Thanksgiving Bowl

The first run of the year and other annual traditions on Thanksgiving

Dan Starr celebrates on Thanksgiving Bowl. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Thanksgiving Bowl was the first run of the year. It was set just off Teton Pass: 650 vertical feet up; 400 vertical down a 35-degree slope. (You have to cross a gully.) The slope was grass in the summer, so the odds of hitting a rock early season were slim. At 9,135 feet, it was a good bet for a foot or two of powder on turkey day.

I never knew where my skis were that time of year. We moved around so much in the off-season—to a new house closer to town, a few weeks at home in the East, camping trips, river trips. In the winter we holed up and skied every day, packing down a path from the front door to the car to the lift and back home. The off-season was different. A whole new crew moved into town and faces you saw every day in the lift line vanished for six months. Some went to fish in Alaska, some went home to work, others hid out in the desert.

By August, skiing was a distant memory. Then, around September 15, the first frost arrived. Then the first ski dream. Then the snow. Winter comes faster than the other seasons. One day it is sunny and 60. The next it is freezing and there’s three inches of fluff sitting on a bright green lawn.

Most Thanksgivings started on Thanksgiving Bowl, though. To get there most people skinned along a ridge, into the woods, down into a gully, then up another meadow. It’s like that song about going to grandma’s house, without the horse or the sleigh.

Fall was a confusing time. We rarely knew where our season passes were going to come from. We didn’t know what job we’d hold down. A nightshift, preferably, leave the day open for skiing. Rumors that the winter was going to be a big one, or a thin one, circulated quickly. It was irrelevant. We knew we’d stick it out either way.

By Thanksgiving the race was on to assemble a new kit, trade old gear for less old gear, scrap, barter and beg for AT bindings or a transceiver. And find your skis. Mine were inevitably in a storage locker or basement, buried under kayaks, paddles, tents, and sleeping bags. You would think a skier would keep something as important as his boards in plain view. But skis are tough. They can handle a little neglect.

Actual Thanksgiving Day was confusing as well. Young men with no family around can make a mess of a holiday. Ours usually began with a scheme to cook something we’d never cooked before. Or drink something we’d never drank. One year I loaded into a canoe with a friend to try and hunt a Thanksgiving goose on the Snake River. About halfway down the river we realized that we had misjudged the vicious cold and that our paddles were layered in ice. The canoe was caked in ice as well and was starting to go down due to the weight. We poled and pushed our way to the takeout and thankfully made it back in time for the dinner. (Main course: Turkey.)

Most Thanksgivings started on Thanksgiving Bowl, though. To get there most people skinned along a ridge, into the woods, down into a gully, then up another meadow. It’s like that song about going to grandma’s house, without the horse or the sleigh. For us, it was also without skins. We were green and broke and boot-packed just about every slope we wanted to ski in the backcountry.

Turns, then Turkey. Dave Barnett on Thanksgiving Bowl. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau
Skis, boots, poles—check. Dave Barnett making Tday turns on Thanksgiving Bowl. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

You can’t move more inefficiently than potholing in ski boots in deep powder. Even with four of us taking turns in the lead, it was a brutal slog. Most of those winters (mid-90s) were deep. Cold smoke and plenty of it. As we marched up the meadow, the old souls (who had skied the pass for decades and had the sense to be on telemark or AT gear) glided down, sometimes lapping us twice while we clambered up.

We didn’t give up though, head down, skis shouldered, stumbling through the sugary snow. After a couple of hours we topped out and marched along the ridge to find a line. Two hours of work for 400 vertical feet is a tough sell, and we took our time getting ready. Goggles set. Hat on straight. Boots buckled. Then, one by one, we pushed off and vanished into the snow, knowing this was likely our one run before the big meal.

The turns were always sublime. It wasn’t just the snow. The pitch was perfect, the setting was serene. The sky and clouds and red-tailed hawks overhead made it seem like we were underwater looking up at another world. The freedom of it was overwhelming. None of us had ever lived alone, much less spent a holiday away from our families. There were no rules now, no one to please. We were skiing blower powder while the turkey cooked in the oven at home. In a couple of hours we’d be there with more friends, sitting down to dinner, telling stories about last season. It was then that we started to remember what it was to be a skier living at the foot of the mountains and by the next day we were ready for winter.