The twenty-million-year-old silence resting in a northwest-facing couloir of the Idaho Tetons disintegrates as I slash a violent first turn. I force my edge through wind-packed crust, sending snow spattering across the steep, narrow entrance of the granite-lined chute.
Powering my second turn, the stiff upper layer crackles and echoes off ancient pitted walls. After two more arcs the snow softens and I relax my stance. I'm moving now, plummeting through a deepening swath of smoke, the outer fringes of my vision darkening. I focus on the 1,500-vertical-foot river of snow below, noticing the shadow of the Grand Teton a few jagged peaks away. The scratch of crystals sliding under my edges resonates like a callused hand running over linoleum. Swiiishhh.
Beyond that, there's nothing. I can actually hear the silence, the absence of background noise a sound in itself. I hear only my heartbeat throbbing, my creaky knee clicking, and the hiss of snow angels whispering in my ears, “Down m'boy, down!” The snow cradles my legs as I peer through a goggled dreamscape at a range as magnificent in its grandeur as it is in its isolation. The Idaho
side of the Tetons–the “quiet” side. The “workers'” range.
Fifteen miles west of Jackson Hole sits Victor, Idaho, the premier access point to the oft-overlooked western Tetons, an Alpine wonderland characterized by rolling foothills far gentler than the range's eastern edge. The region receives an average of 500 inches of snow annually, and with more land than twice the combined area of the six New England states–including 2.5-million acres of wilderness area, Idaho maintains plenty of room for backcountry vagabonds.
Deep within the folds of the 40-mile-long Grand Teton range,
Rendezvous Ski Tours houses small groups of Alpinists in traditional Mongolian yurts through the winter. For two days in March, co-owner Glenn Vitucci guided our crew–which included photographer Wade McKoy and snowboarding newlyweds Rick and Holly Armstrong–through the unique labyrinth of peaks that makes up one of the most serene winter touring areas in the West.
As I slide to a stop at the bottom of the chute, my chest heaving, Glenn snaps the last buckle on his split board and shimmies into position. The wall we're riding–aptly slugged Mt. Wow–is laced with six aesthetically perfect couloirs that dump into the south fork of Game Creek. Hidden on the opposite side of the slope in a stand of aspens is the Plummer Canyon yurt, where our crew spent the previous night. Two more yurts–Baldy Knoll and Commissary Ridge–lie within a day's hike on ridges to the north.
I sit down with my back to the midday sun and watch Glenn launch into the chute. A blue-eyed 45-year-old schussbomber from the Bay Area, he rides his stick like a longboarder in a 60s surf movie, arms out to the side, stance way back. He's not a pro, but he rides a fluid line with a grin. He knows. You understand that within minutes of meeting him and as I watch him arc long turns down the gut of the chute.
“I started snowboarding fifteen years ago,” he recalls with a smirk. “My second run was off the First Turn on Mt. Glory. It was a cool way to experience the powder. I was leaning it over, dragging my hand along the surface.”
Glenn's passion for the backcountry led him to acquire the
necessary permits to start Rendezvous Ski Tours in 1986 in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area and Grand Teton National Park. In 1987, he and his wife Carole Lowe built the Baldy Knoll yurt on the chance people might like to spend the night in the backcountry after a long tour. The idea caught, and by 1993 they'd constructed two more yurts and a guest house. The only hut system in the Teton Range was complete.
“The mountains took care of the rest,” Gllenn quips. “The Tetons have the most consistent and reliable powder snow in North America. The west side has long, broad, easy ridges that lead up to the high peaks. Natural meadows pitched at 30 degrees provide a lot of safe, perfect snowboarding, even in hazardous avalanche conditions. Of course, there are plenty of steeps when it's safe.”
It was safe. And the shots Glenn led us to were plenty
steep. Looking up, I see Rick is ready to ride.
Rick's been riding more and more lately, finding the lure of snowboarding hard to resist despite the fact that he's a heavy skier, having appeared in 31 ski movies. More recently he's been featured in two Teton Gravity Research films snowboarding all over the world. Still, he asserts, the west side of the Tetons hold a peace he hasn't encountered in any other place.
“It's way laid back in Idaho,” he says. “You pass a couple of
potato trucks on your way to the ski hill. There's nothing going on.”
Rick slides into his first turn and rises through the dry powder, picking up speed. He doesn't force turns through the gut, instead allowing the rolling contours of the terrain determine his path. A nice line.
Important things happen in quiet places. Riding and sleeping in
untrodden mountains affects all of us, and the crew rides with a peaceful understanding of our special surroundings.
I think back to the previous night–the sun dropping beneath Idaho's potato plains, the yurt sunken into a blue Alpine dusk. Conversation–warmed by a cherry-red potbelly wood stove and a bottle of Kentucky whiskey poured over icicles–heats to a near uproar. In a primitive dance of words and gestures, Wade and Glenn–mountainmen hardened by years of scratching the upper reaches of the physical world with skis, snowboards, crampons, and ice axes–debate the three ways to measure time, the history of the Roman Empire, and whether power and money corrupt.
“They don't have what we have!” Glenn declares over a steaming plate of vegetables and white cream sauce fresh off the propane stove.
“Well, we sure as hell don't have what they have!” a voice responds.
Laughter. Understanding. A moment of clarity on a plywood bed supported by four pine posts in the middle of nowhere. This is what you get when you spend a night under the stars in God's country. This is what you get when you listen to the silence.
Are Yurts For You?
All three twenty-foot-diameter canvas yurts are capable of sleeping up to eight and are accessible by an easy two or three hours of skinning on a split board or access skis. For prices or information, contact Rendezvous Ski Tours:
Phone: (208) 787-2906
Web site: coming soon!