Swift. Silent. Deep.

The Jackson Hole Air Force looks to its sordid past to stay alive

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the November 2004 issue (Volume 33, Issue 3).

By Steve Casimiro

IT’S FEBRUARY 2004, AND 20 MEMBERS OF the Jackson Hole Air Force are clustered at the top of Rendezvous Peak, preparing to ski out of bounds. The Tetons stretch north and south, the valley lies 4,000 feet below, and tourists meander above Rendezvous Bowl. It seems a Jackson day like any other, except for this gathering, which is a reunion of sorts for locals who see each other around town but rarely ski together. Unlike traditional Air Force bombing runs, there’s nothing furtive about the cluster on the wooden deck at Corbet’s Cabin, other than the general air of surreptitiousness that hangs over chronic poachers. A patroller walks by with skis in hand, takes in the crowd, shakes his head, and mutters, “Trouble,” which generates good-natured laughs.

This is a crew that ducked ropes and broke laws and violated the resort’s strict boundary policy for years. A gang of scofflaws that eavesdropped on the ski patrol’s radio channels, built on-hill huts to hide from prying eyes, and led their nemeses on dangerous high-speed chases through the thick lodgepole pines of Jackson Hole’s backcountry. This is a group that cultivated a reputation for secrecy, sneakiness, and wanton poaching—that snuck O.B. under the cover of storms and, in the process, became the most infamous underground ski fraternity in North America. And yet here they are today, chilling in the sun, chatting with the redcoats.

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A few minutes later, chief instigator Benny Wilson makes a move toward his skis and the posse follows suit. Their clothes are faded and outdated—snug, well-worn jackets draped over 40- and 50-something-bodies—but the skis are fat and modern. They click into bindings, pole away from the deck, and dive-bomb the East Ridge. The reunion turns into a Chinese downhill as they blow past Corbet’s and S&S couloirs. Snow flies, bodies hurtle around one another: It’s the mayhem of a powder day in packed powder conditions, 20 of Jackson’s finest skiers charging for the boundary in clear sight of the tram.

But instead of ducking the rope like the old days, they ski through it; because the boundary is open, wide open and legal. And instead of a ’troller hot on their heels, there’s one in the lead—longtime Air Forcer Kevin Brazell, who now wears a red coat himself. Somewhere in the pack there’s also a cinematographer, here to grab the first-ever public gathering of the Jackson Hole Air Force (JHAF). He might be there to simply record the day, a nice memento for members to watch in the middle of summer. He could be filming for one of Jackson’s numerous media companies. Or, as some would have you believe, he could be documenting the final days of the most notorious band of ski hooligans
ever to take to the slopes.

“IF YOU SKIED AROUND JACKSON LONG ENOUGH, YOU’D HEAR RUMORS OF A POSSE WHO MADE EXPLORATORY PROBES INTO THE UNKNOWN TERRAIN, WHO FLAUNTED THE BOUNDARY AND ELUDED PATROL IN SEARCH OF THE FINEST SNOW, BUT NEVER TALKED ABOUT IT, KEEPING THINGS INSTEAD ON THE QT.”

IN 1989, THE SKIS WERE SKINNY, THE SNOW WAS FAT, and the mythic slopes beyond the northern boundary of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort were a rope-ducking no-man’s-land of cliffs, closeouts, and mandatory airs. Granite Canyon was a sharply tilted terra incognita where getting caught in an avalanche was a likely possibility and having your pass pulled was the least of your worries. As a visitor, you could only lean against the rope and peer into the depths of Granite, wondering. The boundary was locked tight, the patrol was 40 strong and militantly anti-poach, the terrain a complex jumble of trouble lying in wait for the ignorant, and the cold snowpack was lurking with instability. Locals called Granite “the dark side,” and for good reason: Those north-facing shadow lands held secrets not everyone should know.

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A few skiers, it was said, had teased some of the mystery out of the canyon. If you skied around Jackson long enough, you’d hear rumors of a posse who made exploratory probes into the unknown terrain, who flaunted the boundary and eluded patrol in search of the finest snow, but never talked about it, keeping things instead on the QT. “Air Force,” is all anyone would say, as if that was sufficient explanation for the mysterious tracks leading into the woods. If you paid attention in the tram line, you might begin to notice the patches on packs or a tiny, diamond-shaped pin on a goggle strap…a skull with crossed ski poles and the words “Swift. Silent. Deep. 1st Tracks OB. JHAF.” Ask the wearers what they meant and they’d just smile a knowing smile and change the subject.

