Steep & Deep

Steep & Deep

Steep & Deep

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s experts-only camp wants to take the scare out of you.

Steep & Deep
Camp coach Jess Baker hikes Cody Peak in the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort sidecountry with Steep & Deep participants.

There’s no mandatory air, but for twenty feet, the line below me is no more than three feet wide. Maybe four. Today’s skis are certainly shorter than they were fifteen years ago, the first time I saw this improbable weakness—calling it a run is a bit more than it deserves—in a cliff band just south of The Cirque. But the boards strapped to my feet are still not short enough that turning is an option until I’m through the top squeeze.

It’s not labeled on Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s trail map, but this line has a name: Meet Your Maker. Standing at its lip, I’m a bit nervous. I’m not here to meet my maker.

“Don’t worry,” says Bill Truelove, one of JHMR’s Steep & Deep Camp coaches. “I’m not going to make you ski that now. Maybe in a couple of days, though.”

A confession: I’m not an awesome skier. Compared to the general population, I can certainly hold my own, but when it comes to most sports influenced by gravity, Jackson’s population is far from general. Even if you take our Olympians and ski-movie stars out of it, we’ve still got guys and gals who huck themselves off fifty-foot cliffs because it’s Thursday. It’s possible the person who made your espresso this morning skis (or rides) you-fall-you-die lines as if it’s nothing more consequential than going for a spin on a merry-go-round. My skis like contact with the snow. And once a line begins to approach forty degrees in pitch, bits inside me begin to tighten, and the butterflies in my stomach morph into California condors. Not that this has kept me from skiing such lines.

The past several winters, sphincter-clenching terrain—and the mental focus it requires—has been calling out to me. I’ve dropped into Corbet’s, sideslipped through the crux of Spacewalk, and done most of the Alta and Expert chutes. I’ve made it down them safely, but not with any sort of style, so I am here at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to become better and more confident at skiing the steeps the resort is known for. And I’m not alone. There are about thirty of us from across the country and even around the world—there’s a recent college graduate from Mexico City and a retired banker from London—but I don’t meet anyone else (instructors not included) from Jackson that has signed up for this Steep & Deep Camp.

In its earliest years, Steep & Deep was an informal affair that pretty much involved a group of hard-chargers chasing the late Doug Coombs and friends around the resort. In 1993, Coombs, the 1991 and 1993 World Extreme Skiing Champion, made things slightly more official, founding Doug Coombs Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide. These camps moved to La Grave, France, in 1997, leaving others at JHMR to take up the mantle and find a new name. Steep & Deep was born.

Nowadays, each four-day camp has between twenty and fifty skiers. There is a slew of sponsors (Marmot, Clif Bar, Smith), video analysis, a welcome reception and closing party, and a curriculum that ensures skiers progress each day while also reinforcing previous lessons. One thing that hasn’t changed? It’s still hard-charging.

Each morning, we’re on the 8:15 tram and ski straight through until 4 p.m. with only a single break for lunch. The numbers geek in me loves starting the altimeter on my Suunto watch each morning. “We’ve already done 17,675 feet!” I announce to my group at lunch. Our “easiest” day, which includes two out-of-bounds runs to the south of the resort with the late, great Theo Meiners, is still 23,600 vertical. Our biggest day is 28,071 feet. At the end of the four days, I feel like I’ve been hit by a train.

Not that I would change a thing. I also feel like a completely different skier.

All Steep & Deep Camps start the same, with a sorting. Surprisingly, standing atop Cheyenne Bowl waiting for the line of coaches/instructors below to signal I should start skiing toward them, I’m only slightly trepidatious. I had expected I’d be completely terrified. If the truth be totally told, I’m actually more worried about instructors laughing at the girl who has lived in Jackson for fourteen years and still isn’t a ripper than about the three-foot bumps in the bowl.

Heading for the instructors, I don’t make the best or the worst turns of my life, and am put in a group in the middle. The five of us—myself, a sixty-year-old radiologist from California, a fortysomething retired firefighter from Long Island, a twenty-three-year-old recent university graduate from Mexico, and a real estate developer from Seattle—are then paired with coach Bill Truelove. This is Truelove’s second Steep & Deep Camp, but he’s been teaching at JHMR’s Mountain Sports School for six years and is currently going for his PSIA Level 3 certification.

The various groups disperse from the bottom of Cheyenne Bowl. Now that camp’s really starting, I’m worrying about a few things (in no particular order): making an ass of myself, being the weakest in my group, being the strongest in my group, and standing around listening to a coach spew rather than skiing, to name just a few.

It takes only a couple of hours to realize my worries are moot. I don’t know how the camp instructors do it, but after watching each of us for only a few turns, we are perfectly matched. While every group member has his/her own skiing style and bad habits—one of us is all over the place but aggressive, another is hesitant but has good form, I’m a backseat skier but have the quad strength to make it work (usually)—we all arrive at the bottom at pretty much the same time, and are capable of skiing and wanting to ski the same difficulty of terrain. And there’s little standing around waiting for Truelove to get his teaching on.

Before lunch, we hit multiple lines around Toilet Bowl, go into some Expert Chutes, over to the Alta Chutes, down the Lower Faces, and back up to Tower Three. It’s impressive, considering we do stop multiple times on most runs for Truelove to dissect what each of us is doing versus what each of us should be doing. And also for him to introduce and demonstrate, and encourage us to try, extension turns—standing up to get your skis flat and initiate your turn—and smear turns, the basics of steep skiing. It’s fairly heady stuff. And when I remember to turn using these new techniques, it’s fairly ski-changing stuff. My last time down Tower Three before lunch, I feel like I look good. I don’t know that I’ve ever had that feeling on skis before.

After lunch—marinated chicken breast with mango salsa, mixed green salad, tomato soup, homemade cookies, and brownies—we hike the Headwall and traverse around into the Crags. We talk and laugh. We practice more smearing in some tightish, soft bumps in the trees beneath the gondola. We listen as Truelove gives us instructions for drills. We fall.

The next three days are more of the same—just heading for steeper and steeper lines and sometimes getting filmed, although we do take a break from the steep to get some deep. The morning of day three we go out of bounds (after Meiners, in the comfort of Corbet’s Cabin, gives us a briefing in the basics of avalanche safety) and do two runs—one in Rock Springs and the second in Green River. After several filming sessions, we head inside to watch ourselves—and laugh at each other—as Truelove gives us feedback. We’re getting better. And we’re having fun. And then it’s graduation day, and we’re back at the top of Meet Your Maker.

I don’t drop in that day. Two of my groupmates do, though. And they rock it. Two weeks later, after several more bell-to-bell days skiing JHMR practicing extension and smear turns on my own—a luxury that comes with living here—I’m back at Meet Your Maker’s lip. Falling in, it dawns on me that I’m not nervous. I’ve got confidence I’ve never had. And I might even be smiling.