Big Turns in the Big Holes
Some locals take a pass on the Tetons, heading instead for this unheralded range
Overshadowed by their loftier sisters to the east, the Big Hole Mountains are largely ignored by the majority of local backcountry skiers. But a few in-the-know ’boarders and skiers see it differently, recognizing the Big Holes as a great place to carve turns in steep, deep powder.
“It’s a way to experience Teton Pass-type terrain without the crowds,” says author Tom Turiano. “Plus, you get the views of the Tetons, which you don’t get at Teton Pass. [The range] has the feel of having the potential for major adventuring.”
Due to a wide variety of terrain, from mellow touring loops to narrow chutes—coupled with light, dry snow similar to what you’ll find in the Tetons—the Big Holes and Pine Creek Pass area earned their own chapter in Turiano’s upcoming book (which has the working title of Jackson Hole’s Best Backcountry). A well-known mountain guide who has published two prior books on local skiing and mountaineering, Turiano says his latest project, once published—the target is 2013—should really help to disperse people from Teton Pass.
The Big Holes flank the western edge of Teton Valley, with Victor and Driggs a few miles to the east. From either town, the range appears rather tame, composed more of rolling hills than gnarly steeps. But from this benign base, the Big Holes crescendo into impressive peaks.
To be precise, the Big Hole Mountains and the northern end of the Snake River Range meld together, with a seemingly arbitrary line separating the two. This area, all of which is in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, is casually and collectively referred to as the Big Holes.
The Big Holes have long been a secret stash of sorts—those interviewed for this article freely shared some of the more commonly known places to ski and ride, while remaining mum on their truly favorite slopes. But even as the range gets more publicity, it may never experience hordes of backcountry skiers.
“The pitches are not that long, [but] the access is long,” says Todd Chapman, who uses a snowmobile to reach ski terrain. “The decent ski slopes aren’t accessible to people who just skin … like Garns [Mountain] and Relay Ridge.”
Stouts Mountain, which sees a fair amount of human-powered recreation, may be the one exception. (Be aware that it can be accessed legally only for spring skiing, after April 15; see sidebar on this page.) And there are those hardy souls willing to invest days to get to the goods, or those who have built up the strength, efficiency, and endurance to skin up and ski places like Garns and Relay Ridge in one day.
Chapman is quick to caution that using a snowmobile to access Big Hole skiing itself requires know-how. While the east side of the range has plenty of groomed snowmobile trails, the west side, Chapman’s predominant access point, often requires him to make a fifteen-mile ride on unmarked logging roads with numerous creek crossings.
“You need to be a snowmobile pro and have the right equipment,” he says.
Another such pro is Matt Roberts, a Henderson Canyon resident who has been using a snowmobile for twenty years to earn his turns in the Big Holes.
“It’s a beautiful place to ski,” he says, “[but] the long fall line spots are so few, they can’t withstand a lot of pressure.”
While Roberts jokes that his favorite place to ski in the Big Holes is the “headwater of No-Tell-’Em Creek,” he is less tight-lipped about the possibilities for ski touring, suggesting Henderson Creek, Horseshoe Creek, and Mahogany Creek as basins to explore. These areas can be particularly good destinations during periods of high avalanche risk.
“There’s a lot of low-angle, safe skiing to do … that’s easily accessible from the trailhead,” he says.
While Chapman and Roberts embrace motorized transportation as a way to ski the Big Hole’s best lines, not everyone is happy about the roaring sounds that have settled over the range.
“I don’t ski the Big Holes anymore,” says Alta resident Chi Melville, who operated a hut system for skiers in the range in the 1980s. Before the days of powerful snow machine engines, Melville and his business partners hauled yurts in and out of the Big Holes every year, trading their friends’ muscle power for free nights in the yurts. Teton Mountain Touring, as it was known, operated from 1980 to 1987. They had a total of three yurts in the hut system, which could be linked up for extended backcountry tours.
“The Big Holes are not that accessible, and that’s why it was a great place to have a hut system,” Melville says, “because I didn’t feel like we were competing with day skiers.”
But now, he says, “I don’t have any interest anymore,” explaining that many of his former favorite slopes have become the playground of snowmobilers, as technology and riding skills have improved over the past three decades.
Turiano, who dubs the Big Holes “a sacrifice area,” would like to see snowmobiles limited to summer roads. “When you start taking snow machines up onto peaks, that’s when the quality of the experience for everyone starts to go away,” he says.
High Mountain Heli-Skiing of Jackson Hole made its own noise in the Big Holes in 2011, when it held a temporary one-year permit to fly there. The company did a few exploratory trips and one commercial trip, and ultimately decided the terrain wasn’t worth the time and expense necessary to gain the permits for continued operations in the Big Holes.
“It’s not ideally suited for heli-skiing,” says company owner Jon Shick. “There’s some great backcountry skiing, there’s no doubt, but the verticals are shorter, the aspect is not ideal, and there is just not enough of what we really need—north-facing, long, sustained verticals without a lot of traversing.”
Aside from the issues of motorized competition and inaccessibility, the Big Holes suffer from wind scouring and avalanche-prone terrain, says Don Sharaf, co-owner of the Victor-based American Avalanche Institute. “It’s the first barrier [to] wind coming across from the Palisades and Snake, so they tend to form really big cornices,” he says.
Overall, the snowpack in the Big Holes is quite similar to that of the Tetons, say both Sharaf and Turiano. Sometimes it is shallower in the Big Holes, a condition compounded by the fact that many ski approaches are at lower elevations than those in the Tetons. Another small difference is that east-facing aspects tend to crust up sooner in the Big Holes. The east-facing aspects in the Tetons have more of a north tilt, while the majority of good east-facing terrain in the Big Holes is true east or even southeast, Sharaf says.
Generally, though, if there is a weak layer in the Teton snowpack, that weak layer also exists in the Big Hole snowpack; likewise, a powder day in the Tetons is a cold-smoke day in the Big Holes.
The advantages of skiing the Big Holes are as numerous as the perils, and that’s still their draw. “It’s a pretty fun place to explore,” Sharaf says. “There are a bunch of places I won’t name, which are still off the radar—which is great.”
Roberts echoes Sharaf’s sentiments: “The real charm of the Big Holes is that nobody else is skiing there,” he says. “So you can let the snow sit after a big storm and settle until it’s safe to ski. You don’t have to feel pressure to get first tracks on it, like what happens many times in more frequently used areas, like Teton Pass.”