I’m splayed, arms and legs akimbo, feet and hands scratching for purchase on the icy surface of a divot in an ocean of steep moguls between Apres Vous and Rendezvous mountains at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
My gear — skis, poles and goggles, all testifying to the exuberance of my crash — is strewn above and below me. If it didn’t feel like an ice pick into my chest every time I heaved, I’d let my histrionics free — sobs and curses echoing out over the tops of the surrounding Teton Range.
I moved to Jackson Hole two months after graduating from college for two reasons: 1. Han Solo lived there and 2. I wanted to learn how to ski.
Always preferring to do things the hard way, I found Jackson Hole appealing because of its reputation as one of the most challenging resorts in the country. I had been poring over rankings of ski resorts for years, and Jackson Hole owned the top spot in “most challenging terrain.” It never rated high on “overall best,” but that wasn’t my focus.
Terrified and trying not to cry in the middle of the Sleeping Indian run my first winter, I seriously doubted my decision-making criteria.
That was 17 years ago.
Within weeks of my arrival, I spotted Harrison Ford, looking not at all like Han, or even Indiana, running errands in the valley’s main town, cowboy-cosmopolitan Jackson.
I am still working on the skiing bit. Today, it’s much easier than it was in 1997. It’s been a full decade since I’ve broken any bones skiing at Jackson Hole, and it’s been a couple of years since I last cried out of frustration or terror anywhere on the resort’s slopes.
Yes, my lack of recent skiing drama is partly due to having skied 80-plus days each of the past 17 winters. But, it is also partly due to having taken two of the resort’s Women’s Camps and three of its four-day Steep & Deep camps. The former — for skiers intermediate and above — includes four days of skiing, a rest day in the middle, and the chance to ski with and get tips from pro freeskiers such as Kim Havell, Crystal Wright and Jess McMillan, all Jackson Hole residents.
The latter is for experts only and is usually about 85 percent men. Most of them seem determined, despite the coaches’ excellent and thoughtful instruction, to return home either requiring surgery or in some sort of cast.
Mostly, though, skiing Jackson Hole today is easier than in 1997 because the resort and small community at its base, Teton Village, met me in the middle. While I’ve been hardening up my skiing, the resort and Teton Village have been softening.
The resort still has all the scary black-diamond and double-black-diamond (expert) runs that make extreme skiers the world over equally love and fear it. Now, though, below, around and sometimes even beside the crazy stuff are spas, high-speed lifts servicing improved or new intermediate runs, restaurants serving prix-fixe menus that highlight locally sourced ingredients, and even a men’s boutique that offers whiskey tasting alongside a carefully curated collection of designer mountain menswear.
If the transformation hadn’t happened underneath my skis, I wouldn’t believe it.
My arrival in Jackson Hole almost perfectly coincided with the resort realizing it wasn’t good business to exist exclusively for the enjoyment of extreme skiers. Since buying the resort in 1992, the Kemmerer family has invested upward of $120 million in new lifts, expanded terrain and snow-making, groomed landscapes and on-mountain amenities.
In December 1997, at the beginning of my first winter here, the Bridger Gondola, an eight-passenger lift that takes you to expanded and predominantly intermediate terrain, opened. Then the lift to the top of the easier of the resort’s two mountains, Apres Vous, was replaced with a high-speed quad chairlift.
In 2000, the base area got its first spa. It opened inside the Snake River Lodge, which, at the time, was the most luxurious overnight option in Teton Village. At the end of that season, as a reward for skiing for the first time from the top of the tram to the base area — a vertical descent of 4,139 feet — without stopping or falling, I treated myself to my first facial.
Long after it could have done me good, the main beginner lift at the bottom, Teewinot, was also replaced with a high-speed quad.
In 2003, Jackson Hole became the first ski resort in the world to get a Four Seasons. The 124-room ski-in/ski-out property was built directly on top of my secret parking space in the dirt lot in front of a dilapidated maintenance shed.
Because the Four Seasons threw an amazing opening party — $30 tickets for an open bar with signature cocktails and all-you-can-eat food prepared by its own chefs, plus it benefited local libraries — I forgave it for stealing my parking space. After that, intermediate-level terrain and increasingly fancy amenities began appearing faster than snowstorms in a La Niña January.
Within five years, Teton Village was spattered with luxury hotels. One was the world’s first LEED silver-certified boutique hotel, Hotel Terra.
The Sweetwater lift made it possible for intermediate skiers to get to the mid-mountain Casper lift, which accesses the resort’s easiest blue runs, without first skiing some of the resort’s most difficult blue runs.
It was because of Sweetwater that I finally stopped taking visiting friends to Grand Targhee, a no-frills, intermediate-friendly resort on the western side of the Tetons. Until then, the 90-minute drive over Teton Pass to the ’Ghee wasn’t nearly so harrowing as the specter of a friend getting injured while skiing Jackson.
Of all the resort’s spending, I think its best investment was the $5 million spent in 2012 to replace the original Casper triple chair with a high-speed detachable quad and to widen and smooth out trails.
