Get Schooled – Higher Learning at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

by Lori Knowles

It’s early evening on a school day, the sun is slipping behind the Tetons. We’re rolling along a valley floor in our RV past ranchlands filled with rocky outcroppings and woody sagebrush — my husband and me in the front, the kids belted into seats at the dining table. They’re doing their homework — conjugating French verbs, defining linear equations — but the sight of peaks erupting from flat ground like the jagged teeth of a great white shark is somehow more fascinating than grammar or algebra. “Due to geological forces,” I read from A Brief History of Jackson Hole, “the valley floor is sinking, causing the Tetons to rise…” The four of us bend our necks to peer from the RV’s panoramic window. “Those mountains are growing?” my daughter, nine, asks. “How much bigger will they be tomorrow when we ski them?”

And so begins our week getting schooled at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

We’re on a cross-continent road trip: skiing, playing hooky, home-schooling our children. We started east and headed west in an RV the size of an apartment in Midtown Manhattan. We’ve already explored the Canadian Rockies, the Coast Range, and Idaho’s Smoky Mountains — skiing by day, schooling by night. By now our powder-surfing and steep-skiing skills are as sharp as a school marm’s pencil. But as we pull into a parking spot for big buses at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) and gaze at the looming Tetons, our bravado fizzles like air from a balloon. “Jackson Hole looks hard,” says my 12-year-old son. Fresh snowflakes, heavy and wet, beat at the RV’s windshield. “Tomorrow we’re in for it.”

He’s not alone in his thinking. Jackson Hole has been testing skiers since its inception in 1960, when founder Paul McCollister stood on the cornice of Corbet’s Couloir as his mountain guide, Everest alumnus Barry Corbet, prophesized: “Someday, someone will ski that.” Zoom ahead to the 2010s and sure enough, Barry’s prediction was bang-on. Brave souls from Boston, Houston, Birmingham, and New York City cram into the Jackson Hole tram — in itself a thrill ride — and climb to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain. In a surge as powerful as a tsunami’s, they tumble out, slam on their boards, and ski to the edge of the couloir’s cornice, daring one another to drop off a 15- to 20-foot ledge into a windblown abyss, then turn hard right to avoid slamming into a black wall of limestone.

Never mind that the first plunge into Corbet’s in the Sixties was accidental (Patroller Lonnie Bell was shooting the bull atop the cornice when it broke away and… guess what? Bell became the first to ski it.) Never mind one missed ski turn in Corbet’s and bones may bust, shoulders may dislocate, or worse… well, let’s not go there. Like surfing a North Shore wave or BASE jumping Norway’s Kjerag peak, skiing the couloir isn’t just crack to an adrenaline junkie, it’s a test — a skier’s evaluation. Same goes for much of the terrain at Jackson Hole, where 50% of the runs — chutes, bowls, bumps, gullies — are classified expert and rule the curriculum. Pass and you’re getting tight that night at the Cowboy Bar; fail and you’re headed back to class for more schoolin’.

Skiing the couloir isn’t just crack to an adrenaline junkie, it’s a test — a skier’s evaluation.

Just ask Tommy Moe, an Olympian who knows a thing or two about ski terrain as teacher. His dad, a ski patroller, sought the hard-scrabble slopes of Montana, Idaho, and Alaska as his kid’s classroom. It worked. By his mid-teens Tommy Moe was winning medals at the World Junior Champs, and he was the first U.S. racer to score two medals in a single Olympics (Gold and Silver, Lillehammer, 1994); that same year Moe was tagged America’s “Golden Boy” by Sports Illustrated. While competing, Tommy skied the world’s toughest terrain — St. Anton, Val d’Isère, Kitzbühel, Whistler — yet in retirement, Golden Boy chose Jackson Hole as the place to educate his family.

