The Ultimate Cool - Jackson Hole’s Team Extreme
by Mitch Kaplan
We stand at a snow-covered, rock promontory called Ship’s Prow. The origin of the name is obvious. The protrusion extends out and up from the ridge like the front of an old square-rigger. Below and in front of us a vast expanse of prime-looking ski real estate cascades off a high cornice and tumbles countless vertical feet through two bowls, finally funneling down a narrow chute to somewhere that can’t be seen. At least not from here.
We’re looking at Cody Bowl and Rock Springs Bowl, the two skiable backcountry routes nearest to Jackson Hole’s in-bounds skiing. From the safety of distance, they don’t look that treacherous. Still, even from high up here, I can see the routes avalanches would choose if they decided to go sliding.
“You want to see Cheyenne Rock?” my guides ask.
I ski behind Craig Panapisi and Steve Janssen along Rendevous Trail atop the ridge that divides Jackson Hole’s Cheyenne Bowl from that out-of-bounds terrain. Panapisi is Jackson’s ski school children’s programs supervisor; Janssen, an instructor. As inevitably happens when I ski with guys this good, my skills come up a notch. No, maybe it’s not my skills, actually. It’s my attitude. Nothing profound, mind you. Just that the little voice in my head stops saying “Should we?” and starts saying “Let’s go!”
Panapisi stops at an unmarked spot along the trail. “Down here,” he says, unable, I suspect, to get the “yippee” out of his voice. I look to where his ski pole points. I detect no trail. I see a thick copse of evergreens holding on desperately to a sickly steep slope.
“Okay,” I say, trying to disguise the suddenly tentative tenor of the voice in my head.
We make a few quick turns around several thick tree trunks. I follow Panapisi’s track to the left where, suddenly, he makes a sharp u-turn back to the right. We side-slip a bit and then he points. Below us runs a narrow, precipitous, harrowing chute, perhaps just wide enough for a body in motion to pass through. Hopefully a body in controlled motion.
“This is where the kids drop in,” Panapisi says happily. “They put their skis on their back, put on a harness and rappel down. They have to learn to trust the rope.”
We don’t rappel it. We ski around it.
A Unique Program
The point of this tour - which is beginning to resemble something that might be called “Steep & Nasty Highlights of Jackson Hole” - is to illustrate the resort’s Team Extreme program. Janssen was a key person in developing the program and Panapisi administers it. Both teach it, as well.
I’m not sure there’s anything quite like Team Extreme anywhere else on the continent. Indeed, only a few other places could facilitate such a program. You need a gnarly mountain on which to execute the stuff these guys teach. Among the topics listed in the instructors’ guidelines for the program: self-arresting exercises; avalanche understanding and evasion maneuvers; snow pit analysis, rappeling into a couloir; skiing chutes and steeps; and, of course, freeriding and skiing out of bounds.
The Jackson Hole Team Extreme program is a four-day course staged three times a year during peak vacation periods. “Most ski schools don’t serve teens. This is a way to reach them and to offer something that will keep them coming back to ski school - and make them a lifelong skier or rider,” Panapisi explained to me as we sat in his office before we went exploring.
The program is open to excellent skiers or riders ages 12 to 17. They must pre-qualify to participate. "Generally speaking," Panapisi explained, "these kids tend to be here for a week. They’re usually in ski school the day before, so we get to see them ski. They have to be able to ski off the tram. We take the 9 a.m. tram and do a run as a bit of a test. That can get us back down to the children’s center by 9:30, so we can put them in normal ski school if necessary."
Kids can enroll come for one day or all four but, because the program builds on itself, all four is preferred. Class size is restricted to four or five to one instructor. “We divide the classes by ability (high - medium - low),” Panapisi continued. “The size of the child makes a big difference. These are great skiers, but in this age range you can have one who weighs two hundred pounds, and strength for the little ones is just as important [as ability] - they have to have stamina. We also divide by them by age.”
Interestingly, snowboarders and skiers mix in the same groups. Each group has a snowboard instructor and a ski instructor. It’s not about a kid’s riding tool, I was told, it’s all about being mountain savvy - how to be safe, how to ski together with friends. “The point of what we do is teaching mountain awareness: route selection, steep terrain, how to get down a couloir without panic or endangering others, how to ski an avalanche prone slope,” Panapisi explained.
We ran into Janssen as we boarded the tram en route to our explorations. He thought up this program, he said, “while on a ride home from Iowa.” The course was instituted first in the 01-02 season. About 260 kids have gone through the program to date. “Some kids come back for a second session during their vacation,” “We get a lot of repeaters,” Janssen said.
Currently the program draws fewer snowboarders than skiers and more boys than girls. “But,” Panapisi remembers, as we stand below Cheyenne Rock “we have six girls from New York state coming back for a second time this year.”
“Girls are usually more enthused than boys,” Janssen says.
“Yeah. They’re more mature and they listen better,” Panapisi agrees.
A Unique Location
“What exactly is the need for this?” I interject.
“Jackson is known for its terrain, its vertical and for its camps - like ‘Steep & Deep,’ ‘Race Camps’, etc.,” Panapisi says. “This fits the theme and product line. We want to offer people a chance to experience the terrain we have. We have fantastic terrain, and want to get people up there and to use it. Few places have that terrain.”
You can’t argue with that philosophy. Jackson’s terrain has long been luring me to ski steeps, trees and chutes I probably wouldn’t have considered elsewhere - if I could find them. It’s kind of like, “if they see it, they’ll try to ski it.” Best to give kids the knowledge and develop in them the respect for the hill that they need to do it right.
“The kids are so enthusiastic,” Janssen relates as we ride the Sublette Quad Chair. “They even get excited about learning to use the avalanche transceivers.”
The program culminates in an out-of-bounds day, usually in either Cody or Rock Springs Bowl. But, classes stay in-bounds if the avalanche risk is rated greater than “moderate”.
“Usually high avalanche danger out-of-bounds means we have plenty of powder in-bounds,” Panapisi laughs.
As adventurous as it all sounds, the school errs well on the cautious side. Instructors must have Level III PSIA certification and Level II avalanche certification; most are Level III in both. A minimum of 5-6 years experience is also required, and most are mountain guides in the Tetons in the summer. On the backcountry day, an additional, full-time backcountry guide accompanies all classes.
We ski under Jackson’s infamous Corbet’s Couloir and, as so many skiers do, we stop to gape at it. Here, the kids practice jumping or rappeling in. Gulp. We then follow an intermediate route to the bottom, my skis humming happily as I try to keep up with the two pros. “We’re passionate about what we do,” Janssen had said to me somewhere along the way. I can feel that passion transferring right from Janssen’s skis to my own. The Team Extreme kids would feel that, too.
“What about parents?” I inquire. “What questions do they ask?”
Panapisi laughs again. “The first question is,” he says, “‘Is it safe?’ The next is, ‘Will they have fun?’”
Clearly the kids do have fun. And, just like me, their attitude will ratchet up a notch. I can tell that just from skiing a few runs with these guys. Any kid who participates in this program will come away both more knowledgeable and more skilled, thus more wisely confident. My children were horribly difficult adolescents, so perhaps I take too personal an interest in what I’ve been shown. But, it’s tough, being a teenager and, for me, it’s immeasurably reassuring to find programs like this. Programs that bring out the best in kids that age.
Information: The Team Extreme sessions for 2006/07 are scheduled for Dec. 26- Jan. 4; Feb. 17-26; Mar. 10-15. Get more information on the program at www.jacksonhole.com; or by calling 800-450-0477 or 307-739-2691.
...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.