Grand Targhee: It’s Amazing What You’ll Find

Alta, WY – As we drove north towards the
small Idaho town of Driggs, I sat in the passenger seat with a heavy heart.
No, it wasn’t the girlfriend troubles back home that had gotten me down, rather
it was the snow, or more precisely the lack thereof. Women are nice to have
around and all, but I’ve always found that a consistent diet of freshies will
quickly make problems with the fairer sex fade into obscurity. Unfortunately,
the ugly fact was that we were four days into a ten-day skiing excursion to
a region of the country that was experiencing one of the driest years in decades
– freshies were a precious commodity.


Famous taters, but few flakes at "The Spud Drive-In Theater"
Famous taters, but few flakes at “The Spud Drive-In
Theater” in Driggs

Grand Targhee rises high above the plains of the Snake River basin
Grand Targhee rises high above the plains of the Snake
River basin

So it was with no small amount of optimism that we turned right
in downtown Driggs, heading due east towards Grand Targhee Ski & Summer
Resort.  This, after all, was a ski resort whose marketing campaign for several
years had focused on the slogan “Snow from Mother Nature, not from hoses.”
As a weather junkie, I was acutely aware that once Pacific storm systems pass
coastal mountain ranges in Washington and Oregon, there is almost nothing
but relatively flat farmland for them to regroup over until slamming into
the Teton Range.  This north-south massif comprises a 5,000-6,000 vertical
foot wall rising above the numbingly flat plains of the Snake River basin
that storms get impaled upon, dumping obscene amounts of moisture for days
on end.  Due to this fortuitous geographic anomaly, Grand Targhee can claim
and average annual snowfall of nearly 500” while poor Driggs suffers with
barely 100” just a few miles to the west on the valley floor. 

The drive up the Grand Targhee access road was promising, as
the snowbanks grew higher with each switchback.  By the time we reached the
8,000-foot plateau upon which the Targhee base area rests, the banks on each
side were over the car’s roof and my anticipation reached a fever pitch: we
had a real find on our hands. 

We first headed off to the daily wine and cheese welcome session
where we chatted with the friendly Targhee staff about the mountain and its
development plans.  It had been a below average season for snowfall, but the
cover was still deep and consistent.  There were also plans afoot to moderately
expand the base village, with the primary goal to increase the on-mountain
bed base.  No one in management wants to begin Aspenizing this gem, but the
beds are needed to accommodate more destination skiers as the day skier market
is not growing due to the thinly populated local markets Targhee draws from. 

Grand Targhee's modest base village
Grand Targhee’s modest base village

Welcome to Grand Foggy
Welcome to Grand Foggy, where you’ll find …

Fred's Mountain
Fred’s Mountain, and …

Peaked Mountain
Peaked Mountain.

Before slipping off to bed in the comfortable Teewinot Lodge,
located literally steps from the lifts, I did take a minute to check out the
lay of the land.  Grand Targhee is an entirely self-contained facility set
on an alpine plateau 2,000 feet above the valley below.  There is no town,
little nightlife, and few stores: in short, there’s no “there” there.  If
you are looking to get away from it all, and I mean ALL, then Grand Targhee
is a perfect place to visit.   Instead of the increasingly common array of
condo developments and retail outlets one sees in ski country, Targhee sports
just a few hundred pillows in the base area.  A general store and several
restaurants catering to a wide enough range of wallets and tastes round out
the small village.  Clearly, if you are looking for party-‘til-sunrise nightlife,
Targhee is not the place for you.   If you come in search of reliable snow,
however, then consider yourself home.

We awoke the next morning to a thick blanket of white.  Alas,
this blanket consisted of Grand Targhee’s other meteorological abundance:
fog.  At the top of the comfortable Dreamcatcher High Speed Quad, I could
barely see more than ten feet in front of me and I could clearly see (or not)
why the area had been given the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “Grand Foggy”. 
Regardless, I began to explore the impeccably groomed trails of Targhee. 
Exiting left off the quad, I rocketed down Sitting Bull, descending the 2000
vertical feet to the base area in what seemed like seconds.  As the fog slowly
lifted, the rest of Targhee’s 1,500 acres (now increased to 2,000 with the
2001-2002 season’s addition of the new Sacajawea detachable quad on the formerly
cat skiing-only Peaked Mountain) began to be revealed.  What came into view
was a nearly wide-open expanse of snow-covered mountainside, only sporadically
interrupted by the occasional tree.  And covered in snow it was.  Gone were
the depressing areas of bare ground and brown snow that had marred the view
in our previous locales.  In its place was a wonderfully consistent tableau
of white.

