Rediscovering A Sense of Wonder: Backcountry Skiing the Tetons

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By Michael Lanza

The morning air at 8,800 feet in Wyoming’s Teton Range hovers in the single digits Fahrenheit, and the breeze wields a below-zero wind chill like a straight razor: It feels on the verge of shaving the two-day-old beard from my face. In blinding sunshine, six of us step outside the Baldy Knoll yurt to find at least six inches of light powder—cold smoke—that fell overnight atop the 10 inches of snow that had dropped from the generous heavens in recent days. We arrived here late yesterday afternoon, just a couple hours before the frozen waterfall of fat, featherweight snowflakes began pouring copiously from a coal-black night sky.

Skiing in the mountains, as with anything else in life, is really all about timing. And sometimes you just get lucky.

So we click into ski bindings, conduct a quick check of everyone’s avalanche beacon, and form a conga line plowing ski tracks uphill through the deep powder along a ridge above the yurt. Skiing uphill—to many people, the concept sounds as wrongly backwards as putting your underwear on over your pants. (Sorry, Superman.) That’s one of the reasons we will see no one out here over the course of four days staying at the yurt and skiing the backcountry around it. Snowstorms, severe cold, and the ever-present threat of getting buried alive in an avalanche act as powerful disincentives, no doubt. But for most people, I think, the conversation doesn’t even get that far: As soon as you explain the uphill-skiing part, the deal’s off.

 

A little while after leaving the yurt, on a north-facing mountainside populated with evergreens, we flip the switch that makes us weightless.

Gliding downhill through powder snow so light and deep, there is no surface and no bottom, only an intermediate space where flying snow and air mix in a turbulent blend that’s thin enough to breathe but thick enough to smack you in the face. Fall down and you can gain a small sense of how a mastodon felt getting mired in a tar pit, minus the sticky part.

But stay upright and you experience weightlessness. Skiing powder is the closest most of us will ever come to realizing that childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

After dropping several hundred vertical feet in a few minutes, we slap climbing skins onto our skis to slowly, laboriously break a zigzagging track back up. On this shaded mountainside, the air remains so frigid that it takes at least 15 minutes of hard, uphill effort to return warmth to my body and blood to my fingers and toes. For most of the daylight hours, we ski laps up and down, steadily mowing through a few acres of untracked snow until we’ve carved and diced up so much virgin powder that it feels like a real accomplishment.

That evening, I ski a short distance up the ridge above the yurt again as sunset paints the sky and snowy peaks a vivid salmon hue. It’s a familiar view; this is my second visit to Baldy Knoll yurt, but I’ve also backpacked, climbed, and skied many times in the Tetons. So I see these mountains through a lens of familiarity—I recognize distant peaks and can draw a mental picture of how to get from here to there. In other words: I’m still awed, but no longer lost in awe or breathless with intimidation. Familiarity can have the unfortunate effect of making the mountains feel a little smaller.

And yet, being here in winter feels different. Then it hits me: I’ve found again what those of us who venture into the wilderness anytime of year are always looking for. More than two decades after my first backpacking trip in the Tetons, I’ve come full circle back to that baptismal visit.

 

Exploring Grand Teton National Park

I first laid eyes on the Tetons 22 years ago, in summertime. I was a backpacker, cross-country skier, and novice rock climber then; I had not yet branched into backcountry skiing. On that first visit, three friends and I hiked for five days through these serrated mountains that rise to nearly 14,000 feet, and I fell hopelessly in love with the Tetons. I’ve been back 15 times—so far—including backpacking with my kids.

Three years later, I made my initial winter trip here, skiing Jackson Hole resort and cross-country skiing in Yellowstone (another first of what would become many visits). Two backcountry-skier friends living in Bozeman suggested I rent a pair of telemark skis and join them for a day exploring the terrain around Teton Pass, where some 18 inches of fresh powder had just fallen. They convinced me I’d do just fine, in spite of all evidence suggesting otherwise—such as the fact that I could have counted on one hand the number of days I’d been on telemark skis up to that point, all of them on resort groomers.

I did not do fine. Not at all. Although it may seem almost impossible, I think I made more falls than actual turns. It took me about a half-hour to ski down our first run. Falling a lot and extracting yourself repeatedly from deep powder is brutally exhausting work, an exercise in abject failure that can break your spirit. But demonstrating either tenacity or an extraordinary blindness to my own ineptitude, I decided to stick with telemark skiing the backcountry—because I saw it as the key to unlocking the mountains in winter.

According to climate data from Grand Teton National Park, an average of 14 feet of snow falls annually on Moose, location of the park visitor center in Jackson Hole. That’s a pretty hefty amount of snow, and that’s on the drier, east side of the Tetons. The west side receives considerably more pow: 500 inches, or over 41 feet a year on average at Grand Targhee Resort, just several miles as the crow flies from Baldy Knoll—though light years distant if you’re measuring by numbers of people and ease of access. It’s also quite cold in the Tetons in winter. From December through February the average high temperature in Moose is 28°F and the average low temperature is 2°F. But temps drop about four degrees for every thousand feet of elevation gain, and Baldy Knoll sits about 2,500 feet higher than Jackson Hole. You do the math.

All of this means you can often find deep, pillow-stuffing-quality powder outside the Baldy Knoll yurt. And no other skiers there to poach it.

