Excerpt from Jackson Hole: On a Grand Scale
by David Gonzales
The phone’s keypad glows in the dark as I dial the number for the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s morning snow report. “Six inches of new snow in the past twenty-four hours,” says the recording. Outside the window, fresh pillows of snow crown fence posts and shrubs. Waves of flakes halo the streetlights. The sky wears the slightest tinge of blue. The report, taken from an automatic gauge high on Rendezvous Mountain, has been stingy all season. Instead of six inches, there could be eight. Or ten. Sleeping any longer is out of the question.
On the road to Teton Village, I pass a herd of horses moving across a pasture in the predawn gloom. They plod in single file, their backs dusted white.
At 7:15 AM, one hour and forty-five minutes before the resort opens, the tram maze at the village already sprouts a thicket of skis and poles. The protocol: If you arrive early – by seven – you can leave your skis in line while you buy a breakfast burrito or warm up in Nick Wilson’s restaurant. Don’t return to your spot much later than eight, however, or you might find your skis tossed over the rail into the snow thirty feet below.
But if you’re unwilling to stake out a place in line, you’re missing the point. Arriving early enough for the “first box” is as much about the buzz as it is about the snow. First box doesn’t necessarily mean first tracks. After all, the ski area opens to the public only after several tram-loads of patrollers, guides, instructors, clients, photographers, models, and a few smooth talkers have already unloaded atop the mountain. But it does mean fresh tracks, as well as a fresh chance to bond with others in line who share your disease.
Call it Rendezvous fever. It’s marked by insomnia (many in the tram line woke before their alarm clocks rang), numbness (the body’s natural defense when standing in the frigid tram dock for two or more hours) and restlessness (only on a powder day does 9 AM seem like a long time in coming).
The disease is particularly virulent among young Jacksonites, but its range is far wider. First in line this morning is a group of five from California. “We live in San Diego,” one of them says. He nods to their ringleader, who perches on the barricade closest to the turnstile. “Actually, he lives in Jackson; he just visits San Diego 360 days a year.”
The ringleader grins and shrugs. He woke his companions up at 6:00 this morning to be at the tram at 6:30. “I fell in love with this place the first time I came, in 1973,” he says. On that trip, it snowed three feet one morning; he was one of only eight skiers on first box.
Times have changed. It’s 8:15, and the maze at the tram dock is completely full. Outside the maze, all the neophytes who thought they’d get first box by arriving forty-five minutes early mill about helplessly, like sheep on the wrong side of the fence, cut off from the rest of the flock. Inside the maze, rumors abound of snowfall twice as deep as what was reported. Previous powder days are relived. Plans for the day’s first run are mulled over. You can bet everybody knows exactly where they will head once they’ve unloaded at the top. But don’t bet on them telling you.
Nine AM finally arrives. “Have your passes and lift tickets ready!” Fifty-four skiers and boarders file through the turnstile and crowd into the tramcar. It leaves the dock, floating for the summit. Conversation dwindles. Everybody studies the mountain as it slips past, drinking in with their eyes what they will soon consume with their feet. Near the upper tram dock, the attendant’s radio crackles with an order from ski patrol: “You’re going to have to hold that car at the top. Don’t open the doors.”
Everybody groans. But when the tram stops, the doors fly open. A cold wind leaps into the car, and the tram dock rumbles under 108 heavy boots. Despite the patrol’s protests, the eager occupants of the first box have been unleashed onto the mountain. They clatter down the metal stairs, throw skis and snowboards onto the snow, and shove boots into bindings. A minute later, the mountain’s summit is silent again, save for the whirring of the tram’s haul cable as the car heads back down. From below, in Rendezvous Bowl, come the whoops and howls of paradise found.
Other snippets of life in Jackson Hole can be found at David's website, The Snaz
More memories and anecdotes from the tram can be found on the Tram Stories Page