Peering as far as I could over the edge, I craned my neck but the narrow rock chute disappeared as the grade grew steeper, only reappearing far below at the bottom of the snowy bowl where it flattened out again. My roommates Collin, Carter, and Leon were in a line behind me in the fresh tracks that cut a several foot deep trough into the fresh powder. “You gonna send it?” Carter said playfully. I looked back and grinned, “Yep. Keep an eye on me!” My adrenaline was pumping as I began slicing through the blank white canvas, splashing a wave of snow against the rock walls that hemmed me in on both sides. As soon as I cleared the funnel I picked up speed, floating weightlessly through an almost silent arching carve. “Woooooooooooooo!” The heart-thumping howl came from deep in my stomach and carried up to the other three waiting to drop in, one-by-one, down the same chute.
That floating feeling on a blank canvas
The thrill of backcountry skiing and snowboarding is partly the adventurous aspect of exploring new terrain for pristine powder lines and partly the inherent risk involved. This isn’t a resort. Ski patrol isn’t there to mitigate avalanche danger or come get you if you break your leg. When buried in an avalanche, the weight of the snow creates a straight jacket holding its victim motionless like Han Solo after being frozen in carbonite (“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”). The heat and moisture of your breath ices over your mouth and nose in a matter of seconds. At this point the clock is ticking. You are trusting your buddies to find you and dig you out in the precious few minutes before you die of suffocation. This is why my roommates and I were riding down the chute one at a time and watching each other. If one of us was buried in a slide, the others would use their beacons to hone in on the burial location, poke down through the snow with a tent-pole like “probe” to find the trapped person, and then assemble a collapsible avalanche shovel to dig us out. It’s a grim reality about an otherwise carefree sport but each of us makes a decision to take this calculated risk every time we head into the backcountry.
Der Berg Ruft
A few months earlier, I had flown from Nepal to Washington, D.C. to grab my gear, made the rounds to see friends and family, and then headed to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I stepped off the evening flight and into the crisp mountain air blinking my eyes at the sudden cold. A smile spread across my face as the silhouette of the Teton mountain range came into focus. Spending a full season as a ski bum had been at the top of my bucket list for years. Even before quitting my job to travel, I had planned to spend a season in the mountains as I charted a path back into the workforce. As a snowboard instructor I would be able to break even financially as well as plug into a social network of other people working in the service industry solely for access to the lifestyle. As much as I had enjoyed solo travel, I had pined for the continuity of a solid group of friends and a place to call home for longer than the length of a tourist visa.
Finding well-located housing with housemates you jive with can make or break your season. While I was searching for housing I didn’t realize it, but COVID-19 would make good chemistry with my roommates even more important than usual. From Nepal I had used facebook marketplace to find a room in a group house with other people working for the resort. Those with housing in Jackson, looking to fill rooms have plenty of applicants to choose from and can afford to be picky. After a facetime interview with Collin, I had been told that there were several other people in contention for the room. It wasn’t until a week and half later when I reached back out that I was able to secure the room. Having a signed lease for my ski season was a huge logistical relief. For the next 6 months home would be 60 Aspen Drive, Unit 62 with Carter, Collin, and Leon.
A voice called through the door in response to my knock, “It’s open!” I turned the doorknob and awkwardly dragged my massive snowboard bag and backpack into the living room. As I closed the door against the cold I was greeted by the cartoonishly goofy fourth roommate, Parker. A runt of the litter, the energetic, butt wagging boxer was smaller than most of her breed but made up for it with her huge personality. Sprawled out on two couches were my roommates watching the Pixar Movie “Coco.” The stale scent of weed hung in the air and a few empty beer cans were stacked on the coffee table. It felt like college but with less studying and more mountains. I was home.
The next day a trip to two thrift stores yielded a mattress, dresser, and plenty of fake plants to feng shui my room. The previous tenants had left an elk skull on the back deck which I mounted on my wall to round out the mountain decor. There hadn’t been much snow accumulation yet so that afternoon the roomies and I hiked up the icy patch of man-made snow known as the “White Strip of Death” at the small ski resort next to our place, Snow King. In the evening we headed over to the hockey arena, also conveniently located at the base of Snow King to watch the Jackson Moose play. For a five dollar minor league hockey game it was an absolute riot. It was basically a party, complete with a live band and bar, for the locals with a hockey game in the middle of it. Unsurprisingly, it became a Friday night tradition when the Moose were playing home games.
Hiking up the "White Strip of Death" at Snow King
Let It Snow
On November 26th Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) opened for the 2019-2020 season and new employee orientation began. My roommates and I picked up our uniforms, top of the line Burton gear for snowboarders and Marmot for the skiers, and our complimentary $2300 season passes. It felt surreal. This mountain was going to be my office for the whole winter. When we weren’t at the resort we were exploring the endless outdoor activities at our fingertips. Some evenings we would go to Astoria Hot Springs for a dip. The series of piping hot, natural stone pools is directly next to the snake river and a good 25 minutes from town. On my first trip there a bald eagle snatched a trout out of the river and flew low right past us with its catch. Other days if we were feeling lazy, we would "poach" the Snow King hotel hot tub by sneaking in through the back. One evening the hot tub was packed with people drinking and socializing when someone asked the crowd, "Who's actually staying at this hotel?" One person raised their hand and the crowd roared with laughter. Everyone else had snuck in! What a terribly kept secret!
