"Dress to be buried," A.J. Sanders says, standing before an easel in a conference room at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the western Wyoming ski area renowned for its scenery and challenging terrain. Behind him, a window reveals lightly falling snow and a steady blur of brightly clad skiers and snowboarders zipping down the bottom few yards of the resort.
Sanders is not lecturing on vanity funerals. The burly, baby-faced Iowan (he moved to Jackson years ago) is telling us -- six skiers and two snowboarders -- to don enough layers of outerwear to encourage survival in the unlikely event that we are consumed by an avalanche.
The somber message is part of a three-day camp Jackson Hole offers to skiers and boarders seeking the skills to tour the backcountry on their own, away from lift lines, overskied slopes and controlled terrain.
Backcountry skiing and boarding, once the exclusive domain of hardy souls who accessed the wilderness from roadside trailheads, is now directly attainable from Jackson and an increasing number of other resorts nationwide: Ticket holders can ride the lifts up, scoot out-of-bounds through designated gates and traverse back to the resort after their descent. Millions of acres of backcountry also still exist on public land throughout the United States, far from established resorts.
For me, the course is the culmination of years of yearning to take my skiing into the rugged, snowy wilds beyond resorts, to play ski-mag cover boy in endless acres of powder that is mine, all mine! But, apparently, first I must acquire a few survival skills.
Laid out before each of us are pieces of gear most snow-sport enthusiasts will never own: a transceiver that emits and receives a signal for finding avalanche victims; an extendable probe, resembling a tent pole, that lengthens up to 30 feet for poking into snow to find buried people; a compact, two-piece plastic shovel for -- well, you get the picture.
Avalanche knowledge is the dominant theme of the course. Sanders and his co-instructor, Laurie Shephard, a wiry, fortyish Upstate New Yorker who's lived in Jackson for 20 years, spend about 90 percent of the camp teaching us how to evaluate avalanche risk, mitigate it and respond to an avalanche emergency. The course reading material is a small book called "Snow Sense -- A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard." We are expected to read sections nightly.
"Don't think you'll walk out of here knowing everything you need to know about avalanche safety," Sanders cautions us. "It's a lifelong pursuit. But hopefully you'll get a little smarter about what is and isn't safe to ski."
A sampling of the class reinforces his point. Mike Dauss, a Jackson native who has been skiing these spectacular mountains, in bounds and out, since he could walk, says, "I have a lot of friends who are careful in the backcountry and a lot who aren't, and those are the ones who need to be here. It's a good refresher."
Jason, a young lawyer from D.C. and an experienced skier who is taking the course for the second straight year, remarks, "Last year showed me what I didn't know. This time I'm hoping more will sink in." Also in the course are my friend Charlie; Kip and Dan, two snowboarding Army buddies from Texas; Kip's father-in-law, a fiftyish physician named Joe; and Brent, a thirtysomething guy from Los Angeles who skies in a powder suit and fire-flamed helmet. Skills in our group range from strong intermediate -- the minimal skill level needed for the camp -- to expert.
We head out to the living classroom, boarding the 55-person aerial tram that whisks us up 4,100 vertical feet to the top of the resort, passing over some of the most legendary lift-served terrain in the United States -- chutes, couloirs, cliffs and steep, tight glades.