 

Ski Touring to Housetop Mountain

Our third day again begins clear and frigid as we set out first thing in the morning to ski tour up the long ridge from Baldy Knoll to 10,537-foot Housetop Mountain. The avalanche hazard is high enough that we’ll exercise caution in choosing where we go, though we hope to find some moderate-angle slopes that are safe to ski. Either way, we’ll spend all day soaking up some glorious Tetons views—a good day no matter what the snow is like.

We follow the gently undulating crest of the ridge. Cold wind pours over us like icy water at the brink of a falls, scalloping and compressing the snow into a firm crust. To either side of this broad mountain highway, the earth drops off into deep canyons flanked by cliffs scarred by numerous avalanche paths. To the northeast, the arrowhead of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton slices into blue sky, surrounded by a jagged skyline of peaks nearly as high. Seeing them kindles vivid memories of the times I’ve hiked various trails here, rock climbed and scrambled some of the park’s highest peaks, and stood on the Grand’s summit.

No matter what our experience level or outdoors activity, we’re all really after the same thing: a sense of wonder. As young children, we get it almost as often as we bathe because the world is so new. Then we get older and jaded; awe and wonder don’t visit with us as frequently anymore, sometimes rarely. Nature and adventure offer some of the last refuges for those childlike joys.

Even in wilderness, though, wonder can become steadily more elusive. We spend more time out there and grow a little disillusioned by crowds of people on popular trails. Our perception expands to notice humanity’s oversized footprint—how the natural world isn’t quite as pristine as we want to believe. We learn a few things and get to know places and find that we encounter fewer surprises and challenges—we’ve learned how to avoid the very sort of experiences that, truth be told, made for a good story back when we were still a little green and clueless.

 

For those of us who branch into risk sports like climbing, paddling whitewater, or backcountry skiing, part of the attraction is obviously thrill. Then we eventually figure out that thrill is like any intoxicant: wonderful in moderation and toxic in excess.

But exploring the mountains on skis in winter—especially a range I’ve come to know well, like the Tetons—has given me more than merely thrill. Snow throws a seasonal rug over at least some of the most visible impacts of people on nature. Snow and deep cold keep most people away. The mountains are more difficult to explore in winter. I’ve reclaimed, for a few days, that sense of wonder.

From an unnamed, subsidiary peak just over 10,000 feet immediately west of the summit of Housetop, the Tetons spread out like a violent sea for miles in every direction—heaving, buckling, and cleaved off, the work of many millennia of tectonic forces thrusting the Earth’s crust upward and ancient glaciers scraping, gouging, and pulverizing everything they touched. But gleaming white, these mountains look different—almost new, as if the blanket of snow were a fresh coat of paint remaking the landscape.

After a long while enjoying that view, we turn around and ski down a long, gladed slope—and sure enough, find some great snow. Yup, timing is everything.

Note: See all of my stories about skiing, including backcountry skiing Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, and my stories about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in summer and a family backpacking trip in the Tetons.

 

THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only fit, intermediate to expert backcountry skiers or snowshoers with strong navigational and avalanche-safety skills. Challenges and hazards include finding your way in unmarked, rugged terrain, severe cold and weather, and the possibility of avalanches. It is unlikely that you will encounter other people out there in winter, so self-reliance is mandatory, from everyone carrying all the clothing, food, water, and safety equipment every individual needs, to group members having training and experience in evaluating avalanche hazard and making safe decisions.

Make It Happen

Season The backcountry skiing season in the Tetons begins usually by late November and continues into late spring.

The Itinerary For a three-night stay at Baldy Knoll yurt, we arrived at the trailhead by midday on day one and skied up to the yurt carrying packs loaded with food and other necessities for four days; the ski in takes a few hours. We spent days two and three skiing the backcountry around the yurt. There’s plenty of skiable terrain on the partially forested slopes north of the yurt, easy terrain dropping immediately south from the yurt, and options for longer tours, depending on snow conditions; ask Teton Backcountry Guides (below).

Getting There Baldy Knoll yurt is reached by skiing or snowmobiling 2,200 vertical feet and 5.5 miles up the east-west ridge between Fox Creek and Game Creek canyons, following a jeep road that begins on the east side of Victor, Idaho. Snowmobiles are permitted only as far as the yurt, which is just outside the wilderness boundary.

Permit No permit is needed for staying at the yurt (only a reservation; see below) or backcountry skiing within Grand Teton National Park or the adjacent Targhee National Forest.

Map While there are commercial topo maps of Grand Teton National Park and surrounding wilderness and national forest lands, for backcountry skiing—as you would for hiking off-trail—get the more-detailed USGS 1:24,000-scale, 7.5-minute quad maps Topo maps: Driggs, ID; Victor, ID; Rendezvous Peak, WY; and Mt. Bannon, WY, $8 each, usgs.gov. USGS topo maps for the area are available at Yostmark Mountain Equipment in Driggs, Idaho, yostmark.com.

The Yurt is heated by a wood stove and has a fully equipped kitchen with propane stoves and lanterns. Reserve the Baldy Knoll yurt through Teton Backcountry Guides (below) several months in advance for winter dates. The yurt sleeps up to eight people, but is more comfortable with a max of six.

Contact Teton Backcountry Guides, (307) 353-2900, tetonbackcountryguides.com.

 

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