Originally titled "Going Home," this article has been in our premium collection since 2003. It was first published in Powder Magazine.
By Bob Peters
The pavement is wet with fat, heavy snowflakes. An April storm is moving in, thick with Pacific moisture and smelling like spring, even though the valley floor is still deep in snow. Near the southern end of the valley, the clouds lift enough for the rear-view mirror to flash a glimpse of the lower faces of the Tetons.The snowfall thickens as I turn east to follow the Hoback River up and away from Jackson Hole. Before long, wind and snow have combined to drop the visibility to nothing. I crawl along, feeling for the road. Finally, the highway crosses the bridge at the beginning of Hoback Canyon and slips into dense forest. Familiar terrain. Visibility returns…
There is a cut, wide as two bowling alleys and straight down the fall-line of Bivouac Woods, that beckons me from the top of Rendezvous. The first tram car is nearly empty, and we fumble with gear in a cloud so thick we can barely make out the massive framework of the summit station fifty feet away.
Five of us get away first and start gingerly down Rendezvous Bowl, ski tips feeling the snow like antennae, scouting for wind slab. There is no definition, snow surface and cloud appear the same. The eyes are useless, the only sensory input is feel.
But the feel is magnificent – like coming down a giant ferris wheel with your eyes closed. Thigh-deep, smooth and consistent, the snow draws us down, relaxed and enjoying the ride. At the bottom of the bowl, my companions peel off over the steep edge of Cheyanne Bowl. I’m headed for a hole in Bivouac Woods.
With the first turn into the woods, there’s a dramatic change. The world becomes darker, shaded by pine trees, enveloped in stillness. The pines provide definition, every tiny ripple in the snow surface stands out. Alone, I sink into the weighted portion of the turn and the base evaporates. In slow motion, my knees, waist and hands disappear… then everything is obliterated for an instant as the plume inundates me.
Then suddenly, trouble in paradise. My mouth has filled with snow and I can’t breathe! Half gagging, I manage to spit out the snow and refine the technique. Breathe and navigate at the top of the unweight, batten the hatches and dive on the down. Incredible.
The tram dock is practically deserted. No snow has fallen at the bottom of the mountain, and flat light and yesterday’s hard snow have scared off most of the visitors. There is an unusual silence as we board the next tram. Most of the riders are local hard-core, and we share a selfish conspiracy to preserve the quiet of the upper mountain. Smiling eyes light up goggles and whispered superlatives abound as we climb into the clouds.
I do the next run solo, bursting through drift bumps on Mudslide down onto Pepi’s Run. The first Alta Chute drops to the left, but two skiers have already been there, their tracks spiraling down into the fog. Alta Two is smooth and untouched as I drop in. It starts out fairly wide, a gently-pitched glade with a half-dozen sweeping turns through snow-heavy pines. Swiftly, though, the fall-line takes over. Like deep, black water surging into heavy rapids, the run funnels into a narrow slot between rock outcroppings.
As I drift down into the chute, the sensation changes. The snow is no longer gliding by, it seems almost stationary. Then, it pulls ahead… I’m in a slide.
Luckily, it’s a sluff, knee-deep and unconsolidated. There’s no clap of breaking slab or cloud of snow, only an accelerating mound, being constricted by the walls of the chute. Still upright, I pop through the narrowest point like sand through an hourglass and crank a hard left. Out of the slide, I can’t handle the momentum. A quick, hard roll over my right shoulder leads to a long, slow, end-o and a bulldozing stop. Head downhill and half buried, I’m laughing … and a little scared. No more skiing alone today.
The snow is falling more heavily now as we ride back up into the storm. The tram operator announces that the Thunder Chair is closed, meaning the entire Cirque can be skied without the traversing cross traffic from the chair riders. Les says Corbet’s Couloir is superb and I tag along, the five of us popping over the lip into that big, spectacular, rock-walled chute. Corbet’s is a natural catch-basin; its high walls block the wind and funnel the snow, sometimes twice as much as the rest of the mountain gets. The snow is so deep today it calls for a special poling technique – raising the arms at the shoulders and bringing the poles out horizontally to keep them from dragging. Five abreast, we cross no other tracks. We have the mountain to ourselves.
