It's more than a year out, but a new lift is going up in Jackson Hole. Spanning 1,600 vertical feet, the Teton Lift, a high-speed quad, will be ready for the 2015-16 season, providing skiers access to what has so far been accessible only via hiking. Work on the lift has been going on all summer; you can see the grading of the trails and tree-removal from the valley floor.
The reason it's a topic of conversation now is because of how dramatically it will shift how people approach some of the best—and potentially dangerous—backcountry terrain in North America. When it starts spinning next year, the chair will deposit skiers less than a hundred feet away from the resort's northern boundary. This radical terrain—known as Granite Canyon—lies out of bounds within Grand Teton National Park. Current access is through a few different bootpacks and a series of backcountry gates at the resort. It is a prized stash with incredible skiing—2,000-vertical-foot shots that take your breath away and leave you delirious.
But because it lies almost entirely within serious avalanche terrain, Granite is not the domain for everyone and it claims victims every year. Just last winter, Greg Epstein, the supervising producer of TGR who has a lifetime of backcountry skiing experience in Jackson and elsewhere, was caught in a slide in these very chutes and nearly lost his life. Unlike other popular Jackson backcountry zones, like Rock Springs and Cody, Granite is one giant terrain trap with few safe zones in which to descend in a relatively safe manner.
From the time the resort opened in 1965 until it unlocked its backcountry-access gates in 1999-2000, this terrain was strictly off-limits. Those who poached it risked losing their pass or even getting arrested. Today, the area often shows up online and in social media as skiers proudly claim their shots (though films and magazines tend to leave out specifics). Though skier traffic has grown back there every year, the Teton Lift will likely only increase the flow due to much easier access. What used to be a 20- to 30-minute hike will be less than 10 minutes with the new lift, not to mention how tempting it will be for some to simply duck the rope right off the lift.
"It'll let people right into Granite," says Jason Tattersall, a skier who moved to the valley in the late '80s and starred in many of the early Teton Gravity Research films. "There will be moguls in there now."
Anna Cole, communications manager at the resort, says there are no plans to put a backcountry gate in this area for at least the first year, and that the resort is working with the national park and Teton County Search and Rescue to build an awareness campaign to clue people in on the potential dangers.
"Jackson Hole Mountain Resort neither discourages or encourages skiers and snowboarders to leave the ski area boundary," says Cole.
The chair's location is just north of the Casper quad, with its base station being on what is now the South Pass Traverse. It will deposit skiers along Sheridan Ridge, just north of the Crags—a steep, rocky zone that has historically been hike-to only. From the top of the chair to the base of Teton Village will be 3,000 vertical feet. The views are stunning. Direct fall line is a trail called "Kemmerer's Run," named after a Wyoming town and the resort's owner, Jay Kemmerer. From the top of the run, the terrain is so steep and straight that you can see all the way down to the base area. The lift helps the resort expand on its intermediate terrain, but also positions it for another long-term goal: hosting a World Cup downhill.
Resort Senior Vice President Tim Mason said while it's true that the resort hopes to pursue such an event, several difficult logistics exist to overcome first in order for it to become a reality. The course would likely need snowmaking from top to bottom and there's a question if it would be long enough for F.I.S. approval. So any World Cup event would be a long ways out, he said.
Ultimately, Tattersall says the new lift is "no big deal." The out-of-bounds is still vast, you need to know where you're going, and enough skiers are already feasting on Jackson.
"It's so crowded out there already its crazy," he says. "Feed the monkey!"