Alex Yoder and Iris Lazz weave their way down the Washakie Glade, popping off small pillows and leaving thick clouds of Wyoming pow in their wake. It's December 19, opening day for Jackson's new Teton quad chair, and our crew is exploring a previously hike-accessed piece of the mountain that rarely saw tracks.
The Teton lift has changed all that. With an uphill capacity of 2,000 riders per hour, the new chair rockets you up 1,650 vertical feet in about four minutes.
"It was pretty surreal riding up the lift and seeing that stuff with a bird's eye view," says Yoder. "It's really strange having been here for 15 years… It looks different because they did a lot of clear cutting to make that run, so it's a little disorienting."
Prior to building the new lift, riders looking for fresh lines in this zone would need to drop off the tram or Sublette chair and traverse Tensleep bowl to hike the Headwall. From there, they had to resist dropping into Casper Bowl and keep traversing to hit the Crags, a face just south, and above, where the Teton lift now deposits riders. But that route is "kind of ridiculous," says Yoder. "You loose a lot of elevation getting in there."
The irony is that while the Teton lift opens up another blue run, also called Crags, on a resort filled with far more black and double black diamonds, it leaves riders just steps from the region's most aggressive backcountry and avalanche terrain—Granite Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. The area is home to infamous lines like the Air Force Chute and Double Dogleg, where, Teton Gravity Research Supervising Producer, Greg Epstein, set off an avalanche on March 9, 2014 and nearly lost his life. Earlier the same week, several more skiers and riders were also caught in slides. Epstein and the others were hardly the first to get into trouble in Granite and require rescue.
As you unload the lift, there's no natural inclination to plunge straight into Granite Canyon. The boundary between the resort and the national park is guarded by a long snowbank and a wall of trees. If you rolled off the lift without knowing what's on the other side, you'd never guess. But doesn't mean the unprepared couldn't find their way out there.
"There are a few chutes right behind where the lift drops you off that used to be pretty hard to get to," says Yoder. "So you'd have to work for it and that would weed out a lot of people from going back there. But now, maybe since it's easily accessed, people would like to just drop off the backside. Hopefully not, because it's super dangerous back there. It's this deep valley and it's a north facing slope, so if the snow's unstable and it slides, you're in a bad zone."
Just to the left of the Teton lift, the resort has built a cabin which doubles as a Backcountry Awareness Center and ski patrol shack. There’s also a camera beside the backcountry gate to watch traffic into Granite. Although Jackson Hole has an open policy for all backcountry gates, ski patrol will be keeping a close eye on who passes through the Granite gate. “With this being a new gate, part of the condition with the forest service and national park is that we monitor it very closely,” says Jackson Hole’s communication manager, Anna Cole.
"You should have to take a test to make it back there—have your Avy 1 at least, be with a competent partner, or group," says Yoder. "It's serious. It's not ski patrol's territory out there. But it's up to them to keep the people who should stay on the resort in the resort, and let the people who are capable of riding around back there through. I just hope the gate is strictly enforced."