At the bottom of Tensleep Bowl, we have to break trail on the Expert Chutes traverse. The vertical rock wall rising on our right is gradually crumbling. On sunny days this spot is an oven, with meltwater, pebbles and rocks cascading down off the face. The result is a wide, curving scree slope. Below us, thousands of years of cliff detritus, lying at the angle of repose, rest under several feet of snow. Halfway down, there’s a band of rock outcroppings, creating a rock-snow belt across the slope. The idea is to ski through the slots between the rocks. That’s why they call it the Expert Chutes.
Following Les down one of the first chutes, I catch only momentary glimpses of him. The swirling white smokescreen he’s trailing shields him from view and I’m tracking a shadowy whirlwind.
Clint, Les, and I stop at the Amphitheater flat and look back uphill. Ned and Sam are still traversing, working toward the narrower chutes. Now they take off, each on a different line, headed for a different slot. Within three turns, they are in perfect synchronization. Hidden from each other by the outcropping that separates them, they float down in flawless rhythm. Up and down, left and right. Each, individually, in tune with the mountain, and so, with each other. Perfect pitch. We whoop in appreciation of the show they don’t even know they are presenting.
Eastbound now on I-80, driving into a rising sun near Kearney, Nebraska.
On the left are fields of old, yellowed cornstalks and bright green winter wheat. On the right is the Platte River. Since before dawn, I’ve been driving under a stream of ducks and geese moving from the river to feed in the fields. These are the survivors; having lived through winter, predators, hunters and diseases, these fittest ones follow the retreat of winter slowly northward to far breeding grounds. I remember sunny fall days spent in Missouri River hunting blinds. The few geese that were moving would be faint specks high in the sky. My father called them bluebird days…
The just-risen sun has no warmth as we put on our packs at the top station of the tram. Three peaks to the south, our destination is outlined perfectly in the early light. On the northeast shoulder of Rendezvous Peak is an enormous elongated drift of snow formed by high winds eddying around the peak. Les has dubbed it The Wave. We’ve been looking at the thing all winter and today, St. Patrick’s Day, seems like a good day to ski it.
The climb along the ridge to Cody Peak is spectacular. The route passes Pucker Face and Four Shadows, really good steep skiing, and continues on toward Ski-to-Die-Club terrain like Central Couloir and Once is Enough. I get several chances to savor the view because even after a winter’s worth of acclimatizing, my lungs still rebel when climbing above 10,000 feet.
We spend the next hour traversing the cold blue shadows behind Cody and No Name Peaks before finally rising onto a flat gravel saddle just below the Wave. In bright, warm sunshine we kick steps up to the very crest of the formation.
From the tram, it was difficult to judge the size or the steepness of this spot. Up close, it is several hundred vertical feet of omega-shaped snow with a manageable pitch. No adrenaline-kicking cliffhanger, just a gorgeous Sunday stroll in the sun. We ski it individually, looping off the top, down a flank, and then back over the rib of this upside-down gully.
The bottom of the Wave has one dicey spot, an unnamed chute dropping through a huge rock wall into No Name Canyon. We have to boot-scramble across a 30-degree scree slope to get to the entrance, then get our skis back on without going for a slide. From the tram, this chute looked extremely steep and narrow. Up close, the pitch is sane enough and the high rock walls almost make it feel friendly. Ned does the honors and skis it beautifully, so each of us follows, dropping down through the cut into the huge upper basin of No Name Canyon.
With almost four thousand vertical feet of perfect spring corn below us and not another soul anywhere near, we stop for a break and a look up at our route. In honor of the day’s patron saint, we name the chute Patty’s Couloir, share a toast from the water bottles, and start down into Jackson Hole.
A neighbor waves from his tractor. The sun is behind me now as I turn into our lane, and the dog barks to get out of the car, knowing she’s home. The grass in the yard is already green and the black dirt in the fields is warming. It’s time for me to get back to work.