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Cody Peak, Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Photograph by Avery Stonich

Pushing Boundaries—Skiing the Jackson Hole Backcountry

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Photograph by Avery Stonich

Don’t you love it when you set out on an adventure knowing it’s going to be fun …  and then it blows your mind? This is what happened when I ventured into the Jackson Hole backcountry recently. We headed to Jackson to check out the ski resort. But when a friend said you can’t fully experience this special part of Wyoming without exploring the terrain out of bounds, we followed his advice. We were glad we did!

Given our limited knowledge of the area, my husband and I signed up for an all-day tour through the ski resort. The outfitter set us up with all the safety gear—avalanche beacons, airbags, shovels, and probes. We had a thorough briefing, reviewing the equipment, how to locate a buried person, and—most important—how to avoid getting caught in a slide. My husband and I have had some avalanche training, but we’re no experts, so the refresher was key.

The guide said we’d take the tram up the mountain, then pop out the side gate for some turns—likely returning to the ski area a few times during the day for some lift-assisted altitude gain. Guess he didn’t know what sort of powder junkies he had on his hands.

It turned out to be a superlative day in so many ways. We set out under a perfect bluebird sky juxtaposed against a dazzling magic carpet of glistening white snow. I was pretty stoked for the skiing and not particularly nervous. I failed to anticipate what sort of willies the hiking would produce. I didn’t ask a lot of questions—certainly not how far we’d be climbing or on what sort of slope. Maybe it’s better I didn’t know what was ahead. Ignorance is bliss. But, then again, so is adventure with an edge.

We began our hike on the boot pack up Cody Peak. It started fairly tame, then turned sharply skyward. Pretty soon I was practically crawling on hands and knees as I scrambled up a rocky 45-degree slope. Did I mention I was wearing downhill ski boots? They’re not exactly suited to hiking. My skis—not strapped to my pack quite right—awkwardly hit my calf, sending me off-balance. To my left was a craggy drop-off that looked like certain death in a fall. I tried not to look. Sometimes you just have to dig deep and ignore potentially paralyzing fear.

And then, I was rewarded. We approached a beautiful bowl and I felt like I could touch the sky.

We donned our skis and carved fresh tracks down the buttery face, through snow like cream cheese. Before we knew it, we were at the bottom, anticipating another sweaty climb. We made the next trek twice, the first time skiing down Powder 8 Face. When we approached the top of the ridge the second time, the guide asked if we wanted to repeat the last run, or explore a steep face called No Name that beckoned to the south. No Name had been tantalizing us all day, so, of course, we had to go there.

It required a pretty sketchy traverse—with jaw-dropping views. Rocky crags towered overhead, interspersed with steep avalanche chutes. The guide told us to stay spaced out, and not dilly dally. With temperatures warming and loaded snow overhead, it wasn’t wise to stop under something that could slide. Finally we reached the safety of a rock overhang and finished our hike to the skiable face, navigating a lung-busting climb and an awkward talus field. It was all worth it when we delighted in another ripping descent.

After one last climb, to Jensen Divide, and a long run through the trees, we emerged four valleys down from the resort and returned via a 1.5-mile traverse. Good lord! It was the hardest run of the day, given that it was just a skinny little track through the trees and my legs were toast. As we returned to the ski area, amidst people and noise, I suffered a little culture shock and realized how tranquil the backcountry had been.

Now I’m hooked. I was so enchanted by the staggering views, peaceful retreat, physical challenge, and amazing lines, I’m going to have to give it another go—just maybe not with downhill gear. It may be time to add another set of boards to the quiver and venture into the alpine touring world.

I also could use some more training. You can get a false sense of security when you go out a ski area gate and hike a well-trodden boot track to access backcountry runs. It’s important to remember that no matter how many people go there, the backcountry is still unpatrolled. You need to be knowledgeable about the terrain, snow conditions, and how to rescue someone in need.

But, serious talk aside, what a joy to have such a fun adventure, push my boundaries, get a little nervous, and have so much darn fun. More please!

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.