It was then that I realized that there aren’t really trails
at Targhee in the traditional sense (though the map counts 63).  Rather, there
is a seemingly infinite number of ways down the mountain – dodging a tree
here, and ducking into a natural half-pipe there.  They are all equally enticing,
though with the abundance of soft snow in some of the wider spaces tilled
to perfection by Targhee’s groomers, some of these are clearly more equal
than others.  Throughout the course of the day, we were able to duck left
and right, here and there, with nary a constraint on our path down the mountain. 
Targhee was truly becoming a latter day version of my elementary school playground
writ large; very large.

The offerings on the main face under the Dreamcatcher ranged
from the wide-open groomers like Crazy Horse and the aforementioned Sitting
Bull, to somewhat steeper fare such as The Face and Good Medicine.  The runs
accessed off the old Riblet Blackfoot Double had the same feel, but saw even
less traffic than the already sparse crowds elsewhere.  Much of the Blackfoot
area is in fact designated as an unmarked, unconstrained powder expanse. 
Unfortunately, due to that lack of traffic and grooming, the balance of this
section featured large refrozen chunks of snow that made the sliding experience
unenjoyable at best. 

The first day was spent roaming far and wide to get a feel for
the overall lay of the land.  After a fairly weak front rumbled through overnight
dropping 3-5”, the next day was spent chasing intermittent heavy snow showers
and searching for the more interesting nooks and crannies that Targhee had
to offer.  Several of these were found in the short steeps of the Good (Medicine,
that is), Bad, and The Ugly section between the Blackfoot area and the Dreamcatcher
main face.  The find of the day, however, clearly was the terrain in, around,
and above the large ravine separating Fred’s Mountain and Peaked Mountain. 
While the south facing expert slopes of Patrol and Instructor Chutes looked
interesting, their exposure guaranteed a rough go of things.  Instead, we
opted to skate, pole, and finally hike up to the Mary’s Nipple area at the
headwaters of this ravine. 

Mary's Nipple
Mary’s Nipple


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(Click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window)
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This area contained a massive array of natural half pipes, trees,
and open snowfields.  Skiers and riders merely needed to hike out further
to the South in the massive bowl shaped basin under Mary’s Nipple to find
the road less traveled.  To really get off the beaten track, we began
to hike uphill towards the top of Mary’s Nipple.  As this area was further
back into the Teton’s than the rest of the resort, it had been snowing here
for much of the day, with accumulations seeming to reach over a foot in some
areas.  Again, the path to the top thinned out as we got higher, with many
riders unable to resist the temptation to drop in to the frothy white bounty. 
Scaling nearly to the top, we were rewarded with nearly two thousand feet
of vertical bliss, much of it deep and untracked.  Sliding down into the ravine,
we simply needed to traverse to skiers left to regain elevation for another
series of linked turns in the north facing powder.  It was here where we witnessed
the only truly “extreme” terrain at Targhee: the cliff band comprising the
north face of Peaked Mountain.  Ironically, this area is currently off limits,
though the few tracks that we saw in the several chutes through the cliffs
clearly indicated that a lucky few had sampled this forbidden fruit. 

The overall lack of true expert terrain is perhaps the greatest
single weakness of Targhee.  Though it has intermediate and advanced offerings
in abundance, along with a perfectly pitched learners area equipped with its
own quad chair, I could see how the absence of a consistent challenge could
put off some skiers and riders.  But that’s missing the point at Targhee. 
If you are looking for a rock walled testosterone fest, drive over Teton Pass
to Jackson Hole.  On this side of the mountains, you will instead find other
things like great cruising and a relaxed and secluded atmosphere.  You will
find a pleasant, uncrowded day lodge with a delicious variety of moderately
priced skiers’ fare.  You will find that you have much of the mountain to
yourself, with the freedom to let the skis rip down the fall line at Mach
2 or simply pick your way down through the trees at your own pace.  You will
find enough nooks, crannies, dips, rolls, and twists to keep you entertained
for days on end.  And no matter how dry the winter is, you will always find
more than enough snow to forget about those girl troubles back home. 

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