Jackson Hole - It's What You've Heard and More
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Jackson Hole – the name itself can send shivers up a skier’s spine. Aesthetically, the area reminds one of Chamonix. Not that anyone would mistake one for the other in picture albums, but their majestically imposing peaks, jutting abruptly as they do from more tranquil dales, are the stuff of mountaineering legend. For skiers, Jackson’s Corbet’s Couloir is a rite of passage for seriously budding free riders (I hope my picture, sans snow, helps to illustrate why). Elsewhere the mountain offers challenges sufficient to test anyone’s outer limits of derring do (a bit like Alta in that regard).
My own long-ago experiences with Jackson are embedded deeply enough in my psyche to remain fresh as memories even today. One, in fact, appears as an example of intrapersonal communication in one of a friend and former professor’s textbooks (patience, please):In my days as a ski racer an annual event, one whose mention could produce goose bumps among those hearing it, was the Jackson downhill. Downhills, of course, are notoriously fast and Jackson’s was notoriously faster. For this particular event I’d managed to acquire an impressively bulbous, painful infection on the front of my right leg just above the curve where it transitions from leg to foot. The colorful and puss filled nodule, it turned out, made it impossible for me to buckle my boot. In turn I was forced to withdraw from the competition. Still, I was determined to watch my teammates’ runs and decided, if I exercised suitable caution, I could shadow the course slowly with my boot unbuckled.
After the last of my mates in competition schussed by me, at speeds rather north of what our freeways permit, I began gingerly making my way to the bottom. After what seemed to me a long descent, I decided I could run straight down the gentle slope I was on for the short remaining stretch to mountain’s base. Rounding a wide, rightward bend I found myself approaching a completely unanticipated, equally unwelcome mogul field.
Although the slope bringing me to this juncture was gentle, my reckless election to run straight had visited me with speed enough that stopping or slowing were not options. Thinking my death quite possibly imminent, I closed my eyes and collapsed backward. In an instant I hit the first mogul the way a pile driver strikes a piling. The jolt was shockingly violent, but then I felt…nothing at all. I wondered, had the mogul’s resilient force stopped me cold? Had I broken my back and was now paralyzed? I opened my eyes and found myself upside down, probably ten feet in the air, watching my ski tips pass over me in the accidental execution of a full layout backflip. I closed my eyes again and thought ruefully to myself: “This is going to hurt!” The subsequent impacts (there were several) and tumbling broke my skis, but I miraculously escaped any injury at all.
Now then, back to more contemporaneous matters! Like Aspen, Steamboat Springs and other destination resorts, Jackson Hole housing isn’t ideally suited for an average worker’s income. In Aspen, for example, credible stories exist about line employees living in snow caves during winter months (where there’s a will…). Adam Clark, Cynthia’s son from a previous marriage (between us we have a collection some might term ignominious), as a highly respected professional extreme ski photographer is deeply enmeshed in ski industry lore. Upon learning of our Jackson plans he warned us that the surrounding campgrounds could be full due to employees choosing to live in them. Fair warning duly noted, we decided to look for space in the Curtis Canyon campground. Actually, there are two Curtis Canyon camping (say that five times fast) options: a formal series of sites supported by a campground host, restrooms, available potable water, and formidable, prominently identified bear resistant containers for campers to store food; there is also dispersed camping arrayed along the canyon’s ascending slope, designated by numbers that climb as the slope does and that lack any infrastructure besides a fairly level place to bed down and a fire pit, no doubt constructed and left by previous site users. Campers in the dispersed sites are entirely on their own for storing food in such a way that bears aren’t accidentally invited to investigate the larder.
We opted for one of the former, formal sites and did not find the campground serving as a bedroom community for the town. Whichever facility we’d chosen would have been aesthetically marvelous. The approach and area are similar, strikingly similar, to driving through a postcard. Expansive game preserves lie between the town of Jackson and Curtis Canyon, although the preserved game remained hidden from our passing by. We surmised that resident fauna observed our comings and goings but were stealthy enough to do so without our espying them. Nevertheless, travelers through the area are sternly admonished to avoid disturbing game animals and to carry bear spray as a defensive precaution against potential ursine encounters. The cannister we purchased for our trip remains in brand new condition but having it at hand did serve as a comforting security blanket.
The Teton range is justifiably famous for its rugged array of peaks, punctuating the skyline like a naturally occurring rip saw. What the facing Gros Ventre range lacks in vertical, granite precipices it more than compensates for with unrelentingly dense forestation. Coniferous and deciduous flora abound in such profusion that over-description would take greater linguistic skill than I possess. Oh well, such is the burden of enjoying some of natures most intimidatingly grand vistas.
As one excursion we drove to Jenny Lake, where we traveled by boat to the opposite shore. From there one can either return by boat or hike back in one of two directions – a three and a five mile option. We made the three mile choice.
As anyone familiar with the outdoors knows, lakes are flat, listing neither up nor down. That knowledge might cause one to assume that a perimeter hike would be similarly flat, an assumption that would perish upon setting out on foot in either direction. An expectation of level terrain, though, gives way cheerfully to the splendid realities of Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point and the cool, pine scented breeze wafting through the trees pressing closely on either side of the undulating return trail. Beautiful yellow birds with red crested heads flitted about in search of…food? A mate? A photo op to adorn Audubon Magazine’s cover? Whatever the reason they were a welcome adornment. Along the way we also spotted an adult moose standing listlessly in a pool of water, obscured enough by surrounding foliage that a documentary photo wasn’t possible. At least not for me, unwilling as I was to undertake, sans machete, the bushwhacking necessary to get a clearer shot.
That evening we discovered an entirely unadvertised feature of Curtis Canyon; it seems the hillside just outside our campground is an ideal spot for paragliding (in this case, I do have photos to prove it). As afternoon sun faded with gathering dusk, several paragliders launched and flew, their colorful parasails cast in artistically stunning relief against the sky’s clear blue and forest’s vibrant green. As surprises go this one ranks right up there with finding an attractive prospect happy to accept kisses and further explorative dalliance. Voyeurs that we are we watched, enthralled, for quite some time.
Another adventure was our ride up Jackson’s iconic tram to the summit, whereupon we hiked down the Cirque Trail a little more than 2 miles to the Bridger Gondola for the final leg to Jackson’s base area. The Cirque Trail crisscrosses varied terrain, much of it steep and some of it quite exposed – a grand walk, in other words. One ski run mentioned earlier - Corbet’s Couloir – is among those the Cirque Trail crosses. By comparison to Alta, I’d say its pitch is similar to the top third of High Rustler or the main Baldy Chute, but entry pretty much requires a leap into space for starters. Enough death defying ski escapades lurk in my past that I feel no irresistible desire to tackle that one anymore. Rustler and the Chute suit me fine and are accessible most days without a flying (literally) start.
On Monday morning before heading for home, we decided to meander through town, checking out a spot for breakfast and perusing quaint Jackson shops of one sort or another. I confess – something about resort communities speaks sublimely to the inner child in me. On a return trip (there will certainly be more than one) I expect to spend an entire day doing little else than enjoying the town’s atmosphere and zeitgeist of mountain camaraderie.
As I’ve said before, life is better than good. Cynthia and I plan to savor it with appreciative gusto unless and until circumstances deny us the pleasure. Until then all bets are on!