Big Turns in the Big Holes
Some locals take a pass on the Tetons, heading instead for this unheralded range
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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.