Poaching Snow King's Hot Tub
Nearly two weeks of classroom instruction and practical exercises on the mountain flew by. In the evenings, we were often dog tired and flopped down to watch tv together before bed. It was a good kind of tired. The sort that comes from moving all day doing something you love. Not the lethargy that comes at the end of a work day sitting. This was not the office. My colleagues and I weren’t chatting at the water cooler before returning to our desks, we were chatting in the gondola on our way back to snowboarding down a mountain. To wrap up the new instructor training and hail the beginning of the season, the Ski and Snowboard School threw a keg party for us. The returning instructors and new instructors even squared off in a massive flip-cup game. What a job!
Everything was going to plan. Within a few days, I would be cleared as a JHMR instructor and could start teaching. To get my bearings, I was on a mountain familiarization ride with a veteran instructor when I washed out the landing on a small side hit. Instinctively, I put my hand down and felt a snapping sensation run up the side of my right forearm. “Oh no! No, no, no! Not now!” When you’ve properly hurt yourself you usually know it. But I was prepared to rub some dirt on this one. “I’m fine,” I thought. Snowboarders don’t even need their hands. I wasn’t about to let my season get ruined. Not when I was so close. So I did what I thought best. I slammed some ibuprofen and splinted it with a spoon. Good as new!
The next morning in the shower I grabbed the body wash and watched with confusion as my thumb bent down at a sickeningly incorrect angle, letting the plastic bottle fall to the floor. Hmmm, that didn’t look right and didn’t feel great either. So after I dried off, I made a facetime call to a family friend, Dr. Jon Loftus, who luckily happens to be a hand surgeon. The call connected and a cheery Dr. Loftus grinned at me in a white lab coat. I could see he was walking through the halls of a hospital. “Hey Ben! I’m on my way into surgery. You’ve got two minutes. What’s up?” Within those two minutes he had me do a few movements with my thumb before telling me that my ulnar collateral ligament was completely torn and would require surgery. “Let me know how it goes!” he said with a reassuring smile. He delivered the news with the confidence of someone who has mastered his craft over the course of decades. No second guessing himself, no hubris. A true professional. He was, of course, completely right. Barely 90 seconds over facetime yielded the same results as an MRI and a referral to a hand surgeon. And just like that, I was slated for surgery.
Fortunately for me JHMR covers 100% of healthcare costs for workers comp claims. A $15,000 dollar doctor’s bill would have really put a damper on the season. The injury I was having repaired by reattaching my ulnar collateral ligament is commonly referred to as “Skier's Thumb” and owes its namesake to the ski pole strap pulling the thumb back during a fall. Not sure how I managed to pull it off as a snowboarder but getting the use of an opposable thumb back in my dominant hand seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.
I blinked several times as I slowly emerged from the utter nothingness of general anesthesia. My right arm was in a cast and a dull ache was hiding just under the surface of a foggy pain killer haze. Ever the good roomies, Carter and Collin picked me up from the clinic and spirited me back to 60 Aspen Drive. The first week I was instructed to stay home and rest. As everyone else worked at the resort, I planned to eat vicodin and watch cartoons with Parker on the couch. But I’m just not that chill. Several days into my recovery I put on snowshoes, strapped my board to my backpack, and hiked up into the woods behind our house. A grueling slog through waist high snow was just what the doctor ordered, well it’s actually the opposite but it felt good to slice through some fresh powder and get my heart rate up.
Recovering from surgery
After the first week I got a doctor’s note allowing me to return to work in a role that wouldn’t put my hand at risk of reinjury. With a six week recovery time ahead of me, I was put on light duty at the “Kids Ranch.” This involved helping the kids in ski school get ready, take breaks, eat meals and so forth. My favorite thing to do was plop down in the reading nook and grab a book. Even if I was by myself, once I started reading out loud a group would form around me to listen to my harrowing rendition of "The Cat in the Hat." Later I shifted to working the "magic carpet," a sort of conveyor belt for the Kids Ranch bunny hill. The kids wear a vest with a handle on the back so when they fall you can pull them back to their feet. When one kid falls at the top of the conveyor belt there is a cascading effect where they begin to pile up hilariously in a cumbersome heap. I got a killer workout deconstructing these recurring child pile-ups.
Dr. Suess is timeless
Home for the Holidays
The weeks came and went with relative ease. As Christmas approached, we began getting into the holiday spirit. The roomies and I picked up a tree tag from the ranger station and hiked up into the forest to chop down our very own christmas tree. Then we decorated our stockings, which were hung with care from a 2x6 screwed into the drywall, and did a secret santa for the house. It was the type of camaraderie that had been absent during my transient travel phase. But I was chomping at the bit to get back on my board.