One day in January of that year, I was skiing with a local on inbounds hardpack when he offered to take me “somewhere else.” He used a tone that implied that “somewhere else” wasn’t one of Jackson’s 89 trails to the base. As the clock drifted toward closing time, we made our way to the Apres Vous lift, caught a chair, and slid under the northern boundary. He turned into Granite Woods and disappeared from sight, moving quickly, saying nothing, and I followed silently through blissfully deep snow. Bird-dogging him the whole way, we crested a little spine, peeled right into a gully, and were swallowed by waist-deep blower. The vertical was solid, the turns unreal, the mix of trees and rocks intense. Too soon, we hit a traverse, made our way back to the hill, and slipped onto a trail at the bottom in the gathering twilight.

I felt like I’d been transported to another dimension or had an out-of-body experience. I’d never met an Air Force skier—I wasn’t sure if the group even existed—but I wanted to ask if he was one. I did and when he said yes, I saw the rumors were true. The JHAF was more than just ghosts and gossip. It was real people risking their season passes, the wrath of their neighbors, and even their lives in pursuit of the elusive goal of perfect skiing. In that light, the JHAF seemed like the coolest group of skiers on earth. I was intrigued, and the more I collected bits and pieces of Air Force lore, the cooler it seemed.

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Members were handpicked, for example, and if you tried to join you were even less likely to get in. Membership arrived only when other members decided you were worthy, either through your heroics on skis, pursuit of O.B., or lighting it up day after day on the toughest mountain in the United States. There wasn’t much fuss made over initiation, either. A member would hand you a patch as you were standing in the tram line, not say a word about it, and that was it, you were in. There were no functions, no meetings, no parties, no dues, not the slightest bit of organization. The JHAF was simply a common identity, a way of recognizing real commitment and incredible skiing. And, yes, it was a bit of bird-flipping at closed signs, too.

The Air Force has its roots in Benny Wilson, and Benny Wilson has his roots in Jackson Hole. Wilson’s dad, who sold metal for printing presses in Cleveland, grew tired of hauling his family of seven around to ski, so he bought land in Teton Village and in 1966 opened the Hostel, giving skiers rooms at 10 bucks a night (2004 rate: $15 a night if you share with three others). Wilson was just a punk kid in Jackson’s early days, competing on the freestyle team, which called itself the Jackson Air Force for its obsession with hang time.

“We were always going past the landings and going too big for the judges,” says Wilson. “And then we’d get scored low because they thought we were out of control.”

Back then, the Air Force was a label laid loosely on rippers—nothing real formal—but in the early 1980s it settled more firmly on Benny and his friends. “Benny had this thing going called the Teton Village Mafia—him and a bunch of guys who lived in the Village,” says Howie Henderson, one of the earliest members of the Air Force. “But then he started calling it the Jackson Hole Air Force and he explained to me that it’s all about skiing down, taking air, skiing some more, then taking more air. It was this whole concept of a continuous 4,000-vertical-foot run.”

When Wilson sketched out an Air Force logo, the posse began to take shape. Inspired by a phrase from his stint in the Marines, he came up with the motto “Swift. Silent. Deep.” Then he gave patches and pins to his friends, and the JHAF officially launched its first squadron.

Posses of rippers are nothing new to skiing—look at Bridger Bowl’s Ridge Hippies (see sidebar below)—but patches and pins and a slogan nurtured a common identity among Air Force members that was unique, and uniquely Jackson. The breadth and depth and challenge of the mountain has long fostered a certain low-key toughness, and the JHAF, though certainly calling attention to itself by flying the colors, let the tracks speak for themselves. “The rule was, keep your mouth shut,” says Jason Tattersall, a second-generation member who arrived in Jackson in 1988, “but keep teeing off.”

IT WASN’T JUST THE PURSUIT OF FIRST TRACKS THAT MADE THE JHAF SPECIAL; IT WAS THE ILLEGALITY OF ITS PURSUITS. IT WAS THE RISK A SKIER WOULD TAKE TO GET GOOD SNOW. BUT WHAT IS A REBEL GROUP WITHOUT THE VERY THING IT REBELS AGAINST?”

Rumors spread beyond the Tetons about the renegade powder hounds. The name popped up in major ski magazines and movies in the 1990s. But the JHAF commitment to staying mum maintained a veil of secrecy around the group. A small local mystique grew to become a kind of folk legend, fanned by imagination and nurtured by the black hole of silence. The JHAF, whatever it might really be, was seen as a liberating force against the tyranny of closed boundaries that barred skiers from accessing their public lands, a shadowy band of freedom fighters risking their ski passes in the pursuit of freshies.

