Ski Country

Ski Issue

East & West Slopes

Diamonds can become a girl's best friend

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

November 12, 2006|By Dan Leeth | Dan Leeth,Special to the Sun

I'm not sure DeBeers would exactly approve, but last year I gave my wife, Dianne, the gift of diamonds for Christmas. Black diamonds, that is.

North American ski areas use colors and shapes to signify the difficulty of runs. Green circles indicate easy trails suitable for novices. Blue squares grace intermediate slopes steeper in pitch. The most vertical terrain, those gnarly drops that help orthopedic surgeons afford exotic vacation retreats, garner black diamond designation.

Although an avid skier, Dianne's favorite slope-sign color has always been blue. Diamonds of the black variety have never been this girl's best friend, and that was a deficiency she wanted to change. The challenge was going from blue to black without turning black-and-blue.

Much to her delight, I enrolled my wife in the Women's Ski Camp at Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. There, participants would be divided into small groups of similarly skilled cohorts and tutored for four full days by their own coach. It would be like receiving private lessons with a half-dozen friends.

"Our objective is to create a situation where women can step into tougher terrain outside their comfort zones and feel safe with the idea they are well supported in that goal," said program coordinator Lexey Wauters.

Located in northwestern Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole provides ideal terrain for those wanting to swap groomed corduroy for steeps and deeps. With more than half its terrain ranked as advanced, it has earned a reputation as the expert skier's Nirvana. Naturally, I had to come along, too.

Welcome campers

The camp began with a wine-and-cheese party Wednesday evening. The group of 48 participants looked like a group of fit soccer moms, with the mean age falling somewhere in the 40s. They came from all over the country. While most were advanced-intermediate skiers, there were also several who were fairly new to the sport as well as a sprinkling of true experts. Only a handful came with families or significant others.

"I think what is really cool about women's camps is that this is a time away from all other obligations," Wauters said. "Participants can focus on their skiing and not worry about picking up the kids or making sure their husbands have clean shirts to wear. I think that's why we see so many breakthroughs in these camps."

The next morning, the women met for bagels and yoga, then headed off to the slopes where instructors evaluated individual abilities. Dianne was assigned to Jenny Field, a year-round outdoorswoman who teaches skiing in winter and fights forest fires in summer.

"The seasons work very well with each other, and it allows me to live this lifestyle that I love," Field said.

While the women were out learning the techniques and tactics needed to plow powder, bash bumps, shoot chutes and raid glades, I spent a relaxing day exploring the landmark western ski area.

Jackson Hole began in the 1960s when Paul McCollister, a California advertising executive, moved into the area with his family. An avid skier, he decided the Tetons would make an ideal location for a winter resort. He bought ranch land at the base of the mountains and began constructing a facility modeled after Europe's best. Base area buildings resembled Swiss chalets and a 63-passenger tram provided Alpine-style access to the top. Additional chairlifts followed. Although the area developed a world-class reputation for its skiing, undercapitalization curtailed development and the resort suffered financially.

"There were five buildings at the base, all built in the '60s," says Ben Wilson, who grew up in the area. "Then there wasn't anything new until the late '90s."

Facing bankruptcy, McCollister sold Jackson Hole in 1992 to the Kemmerers, a Wyoming family that made its fortune in the coal industry. The new owners improved base-area infrastructure, added lifts and a gondola, upgraded snowmaking and changed the building motifs to reflect the log and stone, national park-style "parkitecture." With the new Teton Mountain Lodge and Four Seasons Resort adding upscale accommodations, Jackson Hole is once again a world-courting destination.

"It's a wonderful mountain," says Tom Courtney, Four Seasons project director. "It has a lot of very challenging skiing, but it also has a gentler side that is great for those who don't want the more extreme stuff."

Mountains of choice

Jackson Hole's family-friendly beginner's area covers 250 gentle acres and is served by two lifts. The intermediate runs, which include more than a third of the mountain, are steep but well groomed. The rest of the area, about half the total acreage, is rated advanced. While one might think that the summits, spires, cliffs and crags would provide enough natural excitement to the free-skiing crowd, Jackson Hole also offers a half-pipe and terrain park.

"It's a different type of user," said resort spokeswoman Anna Olson. "Someone in the park and pipe may not have the skill set for the big mountain."

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