Snow whips at my group of six from all directions. Having just left the warmth of the waffle shack at the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's tram, it feels especially cold and wet. Still, standing in our skis, arranged in a line at the top of Rendezvous Bowl, we all begin disrobing our upper halves. Each of us is wearing between three and five layers, but in less than a minute we're all down to our base layers. Then, Kori Richards starts a countdown: "3, 2, 1."
At one, each of us removes our last layer, so that all we're left with are our sports bras.
Something between a cheer and a roar erupts from my mouth. Similarly unspecific but equally joyful noises come from the rest of the group.
A camera is filming and, reveling in our silliness, we wave at it for several seconds, then we put back on our layers. We follow Richards, a 30-something ski instructor with a near-mystical power for noticing when I'm not pressuring the inside edges of my skis enough at a certain point of a turn, and ski away.
Usually in such conditions — poor visibility, strong winds, choppy snow — I'm a solid-but-hesitant skier, like most of the group. But, this run, we're all on fire, skiing fast and aggressively, and judging by the exultant shouts that continue as we ski down, loving it.
Past the bowl, almost without pausing, we drop into a
double-black-diamond run, un-groomed and full of tight trees. It's like we're all temporarily possessed by the type of skiers we've always wanted to be. Maybe this possession is our earlier silliness graduating to recklessness? But none of us hurts ourselves on this run, and we all agree it was the most fun and strongest run we'd each skied during our two-and-a-half days together. We're not the same skiers we were three days ago, when the resort's annual Elevate Women's Ski Camp began.
A learning experience
For years, I avoided lessons because I thought skiing was something that could be learned on your own. I spent 10 years doing just that. I got better every season, but never had any breakthroughs. My progression was skiing the same intermediate runs faster rather than graduating up to more difficult runs. It's fine to be stuck if you're happy skiing intermediate runs, but I wasn't.
This realization hit me on a January afternoon in 2007 in Taos, N.M., where I was researching a ski story. Taos's public-relations department knew that I lived in Jackson, Wyo., home of the ski resort generally regarded as the steepest and most difficult on the continent. They assumed I was more than an intermediate skier because, well, if you've lived and skied in Jackson for 10 years, which I had at the time, you have to almost actively work to not be an expert skier. Taos had a former national extreme skiing champ show me around the resort.
She hid well her frustration at my slowness and frequent falls on the resort's ungroomed, steep runs. In a mid-mountain bathroom stall, I shed hot tears of shame. How could I not have more to show for 10 years of skiing on dozens of days every season in Jackson Hole?
I had also avoided women's-only sports camps for years. I wanted to learn to ski more difficult runs more aggressively and with more speed. When I thought of a women's-only ski group, the vibe that came to mind — fairly or not — was more adorable than aggressive. So, returning home to Jackson, it didn't dawn on me to look at the resort's women's-only offerings. I went straight to the regular ski lessons — a ski camp, actually — that the resort is most famous for.
For as long as I can remember and across all aspects of my life, my modus operandi has been to go big. For example: Recently, I broke my wrist. Repairing it required a three-hour operation, a seven-inch surgical steel plate, 14 screws and 31 stitches. Why mess around with a single-day lesson when there's a four-day camp? Also, I had done one-off lessons here and there. Although each of these gave me knowledge of what I was doing wrong, I felt like a day wasn't long enough to effect lasting change.
The resort's four-day Steep & Deep camp is a bucket-list item for many — more than 1,000 skiers (and snowboarders) come here every winter to scare themselves silly in it. About 90 percent of Steep & Deepers are men and about 100 percent have Type-A personalities. Being pretty Type-A myself, Steep & Deep grabbed my attention. Having been founded in the 1990s by then-world extreme skiing champion Doug Coombs, though, it had one problem: the requirement that campers be expert level. Also, its online description promised that the final day could include skiing Corbet's Couloir, generally regarded to be the most difficult inbounds ski run in North America. The intent of this news was to get wannabe participants psyched up: "Yeah! Lucky you! Corbet's!" But that wasn't how I read it. My translation was, "You'll probably end this camp on crutches."
Still, I wanted to do it. I signed up for my first Steep & Deep four winters later, in 2011.
A changing experience
The camp was transformative, and not just for my confidence when I wasn't put into the lowest group. Coach Bill Truelove taught me about "schmearing," a type of turn in which you control your speed throughout the entire arc, and helped me learn how to do it.
Since my first Steep & Deep camp, I've done three more. And, after skiing at the resort on my own one day in 2013 and having a group from one of the women's camps blow past me on a
double-black-diamond run and seeing how much fun they were having, I've also done two Elevate women's camps. The one in which my group stripped to sports bras — for a funny movie to be shown at the final night's banquet — was my first.
In all six of the camps I've attended, my skiing has made multiple breakthroughs that have stuck with me long after each camp ended.
Steep & Deep and Elevate are similar, but different. Both are four days of skiing and instruction. (But in Elevate, the four days of skiing happen over five days; Day 3 is a rest day.) Both camps allow participants early access to the tram. Both use the first morning to divide campers into groups of no more than five. This, along with a coach, is your group. It is possible to move between groups, but no one has ever joined or left the six groups I've been in. There's no Hogwartsesque sorting hat, but there might as well be; the coaches are that good.