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The patrol didn’t take lightly to the Air Force’s forays into Granite or anywhere else. Especially since it was rubbed in their faces on every crowded tram when they’d come eye to eye with the not-so-subtle “screw you” of an Air Force patch a few inches away. As the JHAF continued to press the boundary, the policing of the borders eventually overshadowed the patrol’s mission of mountain safety.

“It was our biggest issue,” says longtime patrol director Corky Ward. “The unknown fact for most of the Air Force members is that it wasn’t Ski Corp. policy that we monitor the boundaries. It was Forest Service policy. In order for us to maintain our special-use permit, we had to go out and patrol the boundaries and keep people inside. And it was something that most of us hated to do… there were just a few people on the ski patrol who took it upon themselves as a personal challenge, as a personal gripe. It wasn’t a game to them, it was personal.”

As the number of outlaws grew and the rope ducking became more brazen, the cat-and-mouse between patroller and poacher escalated. Benny Wilson hiked the hill in the summer and built a log hut atop Moran Woods. There, the Air Force could wait until the coast was clear or patrol had finished sweep. Someone, either the Forest Service or the patrol, tore it down, so he built another. Members started listening to ski patrol radio frequencies to learn where ’trollers were lurking and the ski patrol responded with transmissions of false locations. Ward sometimes instructed patrollers to hide in the woods at prime poaching spots.

“THE AIR FORCE, WHATEVER IT MIGHT REALLY BE, WAS SEEN AS A LIBERATING FORCE AGAINST THE TYRANNY OF CLOSED BOUNDARIES THAT BARRED SKIERS FROM ACCESSING THEIR PUBLIC LANDS, A SHADOWY BAND OF FREEDOM FIGHTERS RISKING THEIR SKI PASSES IN THE PURSUIT OF FRESHIES.”

Back and forth went the battle. At an annual ski patrol ball, a video was screened showing a JHAF chase, with an effigy of the Air Forcer skiing off a 200-foot cliff to his death. (“It was weird. It was violent,” says an observer.) One afternoon Benny Wilson dragged a homemade coffin filled with closed boundary signs into the Mangy Moose and deposited it in front of a table of patrollers. He still tools around in a knit hat that says, “Open Area” on the back (i.e., everything in front of the “Open” sign is legal). Any one of these incidents might have been passed off as run-of-the-mill smack-talk, except that collectively they were clear signs of escalating tension. Eventually, the conflict exploded, coming to a head in 1997 in an incident that made headlines throughout North America, and rattled whatever complacency the JHAF might have had about the consequences of its actions.

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There was no more volatile pair of adversaries than Doug Coombs, a relentless JHAF poacher who was also a mountain employee by virtue of his Steep Camp clinics, and Peter MacKay, a patroller nicknamed “Dr. No.” Coombs was caught skiing out-of-bounds in flagrante on numerous occasions and given increasingly stern warnings—his popularity and high profile in magazines, films, and the ski culture the only things saving his neck from the noose.

MacKay made it his personal mission to catch Coombs in a situation where his patrons in the Ski Corp couldn’t pardon him. One stormy day, it finally happened: Coombs skied along the line of an inbounds closure. MacKay, gunning for the skier, caught him on the far side of the line, in the off-limits zone. Coombs insisted he was on the proper side of the line and that a closed sign had fallen down or been removed. MacKay argued otherwise, and resort management sided with the patrol. Over a cry of protest from local skiers, employees, and media, Coombs lost his pass, his job, and was banned from skiing Jackson Hole.

COOMBS’ BANISHMENT WAS WIDELY SEEN AS OVERLY HARSH PUNISHMENT, BUT THE INCIDENT…SET INTO MOTION A SERIES OF EVENTS THAT WOULD CHANGE JACKSON HOLE AND THE JHAF FOREVER.

Coombs’ banishment was widely seen as overly harsh punishment, but the incident—in addition to other high-profile out-of-bounds busts at the resort and an agreement struck with the Forest Service—set into motion a series of events that would change Jackson Hole and the JHAF forever. In the 1999-2000 season, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort did the unthinkable and permanently opened its boundary to legal backcountry access. Overnight, Jackson regained the superstar status that had been co-opted by resorts with open boundaries such as Whistler-Blackcomb and other ultra-rad and wide-open destinations like the Chugach.

