The winter of 1970, according to skier, mountain biker, kayaker, and local legend Olaf Koehler, was truly one for the books.
“I had a hard time coming up for a breath because the snow was just that deep,” Olaf says, as he takes a sip of beer at his favorite bar, Snake River Brewing. “After two weeks of skiing powder, run after run, with almost no one else on the mountain — I know it’s blasphemy — but I almost wished for a groomed run.”
Olaf, a native German who spent most of his adolescence in Wisconsin, was just 18 at the time. He had been working seasonally and decided to take an extended ski holiday on a whim after seeing a picture of the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram in a ski magazine. He got a hotel room in Jackson for $6 a night and shredded with a crew of fellow transplants in jeans and wool sweaters. It would be a few years before Olaf got his powder legs under him, but the memories of that bottomless winter would alter the course of his entire life.
Fast forward to today: Olaf has gone from newbie to local legend, found his powder legs, upgraded to Gore-Tex, and is in the process of moving to Lander with his girlfriend, although he says he will still make frequent trips to Jackson to “ski, bike, paddle, and have a cold one.”
The move is happening after Olaf’s recent retirement from ranching, a job he slid into after making his Jackson holiday permanent in 1976. He says ranch work appealed to him because “they didn’t make me shave my beard.” He started out mending fences for the Mead family and ended up working for them — at Hansen/Mead Ranch — in one capacity or another for the entirety of his 44-year career.
Eventually, Olaf graduated to operating heavy machinery, roofing, and building entire structures on the ranch, which he says “was a lot of fun.” Perhaps best of all, working for the Mead family kept Olaf busy and fulfilled, fostered a deep connection to the land, and allowed him to pursue his outdoor passions.
Olaf, who grew up ski racing in Wisconsin, fondly remembers the summer he learned to kayak, adding a summer sport to his repertoire. “I had been working hard on the ranch but needed something to do in my spare time,” he says. “I took my savings, walked into Teton Mountaineering and told them I wanted to go kayaking and to give me everything I’d need. About $800 later, I was on the river. I paddled the Snake River Canyon, went into the worst hole on the river and almost drowned. I did maybe five revolutions in that hole before I remembered that you had to dive down to get out.
“After that, I was terrified of fast-moving water. I figured I had better get over that fear or I was going to become a basket case. So, I forced myself to keep going. Over the years, kayaking has taken me all over the globe — to Central and South America, Canada, New Zealand, and Nepal.”
At nearly 70 years of age, Olaf still paddles big water at least three times a week during the summer and skis steep lines at least three times a week during the winter. He takes yearly trips to New Zealand, where he paddles remote, helicopter-accessed rivers and drinks Monteith (a classic Kiwi beer) with a revolving cast of characters that have become like family. In addition to kayaking and skiing, the avid mountain biker fondly recalls his days biking before bikes had suspension.
If there is one thing that’s crystal-clear about Olaf, it’s that he truly exemplifies the mountain-town lifestyle and what it means to build a life out of the things one truly enjoys doing. For the next generation of Jackson Hole ski bums, take note: you’ve got a lot to live up to.