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Facing Your Steepest Fears: Old West, New Image

Richard Bierck

Tommy Moe sits on the chair lift, occasionally looking down the steep slopes of Rendezvous Mountain in Wyoming’s high country. There, only a few miles down the peak-ringed valley known as Jackson Hole, he is building a new house, complete with what he calls a “monster” garage. “And, best of all, it’s close to all this,” says Moe, squinting up at the high powder chutes that he skis with ease.

A monster garage seems a modest reward for someone who earned an Olympic gold medal for the downhill in Lillehammer in 1994. Now a professional skier with a clutch of product endorsements—he is wearing next year’s Spyder jacket bearing his name—he seems to genuinely enjoy leading VIP tours for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Moe is a perfect choice to represent the resort: He embodies the relaxed, yet high-performance, aura of Jackson Hole, one of the West’s most challenging and most rewarding ski areas. Tamer and far smaller is Snow King, Wyoming’s first ski resort, which rises over the nearby town of Jackson. Between the two, Jackson Hole stretches out like a tabletop, shadowed by the surrounding Grand Tetons, perhaps the most photographed range in the Rockies because of its spectacular spiny peaks.

Steeped in the tradition of the Old West, the area is renowned for its elk refuge, its cutthroat trout, and its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. Winter guests come to enjoy alpine or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, and snowmobiling. The Old West flavor is palpable in downtown Jackson, where the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar serves drinks to patrons seated on saddles and surrounded by every type of animal—stuffed and on display. But this cowboy machismo is fast giving way to cowboy chic, à la Aspen, which is reflected in the sharply rising property values in recent years. This shift is bringing high-end accommodations, dining, shopping, and services, and attracting corporate executives and celebrities alike, who arrive via private jet at Jackson Hole’s centrally located airport.

Many opt to stay at Teton Pines, a gated residential community that includes guest suites and town houses. It also features the Teton Pines Restaurant, one of the region’s best dining establishments, which offers freshly flown-in seafood prepared with a Polynesian touch, as well as beef that a steak lover would relish. When you enter the restaurant, do not be surprised if you get the once-over from firm-jawed men wearing sunglasses. No, they are not sizing you up for a table; they are Secret Service agents assigned to watch over Vice President Dick Cheney’s house, which is clearly visible through a restaurant picture window, across a narrow fairway on the golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.

Closer to town, about 20 minutes from the airport, is Amangani, the only U.S. property of Singapore-based Amanresorts. It is a serene hillside redoubt where quiet is the refreshing rule, and the emphasis is on luxury without the crowds. The property has only 40 suites, which are all equipped with telescopes to zoom in on the stunning views of the Tetons. From the balcony, it seems as though you can reach out and touch the mountain, yet the trails are barely visible—if at all. Rather, they tend to be congruent with the ravines and other naturally treeless areas of the mountain. As the sun sets, you can see the tram house atop Rendezvous Mountain silhouetted distinctly against the sky.

Guests taking the regular SUV shuttles to the mountain are greeted by Amangani hosts, who maintain a comfortable liftside lounge where you can relax with hot drinks and store your equipment overnight. From there, you can ride the tram that you observed from your suite. Ascending the mountain’s 4,139 vertical feet in 10 minutes, you will appreciate the magnificent view of the surrounding peaks and of the trails themselves—some of which are so steep that they are not trails or slopes, but cliffs.

In addition to its reputation for intense skiing, Jackson Hole Resort is known for its popularity with VIPs and fashionistas. If you are trying to keep a lower profile, visit Grand Targhee Ski and Summer Resort, located on the back side of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and about a half hour’s drive away. With a higher base elevation of 8,000 feet, Grand Targhee is home to some of the most mellow SnowCat powder skiing in the West. Visitors pile into large SnowCats fitted with passenger seats in the rear and are transported to the 1,500 acres set aside exclusively for cat skiing, where there is no lift access. The skiing on fresh powder days—and these are abundant at Targhee—is an ultraglide down open bowls or between widely spaced fir trees.

Regardless of the resort you choose, the region’s giant snowfalls (the yearly average is 500 inches) keep the lifts running well into April, despite the warm sunny days that require extra sunblock. This blend of spring warmth and highly skiable snow has been a strong draw for many, including Moe, who perfected his deft turning technique in the chill of Alaskan winters.

Jackson Hole may be a long way from Alaska, but the area’s intense skiing conditions and Old West-turned-upscale atmosphere leaves even Moe feeling right at home.

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