And yet with the open boundary—the best gift the JHAF could imagine, and one it helped create—the posse started to change almost immediately. It had been born from a free-flowing, top-to-bottom style of big-mountain skiing, but the real thread that held it together, the powerful connective force that united its disparate skiers, was its rapturous embrace of renegade poaching. It wasn’t just the pursuit of first tracks that made the JHAF special; it was the illegality of its pursuits. It was the risk a skier would take to get good snow. But what was a rebel group without the very thing it rebels against? Without its renegade identity, the Air Force became … an aboveground ski fraternity without parties? A nice idea whose time had come and gone?

With the boundaries gone, membership guidelines became slippery. If the patches weren’t celebrating a certain rum-running, bootlegging attitude, what were they celebrating? People who might never have been considered for membership back in the day—such as some of Teton Gravity Research’s silver-haired financial backers—started sporting the JHAF flag. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the post-boundary gang was the perception that the patches were being sold to anyone who wanted one. Even Corky Ward says, “You know, you can buy the patches now.”

Actually, you can’t. You can buy a JHAF hat or T-shirt at the Hostel, but the patches have to be earned. Still, if the patrol director and other locals think you can join the club merely by slapping down a few bucks, it isn’t a ringing endorsement for the image of exclusivity that was once a hallmark of the group. By the winter of 2004, four years after the ropes dropped, word had hit the street that the JHAF was dying.

A testament to their principle, JHAF members seem to care less what outsiders think. The old Air Forcers wear their membership lightly, with the understanding that the patch was never an award or gift or grand sweeping statement; it was simply recognition of something you should already know, that you were a skier of uncommon commitment. It’s true there are more JHAF members today, maybe because there are more skiers of that caliber and mindset. The fact is, while the conditions that spawned the JHAF have changed, its underlying philosophy hasn’t.

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A tram glides overhead as the JHAF reunion crew bootpacks up the Tensleep Wall toward the northwest boundary of the resort. Snow is on the way, and the light is getting flat. The pace is strong, the skiers clumped in bunches along the ridge. The front group, led by Brazell and Tattersall, splits right toward the Air Force hut, while the next group, with Benny Wilson out front, aims left, toward the head of Granite Canyon. I follow Wilson and the tracks of a dozen others into the woods, through an area known as the Seven Dwarfs. We come upon a series of chutes that start tight and stay tight—like upside down champagne flutes—before opening into aprons.

“A SMALL LOCAL MYSTIQUE GREW TO BECOME A KIND OF FOLK LEGEND, FANNED BY IMAGINATION AND NURTURED BY THE BLACK HOLE OF SILENCE.”

Four of us take our turns dropping into a couloir that ends with a sweeping right-hander, and then make our way down canyon. We wrap around to the right, traversing while we descend, over an angled roller coaster of gully, ridge, gully. Then we fall-line it into a broad avalanche chute, a shallow pipe that is one of the original Air Force couloirs and seems to run forever. Three skiers plow through thick powder that morphs into cream cheese on the lower third. Out of the original 20, that’s all that’s left. The rest are nowhere to be seen. Then we hit the bottom, cross the creek bed, and there they are—a group of 10, with more emerging from the woods every second. They ski from practically every direction, at all speeds, some silent, some swift, some deep, and then they’re all back together, laughing, joking, there at the bottom of the canyon they pioneered.

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RAVINOS LEGEND LIVES ON IN VAIL

THE UPPER CRUST ESTABLISHMENT of any modern ski town has a virtual killing field of skeletons in their collective walk-in closets. But in Vail, the skeletons still dance in a few dirty, sleeveless, jean jackets—proud emblems of the legendary Flying Ravinos, a sort of motorcycle gang on skis that rampaged the slopes and bars of the Vail Valley in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The Ravinos skied the mountain in aviator helmets and jackets emblazoned with flaming skulls and gothic script, and they held cultish induction ceremonies in the darkened projection room of Vail’s only movie theater at the time. A mid-’70s, midnight-to-noon mass induction party—hosted by Ravino member and theater manager Robert “Chi Bear” Garcia—brought in more than a hundred new devotees. But membership requirements weren’t strict. “Basically, any fool who wanted to hurl himself out there was more than welcome,” says Philip Horsman, a 50-year-old Ravino member who now runs a ski rental delivery and limo service in town.

Cops, doctors, even some Vail execs, can trace their roots back to the Ravinos. The group began as the brainchild of a few skiers from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who grew up getting as much air as possible at nearby Rib Mountain in Wausau. Inspired by the Rolling Stones’ use of Hells Angels for security, Ravinos founding father Jeff Van Tassel came up with the gang’s colors—a flaming skull suspended over a Rib Mountain ravine. In the early ’70s, when the group’s core graduated high school and moved to Vail, they found a new ravine—a cliff band in the woods near Chair 11.

