Our next tour, as backcountry forays are called, takes us to the edge of a broad, steep hill beneath a cliff band that glows golden in the afternoon light. We are preparing to traverse the long, exposed face when Shephard asks, "What do we do here?"
Most of us get this one right: Cross one at a time, moving as quickly as possible. Snow is elastic, Shephard explains. It flexes when a skier or snowboarder passes over it and then needs time to flex back. "You see a lot of avalanches when a group of people tries to traverse together. The snow flexes as far as it can, then breaks."
The crossing earns us one of the weekend's sweetest rewards. After a brisk hike up a wooded shoulder, we emerge on a promontory in the Four Pines area, two canyons over from the resort. The huge, empty swaths of mountain and canyon are why we're in this course: I could ski up here every day for a year and not cross my own tracks once.
We bomb a long sequence of powder-dream turns before carving into the forest and follow a creek bed down toward the resort. We see other ski tracks, but no other people.
While I love mountain solitude as much as the next guy, I confess that the first beer of the afternoon tasted all the better on the sun-baked deck of Jackson's tram dock. Charlie and I settled in as our outlook for completing that night's reading deteriorated rapidly.
Like most ski towns, Jackson has hordes of happy tourists. But unlike many other destination resorts, Jackson is also home to packs of amiable locals. The guys in Teton Village Sports, at the resort base, worked on my bindings, helped me figure out my new-fangled ski gear, advised us on restaurants, bars and terrain, and only reluctantly accepted payment for the binding repair. When Charlie broke a pole, they loaned him a pair gratis. And when we dropped back in at day's end to pick up our street clothes, they handed us beers and encouraged our adolescent banter.
The goodwill pervaded on the mountain and in the town of Jackson, where we were staying. It's a 50-square-block meld of Old West saloons, restaurants, outdoor shops and touristy stores about 20 miles southeast of the resort. On a taxi ride from our motel to Picas, a Mexican restaurant the ski shop guys recommended, our driver told of seeing local homeowner Vice President Dick Cheney in the grocery store. "He'd pick up a packet of sausage, read the health label, shake his head and cuss, and put it down. Then he'd do it again with something else. He did that about five times before he gave up and left the meat aisle," he said.
We ambled down one of the town's many covered wooden sidewalks and into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, which obtained the first liquor license in Wyoming following Prohibition. The two long bars are fronted by leather-saddle stools and inlaid with hundreds of silver dollars. The place was dead -- on busier nights it fills with live music and western dance lessons -- but Charlie didn't seem to miss the distractions as he crushed me in pool.
Jackson is the rare ski town that spans centuries and demographics to provide a sense of real place: a 19th-century cowboy town turned international recreation destination, where working ranchers brush shoulders with ragtag ski bums and millionaires. Off-mountain activities range from sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge and browsing the $800 goatskin jackets in town to packing into the local high school auditorium, as we did, to watch ski footage as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
And, always, the affability: From the cheery-at-6-a.m. clerk at the Jackson Hole Roasters coffee shop to the bus drivers who chat about rising real estate prices, we had trouble spotting a disgruntled face in town or on the mountain.
On Day 2 of the camp we drove about 20 miles west on Route 22 to Teton Pass and trekked out from a trailhead at 8,400 feet. To walk uphill, we affixed "skins" to the bottom of our skis: Each ski-length (and ski-width) skin clips to the tip and tail of a ski and contains tiny synthetic hairs that create enough friction on snow to allow ascension on moderate slopes. The snowboarders put on snowshoes and strapped their boards to their backs.