With two daughters (Taylor, 10, Taryn, 8) and wife Megan Gerety, an ex-U.S. downhill and Super G racer, Moe lives in nearby Wilson. In summer they hike, bike, wakeboard, and fish on the Snake River. In winter the foursome storms the steeps of JHMR. The kids’ first taste came as babes in Gerety’s backpack; next as ducklings following their mother around the mountain. “She’d head ‘em right down the steepest terrain at Jackson,” Moe says. “They took to the terrain like it was nothing, not afraid of anything. They ski right off the tram onto ungroomed slopes, hittin’ the trees, hittin’ jumps, hittin’ the powder… Fear has never been an option.”

Three days a week after school, Moe’s girls train gates at Snow King, known as Jackson’s “scary steep” racing facility. Forget violin, Mandarin, or elocution lessons. Moe and Gerety employ Jackson’s ski terrain as their kids’ educator. “Soon I’ll be eatin’ their dust but that’s okay,” says Tommy, “they’re Teton Olympians; it’s a genetic predisposition.”

It takes about two turns on JH terrain to evaluate its finite potential as a learner’s mountain. Dartmouth. Mad River. Kachina Peak, Taos. Spanky’s Ladder at Whistler Blackcomb. Jackson Hole’s fall lines are long, consistently pitched leg-burners that ski like classrooms. They’re jammed with bumps, knolls, glades, meandering gullies, pockets of powder — everything a skier needs to improve.  “Our mountain is full of natural terrain parks,” says Jim Kercher, director of the snow school. “We incorporate play. If you can play with the mountain, play with each other, play with getting better, then your physical skills progress much faster. My advice to parents: Let them get out there and play on the mountain.”

Play to learn? It’s a concept grasped wholly by Jackson devotees. Trending now on YouTube: a Teton Gravity Research (TGR) film following 11-year-old freeskier Kai Jones “tearing up the biggest, baddest terrain” at Jackson. The kid swaps watching The Avengers for skiing Jackson’s gnarliest terrain. “I love to ski ‘cause I get to fly like a bird,” he tells the camera. There’s no doubt he’s living his father’s dream.  “As a kid from Boston,” says Todd Jones, TGR’s co-founder and co-owner, “growing up in the shadows of the Tetons is an experience I could have only dreamed of. Watching my oldest son be able to have that experience is mind-blowing. Targhee and Jackson Hole have shaped him into an amazing big mountain skier.”

Another case in point: The Overcasts, a family of three, invested fully in the play to learn strategy. Mike and Jennifer Overcast are raising their daughter to ski as others raise kids to practice law or dentistry. Lily is only eight, and who knows? Maybe in a decade she will study to be a dentist or a lawyer. But for now the Overcasts are focused on building her character, and they’re using the terrain at Jackson as her educator.

A member of the mountain’s Teton Village Ski Team (TVST), Lily spends half her weekends training gates. “They’ve got all the latest techniques and drills,” Jennifer says of Lily’s coaches, “they’re really on it.” But it’s the other half of the weekend spent freeskiing runs like Thunder and Sublette with those same coaches that impresses the Overcasts.  “Lily skied Corbet’s the day before her seventh birthday.” (Yes, you read right: A six-year-old skied Corbet’s.) “She came home so excited. It was really meaningful for her — she talks about it still. The experience gave her a confidence I hadn’t seen. It was real life: conquering something that big and that intimidating, and getting through it.”

As both a mom with a child in a local elementary school and as a realtor, Jennifer is noting more and more families from major cities are picking up on Jackson’s ski town learning potential. West Coasters. New Englanders. New Yorkers. They come for vacation, ski the terrain, witness resident kids zooming through glades and huckin’ the Hobacks and think: Hey, maybe that’s for my child.

Overcast introduces me to Hannah Swett, a mom with two children (Norris and Elle) in private schools on New York’s Upper East Side — a mom who’s obviously drunk the Jackson Hole Kool-Aid. Swett, a National Sailing Hall of Famer, pulls her kids from their buttoned-down UES institutions for several months each winter… to go skiing. By day they’re enrolled in the local school in Wilson; by night they’re training slalom and GS at Snow King; on weekends they’re blasting Jackson Hole. According to Swett, their annual migration west was her son’s idea. “At age seven he said, ‘Mommy, I want to ski race.’ I was just the one who made it happen. The poor kid now skis against Tommy Moe’s kids, but he loves it and that’s all I care about.”

