The middle week in February, 2004, my boon traveling companion Carroll Lowe and I spent a week in Jackson Hole, WY. Our esteemed travel agent Annie Garwood fixed us up at the downtown Best Western Lodge. It would be over-simplified to say we were skiing. It was a varied, scouting, testing, experimental snow trip.
Monday we did the traditional, all-day downhill skiing at Jackson Hole Ski Resort, centered around Rendezvous Mountain in east central Grand Teton National Park. Carroll used his standard downhill ski equipment. I took my randonee skies, my leather backpacking boots and my plastic mountaineering boots. For the downhill areas I locked down the heels in the plastic boots and skied in alpine fashion. We encountered snow ranging from 6 inches of wet powder up to 3 feet of dry powder, on top of upwards of 10 feet of base snow. We liked the deep and dry better…
Tuesday we toured the southeast corner of Grand Teton National Park. Devi Asel, the wife of my former Episcopalian minister, who moved from Wilkes County to Jackson Hole a couple years earlier, served as our tour guide and told us where to go. She directed us to the Snake River Dikes Trail. Carroll rented snow shoes, while I used leather boots with unlocked the heels on my randonee skis so I could do the equivalent of cross country skiing. Here our snow was dry packed powder.
Wednesday morning, at Devi’s direction, we drove to the Cache Creek Trail, north of Jackson Hole, north west of Snow King resort and lying east across some low hills from the National Elk Refuge winter range. Although we never saw them, I was told by a young lady federal wildlife biologist who I met on the ski lift at Jackson Hole that at Cache Creek, we were near the dens of a pack of wolves and a mountain lion with cubs. Both families feed on the elk. Our gear was Carroll’s snow shoes and my randonee skis with plastic boots and unlocked heels. The snow was a melted and re-frozen hard pack top layer and a super dry powder underneath. At one point, when I was skiing across a mild slope above the trail, the whole surface of the snow for an acre or more dropped several inches and made a big whumping noise. The slope was too shallow for the snow to slide anywhere, but this kind of action is the non-fatal version of an avalanche.
Wednesday afternoon we drove the other way, to the southwest from town through the village of Wilson. This village is fortuitously located among hundreds of square miles of some of the most popular backcountry ski areas in the nation. There I found a small, experienced outdoor gear shop called Wilson Backcountry Mountaineering. They gave me a lot of advice, then rented me my first equipment for telemark skiing. Telemark is somewhat like randonee, in that the gear is much stiffer, heavier and with sharper edges than cross country, so it can be used for alpine / downhill skiing. Also like randonee, the heel is free so a cross county-like action can be used for moving on flat terrain. For uphill travel, a set of “skins,” or outdoor carpet like material is strapped and glued to the bottom of the skis. But unlike randonee, the heel cannot be locked down, and the boot-to-ski-binding attachment is with a flexible spring rather than a solid clamp. It is a whole new way of traversing the snow, and I loved it! Telemark has the most varied uses, and has become my favorite way of skiing.
From Wilson we drove further west on Wyoming Highway 22 to the top of Teton Pass. This area is one of the main backcountry ski meccas in the US of A. We were at various times in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest. Today’s skiing was a critical juncture of our trip, and one I had been planning towards for a year. We would be exposed in the backcountry with no trails, boundaries or ski patrollers nearby. We would be plowing uphill through three feet of untracked virgin powder, with our own muscle power, on Carroll’s snowshoes and my randonee skis. For this day’s skiing, I stupidly forgot my plastic boots and had on my leather boots. Both worked in the randonee bindings, but the plastic worked much better.
It was exhausting climbing just a few hundred yards. After getting to the top of the first hill, Carroll did a yeoman’s job of running back to the bottom of the hill to get photos of me randonee skiing down through all the powder. Unfortunately, my bindings-to-boot connections were not up to the stress of all the torque of swooping turns in heavy snow. They kept releasing from my soft leather boots. I ended up walking most of the way down and we did not get any action photos. Bummer! Sorry, Carroll.
Thursday we went back to Jackson Hole Resort for some mainline alpine ski action. This resort’s collection of ski mountains is so tall that they have three distinct weather zones. From the valley floor at about 6,000 feet to the top of Rendezvous Mountain at 12,000 feet, the temperature drops, the snow and wind increase, and each section of about 1,500 feet altitude gets its own weather report in the local newspaper. Near the top the snow was graupel (a German word for a kind of very cold, round snow flake). Temperatures ranged from 35 degrees in the valley to 0 degrees at the top.
Friday we went back to Cache Creek for more snowshoeing and randonee skiing. Our snow had a styrofoam consistency, like a glacier, with an aggravating breakable crust on top and mushier snow underneath. The snow conditions made it nearly impossible to actually ski. All we could do was flounder around and, after getting any speed, expect to face plant! On the hills to the west we saw some big horn sheep and a small avalanche. At various other times we saw moose, elk, coyotes, porcupines in trees, ravens and stellar jays. There were even mule deer pellets (poop) in the parking lot of our lodge!
Saturday we went up the steep hill to the east of town at Snow King Ski Resort. Carroll had his alpine skis and I had the rented telemark skis. I loved traversing the slopes with that springy feel of telemark turns! The snow in some places was sun melted slush and in other places had re-frozen as hard as concrete. I guess that is why it is called sierra cement. At one time I tried to punch my ski pole tips into the snowpack with all my might. I could only scratch it, not actually penetrate it.
The week was an education in ski equipment and snow conditions. A good time was had by all!