounge at the Four Seasons. fourseasons.com/jacksonhole

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