Saddle up to get set free
March 03, 2010
Two cultures collide for the best backcountry access.
LEFT: There’s no better way to find yourself than getting some alone time in the mountains. Mitch Prissel gets deep into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness on Sunday in search of the perfect line. CITIZEN PHOTO / HOPE STRONG
Though it’s always nice to get some sun on your face, there’s nothing quite like rising in the wake of a winter storm. But when the groomers are bulletproof on account of no snow, it’s time to up the ante with exploration of your own backyard in Teton Valley.
If you went to bed the night before and it was snowing, a certain type of person is likely to clamber out from under warm covers the following morning, rush to the window and throw open the blinds. If your driveway on the valley floor is blanketed with enough snow to warrant shoveling, the next step is to find the phone. Fumbling with excitement, you dial into the cheery voice that greets skiers and snowboarders every morning.
Reports of anywhere around a foot trigger a mad dash to gather gear, start the car and simultaneously make coffee that you will drink on the way to join the line of cars heading toward the ski hill to try and find some fresh tracks. If reports are well over a foot, it’s likely some chucklehead will try to better his position in line by making the ridiculous decision to pass as many cars as he can on a straightaway.
This is not a scenario, however, that has played out recently. Living in a ski town, we easily become a little jaded with a week full of sunny skies. Though studies show that low pressure and cold fronts can have adverse psychological effects, people around these parts get on bended knee to pray for precipitation. But if endless incantations do not result in any inclement weather, it’s not time to lose your religion. You’re just going to have to head higher into the hills, partner.
A cultural shift occurred in Teton Valley over 20 years ago that pitted skier against snow machiner, but that controversy has tapered off quite a bit as different clichés find there respective space in the surrounding hills. Hardcore sled heads go into the Big Holes or the Snake River Range for their own private Idaho, while Teton Pass is almost exclusive for those looking to earn some turns. No place is all of one and none of the other, and different lines are constantly being discovered, but the oil and water have separated for the most part.
Despite this separation in the surrounding mountains, there are a few places where two worlds collide, places where oil and gas mix to motor folks up to crack wide open a new set of experiences. Some of these hybrid enthusiasts, commonly termed “snowmoboarders” or “snowmaskiers”, are motivated deeper into the mountains when the snowfall has been marginal at best. Even when it’s good out, there are some intrepid powder pioneers who always long for more storms in order to test the limits of their skill and the gear they use to get so far in that solitude surrounds and the rest of the world exists only as a distraction.
Part of the accepted culture in Canadian ski towns for decades, using snow machines for access in Teton Valley seems to be the vogue in the past few years, drawing a good number of out of state tags into the trailheads nestled mouth of almost every canyon here.
Using horsepower to get into the backcountry usually begins by getting towed in like a water skier without a life vest. As snow machines are a fairly significant investment, many are likely to start out in the backseat. But if you have the means, it is highly recommended to get your own sled. During low snow years like this one, it is easy enough to follow the tracks up. Until more storms roll in, there are enough established trails out there right now that you’re not likely to get lost.
Whatever method gets you up into the hills, there are a few different modes of travel to get down and then back up in the backcountry. Free heel skiing with skins is obviously the most traditional method, but several snowboard companies have jumped both boots into splitboards: a snowboard with special bindings that splits in two pieces, allowing the boarder to breathe a little easier on the skin track back up. In addition to Voile, the company that started with their Split Decision, other companies like Lib Tech, Prior and Venture have gotten on board with the split technology.
Newest on the scene is the Solution, a splitboard in the quiver of Jeremy Jones, a Teton Gravity Research mainstay, who is set to debut a new line of snowboards. If, however, you can’t afford a splitboard, then the next best way to get up after you’ve just gotten down is a pair of snowshoes, which, in deep powder, are sometimes a better choice, especially if you are not breaking trail…Note: it’s always best to be first in the backcountry going down and second in line on the way back up.
Between sleds, skis, snowboards (split or not), snowshoes, poles and all the other gear people haul into the backcountry, technology is always changing, if just by a little bit. While the subtleties are lost on some, innovations are often measured in mere inches or even centimeters, but the rewards can be measured in more vertical feet, and that’s why you’re out there in the first place. Despite the pitch of your playground, it’s probably also wise to be sporting a probe, shovel and avalanche beacon when enjoying the backcountry.
In the mountains surrounding Teton Valley, there are endless acres of untracked lines just waiting to be discovered. While many prefer the parking lots on Teton Pass and the camaraderie of relative crowds, there will always be the opportunity to get lost and find yourself farther in the backcountry. We always appreciate when Mother Nature graces us with blizzards around here, but a close second is being able to get up in the hills on a sunny day to find that the combination of two cultures. This can drastically change the way you look at your own backyard.