Opinion » Alta States

Back to old school — Jackson Hole culture still all about the mountains


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"Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul."

Greek philosopher Democritus

It's like Red Mountain on steroids. Revelstoke with an edge. It's big, bad, dangerous and fun. And the great thing is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Located in the northwest corner of one of the least populated states in the Lower 48, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, still sizzles with ski passion.

I mean, there's no other mountain resort quite like it — whether in North America or in Europe. And it's not just about the physical plant — which is impressive indeed. Rather it's about the particular magic that ensues when humans are inspired by the place they live in... and do their best to protect and cherish it.

It's a marriage made in mountain heaven. A relationship between people and place that's as strong as I've seen anywhere. The Grand Tetons' legendary denizens — riders like "Sick" Rick Armstrong, Olympic champion Tommy Moe, the Jones brothers, AJ Cargill and a host of others — are all celebrated as integral elements of the Jackson Hole experience. Their pictures are everywhere. Their stories are common fare. And they all still ride the mountain on a regular basis. Why? Because people still count here!

It's almost like Jackson exists in a communal time warp. Like it stopped the clock before the ravages of the 21st century could exact its toll on the place. The pace is slower here. People actually take the time to say hello to one another. And even on a big powder day when all the legends are out and the wannabe's are chasing the stars, Rendezvous Mountain still appears half empty to me. I mean, a big day in Jackson Hole is 4,500 skiers!

But I'm getting ahead of myself again. Let's take a few steps back.

I thought it was me. I thought my despair over Whistler's headlong rush to urban madness was just my romantic soul bemoaning the inevitable. And given the eye-rolling my stories regularly inspire in our fearless leaders, I figured it was up to me to catch up to the valley zeitgeist... either adapt or perish (as they say).

That's when my friend David Hicks and a posse of his high-roller buddies appeared in our valley for a long weekend sojourn. Keen skiers all, and super-excited to be in Whistler, Dave and his friends couldn't wait to get up on the mountain... Only to be less than excited by the product.

"Our trip to Whistler was a really big deal," explains Hicks. "It's an annual thing we do, but in the past we'd restricted ourselves to the Western states. The decision to come up to Canada to sample the Whistler stoke was not taken lightly. But we'd heard so much about the place — we'd seen the pictures, watched the videos — that we all convinced ourselves that this was the year to go for it."

Alas, it didn't quite work out the way they'd hoped. "Stupidly crowded, socially cold, and somebody's got their hand in your pocket 24/7." That was the way Dave and friends described their first Whistler/Blackcomb experience. And it looks to be their last. "We were in the plane, flying back home," he continues. "And it was quite clear from our discussion that the guys had all checked Whistler off their list. Not one person showed any interest in going back..."

Hicks lives in Texas, but spends much of the winter months at his second home in Jackson Hole. And from the moment he got back, he started working on me. "You should fly down and check this place out," insisted the life-long skier. "I want you to see how different the mountain experience is down here."

I fought it for a few weeks, I really did. But Dave is the kind of guy who never takes "no" for an answer. "You can't afford not to come," he argued. "As a commentator on mountain culture it's your duty to make the trip. Besides — it's not like it's gonna cost you much. You can stay with me and Mary Ellen as long as you like — and all your old friends are still in town. They'd love to see your ugly mug on our slopes."

Hmm... A hard invitation to turn down. And it's not like I'd visited the region recently. I mean, the last time I'd been to Jackson Hole was back in 1980... when I was still working as a ski coach in the U.S. Maybe it was time for a road trip.

Damn the torpedoes, I decided. Full speed ahead. And that's how I found myself in a small plane, dropping through the clouds and peering out the window at some of the most dramatic Rocky Mountain peaks anywhere. Welcome to the Grand Tetons, they said. Welcome to Jackson Hole.

There are some striking parallels between Whistler and Jackson Hole. Born barely a month apart (the Wyoming resort was launched in December of 1965) and birthed by the same kind of stubborn, visionary men (Wilhemsen in Canada and McCollister in the U.S.), these two mountain giants completely redefined the skiing experience.

Big and bold was not the modus operandi in those days... particularly not in North America. And industry pundits were quick to predict disaster for these two unconventional ski hills. Too big, too steep, too cold, too isolated: there was no way they'd succeed said the "experts." And they were (partly) right. Casual skiers, in those days, just didn't have the skiing skills to really benefit from these snowy behemoths.

But the experts hadn't counted on the Baby Boomers — or the passion they would develop for sliding on snow. By the mid 1970s, Whistler and Jackson were home to some of the most gung-ho ski bums on the continent. And they all knew just how fortunate they were to be a part of this developing story. I mean, being a "local" on those mountains, in those days, placed you at the very pinnacle of the diehard skier pyramid.

And the parallels continued. Jackson hired ski-racer icon Pepi Stiegler to run its ski school. Whistler turned around and hired freeskier extraordinaire Jim McConkey to run theirs. And both men — larger than life, and brimming with ski enthusiasm — inspired a whole new generation of young men to follow (literally) in their tracks.

Boasting four thousand vertical feet of skiing each — and a wild backcountry too vast to ever run out of fresh snow — Whistler and Jackson became the measuring stick by which advanced skiers would test themselves. Whether Corbett's Couloir or Whistler's Don't Miss, Jackson's Hobacks or our own Far West Bowl, the terrain the keeners pioneered in those days brought a whole new meaning to the term "high performance." Meanwhile, the years were passing. And slowly but surely, the two giants began to diverge.

Today the two mountains couldn't be more different. Still privately owned (Wyoming's Kemperrer family bought the resort nearly twenty years ago), modern Jackson Hole still exudes more soul per capita than any other resort in America. Imagine if Creekside were the only mountain base in the Whistler Valley... with a modest village spreading out around its lifts. Imagine if all the old timers — the freaks and visionaries, the heroes and the fools — were still living and skiing Creekside on a regular basis... and weren't afraid to challenge management on the way they operated "their" mountain. Imagine, finally, a company president who spends more time outside, skiing and interacting with his guests than inside working with his computer (and his numbers) and his quarterly plan.

That, my friends, is what 21st century Jackson Hole is all about. And no, it's not perfect. Locals are worried that changes are happening too fast in the valley, that business people are putting greed before conservation. But to me, their problems appear entirely containable. You see, a whopping 97 per cent of the land in Teton County is permanently protected from development! And that's because the people who first arrived in this valley understood the magic here. There's space in this place...

Perhaps the most telling difference between Whistler and Jackson is the two major capital investments that both recently made to remain "competitive" in the new century. While our guys opted to spend over $65 million to build our very own restaurant-to-restaurant gondola, the folks in Jackson invested their big bucks in a new tram that whisks skiers from the mountain's base to the 10,000-foot peak of Rendezvous in less than eight minutes. "We kind of got a laugh out of that," says Jackson Hole brand manager, Anna Olson. "We opened our new tram a week after your new gondola was launched. Ours carried clients 4,200 vertical feet, to the very summit of the resort. And yours, well, it kind of only goes sideways. Doesn't it?"

Ouch. That one really hurts. But then skiers and riders still count for something in Jackson Hole. Maybe that's why I've decided to extend my stay in Teton County by another week. It's already starting to feel like home here...