Riding the old Casper lift, which serves the resort’s highest concentration of blue runs, intermediate skiers couldn’t help but feel like second-class citizens. The lift ride took 10 minutes. The descent, even while making the widest turns possible and going as slow as possible, took no more than five.
The new Casper lift takes 31/2. Casper-area trail improvements included grading to a less steep pitch the section of the Sleeping Indian run where, that first winter, my gear went flying, I broke two ribs and I questioned my plan to learn to ski.
Aside from the parking defeat, I loved most of these changes. So did skiers across the country.
Last year, readers of Ski magazine, generally considered the most particular and demanding of any skiing-oriented glossy, voted Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the overall No. 1 resort on the continent. In previous years of the poll, Jackson Hole had never been higher than sixth in the overall rankings.
If the resort had not also simultaneously placed first for challenge, locals wouldn’t have believed it. No other resort had ever held the No. 1 ranking for both overall excellence and difficulty.
That’s because over the years, when the resort and Teton Village were becoming beginner- and intermediate-friendly, Jackson Hole didn’t forget its roots. Along the way, it gave experts new and better ways to challenge and scare themselves.
Shortly after it built the Bridger Gondola, Jackson Hole was one of the first ski areas in the country to open its boundaries.
Easily accessible from several of the resort’s lifts is a 3,000-acre experts-only playground of unpatrolled, ungroomed, uncontrolled terrain with runs from wide-open powder fields to 50-degree, 10-foot wide couloirs. If you were to fall in one of them, you’d likely die. (People have.)
For skiers lacking the avalanche skills to ski in such “sidecountry” terrain safely, there are trained guides available for several hundred dollars a day.
In 2006, the day after the ski season ended, the resort began dismantling its 40-year-old tram, which shuttled skiers to the experts-only terrain at the top of Rendezvous Mountain. Rather than doing the maintenance and upgrades that the old tram required, it built a new one.
Two years and $32 million later, the new tram opened. It carries 40 more skiers at a time than the old one — and does this four minutes faster — to Rendezvous’ 10,450-foot summit.
Two winters ago, exiting the new tram to ski Spacewalk, one of those narrow, 50-degree sidecountry couloirs where falling is not an option, I was nervous. As I paused above the couloir, a montage of some of my biggest crashes ran through my mind. This was less than ideal for my mojo.
After standing at the entrance for a full five minutes trying to get my head in a better place, I finally pointed my ski tips into the run.
Skiing Spacewalk for the first time certainly merited some sort of award. As I negotiated the run’s cliffy crux — not prettily, but successfully — visions of the hot tub, sauna and a facial at the Four Seasons spa danced through my head.
If you go
Where to stay
▪ Rusty Parrot Lodge and Spa, 175 N. Jackson St., Jackson, 307-733-2000, www.rustyparrot.com.
Thirty-two-room luxury hotel. Several blocks from Jackson’s town square and 12 miles from Teton Village, features afternoon tea in front of the fireplace daily at 4. It also has one of the valley’s top restaurants and spas. Rooms from $275.
▪ Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole, 7680 Granite Loop Road, Teton Village, 307-732-5000, www.fourseasons.com/jacksonhole.
Ski-in/ski-out hotel with a nearly 12,000-square-foot spa, an art collection of more than 2,000 pieces and ski concierges in Teton Village. Rooms from $579.
Where to eat
▪ Persephone Bakery Cafe, 145 E. Broadway, Jackson, 307-734-1700, http://persephonebakery.com.
Intelligentsia coffee, rustically elegant breads and pastries from a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Breakfast and lunch dishes are cooked to order. Sweet treats from $1.50.
▪ The Handle Bar, 7680 Granite Loop Road, Teton Village, 307-732-5000, www.thehandlebarjh.com.
Casual restaurant from Michael Mina serving hearty fare inside the Four Seasons. Entrees from $12.
What to do
▪ Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Teton Village, 307-733-2292, www.jacksonhole.com.
2,500 acres of in-bounds terrain and 3,000 acres of sidecountry terrain accessed by 13 lifts, including a tram with the longest continuous vertical run of any lift in the country (4,139 feet). Open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through April 5. Single-day lift tickets from $75.
▪ Jackson Hole Eco-Tour Adventures, Jackson, 307-690-9533, www.jhecotouradventures.com.
Naturalist-led wildlife-watching tours around the valley and nearby national parks. Tours from $130 per person.
▪ Après Ski & Art, 155 W. Broadway Ave., Jackson, 307-733-0905, www.diehlgallery.com.
Art, wine and hors d’oeuvres at one of the valley’s few contemporary galleries. Open Fridays between Dec. 19 and April 3 from 5 to 8 p.m. Free.
▪ Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Grand Teton National Park, Moose Visitor Center, 307-739-3399, www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/ranger-programs.htm.
Two-hour snowshoe hike with a ranger in Grand Teton National Park leaves the Taggart Lake trailhead Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. Reservations required. $5 suggested donation for snowshoe rental.