Ski safari in America's Wild West
Skiing from Montana to Wyoming via Idaho reveals big country, uncrowded pistes, the odd caribou and a lot of Stetsons, writes Matt Carroll
Saturday 11 January 2014
They say you should always book a guide if you want to see a resort properly, but at Big Sky in Montana, I didn't have to bother. Within minutes of hitting the slopes at this off-the-beaten-track resort, I found myself on the receiving end of a bone-cracking handshake from Jonny, a veteran of several visits here, who took it upon himself to act as my informal escort around the 110 miles of empty groomers that lay in wait.
Moments after meeting, we were ripping down a cheeky tree run where, come spring, it's apparently not unusual to see the odd elk plodding between the silver birches. "Keep your eyes peeled," said Jonny, flashing me an all-American smile that had me reaching for darker goggle lenses. "You never know what you'll see on the way down."
Over the next six days this was to become a recurring theme, as I headed south-east from Montana on a road trip through Idaho, ending up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Forget the fur coats, designer sunglasses and expensive ski pants that are de rigeur in most European resorts. Out here, Stetsons, leather boots and oversized belt buckles are the order of the day.
My week-long package, with multi-resort specialist Ski Safari, included a day of snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park, too – where wild buffalo still roam the ancient plains. Indeed, this whole region is home to some serious wildlife including wolves, moose (whose legs are level with your car windscreen should you ever have the misfortune to get that close), and even the occasional bear if you're here in late spring.
With my hand still vibrating from Jonny's over-exuberant intro, I followed in his wake as he laid out some huge carving turns on our way down Elk Park Ridge. This mellow blue cruiser was the perfect warm-up for stiff legs, the soft icing-sugar snow biting reassuringly as I dug in the edges of my freshly waxed board.
The empty slopes meant I had time to let the board run free, while soaking up the views of the Rocky Mountains below. Given enough speed, it felt perfectly feasible that you could launch yourself skywards off a strategically placed kicker, and simply float across to one of the nearby peaks.
In all, Big Sky has more than 250 groomers to tickle your fancy – the majority of them catering to advanced and expert skiers. But what I particularly loved about the place were the endless rat-runs that criss-cross the piste map, many of them known only to locals – and Jonny. Although my itinerary only allowed for two days at Big Sky, by the time we rocked up at Whiskey Jack's bar for après beers on day one, we'd nailed much of the piste map and everything in between. My favourite short cut was the Natural Half-Pipe, a wild slalom ride that whipped through the trees, before popping you out on to Marmot Meadows – a blue that delivered you conveniently at the bottom of the main Swift-Current lift.
Jonny's efforts at playing host made me feel more like a local than just another tourist, and by the end of my stay, I was sorry to leave. Waiting for me in nearby West Yellowstone, however, was a gnarly snowmobile with its engine gently purring. This frontier town lies on the edge of the park, about 90 minutes' drive from Big Sky. The route here led me alongside stretches of white water where Brad Pitt fished in A River Runs Through It, before tree-lined river banks turned to wide open plains. I may have been following a well-organised itinerary, but the conditions out here can get pretty hairy. As I neared Yellowstone, the roads were covered by a thick crust of snow, which made life "interesting" on several occasions – especially as the rental cars out here are generally not fitted with snow tyres.
However, within minutes of arriving safely I was swinging my leg over the saddle of a ski-doo and heading off into the park in search of wildlife. After 10 minutes or so, my guide pulled us up alongside a stream, where a family of buffalo were enjoying lunch. This set the tone for the rest of the day, as I was led on a natural history tour of volcanic hot springs – coloured orange and electric blue – sending jets of steam cascading skywards. These explosive diversions were interspersed with glimpses of wolves roaming the snow-packed plains, not to mention a huge eagle perched nonchalantly in a nearby tree. The next morning, with my head still full of spouting geysers – we'd even seen Old Faithful, the granddaddy of them all – I hit the open road again, this time bound for Wyoming.
Within a few miles, unkempt grassland turned to regimented potato fields, as I dipped briefly into Idaho on the way to Grand Targhee. Like Big Sky, this is a tiny local ski hill where the really good stuff lies between the trees. Rather than fumbling through my pockets every five minutes for a piste map I simply popped into the ski school hut at the bottom of the gondola and asked one of the instructors to show me round. With the help of some local knowledge I headed straight into the trees that led off the Sacajawea lift ("it's way more sheltered over here"), where I spent the whole day helping myself to untracked powder.
Things got even better (and a tad messier) later that afternoon, when I was introduced to Dana Ramos, one of Targhee's resident cat-ski guides. He knew as much about his local beer as he did his skiing; after sharing a few in the comfort of his office, I was invited out cat-skiing next day. Apparently, it's the Grand Targhee way. "We have over 600 acres set aside for this stuff," said Dana the next morning, seemingly unaffected by the previous evening's excesses. Over the course of the day we helped ourselves to a whopping 11 runs of fresh powder, each one lasting up to 10 minutes. It was enough to leave the thighs burning as I jumped into my 4x4 and headed to Jackson.
Here, I witnessed yet another scenic transition, as I left behind open farmland and tiptoed up through the Teton Pass, where vast rock faces and huge powder fields lined the road on either side. The scenery was an aptly extreme prelude to Jackson Hole itself, which has a fearsome reputation for scary steeps. In recent years, however, the powers-that-be here opened new, mellower areas of the mountain in a bid to attract "normal" skiers, and now Jackson offers something for everyone.
It's still the authentic cowboy town of old, though, where covered wooden walkways line the main streets. However, thanks to a thriving foodie scene you'll now find gourmet delis and wine emporia, such as Bin22, alongside such Wild West bars as the must-visit Silver Dollar, where beanie hats adorn heads alongside traditional Stetsons.
Indeed, I was never allowed to forget that I was in the Wild West. I spotted a caribou trotting across the piste on my first afternoon in Jackson – a subtle reminder of the big wildlife that wanders this big country. Just make sure you heed Jonny's advice and keep those eyes peeled.
The writer travelled with Ski Safari (01273 224 060; skisafari.com), which offers a 14-night "Yellowstone Ski Safari". Prices start at £1,725pp, based on five nights in Big Sky, two nights in West Yellowstone, two nights in Grand Targhee and five nights in Jackson Hole, with some meals, nine days' SUV hire and return flights from Heathrow into Bozeman and out of Jackson Hole.
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