Sorting happens early the first day of camp: Coaches watch all campers ski the same run, one at a time. For all of my Steep & Deep camps, this run was in Cheyenne Bowl, an area of ungroomed, black-diamond runs off the Sublette lift. During last winter's Elevate, this run was Easy Does It, a groomed, intermediate slope underneath the high-speed Casper quad lift. (While Steep & Deep is limited to expert skiers, Elevate is open to skiers who are intermediates and above.)
I'd like to say there weren't any differences in the mostly-men and all-women's camps but once again, stereotypes held true. Waiting at the top of Cheyenne Bowl with my fellow Steep & Deepers, almost always the talk is serious and about how great they're going to do. Waiting at the top of a women's camp ski-off, the talk is always about how much better — more graceful, more athletic, more aggressive, more balanced — the woman who just skied is than we are.
Both camps include lunch, video analysis and have après-ski parties. At Steep & Deep, the last usually involves a shot ski — an old ski with multiple shot glasses attached to its base — at the least-fancy bar in the base area, Nick Wilson's Cowboy Cafe. At Elevate, it means cocktails, wine and elk nachos at the Spur, a restaurant in the posh Teton Mountain Lodge. The age range in both camps varies widely. In my first Steep & Deep group, three of us were in our 30s and 40s, one of us — who I thought was the strongest skier in our group — was in his 60s, and one guy had just celebrated his 21st birthday.
Corbet's is a possibility, but never a requirement, for higher-level groups in both camps. Although, never has someone in one of my Steep & Deep groups, including me, done it. Last winter in my Elevate group, two of my group of five did ski Corbet's. Adorable and aggressive are not mutually exclusive.
I'd even say they are addictive — I was one of the two and know I never would have done it without the support, silliness and encouragement of the five women I'd befriended over skis and on lifts the prior three days. This winter, once my wrist heals, my plan is to do one of each.
More from Travel:
Hotel Terra Jackson Hole
3335 W. Village Dr., Teton Village
A cowboy-chic, LEED-certified boutique hotel with 132 rooms at the base of the ski resort (but not quite ski-in/ski-out). Rooms from $237.
215 N. Cache St., Jackson
This 49-room 1950s motel was renovated by Brooklyn-based Studio Tack, which went with a modern take on traditional Western decor, including working with Woolrich on custom blankets for every bed. Rooms from $140.
Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole
7680 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village
A 124-room ski-in/ski-out hotel with elegant Western decor and an impressive contemporary art collection. Rooms from $460.
Piste Mountain Bistro
At the top of the Bridger Gondola, Teton Village
Fine on-mountain dining featuring hearty lunches and dinners with sophisticated flavors like pork tenderloin with curry vinaigrette. Lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. Reservations recommended. Entrees from $13.
Southcable Cafe (inside Caldera House)
3275 W. Village Dr., Teton Village
An informal cafe with the best espresso in Teton Village, baked goods from Persephone Bakery and quick-and-easy breakfast and lunch menus. Open daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Items from $5.
3335 W. Village Dr., Teton Village
This new cafe, just off the lobby of Hotel Terra, is open daily for breakfast and lunch. Both the breakfast burritos and lunch sandwiches and entrees are huge. Breakfast from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.; Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Burritos and sandwiches from $8.
Snake River Grill
84 E. Broadway, Suite 2, Jackson Hole
The menu changes seasonally at Jackson's original fine dining restaurant, but the crispy pork shank entree and chocolate souffle dessert will never disappear. Open daily, starting Dec. 4, from 5:30 p.m. Entrees from $20.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Steep & Deep Camp
3395 Cody Ln., Teton Village
Steep & Deep is the country's original camp for bettering your skills in steep terrain and deep powder. Expert skiers only. The 2018 camps are Jan. 9-12, Jan. 23-26, Feb. 6-9 and Feb. 27-March 2. A Snowboard Steep & Deep Camp, that runs Jan. 30- Feb. 2, costs $1,525, with lift tickets. Women's Elevate is specifically designed for intermediate-and-above women skiers. Both of this winter's camps run Monday through Friday, and take Wednesday off. The camp runs Jan. 15-19 and is $1,850, with lift tickets. Elevate II runs from March 5-9 and costs $1,525, with lift tickets.
Arnica Sore-Muscle Massage at Chill Spa
3335 Village Dr., Teton Village
Its locally harvested arnica will help soothe your tired muscles. From $145.
Grand Teton National Park
Rangers offer a free, two-hour guided snowshoe trek on vintage snowshoes at 1:30 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday between mid-December and early-March. You can also snowshoe on your own with rental snowshoes from Jackson Hole Sports ($20 a day). Entrance to the park costs $5 per car, per day.
National Museum of Wildlife Art
2820 Rungius Rd.
This museum, inspired by a 16th-century Scottish castle, has a permanent collection with more than 4,000 pieces and interprets the genre of wildlife art broadly. Admission costs $14; $6 for children ages 6 to 18; free for younger kids.