The wild beyond and within Jackson Hole

19 Dec 2022

A legacy of leaving civilization behind

Winter/Spring 22-23

Written By: Melissa Thomasma | Images: Courtesy Collection of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

At the beating heart of Jackson Hole culture — a core reason why this place echoes in memories forever — is the backcountry.

Less than 3% of the land in Teton County is privately owned and developed. The vast majority of the remaining 97% is wild land, guarded by a mosaic of protected stewardship including national parks, national forests, and the state of Wyoming. These public lands are, in fact, owned by every American. They’re ours, and they hold some of the most compelling magic that the West has to offer: the backcountry. When you leave behind the pavement and boardwalks, and venture into the deep swaths of mountains and forests beyond human-forged light and sound, you’ll find yourself swallowed up by the untamed landscape. Whether it’s meandering along a winding trail through wild flower meadows in the summer, or breaking trail through pristine, sparkling snow in the winter — you’re experiencing the peace, solace, and inimitable power of the wild. The yearning to explore deep, wild places has long been a driving force for those who find their way to Jackson Hole. The beckoning promise of unparalleled challenge and reward, discovery both beyond and within, has inspired generations of climbers, skiers, and snowboarders to explore countless miles of rugged ridges and peaks around the valley. In 1890 — when the state of Wyoming wasn’t even 6 months old — determined locals proved that Teton Pass could serve as a mail route even through the snow. How? On skis, of course. The following decades saw an inspiring constellation of first ascents of peaks in the Teton Range: the Grand Teton itself first summited in 1898 by mountaineering trailblazers William Owen, Franklin Spalding, Frank Peterson, and John Shive. Their route, known as the Owen-Spalding Route, remains one of the most popular routes to the peak’s summit today. Six years later, in 1935, Fred Brown, Paul Petzoldt, and Eldon Petzoldt successfully completed the first winter ascent of the Grand. It wasn’t until 1971, though, that local legend Bill Briggs made the first ski descent of the iconic peak. “The Grand Teton is endlessly different, with its changing moods and attitudes, its eternal beauty. It is always a privilege to climb it,” reflected Glen Exum, one of the most celebrated mountaineers in Jackson Hole history. Not only did Exum climb extensively in the range prior to his death in 2000, but he laid the groundwork for something truly unique: the first American climbing school of its kind. Disheartened by how mountain guides in Europe would sometimes haul their clients to summits, Exum and Paul Petzolt decided instead to teach and empower their clients to achieve mountaintops. Needless to say that their innovation was successful: Exum Mountain Guides, founded in 1926, still helps climbers reach summits in Grand Teton National Park and beyond to this day. This passion — this unquenchable drive to leave the civilized world behind and immerse yourself in the unforgiving and untamed richness of the wild — continues to draw adventurous spirits into the backcountry. On any given winter day, places like the summit of Teton Pass (at 8,432 feet) are bustling with clusters of skiers and snowboarders striking out in search of powdery exhilaration. There are no chairlifts here; only boot-packed trails that ascend into rugged peaks. When the sun sinks below the ridges and the shadows grow longer, the temperatures begin to dive as evening rolls in, the parking lot at the summit thins out. The adventure, however, rarely ends there; it often slides into the favorite aprés watering holes where friends recount the day’s achievements over pints of locally brewed beer and plentiful dishes of food. Even though the gathering dark leads skiers and snowboarders out of the backcountry, its magic is still palpable in the stories, the shared memories, the sore muscles, and the unshakable smiles. As Exum recalled: “I have loved climbing, and the reason is that if you are up there and having a beautiful day and everyone is clicking and a few cumulus clouds are sprinkled around and everyone is moving and handling the rope right and the air is clear and you can see forever, well, I think that is really almost an unmatchable experience. It’s almost sacred.”
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