Skiing is a slippery slope. You start innocently enough, with happy, carefree, blue runs but before long you are moving to the harder stuff – from reds to blacks and beyond, always chasing that same thrill and always needing a greater challenge to recreate it. Eventually it all gets a little out of hand and you end up somewhere like this – dangling from a rope at the top of a narrow sliver of snow known as the Apocalypse Couloir, looking down into a remote gorge with a brutally unambiguous name, Death Canyon.
My guide, Zahan Billimoria, and I had set out from the town of Jackson, Wyoming, at 5.30am, then driven a few miles into Grand Teton National Park. We walked by torchlight through a dark forest, then stuck skins to our skis for the three-hour trek up gentle slopes to the summit of Prospectors Peak. The sun rose, the snow sparkled, red squirrels scampered about the stands of spruce and lodgepole pine. At the top we stopped to chew energy bars and admire the views of the pristine valley, then turned towards the far side of the mountain, and peered over the edge. My stomach lurched. This, the north face, could not be more different to the benign southern slopes we had climbed – a chaotic tangle of frozen cliffs and jagged granite spires.
The band of snow that would be our route down dropped away for hundreds of metres, before vanishing into the rocky turmoil. A cold wind blew up from below, whipping snow into my face. Billimoria was busy, fixing a rope to get us past the vertical section and to the relative safety of a cave, where we could put on our skis. Once one end of the rope was secure, he threw the rest of it over the edge. I watched in silence as the coils tumbled down and down.
This is ski mountaineering, otherwise known as AT (alpine touring), backcountry or free-randonée, a sport enjoying a surge of popularity in the US, and nowhere more so than in Grand Teton National Park, 310,000 acres of snowy wilderness in and around Jackson Hole. The “Hole” is not a town but a secluded valley, some 45 miles long and 10 miles wide, bordered to the east by the Gros Ventre mountain range, with the Tetons to the west. European explorers had sailed the Amazon and charted the far reaches of the Himalayas before they made it here. The valley was first seen by a white American in 1806, and although Native Americans had long hunted in the area, there was no permanent settlement until 1870.
For skiers used to the narrow valleys and chocolate-box villages of the Alps, arriving at Jackson Hole airport is something of a shock. The runway sits on the wide valley floor, which is perfectly flat until it suddenly rears up into the high peaks of the Tetons – a geological faultline means there are no foothills. It’s hard not to get stuck on the plane’s steps, gawping at the Grand Teton, the highest of the mountains, and drinking in the wide horizons and big skies.
It’s also hard not to imagine yourself in a western. A sign on the baggage carousel advises where to collect ammunition, and the bus drivers waiting outside wear dusters and cowboy hats. On the 20-minute ride into Jackson town, you pass herds of elk, and might see the odd moose by the roadside. The scenery might seem familiar from the movies shot here, including Shane, Spencer’s Mountain and The Big Trail (featuring John Wayne in his first speaking part).
In Jackson itself, the streets are lined with wooden boardwalks, and the entrances to the town square are marked by huge arches made of antlers (naturally shed, and collected by the local boy scouts). The bar at the Wort Hotel – the town’s central meeting place since it opened in 1941 – is lined with 2,032 silver dollars, and on “bluegrass Tuesdays” locals come to dance arm in arm to the house band, One Ton Pig. Around the corner at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, the stools are made from saddles and drinkers are watched over by a huge stuffed bear. Clothes shops sell T-shirts with slogans such as “Shut up and Hunt!”; an exhibit on the wall of the old museum shows different types of barbed wire used by ranchers.
Quite how much of the wild west character is authentic and how much is for tourists is unclear – tourism has been integral to the area for almost as long as farming. The first dude ranch – set up to give holidaying city dwellers the chance to play at being cowboys – opened in 1908, and early and influential visitors included Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt. “This is how mountains are supposed to look,” said Roosevelt.
Drive a few miles east from Jackson towards the Idaho border, and you come to a roadside wooden barn called the Stagecoach. If it’s Sunday, a band will be playing, just as they have every Sunday since 1969. One of the members is an 80-year-old banjo-player called Bill Briggs, known for his yodelling but also for being the father of extreme skiing in the US.
