Traverse the Tetons

You could drive to Grand Targhee, but skiing there from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is one of the area’s ultimate ski adventures.

By Brigid Mander // Photography by John Slaughter

The 27-mile Tram to Trap ski traverse allows skiers to connect Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to Grand Targhee Resort.

WE ARE GOING to ski Grand Targhee and get a beer at the Trap Bar, so we meet in town and carpool to the free parking lot in Teton Village. No, we’re not lost: We’re skiing to Grand Targhee instead of driving. And so, nonchalantly, as if it were any other March ski day, my friends John Slaughter, Adam Glos, and I climb onto the Aerial Tram dock at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) with backcountry packs about triple the size of a normal day ski pack. From the top of the tram, we head out the backcountry gate at the south end of Rendezvous Bowl and begin climbing up Cody Peak. But, instead of doing one of our usual descents off this craggy peak’s east face, we stop on the back of the windswept upper flank, put our skis on, and drop, one by one, onto a gloriously untracked west-facing slope. 

The route between JHMR and Grand Targhee is nicknamed “Tram to Trap,” and we are far from the first to undertake the approximately 27-mile oversnow traverse between the ski areas. Our original plan was to take five days to cross the range, notching descents on a few of the famed, seldom-skied peaks along the way, like Fossil and Housetop, and any ski line or face that happened to look good. But that plan isn’t to be: Just before our departure, a ferocious windstorm hammered all aspects of upper elevations into unpleasant, unsafe, cardboard-like snow. Also, there’s an incoming winter storm warning. But before the big storm, forecasters say there are three days of sun. An adventurous, peak-bagging tour isn’t possible, but a traditional, straightforward traverse is. We change our plan to the latter. 

THE SNOW ON the backside of Cody Peak is surprisingly soft. At the bottom, we grin and high-five before putting our climbing skins on and heading west across a meadow. (Climbing skins, when used with specialized alpine touring bindings, allow skiers to efficiently move across flats, and even ski uphill.) Just as the light gets low, we arrive at Marion Lake, a popular summer hiking destination, but which, in winter, is very frozen, and very empty. 

With us we have the usual necessities for winter camping—tents, puffy sleeping bags and pads, stoves, food, and fuel—plus topo maps, and a little extra fun: a container of a whiskey cocktail our friend, Timmy Cohn, a bartender at Osteria, gave us. By the time the pink alpenglow fades to darkness, camp is set and dinner is finished. A couple after-ski sips of Cohn’s cocktail send us into our sleeping bags for the night. 

The next day dawns crystal clear and our goal is to cover some serious ground, hopefully 15 (or so) miles through terrain that cowboys call “seeing country.” And see country is what we do as we follow the spine of the Tetons and traverse the Death Canyon shelf. Eventually we cross from familiar-ish terrain into the range’s interior, where vistas of unfamiliar ridges, cliff bands, and summits spread in every direction. 

The more we see, the more exotic the terrain seems. In a range like the Tetons, where so much incredible ski terrain is so easily accessed, you don’t have to venture very far off the beaten path for an adventure. Here we’ve gone in just a little deeper and, despite the recognizable horizon lines, are rewarded with another world full of high-walled couloirs and zones of mini-golf terrain. And then there’s the feeling of discovering something new that has been just under our noses for so long. “Seeing country” is profoundly satisfying. 

WE SPEND OUR second night on the north side of Alaska Basin, which feels so isolated we could be ski touring in Iceland. The scene from the night before repeats itself, but the morning couldn’t be more different. We emerge from the tent to see that sun and blue skies have been replaced by snow, low visibility, and fierce winds. With just enough visibility to use line-of-sight navigation up out of Alaska Basin and along the ridge, we quickly pack up and begin skinning. Our progress is slow, and there is not much seeing country.

The clouds and thick snowfall sock in. Darkness is falling. We decide to ski down Table Mountain, the last peak before reaching Targhee, instead of pushing on to Targhee itself. This amendment to our plan requires we hitch a ride up Ski Hill Road to Targhee’s base area. We’ve adjusted so many things about this tour to better fit the conditions, but we’re not giving up on beers at the Trap. 

Arriving at the base area, it is pitch black and tiny; still, we feel overwhelmed by it. After all, we haven’t seen another person or sign of life since we left the JHMR tram two days before. But burgers. And nachos. And beer. 

We push toward the Trap’s deck. A warm glow of interior lights shines out the windows. We pull the door. But it doesn’t open. We pitifully press our faces to the windows like lost Charles Dickens urchins until, at a glacial pace, the bartender ambles over. “We’re closed,” he says. Of course we’re crushed. The Trap is supposed to be open until 10 p.m. and it’s not even 9 p.m. “We just want one beer,” I say. The bartender has a heart and swings the door open. The three of us shuffle in and take seats at the long, wood bar, which is populated only by a couple of workers enjoying a post-shift drink. The bartender pours us beer from taps he just cleaned, clearly hiding a smile. “You can stay until I’m finished cleaning up,” he says.


NUTS & BOLTS

Teton Backcountry Guides has a permit to guide in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness area, which stretches between Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Grand Targhee, but is not permitted to use lift services. (So you couldn’t do this traverse from the top of the JHMR tram with them.) They can guide alternate versions of the traverse; or skiers with backcountry knowledge can meet their guide outside the resort at the wilderness boundary. Guide services start at $595 per day for up to four skiers. tetonbackcountryguides.com, 307/353-2900


Hiking up Cody Peak just outside the boundaries of JHMR.

John Slaughter, the author, and Adam Glos raise a glass at Grand Targhee’s Trap Bar following a three-day traverse of the Teton Range.

Skiing from JHMR to Grand Targhee requires skiers to spend between one and four nights out.

| Posted in JH Living
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