This story appeared in the February (42.6) issue of POWDER.
The whirring of a diesel engine coaxes me out of a rough sleep. I uncurl from a painful, jackknifed position at the head of the bus as a cold Nebraskan sunrise opens up behind us to the east. The light flickering through reveals 50 or so Purdue University students around me, still asleep in their tortured upright positions. Water sloshes in the cooler next to me. The beers it was cooling yesterday are now a crinkled mess in a series of garbage bags. The stale smell of cheap hops permeates the interior. I check the GPS on my phone. Twenty-two hours down and still eight to go until this motley caravan of college students ends their journey under the vertical peaks of Jackson Hole.
In West Lafeyette, Indiana, at 11 a.m. students loaded onto one of two coach buses and took their positions. They'd each paid $595 to go skiing for a week in Jackson--where they'd sleep two to a bed, wait attentively each morning for the first bus that would take them to the mountain, egg each other off drops all day, and return to share hot tubs, beers, and noodles. The trip was not unlike hundreds of others that head to the mountains every winter in America--from ski-less places like D.C., Indiana, and Southern California--providing ski trips that would otherwise be logistically and financially out of reach for most students.
Two hours to go, and the landscape morphs into foothills, hinting at the mountains ahead. We crack fresh beers to release the anticipation that's been brewing in this rolling, stinking capsule. The group's momentum builds. Someone yells, "Elk!" and the left side of the bus pivots to the right and hollers at the novelty of the foreign beasts grazing in a high country meadow. Then the first peak of the Tetons comes into view, its jagged spire signaling the entrance to ski country. The mob's fixation with the wonders of snowy, mountainous country is palpable. Finally, with the signature cowboy kitsch of downtown Jackson in view, the group lets out a prolonged series of screams, whistles, and cheers. Spring break is upon us.
The trip got started with P.U.S.S.C., also known as the Purdue University Ski and Snowboard Club. Danny Watt, the club's president, signed up for the event before he even bought a book at Purdue. His uncle, of the Class of 1957, had done much the same, highlighting the permanence of a seldom-acknowledged tradition. In this case, three coach buses, up from one when Danny first arrived on campus, make their way to Jackson Hole for four days of skiing and five nights of partying, with a bit of food and beer.
With traditional ski clubs dying out, college clubs are becoming more important to young bloods who want to get away to the mountains. The majority of students I met on the trip skied twice a year--both times club trips. Purdue's ski club officers spend numerous hours tutoring students on where to find ski jackets and what to expect in the mountains, as many of the school's sizable international population has never seen snow.
On the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's Bridger Gondola on the first day of skiing, the group is ecstatic. Four inches of fresh are about to make for some fun groomer pow, and simply standing above this much vertical is enough to incite happy madness. Far from the flat quiet plains of Indiana, the relief of the Mountain West is so invigoratingly obvious--the valley below appearing and disappearing between swirls of blowing snow. Goggles are finally a logical accessory again.
The club skis the first run all at once, all together. When one especially anxious skier pushes off, the rest furiously finish buckling their boots and follow. The students sail downhill hollering and screaming until the entirely unfamiliar experience of edging a ski sends almost every single person on the slope tumbling into yard sales. They slowly hobble back up, giggling and laughing, snow caked to their faces. It's a sight as invigorating as any of the best powder days I've ever had.
Over the course of the week, no one drops Corbet's. There are no tales of endless face shots down the Hobacks or "taking to the backcountry," as a few refer to it. Instead, the crew hunts for little cliffs inbounds, sending each other off and then laughing at the inevitable penguin slide through the moguls after losing a ski. It is pure fun. The kind some skiers never take the opportunity to have because they're too busy hauling ass to the last possible scraps of pow around the mountain.
Then there's the Breakfast Club run, in which two waves of 70 meet at the top of the gondola, change into costumes in the bathroom, and rally at the top of a run called Ranger while dressed as Macho Man Randy Savage, Mexican wrestlers, bananas, Texas rednecks, or, they simply strip down to bikinis, prompting a parade of old men to whip out smartphones and snap voyeuristic shots before their wives come out of the bathroom. Unfamiliar with Purdue traditions, I am costume-less, so I simply drop my pants down to my ankles and hope I can still ski. After a group photo and a chorus of a counting down--"67, 68, 69..." in pure P.U.S.S.C. fashion--we drop en masse down the mountain, a turning corpus of exuberant youth.
A freshman named Trevor cuts in front of me with no shirt or pants on, dressed in his helmet and oversized U.S.A. novelty boxing gloves. His boxers have conveniently dropped low enough to reveal his bare ass, and I follow him down Thunder Bowl as he drops into a gaper tuck and buzzes the tower by as many innocent groups of people as possible. The largely half-naked gang gathers at the base area, friends high-fiving, less generous amigos sack-tapping each other, laughing, and taking pictures. I pan around the area, looking for a frown among the passing kids, families, retirees, and hardcore locals. Not a single one. Everyone is smiling.
That night, on the eve of departure, we celebrate in full college style. Beer pong and flip-cup tournaments are organized in the hotel's common area, kegs are tapped, and a very forward-looking young man walks in with a shot-ski made from an old green Rossi 4S. After an hour of chest-beating good times, with a crowd of smiling and sunburnt faces, another student walks in with a special treat to commemorate the trip--a piñata. As the guest, I'm given honors, handed a ski pole, and blindfolded with a Confederate flag bandana. They spin me around a dozen times, until I can barely stand up. After a few moments of triangulating my position based off the crowd's screaming, I swing the pole, and connect. Candy and condoms fall out all over the floor. The crowd, as they say, goes wild.