Until I received official clearance from the doctor to return to work as a snowboard instructor I wasn’t allowed to use my Jackson Hole season pass at all. It was torture to go to the resort every day and not ride but at least I was around awesome coworkers. The free lunch at the kids ranch was a nice perk too. After making a salad with chicken tendies I would jam my pockets full of individually wrapped pb&j “uncrustable” sandwiches. I gave them to the ski lift operators, "lifties", ski patrol, or other resort employees that didn't have access to free food. "Hey! Catch!," I'd say and launch a circular sandwich package to the unsuspecting employee. "Awww, sweet! Thanks!" The smiles were always genuine because nobody that works at a ski resort is too good for a free sandwich. I felt like snack food Robin Hood.
It wasn’t until mid-January that I got that precious doctor’s note and had my first snowboard lesson but it was glorious to be back. From there the next few months flew by. Most days I would be up well before the sun to have my oatmeal and coffee before catching a ride with the guys to the resort. Leon, a lifty, worked the opening shift and would drop me off at Teton Sports Club to get a workout in on his way to work. I would lift, shower, and catch a ride with Carter and Collin, both ski instructors, the last few miles to the resort in time for the 9am morning "line-up". This worked out well since to park for free at the resort you need at least three people in the car. On days that there were only two of us we would swing by the large lot several miles away from the mountain and offer a ride to people waiting for the shuttle. Unlike the in the city, there is a refreshing trust of strangers in the mountains. Out here, hitchhiking is alive and well.
Snowboard School Line-up
At line-up all the instructors come together to be assigned that day’s lessons. Instructors with seniority, as determined by hours worked, have first right of refusal for lessons and then it goes down the list. I was at the absolute bottom since it was my first year and I hadn’t racked up any hours instructing due to my injury. If there aren’t enough lessons for all of the instructors that came to line-up those who didn’t get a lesson are “cut.” Once you’re cut you’re free to go home or ski. This suited me just fine since I was happy to find some other instructors that got cut and go ride. That said, you get $3.50 to show up to line up. But if you don't get a lesson you're not getting paid. Many other first year instructors were making ends meet solely by instructing and sometimes by also picking up hours at a restaurant. Fortunately, I wasn't in that situation. Honestly, I felt like sort of an imposter since I was living the ski bum lifestyle but had ample savings in addition to passive income from my rented home in D.C. It was all of the glory of the ski bum lifestyle with none of the financial stress.
Snowboard School Line Up
The sensation of floating through deep, fluffy snow as you weave through trees, launch off of a cliff, or send a tidal wave of cold smoke high over your own head from a lightning fast carve is hard to describe. Pupils dilate, cheeks flush, skin tingles. Your thoughts are so focused upon the task at hand that everything else is pushed to the periphery of your mind. The 2019-2020 season got 451 inches of snow. That's 37.5 feet of motherfucking winter wonderland. For those that came to the mountains chasing this high, there is nothing better than getting fresh tracks, “freshies,” on a pow day.
Although snowstorms are common in the Tetons, big storms that drop a foot or more create a groundswell among the populace that you have to experience in person to understand. There is an energy, an electricity in people’s eyes. This is why we’re all here. Some build their entire lives around this natural phenomenon. A large snowstorm might drop several feet of fresh snow in 24 hours. A “winter weather advisory” of this magnitude churns Teton Valley into a frenzy. Dumping powder into Jackson Hole is like dumping a bucket of blood into a shark tank.
To get the blank canvas of a completely untracked patch of powder means getting there first. This visceral urgency to ski as much as you can before it gets “tracked out” from everyone else has led to the saying, “No friends on a pow day.” Of course this isn’t entirely true since sharing the best things in life makes them better, but on a pow day you’re probably only sharing it with people that can keep up.
At line-up on a pow day nobody wants to work. For first year instructors trying to scrape by, this is a good opportunity to make money because senior instructors with priority would often rather go riding than teach. If the snow is really good, sometimes there are more lessons than instructors that want to work. In these instances the supervisor has everyone stand about 30 feet from the flagpole, turn their backs to it, and throw one glove over their shoulder. Those closest to the pole are free to go and those furthest from it have to work.
The Japanese concept of "Ikigai" is often portrayed in a Venn diagram with four overlapping qualities: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. Throughout the course of the season I had private lessons as well as group lessons with both kids and adults. It was satisfying to guide people through the whole process, from strapping into a board for the first time all the way to completing their first run without a fall. Being able to share something that you’re passionate about, brings people joy, and pays you is beautiful and rare.
But when a position opened at my old organization I decided it was time to throw my hat back in the ring. After all, this had been my plan from the beginning. I was using this season as an instructor to slowly transition back into the government. In February, I flew back to D.C. for an interview which would eventually pave my way back into the Department of Defense and the warm embrace of Uncle Sam. Although I was only home for a few days, I had the opportunity to see a large gathering of my D.C. friends before flying back to finish out the season in Jackson Hole. As I deplaned and smiled up at the Tetons I had no idea that on the other side of the world, in an unsuspecting Chinese wet market, a virus had just infected its first human subject. A global pandemic had just set things into motion that would alter the course of history.