In June 1971, he became the first person to ski the 4,199m-high Grand Teton, a run that captured the public imagination. The following day a newspaper editor chartered an aircraft to take photos of his tracks at the summit, and the feat became celebrated for opening American skiers’ eyes to what was possible away from the confines of the ski resorts’ controlled pistes. “If there’s no risk, there’s no adventure,” said Briggs.
Helped by his achievement, the valley became known as one of the country’s leading ski destinations. Jackson Hole ski resort, which officially opened in 1966, won a reputation for deep powder and steep slopes, and for attracting the nation’s best skiers.
While still drawing gung-ho powder hounds, in recent years the resort has developed a more luxurious side. At the base of the slopes, 10 miles from Jackson, the purpose-built Teton Village now has smart hotels such as the Four Seasons and Terra, good Italian, Thai and Japanese restaurants, and a new five-star golf course development, the Shooting Star ranch. Where once poor homesteaders staked their claims and scratched a living, there is a new influx of wealthy settlers, attracted in part by Wyoming’s lack of income tax.
The resort may be thriving but today more and more people – tourists as well as locals – are pushing beyond its boundaries to go ski mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park, which begins immediately to the north of Teton Village. Exum, the area’s leading mountain guiding company, has seen a big rise in demand and sales of equipment have been soaring. According to SnowSports Industries America, US sales of the special bindings needed to trek uphill have more than doubled since 2008. Dynafit, which specialises in backcountry gear, says its sales have risen tenfold since 2007. “The backcountry is on fire,” said the company’s Jackson-based spokesman.
In 2008, Exum even guided its first client on a winter descent of the Grand Teton itself, something that has been repeated several times since. The seminal extreme skiing route is now within reach of visiting tourists.
To achieve it, however, they need luck with weather and snow conditions. My own ambitions were thwarted by lack of snow but there are numerous other challenges in the park, and it’s easy to combine a few days of resort skiing with a few days out in the wilds.
The Apocalypse Couloir turned out to be just the warm-up. Safely down, we returned to the car and drove deeper into the park, pulling up at Colter Bay by the banks of Jackson Lake. It was 4pm when we set off from the car, heading out across the frozen lake towards Bearpaw Bay, six miles away. We skated on our skis, eventually falling into a hypnotic rhythm that left the mind free to wander away from thoughts of fatigue.
Earlier in the week, I’d squeezed into the back of a packed local auditorium to listen to a talk on ski mountaineering. Tom Turiano, an author and Exum guide, tried to explain the appeal. “For me it’s the breathtaking rush of being tiny in the face of vastness,” he said. Now, as we poled and slid across the lake, entirely alone amid miles of empty white, I could see what he meant. Although possibly I was just dehydrated.
We camped for the night close to the far shore, melting snow for drinking water and hiding our food up a tree, so as not to attract bears who might be waking, hungry, from their hibernation. It was freezing; so cold that when Billimoria’s alarm went off at 3.15am, it came as something of a relief.
At 4am we began climbing the 3,842m Mount Moran, occasionally swapping skis for crampons to clamber over great blocks of ice that were the ominous remains of past avalanches. For six hours we pressed on, barely noticing the sunrise, anxious to reach the top before the snow warmed up, making fresh avalanches more likely.
Near the top of the Skillet Glacier the snow got steeper and deeper. With skis on my rucksack, and ice axe in hand, I tried to scramble upwards but kept sliding back in the soft snow. Ten vigorous strides upwards gained perhaps a couple of inches. It was the hardest, most frustrating physical effort I’ve ever had to make. Eventually, the summit was in sight but I couldn’t go on.
We skied straight back down, covering the 1,600 hard-won vertical metres in a matter of minutes, our tracks the only sign of human life on the mountain. My legs were like boiling jelly, my shoulders sore from the heavy pack, my head pounding with the effects of altitude and exhaustion. But it didn’t matter. Beneath my helmet and balaclava, I was grinning as much as when I skied my first blue run.
Tom Robbins was a guest of American Airlines (www.aa.com) and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (www.jacksonhole.com). He stayed at the Wort Hotel (www.worthotel.com; doubles from $239), the Hotel Terra (www.hotelterrajacksonhole.com; doubles from $263) and the Alpine House (www.alpinehouse.com; doubles from $145). Backcountry skiing with Exum Guides (www.exumguides.com) costs from $150 per person per day, based on a group of three. American Airlines has daily flights between its Dallas hub and Jackson Hole; returns from London cost from £578