Swett admits reaction was mixed from school administrators at home in Manhattan. Her son’s teachers said, “what a great experience for Norris, it’ll be excellent for his development.” Her daughter’s school said, “okay you can go but here’s a lot of homework, make sure you keep up.” Still, Hannah’s confident in her decision. “You don’t just learn at school. In a situation like this, you learn to make new friends, you get used to a totally different schedule, and you challenge yourself skiing and racing.” Has it been worth it? “Yes, they’ve blossomed. They walk into situations differently now. They say, ‘Don’t worry Mom, I’ve got this handled.’”

Confidence, that’s what skiing Jackson can give you, and Beth Carlson should know. The Stanford grad has a biology degree, a psychology degree, and a master’s in education. She was well into grad school — cognitive studies, neuroscience — when she dropped out of academia to move to Jackson Hole. “I still use all that education, just in a different classroom.”

Currently Carlson is one of Jim Kercher’s top snow school pros, readily sought for her ability to take skiers to the next level. Beth can progress a student from beginner to competent skier in a single vacation. Her secret lies in embracing the terrain’s potential as a learning device. “I figure out where to take people on the hill so they ride on the edge of their comfort zones without engaging their fear responses. The terrain here allows me to do that. We’ll start on a green run, then venture off the groomed into the trees, then progress to the blue runs. There are so many adventures for powder turns in open glades that allow you to pop right back onto the groomed when you’re tired. Just by the way the mountain’s laid out, it invites you to ski it; you want to experience all parts of Jackson.”

Carlson is known for this motto: It may not be pretty but we can get down anything safely. “Transitions happen quickly here,” she says. “There’s potential for a quick progression from green to blues to double blues, then moving off-piste to ungroomed runs, black runs, double blacks, then easing back in… it’s the ultimate teaching mountain.”

Beth is stoked for this season’s opening of the new Solitude Station, a center mid-way up the Sweetwater Gondola for new learners and their families, both kids and adults. A short two-minute ride from the base, it combines the Mountain Sports School with rentals, dining, and access to runs dedicated to first-timers. Inside the lobby, snow school “experts” greet newcomers. Lessons, rentals, and lift passes can be purchased in a single transaction. There are two dining rooms with a fireplace and gigantic windows facing the bunny hill. And beginners “will feel well taken care of
out of the base area bustle,” says a press release. It’s a concept brand new for JHMR; an initiative Tommy Moe calls “softening the edges.”

Back to my family’s first day skiing Jackson Hole: Let’s just say it was an education. We were pooped by our second run off the Teton Chair, cutting through heavy powder. Our venture into Saratoga Bowl had us flopped on our fannies heaving for air. My son and I were numbers 99 and 100 jammed inside the 100-person tram as we rode to the summit for the first time. Whited out by impenetrable cloud, we couldn’t see the tips of our skis as we snapped them on, and by the time we did, everyone, and I mean everyone — all 98 people — were gone. That first descent, blind and alone, down Rendezvous Bowl was one of the scariest we’d ever done… but we did it. And yes, teacher, we’re proud of ourselves.

So from where I sit as a mom, Jackson Hole really is a place to build character. Sure, it’s intimidating — that’s obvious to anyone who’s noted how the Tetons look a lot like sharks’ teeth.  Arriving for the first time, as we did in our RV, gazing up at all that, you just might think you’re in for it. But if A Brief History of Jackson Hole is right — if geological forces are causing the valley floor to sink and the Tetons to rise — then, as my daughter might say: “We better hit the peak now ‘cause it’ll be even bigger next season.” It’s all part of the curriculum: getting schooled at Jackson.

jacksonhole.com