December 2002   

powder to the max...
  It’s snowing. Of course. It’s been snowing all week. When I leave I won’t have any memories of the Grand Tetons poking up into a robin’s-egg sky. My memories will be all about snow, drifted snow, falling snow, flying snow. Snow and more snow. Already now, in early January, Targhee has received over 260 inches of snow, more than many Colorado ski resorts will get in a normal season. And it’s still coming down. Our Subaru, parked outside the Sioux Lodge is hidden, lost under a bank of new snow.

A couple of very strong looking young guys are shoveling a five-foot-high mushroom of snow from the roof of the wooden information kiosk. The lifts stopped an hour ago, halos of light around what look like recycled historic street lamps are filled with swirling flakes — crystal-ball paperweights turned over, soapflake snow covering toy buildings. January night coming on fast.

We came to Targhee for the snow and weren’t disappointed. Ski-area bumper stickers brag “Snow from heaven, not from hoses.” It’s not an idle boast. This is one of a small handful of ski areas in America — no, less than a handful — where you can plan a powder skiing vacation with more than a 50% chance of actually skiing powder. We’ll be skiing powder again tomorrow. All night an invisible hand keeps turning the glass ball of the paperweight over and over, the snow keeps tumbling down out of an imaginary sky.

Only slowly, as we explore this deceptively intimate mountain, does it dawn on me: Grand Targhee is about a lot more than just snow. If snow is the slippery interface, the lubricating layer that lets us float and fly down mountains, what of the mountains themselves? The 3-D geometry of the skiers’ playing field. The shape of turns to come. Grand Targhee has two mountains, fine forthright shapes to please the most picky skiers. And don’t worry, Targhee’s powder won’t be tracked-out, trashed, sacrificed on the alter of industrial skiing any time soon. There’s snow a-plenty on terrain a-plenty. So let’s talk terrain, the shape of things to ski. As special as Grand Targhee snow is, the fact that there are virtually no man-made, clear-cut ski runs here is maybe even more special. Let me repeat that: almost no man-made runs. Nature did it all, almost perfectly. The whole mountain, every square meter, is skiable. This is an amazing rarity in the Rockies where timberline can climb to 12,000 feet, where most ski runs are white ribbons cut through dark evergreens.

Open slopes and sparse timber are the recipe for Grand Targhee skiing. The slopes here remind me of the slightly tree-dotted edges of Vail’s back bowls, only longer, more complex, more intriguing. And from the top unloading station — hoarfrosted towers, ghostly Douglas firs raising sculptural arms hung with rime ice — the mountain spreads downward, right and left, like an upside down Japanese fan. Folds and dips; the hollows between soft rounded ridges are far too wide to be called gullies but maybe not quite wide enough to be true bowls. And the pitch, the downmountain dimension, is sustained and steady, never really heartpoundingly steep, never flat. Shapes for a skier to play with, not struggle with.

It’s unfair to say that Grand Targhee is mostly an intermediate skiers’ area; it’s much more. Skiing here feels intense without ever feeling scary. Sure, you can find real steeps ( I did). But you don’t need to look for them either. After a few days at Targhee, I realize that I’m skiing inside myself, not looking for extra challenge, not pushing, not showing off, but just skiing, simply skiing. Letting the lively, sustained runs layer themselves in my skier’s memory. Saying yes to the snow, this seldom packed snow. Accepting the on-going invitation for another twenty turns, and another, and another. Delighting in discovering a new route each run — as you only can on a ski mountain with no cut trails, just space.

Some mornings we wake under a cloud cover that has lowered half-way down Fred’s peak. The chair, spiderwebs up into the mist. On a ski mountain full of open slopes and bowls such a thick cloud-fog is usually the signal to reach for a good novel instead of your powder boards. Not here. There’s always a tree, or two or three, poking out of the whiteness in front of you to reestablish balance, depth perception, a believable horizon. It’s eerie: you know, or think you know that you’re skiing in a whiteout, only you can see where you’re going — rather well. Hmmm?... My wife Linde and I ski the North Boundary like happy ghosts: floating over wind drifted pillows of snow, floating in and out of the mist, filling in the dotted lines between greyed-out trees with fabulously easy turns on our unsinkable, unstoppable powder skis. A lot of Targhee skiers consider fat powder skis their normal boards. That tells you something.

Targhee is pure skiing for skiing purists. Powder perfect.

Darkness. Falling snow. In the distance a front-end loader growls and grinds, digging out the parking lot.

All that’s lacking now is the view. We know it’s out there, behind the clouds. The Tetons. We’ve seen the photo on the brochure. But photographer Wade McKoy, who lives an hour away in Jackson, tells us,” I’ve never come over here under blue skies. That’s why they get so much snow.” Yeah, but.…

Patience rewarded. The next morning we skate off the lift and head right, toward Lost Groomer’s Chute. Wind is tearing spindrift off the ridge at our shoulder, lifting the clouds. Not blue sky but finally, there they are. Peaks. THE peaks. Those peaks. The Tetons from the west under a high leaden cloud cover. The West face of the Grand, a canine fang. Mt Owen, a notched molar. Distant, and gigantic. The clouds are still moving, churning. A sudden beam slants through, gold and diffuse, off to the left, spotlighting Mt Moran, a square topped castle. We let out a deep breath, stare at the Tetons till we start to shiver, finally turn our backs and drop off Teton-Vista catwalk, drop toward two twisted trees, a break-over edge, another Targhee morning, skimming over wind blown white waves on our amazing seven league skis.

 December 2002  
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