Powder, Trees and Milk Toast: Finding the Good Line at Grand Targhee Resort
Item: Jasper–Targhee 2015
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The rancher’s face is a hard one, creased and worn from many of the bitter winters that pound the small town of Driggs, ID each year, but a smile peaks out from under his bushy mustache, and the “hello” he greets us with as we walk into The Royal Wolf is a friendly one. The bar’s vibe is equally mixed–rough but welcoming, lively and hip but with an Old Western twist. The jackets hanging on the backs of chairs range from oil-stained Carhartts to new Patagonia shells to trendy Obermeyer resort village wear. It’s a combination reflected in the variety of patrons: ski bums, ranchers and well-to-do skiers on vacation share smiles and “cheers.” Outside a storm is brewing, and in a ski town like Driggs there are few tighter bonding experiences than impending powder.
It is our second day in Driggs. Olin Wimberg and myself, along with local Tait Trautman, have high hopes for tomorrow. It’s looking like a deep day lies in store for us at Grand Targhee Resort, only 12 miles up the road from The Royal Wolf and the town’s quiet streets.
If you don’t know better, Driggs is a definite fly-by town. With only 1,660 inhabitants and tucked among the incredibly distracting landscape of the Tetons, it’s easily missed. For those that do know, its anonymity makes it the perfect powdery secret. Untainted from big box stores, chain restaurants and Starbucks, Driggs is served by local businesses and awash with an archetypal “everybody knows your name” mood. The western facades and new age buildings neighbor each other, a mix that gives the tiny downtown a feel of both the eclectic and the frontier. Small town charm has survived intact in Driggs, as has it’s rough-and-tumble Old-West origins.
Located an hour from the Jackson Hole Airport and four hours from Salt Lake City, UT, it isn’t necessarily an easy place to get to. Coming in from Salt Lake, the pastures and prairies elude to free-range beef and wheat bread more than deep powder and incredible terrain, but it’s a deceptive perception. The massive Tetons piercing the skyline are one of the many hints that the skiing around here can be as full-on as you make it. Hidden behind craggy monoliths is Grand Targhee Resort, Jackson’s dark-horse sibling and the Teton’s quieter winter playground. Targhee can boast nearly 2,300 feet of vertical, and with its base area located at 7,850 feet it receives snowfalls that would be impressive in powder meccas like the PNW or interior British Columbia. Combine this with short lift-lines and tickets half the price of Jackson make it much more suitable for derelict skiers and families alike.
Most Targhee locals may call Idaho and Driggs home, but the ski area is actually located in Wyoming, in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest just outside of the tiny town of Alta (it consists of a school and a church). This is somewhat of a technicality, as the only access is from Driggs via the narrow Ski Hill Road. Curling up the winding highway, Targhee is visible from across the valley–that is, unless it’s shrouded in “milk toast,” as Tait and his friends call the soupy fog that can besiege the mountain. Targhee’s nickname, “Grand Foggy,” is a deserving one, as these whiteout conditions can make it difficult to even see the chair in front of you. Luckily, the resort also offers an abundance of great tree skiing, but when things are clear the views alone are worth the price of admission. To the east the rugged and majestic Tetons, and to the west are the 9,000-plus-foot Big Hole Mountains, not as dramatic as their neighbor but still impressive.
This isn’t my first visit to Grand Targhee. I made the journey last season, where I found post-storm bluebird conditions. With the clear visibility, I was able to take the bootpack to the top of Mary’s Nipple, a sidecountry zone with stacked vertical and free of any crowds that were plying the inbound terrain. The sweeping view from the top of Mary’s will make even the most stoic into poets, and the descent into the open bowl below was lined with powdery goodness.
Mary’s was amazing, but Tait–it was his first guiding session with us that year–had advised that if we really wanted some steps we needed to bootpack up to the summit of Peaked. There were considerably less tracks and people hiking the steep ridge towards the summit, and for good reason: the sharp ridgeline and ragged, closed upper area of the bowl falling off to the right was both exciting and puckering. Peaked gave us access to steep double black diamonds of the sort you talk about later in the bar, and we dropped into one of them from the ridge of Peaked, called Pink Slip, to find face shots and soft landings even three days after the last storm.
Returning home to Bellingham, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d be back. The only uncertainty was when, and if we’d return to Targhee’s renown Teton pow and bluebird skies.
This year, the “Milk Toast” is fully present above Targhee as we cross the Idaho-Wyoming border. The overcast, however, does nothing to dampen our stoke, as the four inches of snow that has fallen overnight promises a solid refresh. We click in and start for the Dreamcatcher lift, which accesses the 2,000 feet of open bowls and pine glades, sprinkled with steeps to keep things exciting. As the chair carries us into whiteness, we decide it’s going to be a day of tree skiing–which is okay, because Targhee has plenty of it. We scratch the idea of Dreamcatcher and ski down to the Sacajawea (aka Sack) Lift and “Das Boat,” a run broken by several 10-to-20 foot cliff bands with good transitions and soft landings. The trees below Das hold powder stashes all day, if you are willing to hunt for them.
Tait, Olin and I are looking for more of a rush, so a brief bootpack up from the Sack Lift puts us on top of “Toilet Bowl” a mini-chute with an open runout beneath. Tait drops in and airs off of a 10-foot-cliff into the chute, and hollers of joy ring from below. Olin and I follow suit one after the other, airing into the bowl, ripping out the rest of the chute and adding our own whoopes and shouts to Tait’s. Looking back up towards “Toilet Bowl” we see a plethora of cliffs that would be ripe for hucking after a decent snowfall.
On the other side of the mountain, the Blackfoot Lift delivers moderate terrain with gladed trees and open runs. The slope, named “Powder Cache,” lives up to its name, and provides us with soft, chopped powder even a few days after the latest storm. The three of us explore the Blackfoot area, finding leftovers and ripping groomers until the liftie announces last call. Making our way back to the base we hop into the terrain park for some airtime off of the three-jump line, throwing helicopters, daffies and a classy screamin’ seaman for good measure.
Coming in from our day of foggy skiing, we return to the village tired and satisfied, and meander into The Trap Bar, which claims “World Class Après” on the sign hanging outside. Their hallmark menu item are the Wydaho Nachos—waffle French fries piled high with fresh veggies and homemade salsa—which leaves all three of us stuffed to pain. When in Driggs do as the locals do, and so after paying our tabs we head across the street to the next drinking a establishment, the Branding Iron, where from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. microbrews are always a dangerous $3. As the snow stacks up outside, we find ourselves back at The Wolf, for a few rounds of pool and beer.
The next morning we pack up and ready the car to make the long return trip northward. As Olin and I drive out of Driggs, the snowcovered prairieland flies past my window and thoughts of powder days fill my head–something that has been lacking in the PNW this year. Grand Targhee and Driggs, however, have done a solid job providing some compensation, giving us a glimpse of gargantuan peaks, Old Western soul and lots of snow…that, and possibly the finest mustache I have ever seen.
As of February 5, Targhee is boasting one of the best snowpacks in the country, with 84” and over 236 inches of snowfall this year. Housing can cost less than $400 a month, the local beer flows freely, and the warm community will have you feeling right at home, whether the jacket you’re hanging on the back of your chair is fresh Gore-Tex or soiled Carhartt canvas. It’s all good in Driggs.