I was in a small parking lot near the Wyoming-Idaho line, a few miles below the top of Teton Pass, an 8,431-foot (2,570-meter) saddle wedged between high peaks and bridged by Wyoming's Highway 22. It was morning in early March and my companions, Berne Broudy, her husband, Mike Donohue, and our local friend Dave Simpson, had piled out of Dave's truck, ready to ski. The three of them were rustling in backpacks, pulling boards from the roof rack, buckling boots, and sliding skins over fat backcountry sticks. Meanwhile I stood by, examining the immaculate flakes one by one as they drifted from salt-shaker skies, and thinking, Here were two skiers from Vermont, Berne and Mike, and one from California, me, who'd come to Wyoming primarily to do one thing—ski Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, one of the nation's premier downhill destinations. And yet here we were, 30 minutes away, the resort out of mind, prepping for a day without lifts, without trams or crowds, without the famed runs that draw skiers from around the globe. And we couldn't have been happier.
Across the West—and even in the East, where snow is less reliable—skiers and snowboarders have embraced the backcountry over the past decade with unprecedented enthusiasm. Equipment sales are up, as is the number of backcountry-safety classes offered nationwide, powerful indicators that more and more folks are being lured from resorts to the wilds of off piste. And while the Wasatch Range outside Salt Lake City, Berthoud and Red Mountain Passes in Colorado, and the peaks around Lake Tahoe have blossomed with thriving backcountry scenes, none quite compare to the spot where I sat studying that remarkable snow. The rich and varied terrain, the drive-up access, the funky scene of locals that's neither oppressive nor exclusive—they all conspire to make Teton Pass an undeniably unique and must-ski destination for anyone looking to head out-of-bounds. As backcountry havens go, this is ground zero.
From the top of the pass you can throw your resort skis over your shoulder, scoot up a boot-packed trail to the top of 10,086-foot (3,074-meter) Mount Glory, ski several thousand vertical feet (about a thousand vertical meters) of heli-quality powder down to the two-lane Highway 22, stick out your thumb for a ride, and be back at your car—all in 90 minutes. You can hike with your snowboard for 15 minutes and spend the rest of the day jumping off handcrafted kickers. You can slap climbing skins on the bottom of your telemark skis, tour for hours, and never see a soul or cross a track. As the only major passage through the Tetons for a hundred miles (161 kilometers), 22 is plowed to the pavement at the first hint of snow; on any given day skiers can reach the top of the pass before their coffee gets cold. This in a place where snow can stick in October and linger until July.
By the time we departed the lot, ready to skin up to high country, a quarter inch (about half a centimeter) of that perfect powder had accumulated, flocking trees, dusting Highway 22, and coating the rocks of a running creek, which we crossed on skis via snow-covered logs. It was yet another snowy day in one of the snowiest seasons western Wyoming had seen in a decade: 35 feet (11 meters) had fallen in late 2005 and early 2006, and four more would dump before the end of the week.
The vast majority of Teton Pass skiers spend their time on Mount Glory, which looms a couple thousand feet (610 meters) directly over the road, but Dave, a longtime Jackson resident and our de facto guide, had us heading up 9,004-foot (2,744-meter) Oliver Peak, on the Idaho side of the pass. That tour, he said, offers a beautiful climb through fat lodgepole pines and stands of fir, across gentle bowls of powder, and up a few pulse-raising pitches to keep you honest. And because it is across the pass from Jackson and requires a slightly longer approach, you are almost guaranteed solitude.
As we chugged through the big trees and broke into an open bowl, the flakes dwindled to flurries and the clouds broke apart like cotton candy. Tendrils of vapor drifted in hollows and a tentative sun brought soft contrast to the organic contours of the slopes. Once off the first steep pitch of climbing, our skin track angled more directly uphill, leaving the switchbacks behind. Berne and Mike may have been used to the lower elevations of Vermont, but they were strong climbers. As I followed them and Dave (whose stride seemed to be twice the length of mine), it felt like no time before we were sitting atop Oliver Peak, gazing out on the Teton Range to the north, the Snake River Range to the south, and the flats of Wyoming and Idaho to either side.
After a quick drink of water, we switched our orientation from up to down, stowing climbing skins and zipping shells. The first pitch off Oliver was mellow, effortless, 25 turns of feathery boot-top snow. There was nothing scary or hard or threatening about it, and as I left my mark with long, fast turns, I thought, Well of course the backcountry is booming. But it wasn't always this simple. When I first started venturing off piste, skiers flailed on skinny telemark skis with wimpy leather boots or rattletrap Alpine boards with funky European touring bindings. Then plastic boots were introduced to tele in 1992, which gave more power over the skis. About the same time, updated and improved Alpine-touring gear appeared on the market, allowing resort skiers to sample the backcountry without learning a funky new turn. By the mid-nineties, avalanche-safety gear became more widely available and skis—those delightfully fat Alpine skis—became so easy and fun they were like magic wands, making skiers better overnight and revolutionizing the sport, inbounds and out.
