Cowboy Up For Jackson Hole’s Steeps

Driving up to Teton Village should hold dread. You see the Teton Mountains and the imposing face of the ski resort as you approach. I bet beginners pucker just looking at that area. Jackson Hole is not only huge but steep and loaded with vertical lines. Nearly 4200 vertical of thighroasting feet but unlike at Snowbird, once you get up to the top you never have to go back down to the tram if you don’t want to and you will still rack some serious vert. Sublette, Thunder and the new Marmot lifts get you pretty close to Rendezvous Bowl.

The plan was to meet the gang from PSIA Intermountain in Nick Wilson’s cafeteria, all ride the tram, warm up in Rendezvous Bowl, and split up in Cheyenne Bowl ride and ride chairs for the rest of the day.

Four DECL coaches greeted us and handed out lift tickets as we entered the café. If I wasn’t already an instructor, I’d seriously consider joining PSIA just for the value. A full day of coaching and lift ticket to Jackson for $60 (retail value on the ticket alone is $94 and a group lesson is close to $200!). Jackson is definitely not known for its value. Afterall, they have to pay for that shiny new tram somehow. Kids group lessons are close to $200 and don’t include a lift ticket, lunch averages $15 for a samdwhich and drink (no fries) and they charge $15 for the nearest parking lot; otherwise it’s $5 for the Ranch Lot and shuttle to the Tram building. But let’s face it, if I’m going to spend $100 on a lift ticket I’d rather it be to Jackson than Deer Valley. But that’s just me. I haven’t gotten old or lazy enough to whine for groomers. A DV Steeps Camp would be an oxymoron.

The Split

Twenty two campers from mostly Utah anxiously booted and helmeted up as we waited for battle plans. We’d soon split into four groups of five. There would be the ‘hard-chargers’ who would ski top to bottom all day long, the ‘slowpokes’ who would need extra love and attention and then two middle groups who would get a mixture of the others. One of those, led by Karen, turned into a ladies group. I thought I was going in that group until hit the bottom, looked back up and saw all of them still skiing down. They were strong skiers but sloooow.

Last year, I charged. My clinician decided pain was the name of the game and we stopped once for the bathroom and once for lunch from 9:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. This year, with the weaksauce early season I’ve had, I just didn’t feel up to non-stoppers but that didn’t mean I wanted to stand around waiting and talking.

Hello, Bruce Keller!

Bruce has been at Jackson for 18 years. To say he knows the mountain is an understatement. He’s a trainer to other instructors, a backcountry guide, a heliski gude in Alaska and a river guide in the summer. He’s led Steeps Camps groups for 12 years and he’s filled with anecdotes, pointers and constructive yet positive feedback.

The conditions at Jackson this week were better than Utah’s but that’s not really saying much. Neither state has broken the 100″ inch base benchmark and it’s mid-February. At Jackson, we had moguls everywhere. Fortunately the caliber of skier at Jackson means the moguls are at least skiable instead of those weird hacked off mini cliffs you find at DV when it hasn’t snowed in a while. We had soft purchase on those rolling mounds. There were decent-sized bumps in the tree shots from Expert Chutes to Bivouac but at least the mountain was 100 percent open including the backcountry gates.

It didn’t take long to feel the burn. I’m usually in ski shape by February but with so little motivation to get on it this season, I wasn’t. The Steeps Camps, therefore, served a multitude of purposes- get me in shape, get me skiing off-piste, get me skiing off-piste well, and get me out of Utah where lack-of-snow depression was setting in. We bee-lined for Sublette chair and our first ‘theme’ of the day. Bruce asked us, “What’s the most important angle in steep skiing?” The answer isn’t hips, or ankles or knees. The angle is us being perpendicular to the slope. That’s the angle you need to keep moving down the hill. In just about any ski school class you’ll take, you’ll encounter an instructor who eschews counter. That’s where you’re shoulders and pelvis face downhill while your lower body is across the hill (or at four or eight o’clock, as Bruce describes). Ski steeps at Jackson (or anywhere) and counter is king.

Don’t Be A Poodle

Another fave phrase of Bruce’s- Don’t be a poodle. I add, “Be a pitbull”.

Debb Demonstrating Counter

Another big topic of discussion was directional control versus speed control. Sometimes it’s more important to make minor adjustments to the shape of your turn as you make your way through a technical section and worry about speed control when the run opens up (becomes wide enough for a bigger turn to dump your speed). All that talk of “finishing a turn” you hear from ski instructors? Screw it in the steeps. ‘Finish’ a turn and you stop your flow. One thing you don’t want to be in a 55 or 60-degree slope is ‘stuck’. We watched a guy launch into Corbet’s Couloir and straight run it for about 100 feet before slowly arcing to regain control. He then changed direction and did another lazy GS turn. He didn’t stop until the flats. No poodles in sight.

Third Time’s The Charm

We never did make it into Corbet’s ourselves but we got a chance to practice the next ‘theory’. Every well-executed run requires three passes. On the first, you scope it. The second, you ski it and the third, you flash it. We rode Thunder to Elephant Tree, skied soft Wyoming snow up to our boot cuffs through tight pines, cut across to Paint Brush for more trees and into Toilet Bowl for a funnel that focused on an exposed rock quarry. The trick was to set up with a high-side turn before entering the gut where the rocks were. Since we had ‘scoped’ on the first run, we knew exactly where we had to be to avoid them. Unfortunately, we had a hard time ‘flashing’ on the third run as the day became a total whiteout with the storm that had moved into the area. Next pointer from Bruce- plant your pole as far down the hill as possible. You’ll be able to tell what’s below you as well as move in that direction. We couldn’t see sh*t but we kept moving. Damn this clinic rocks.

By 3:45 p.m. our little band of old timers (we have a 70-year-old Snowbird instructor ripping it up with us!) was forced to pack it in. What a day. I felt like we went from zero to 70 in a blink but that’s what a steeps camp does. There’s no room for poodles as Bruce would say. We celebrated the end of Day 1 with jalapeno margaritas at the Merry Piglets and I tucked myself in by 10 p.m. As I drifted off, I wondered if I’d be sore in the morning.

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