Jackson Hole has some of the most accessible and diverse backcountry skiing in the lower 48 states.
For expert skiers and riders with the knowledge and skill to travel safely through avalanche terrain who are willing to ski, hike, or mountaineer up a mountain before skiing down, Jackson Hole offers almost endless possibilities. The best way to experience a lifetime of backcountry opportunities, from mellow powder slopes to steep couloirs, is to hire a guide (for those with little or no prior experience and training) or build the skills and experience necessary to adventure on your own.
Backcountry skiing, also known as ski touring, was happening in Jackson Hole long before it was a thing. For the valley’s early settlers, backcountry skiing was what you did to get supplies in the winter if you lived outside of town, or to get the mail. (In the 1890s, locals took turns skiing up and over Teton Pass to Driggs, Idaho, home to the nearest post office, to get and send the valley’s mail.) By the 1930s, locals and visitors alike were skiing Teton Pass for fun.
Today, Teton Backcountry Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates that about 150,000 backcountry ski runs are taken on Teton Pass every winter. There’s also backcountry skiing in Grand Teton National Park and in the Wyoming Range, Absaroka Range, Snake River Range, Salt River Range, Wyoming Range, and Gros Ventre Mountains.
How to have a great backcountry skiing experience in Jackson Hole
Understand the snowpack
If you’re heading into the backcountry without a guide, familiarize yourself with the state of the snowpack and current weather conditions. “Anyone coming to backcountry ski here should check in with the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center website to do research on the current snowpack,” says Ryan Mertaugh, a ski guide with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and a member of Teton County Search and Rescue. The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center website has daily avalanche forecasts and observations of snow conditions, mountain weather forecasts, and incident information, among other things.
Tell someone where you’re going
Tell someone who’s not skiing with you where you plan on going and what time you expect to be back. If you’re not back by then, they should alert Teton County Search and Rescue.
Understand your impact on others
Consider the impacts your decisions might have on others. “If you decide to ski a run above Highway 22 on Teton Pass that is a known slide path across the road, that could have huge impacts for the thousands of people just driving to and from work,” Mertaugh says. “Just keep in mind that the decisions you make when backcountry skiing can affect a lot more than just you if something happens.”
Go with a guide
Go with a guide, even if you’re an experienced backcountry skier. Kim Havell has been ski guiding for Exum Mountain Guides since 2014 and says that some of her clients are just getting into the sport but more are accomplished backcountry skiers. “They’re looking to explore new places or to better understand the nuances of moving through the backcountry, or they don’t want to have to think about safety themselves and instead hand that responsibility over to an experienced guide while they just enjoy a day of great skiing.”
To help the many wild animals that live in the mountains around Jackson Hole survive our harsh winters, specific areas are closed to human travel during the winter. “I’ve seen people caught off-guard by wildlife closures,” Mertaugh says. “It’s not something that a lot of places have. But we have such an abundance of wildlife here, it’s necessary.” The Teton Conservation District has created an unofficial map of winter wildlife closures in and around Jackson Hole.