Have no fear... It was easy to utter those immortal words at ground level, or even in the cable car looking out at the Teton Range. But when I was standing at the top of my first double-black diamond off-piste run in Jackson Hole,Wyoming, the fear caught up with me.
Mention Jackson Hole to anyone in the know about skiing, or snowboarding, and you instantly get a nod of respect. The old cowboy town, a kind of Wild West Chamonix, is known for its steep terrain both on and off piste. In fact the piste map is practically two-tone: green and black (flat and steep). And extreme snowboarders and skiers come from all over the world to sample the terrain.
As a boarder with limited off-piste experience I had accepted the challenge of Jackson Hole through blissful ignorance rather than arrogance. But the reality of what I was facing only became apparent as I looked down from the Bridger cable car where I saw cliffs, couloirs and sheer drops. So it was with trepidation that I strapped on my board, and stood 9,095 feet above sea level, at the top of Rendezvous Bowl working out how I was going to get down the slope.
Imminent panic attack!
Despite the temperature hovering somewhere around -20oC I was sweating – a sure sign of an imminent panic attack. The other riders seemed to be taking the bumpy, steep stuff in their stride but I was perplexed; it was like trying to figure out how to put a square peg through a round hole – seemingly impossible. But thankfully my knight in shinning armour arrived.
Jackson Hole Mountain Sports School is one of the best schools in the United States; recent accolades include Children’s Ski School of the Year and Ski School of the Year in The Good Skiing & Snowboard Guide. So when Mikey Franco traversed across the bowl to my side, I ‘kinda’ knew that I was going to be alright.
My experience of instruction before coming to Jackson was limited to an angry Frenchman who taught snowboarding on a break from farming cows in the summer. Mikey, on the other hand, had been teaching for 15 years and at the time was one of only six members on the National Demonstration Team. He was the instructor who taught the instructors and he was excited about teaching us mere mortals a few of his skills.
“Smile,” he said. The grimace on face was giving the game away. “Start traversing and then look where you want to turn, point your knee in the direction you want to go and your board will follow,” he said.
Instead of forcing the board around, which was my instinct, I was letting gravity and the board do the work. That’s not to say that it was altogether graceful, but I got down.
Even the pisted runs in Jackson are steep, but like the off-piste bowls they are a great place for exposing your technique, which may be great on a gentle European slope but fails on a 40 degree incline. The Gros Ventre run was rated blue, which in the States are indicates an intermediate run, but as I looked at the sheer drop below me, I wasn’t sure.
But once again Mikey came sliding down the hill with words of encouragement – the kind that make you want to achieve rather than go off in a teenage “I am not doing this anymore, I hate you” strop. “Think about looking across the mountain to where you are going and keep your knees bent,” he said. And with those words of wisdom I was off.
The Mountain Sports School at Jackson Hole runs camps designed to introduce you to steep terrain; the ‘steep and deep’ camp let’s you dive right in at the deep end. Usually you learn and practice on easier terrain, then go to the expert places to test your skills, but getting straight onto the steep stuff in a do-or-die kind of way, like in Jackson Hole, makes improving a sure bet.