Although U.S. resorts spent the 1980s misguidedly grooming nearly every trail in sight, this sea change in equipment pushed the pendulum in the other direction. Areas as posh as Telluride and as bland as Colorado's Keystone opened "outback" terrain, while previously tight resorts, such as Tahoe's Kirkwood and Heavenly, reduced restrictions on their out-of-bounds terrain. Most famously, in 1999, Jackson Hole lifted its longtime boundary closure, which had polarized the community and turned many local powderhounds into outlaw poachers.
The new policy gave Jackson Hole skiers the wherewithal to learn the backcountry ropes one step at a time. As their skills increased, more and more die-hard resort skiers began to look beyond the traditional boundaries. Teton Pass promised more terrain, empty terrain, free terrain, and many began to see it as an alternative to the resort, sometimes even as a replacement. It was the same story even for me, the California transplant: I'd come to Jackson Hole to spend one final winter skiing from the resort's legendary Aerial Tram (it was decommissioned last year—so long, old friend). But then I started making early morning runs on the pass and something took hold. I grew to crave the peacefulness and challenge of working through the wind and sun and temperatures to tease out the best pitches. Two days a week soon became four.
On days like this one on Oliver, close to my 30th on the pass since arriving in January, it was easy to understand why: The only tracks were our own, the cold, clean air refreshed our lungs, and every slope held flawless snow. We found one run so wonderfully tilted with soft and deep that we climbed and skied it three times. It was a relentless, joyful rhythm, one that needed only be broken to test for avalanche conditions. Earlier that season a Teton Pass skier had been killed by a slide on nearby Taylor Mountain; having snow-evaluation skills dialed in before you leave the resort is a prerequisite to skiing the pass.
Besides that important concern, Teton Pass offers nothing but backcountry in the ideal: Route-finding is generally easy, and the hikes, while strenuous, are far from backbreaking; the usual trek to the top of Mount Glory only takes an hour. Befitting such universal appeal, the pass has become one big demographic mixing bowl, attracting people of every sort—from resort refugees and backcountry Luddites to new-school huckers and Volvo-driving moms from the Jackson suburbs. Most are locals (from both sides of the Tetons), but I regularly saw plates from California, Utah, Vermont, and New Hampshire in the parking lot. One bright morning on Glory, I met a former local who had driven straight from his new home in Florida, slept in his truck for a few hours in Utah, and come directly to the pass for a sunrise hike.
With all this energy it's tempting to speak of a Teton Pass scene, but there really isn't one. The culture of the pass is a loose weave. You might see other parties near the trailhead, at the terrain benches on the hike up Glory, or in the covert Rubbermaid warming shed (complete with heater) hidden just off the bootpack in the trees, but then you're alone again. In the parking lot, friends introduce friends; maybe you see them again and maybe you don't. And hitchhiking promises the same lack of commitment—a ranch truck pulls over and you scramble into the back without ever seeing a driver. It stops at the summit and you pound your fist on the side as thanks. No strings attached.
Perhaps that's what makes Teton Pass—and by extension backcountry skiing—such an addiction. In nearly every regard, its appeal is freedom; freedom to seek the turns that make you the happiest, to start early and stay late, to get away from everyone else. And skiers are drawn to that liberty with a sort of gravitational pull. Well, that and the untracked snow.
Miles from any ski lift, we saw the rest of our day on Oliver unfold leisurely. We had more slopes than we could ski in a winter. For lunch we ate sitting on packs, listening to the silence, watching the light play off the ragged peaks all around us. We followed the best snow, skied pitches until they were too flat to hold our attention, then threw skins back on, climbed up, and hit 'em again. And when the afternoon glided toward evening and our legs started grumbling about the ups, Dave led us back to the summit of Oliver and over the backside to the steepest terrain, the sweet dessert after a ten-course meal. We were alone in the world, and if it wasn't precisely true, it was true enough.
So we did what you do in the unpatrolled backcountry, where you're judge, jury, and rescue crew all in one: We followed the standard protocol of leapfrogging, communicating when we sneaked into the trees, and collecting the group before moving on. But we knew the snow and could see the terrain, and so we moved quickly, barely breaking rhythm, running from top to bottom in a flowing, effortless groove—the snow as resistant as 900-fill goose down, powder billowing overhead and cold smoke drifting away like a signature written in invisible ink. When the steepness abated, we skied along a frozen creek, jumping off stumps and luging around corners and following the watercourse all the way back to the truck. As I brushed those stellar crystals off the windshield, I reflected on the truth that compelled me away from the lifts in the first place, that one great run in the backcountry is worth ten anywhere else.
Plan your own trip with our Backcountry Skiing Adventure Guide >>
See more Teton Pass skiing photos >>
Find out how to ski all year long >>