The Ravinos started bringing sound systems and other contraband up the lift, drawing bigger and more boisterous crowds—confounding some Vail execs who wondered why the Ravinos’ grassroots huck-fests continually drew more spectators than its own heavily hyped pro races. And each St. Paddy’s Day the group converged for a massive, chemical-fueled aerial rally, where new gang members earned their colors by throwing inverted air (successful landing optional).

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The paganistic, end-of-the-season parties became so popular that Vail finally kicked the Ravinos off the mountain and banned inverted aerials altogether. The circus then moved to Forest Service land at Meadow Mountain, then East Vail, then Vail Pass. But at each location they were chased away by a more imposing state or federal agency. By 1985 nearly a thousand spectators jammed Vail Pass to watch the carnage. With the crowds came problems. Someone in ski boots ran across the hood of a tricked-out Mustang, prompting the driver to punch it and accidentally run into a bystander. Money also went missing when someone absconded with cash collected as a charitable contribution, allegedly to buy cocaine. The Forest Service and the State Patrol had had enough, and the Flying Ravinos were forever grounded.

“The group flourished in its day because of the general social state of the times,” says Horseman. “And as that changed, the Ravinos time was over.”

Two years ago, when Vail put the clamps on BB&B, a drunken end-of-the- season orgy in the woods, many said it was the death knell of Ravinos-style raucousness at the nation’s most popular winter playground. But former U.S. Ski Team member Mike Brown, whose late brother Todd threw one of the most legendary St. Paddy’s Day jumps in Ravino’s lore—a massive 1080 on a pair of 223cm downhill skis—says the Ravinos spirit will always live on.

“It’s a segment of the community that’s been represented throughout the history of Vail—the artistic, diligent work- ing class blowing off steam,” says Brown. “It’ll be back.” –David O. Williams

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THE RIDGE HIPPIES OF BRIDGER BOWL KEEP CLIMBING

UNLIKE THE JACKSON HOLE AIR Force, you will not get a badge for membership in Bridger Bowl, Montana’s Ridge Hippies. Theoretically, all you have to do is hike above the Bridger lift to the ridgeline 400 feet above, turn north or south, traverse, choose a line, and point ’em. Every day. For years. While your hair grows out and your ski clothes gather duct tape and a nice ripe smell.

The Ridge Hippie subculture began in the early ’70s, the same time as JHAF, but under nearly opposite circumstances. The boundaries at Bridger were actually open until the ’77-’78 season, and fostered the development of an ardent following of backcountry skiers who earned their turns probing for sweet lines—and powder—off the Ridge.

“Most of us were just getting our footing and confidence for the first time up there,” says Rick Ladzinski, a 30-year-Ridge Hippie veteran. “We were learning our way and skiing stuff we’d never skied before. We were just a kicked-back community of serious skiers.”

Such humble ability established Bridger not only as home to some of the biggest skiing names of the era—Dean Cummings, Jim Conway, Tom Jungst, Dough Coombs, Rick Armstrong, Scot Schmidt—but also as home to the storied Ridge itself.

“There is a certain mystery to it,” says Dave Johnson, who came to Bridger in the early ’90s. “You get off the lift and look up, and, whoa—there’s all this terrain above the lift and all these dudes hiking it. You can’t help asking yourself, ‘Where are those guys going?'”

The origin of the name “Ridge Hippie” was derived from the ski patrol’s pet name for the longhairs who were given to hiking. “I think it was usually preceded by ‘stinkin’, and used in sentences like, ‘Let the stinkin’ Ridge hippies break trail,” says 26-year Ridge veteran and former Jackson Hole Air Force member Brad Coffey.

But despite the term’s derogatory leanings, its use is grounded more in the community nature of Bridger’s past. “We relied heavily on the more experienced patrollers back then in deciding where to go and what was stable,” remembers Ladzinski. “There was a mutual respect. But the tightness of that relationship slackened when the boundaries closed. The issue drew the line between Ridge culture and patrol.”

With the closing of the boundaries in ’77 and the constricting of skiers to a finite area, the golden age of the Ridge Hippie was gone. Being one took on a whole new meaning: poacher. Which didn’t bode well for young successors who showed up after the boundary closure. The common respect between the ski bums and their patroller friends—many of whom were Ridge Hippies themselves—still existed, but became grounded by authority. Friends had to pull old friend’s passes.

“The influence of the Ridge Hippie has diminished,” Ladzinski laments. “But even though boundaries prevailed, the underlying culture is still there.” — John Byorth