Jackson Hole reveals its softer side
This famed resort isn’t just about extreme skiing, says Matt Carroll
Friday 09 November 2012
My legs are wobbling uncontrollably, palms sweating with fear inside my ski gloves... Even now, several years after it happened, I can still remember my first trip to Jackson Hole, where I'd stood at the top of a couloir quaking in my boots.
Like thousands of other skiers and snowboarders, I'd come to the Wyoming resort to sample the steep chutes and thigh-deep powder that have made it famous among thrill-seekers around the world. Just as Chamonix in France is renowned for its notorious Vallée Blanche (a 17km rite of passage that threads its way around icy crevasses), Jackson is fabled for scary terrain such as Corbet's Couloir, which begins with a dramatic drop between ice cliffs.
Peer beyond this macho reputation, though, and there's another side to Jackson. One that doesn't require you to recite a prayer each time you strap into your board. Indeed, 40 per cent of its 116 inbound runs are classified blue; ideal for those of us who are looking to cruise rather than fling ourselves off cliffs.
This was exactly what I was after on my second visit to Jackson. Having recently become a father, my approach to snowboarding had suddenly become much more sensible. Whereas previously I'd seen steep tree runs as an opportunity to "slay the pow", now it left me wondering about who would fund my new daughter's nappy habit if I came a cropper against an unforgiving spruce.
So the first thing I did on my opening morning here was arrange a session with one of the resort's Mountain Hosts. "What do you fancy?" asked Joanie with a flash of white teeth, while I did my best to wipe the jet lag from my eyes.
These guided tours are free for visitors, giving everyone a chance to get their bearings without having to fumble about for the piste map every five minutes. As we shuffled our way on to the Bridger Gondola for the 10-minute ride to the top, it was reassuring not to feel the same sense of fear that had pervaded my last trip here. "A lot of people assume that Jackson is pure extreme," said Joanie, while pointing out several couloirs that sent shivers down my spine, "but you could just as easily come here and cruise."
In fact it's even more accessible for intermediates now, since the opening of the Marmot lift, an old-school, two-man chair that whisks you from the mid-mountain point back up to the Gondola Summit at over 2,700ft.
A lot of Jackson's most scenic blues are located high up, spread right across the top of the piste map. Before Marmot opened last season, intermediates who were looking to work their way from one side to the other had to zigzag all the way back to the resort base again. Either that or tackle some rather scary terrain, also not ideal. But now, as Joanie and I found out, that journey's a cinch.
Within an hour of hitting the slopes we'd already racked up some serious miles – laying out some substantial carving turns on the newly groomed corduroy.
She may have been almost 70, but boy could Joanie ski. Within seconds of us starting the Amphitheater run – a wide-open blue that sweeps down the middle of the piste map – she was disappearing off down the mountain at an incredible rate of knots. Luckily she was easy to spot in her bright-red Mountain Host's jacket, streaking past the hapless skiers that lay in her path before pulling up in a shower of snow to wait for the slowcoach.
As I rolled up to a breathless halt beside her, Joanie pointed a ski pole at some of the nearby bowls. "That's Thunder," she explained, with a glint in her eye. "You can ski pretty much all of it – it's awesome."
Previously I would have taken her up on the offer. But my inner dad was happy sticking to the groomed stuff and we continued on down to catch the Marmot. The area Joanie and I were skiing leads off the Gondola Summit and is laced with wide-open runs that contradict Jackson's experts-only reputation. The other area to try if you're looking to just cruise is Après Vous, where long, confidence-building blues lead you back towards the resort base, the eponymous Jackson Hole Valley spread out below.
"Before the Marmot lift, we'd have had to go all the way back to the base if we wanted to do this," said Joanie as we made our way from right to left, across the top of the piste map. "Now you can stay on the upper slopes all day."
Lunch was in Rendezvous at the top of the Bridger Gondola, where you can sit back, snacking on a hot dog, watching the brave souls dropping into Corbet's Couloir. Personally I was happy just to soak up the views. Looking out the other side of Rendezvous you get a cracking view of the Tetons, on the opposite side of the valley, where fur trappers once roamed in search of beaver pelts. Indeed, this whole area is still pervaded by its rich, Wild West heritage. The town of Jackson is just a short drive away. I later wandered into the Silver Dollar Bar (a local institution) to find folk dressed in stetsons rubbing shoulders with snowboarders wearing baggy pants.
It's not all shiny belt buckles and big trucks. Jackson has upped its game in recent years, especially when it comes to food and throughout my week there I ate like a king. At Q Roadhouse, on the edge of town, I tucked into grilled wild salmon and at the Snake River Brewpub I sipped the froth of a few beers that were created on site, including the curiously named Firehole Steam. For a few dollars you can have your own tankard behind the bar.
However, the culinary highlight of my week was a trip to a swanky eatery at the summit of the Bridger Gondola. With the full moon casting its silvery glow over the empty slopes, I worked my way through three exquisite courses, including saddle of rabbit with golden raisin pesto, Idaho potato gnocchi and a curry emulsion. The name of the place? Couloir, of course.
Inghams (01483791111; inghams.co.uk) offers a seven-night package to Jackson Hole from £798 per person staying in a condominium at the ski-in/ski-out Snow King Resort (room only), including flights from Heathrow.
The writer stayed at the Teton Mountain Lodge (0013077347111; tetonlodge.com) in Teton Village. Doubles from $287(£180) per night, including breakfast.
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