Words by D’Arcy McLeish. Photos by Robin O’Neill.
In the world of backcountry skiing conversations often start with sharing stories. Skin track chats to be reconvened at a change over or fun discussions after an epic lap. Sharing stories is part of being in the mountains, but often, conversations turn to what I call the ‘more hard core’ talk. You know the ones I mean. Hell, I’m a ski patroller, so I’m into the ‘more hard core’ conversations as much as anyone, barring maybe mountain guides. Just kidding. Those guys are as humble as they come. So what starts over a sandwich lunch in the alpine turns into a pissing contest in the trees. Who went the biggest? Who climbed the hardest? Who bagged that crazy line no one ever goes to?
Specific achievements often enjoy the stage, but location plays a big part in how much ‘more hard core’ something is in the mountain world. There are a few places that always come up more than others in the world of big mountain skiing and ski mountaineering. First on that list has to be Chamonix, the birth place of steep skiing. Not far behind are the Coast Mountains of BC, The Canadian Rockies, and of course, Alaska.
All of those places have what it takes. All of them are famous as ski mountaineering destinations. But they’ve all got a little attitude as well. The Coast is associated with the glam of Whistler and the remote, big mountains terrain stretching up the west coast of BC, an area larger than most of the other places on this list combined. It’s larger than life and has that subtle arrogance only Canadians from BC can convey. Hard core, indeed.
The Rockies’ skiers take pride in their ultra technical terrain and are always quick to let you know how gnarly their snowpack is compared to everywhere else. As such, they tend to turn their noses at Coastal accomplishments ‘cause the coastal snowpack is for wimps.
And Chamonix? “Cham” as the bro bras of the world like to call it, turns its nose at just about everyone. It’s synonymous with burly lines in extremely hard to reach places and some of the steepest skiing in the world. I know Cham has the cred. Anyone who is anyone wants to cut their ski mountaineering teeth in Chamonix. But make no mistake, everyone in Cham will let you know just how hard core it really is.
Then there’s Alaska. The massive spines and silky snow of Alaska stand a little apart as the holy grail of big mountain skiing and the folks who’ve skied there aren’t afraid to brag about it. Have you been to AK, man?
But there’s another place that rivals all of them. A place that’s loose and American and a little bit cowboy. The Teton Range sits pretty much in the middle of nowhere, perched on the western edge of Wyoming, one of the last wild and remote places in the lower 48. It’s small in area, only a fraction of those other places, but it’s got more oopmf per square mile than just about anywhere. Ya, I know, they’re famous too: some of the biggest names in skiing hail from Jackson. Names like Coombs and the Jackson Hole Air Force, who pioneered and helped open the boundaries off the resort and brought a little freedom to the backcountry. But for climbing up mountains to ski down them, it’s one of those places that even with its fame, still flies a little under the radar and is about as hard core as you can get.Take Grand Teton herself, that beautiful and terrifying sentinel that stands over Teton National Park. It had its first guided ski descent in 2008. That says a lot. Even now it doesn’t get skied all that much ‘cause it’s still one of the most demanding lines in the Western US. But what separates the Tetons from a lot of other places is there’s no bragging here. People are just stoked to share their backyard with you and they don’t need to advertise how hard core they are. Even the full mountain guides are friendly and welcoming in Jackson, which speaks volumes. Can you imagine a guide in Chamonix offering to show you some of their favourite ski lines or even buying you a coffee? Ya, me neither.
The Tetons aren’t overrun with wannabe pro shredders or snooty euro guides. They’re chill. This is one of those places where it’s rare for pro athletes to get shit done without the help of a guide. Because the terrain, the technical difficulty and the sheer will needed to bag some of the bigger objectives here require real mountain skill. There’s a reason alpinism has a deep and storied history in the Teton Range. Learning to survive here requires stamina, solid mountain knowledge and a little humble grace. That’s probably why everyone and their brother seems to be a guide of some sort in Jackson. Growth industry.But it’s not growing that much. The Tetons are one of the few places left so close to a major ski resort where you won’t see a zillion slackcountry keeners lining up to go out of bounds. Minimal sled traffic, too, being a national park and all. But it’s the terrain here that separates the hardy from the foolhardy. With that comes an understated frontier vibe that’s rugged and American and loose in the best possible way. So if you’re thinking of upping your game and going somewhere to ski what you climb, think about Jackson and the Tetons. There’s no bragging attitude here, just a deep commitment to living in the mountains and an openness to sharing what’s there. Plus you’ll have a really good story to share when the talk turns to being ‘more hard core’.
Be safe, ski hard.
We’re going to Jackson! Join us at the 2018 Arc’teryx Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Academy Feb 8-11, 2018. More:
D’Arcy McLeish is a Squamish, BC-based writer, professional ski patroller, rope access technician, mountain rescue specialist, coffee addict and CBC listener. When not doing any of these things D’Arcy is reading, climbing or riding his bike.
Read more about Robin O’Neill.