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Vertical drop: America's most dangerous slopes

Skiers standing at the top of the Two Smokes chute are always with a guide — this part of Silverton Mountain is guide-only. But even a guide won't make this 53-degree rock funnel any less challenging.
Skiers standing at the top of the Two Smokes chute are always with a guide — this part of Silverton Mountain is guide-only. But even a guide won't make this 53-degree rock funnel any less challenging.Courtesy of Silverton Mountain
/ Source: Forbes

It's 4,139 feet down from the top of the slope at Jackson Hole Mountain. The first 25 feet are worst.

No ski resort in North America has a chute so legendary as Corbet's Couloir in Wyoming — a crucible where skiers go to prove their mettle (or more often, to retreat in fear). The run is named for Barry Corbet, a mountaineer who in 1960 spotted a narrow crease of snow shaped like an upside-down funnel, high up on the mountain now known as Jackson Hole. Said he: "Someday someone will ski that."

In 1967 someone did — ski patroller Lonnie Ball. Today crack skiers seek to emulate his feat. Few emerge from the first 25 feet still on their skis.

You enter the chute's narrow, flinty mouth in free fall, dropping two stories onto a 55-degree slope. Fail to execute a hard right turn immediately, and you smash into a face of Precambrian rock. Survive, and you then smear speed by executing two nervy turns, exiting down a 45-degree slope as the chute fans out.

The rest of Jackson Hole Mountain lives up to this teaser. The elevation drop (4,139 feet — unmatched in the U.S.) plays out down an abrupt, serrated stretch of the Rocky Mountains' Teton Range.

Last March a group of eight skiers braved Corbet's Couloir, having enrolled in what Jackson Hole Mountain Resort calls its Steep & Deep Camp — a four-day guide-assisted program meant to push participants' skills to the limit. Four of our group, on their first attempt on Corbet's, wrecked spectacularly, their skis and bodies pinwheeling.

The first turn is the problem: Skiers have gained so much speed so quickly that some panic and try to stop; this tactic is unwise at 40 mph on so steep a slope. I barely survived, landing in the couloir in a cloud of snow and detritus and almost losing control. But with a twist of my body and some luck, I held on and emerged to plant a reasonably assertive tandem of turns, then skied out the chute. As Steep & Deep's coaches say, "Don't stop — stand up and ski!"

Steep & Deep campers ride with a coach in pods of three or four, grouped by skill level. All campers are already expert skiers. The camp, held four times a year, normally culminates on its fourth day with a shot at Corbet's. Most campers take a reconnaissance peek down the couloir's lip, then elect not to jump. That almost a third of my camp (8 skiers out of 27) did jump was some kind of percentage record, I was told.

The camp's cost, $860, includes lift tickets (otherwise $72 a day) and decadent lunches served by waiters in a rustic cabin tucked far away from Jackson Hole's crowds. These lunches, though, are where the pampering begins and ends. Camp coaches aren't shy about shoving skiers far outside their comfort zones. "That's why you're here, right?" says Richard Lee, head coach, to a roomful of campers the night before skiing starts. His question elicits nervous smiles.

Jackson prides itself on making its customers squirm. An infamous warning sign at the summit reads in part: "Our mountain is like nothing you have skied before! It is huge. You could become lost. You could make a mistake and suffer personal injury or death. Give this special mountain the respect it demands!" You won't find such blunt warnings at slopes owned by publicly traded companies like Intrawest (Copper Mountain, Whistler) or Vail Resorts (Beaver Creek, Heavenly, Vail).

Jackson is among a very few big mountain resorts that are privately held. (Snowbird, which belongs to Dick Bass, is another.) The owning Kemmerer family has roots stretching back more than a century in Wyoming — to coal mining and to a namesake town in the state's southwest corner. They bought Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in 1992, paying a reported $18 million.

Danger isn't just accepted here, it's embraced. In 1999 Jackson opened up its treacherous, unpatrolled back country to anyone who wants to risk it. Once you exit the resort gates the threat of avalanche becomes real, and there's no guarantee of rescue. You won't find open back country like this at Vail. Steep & Deep campers spend one of their four days touring the peaks beyond the boundary ropes with guides who teach them avalanche safety tactics and demonstrate proper use of shovels, probes and beacons.

Even the in-bounds terrain is formidable. "The on-piste [groomed] terrain here is by far the most challenging terrain I've been on, including off-piste in other places," camper Stephen Gaffney, 34, a New York developer, says approvingly. "I've never seen so many chutes."

Since the Kemmerers bought Jackson Hole, the resort has averaged $27,000 in annual net income. The family has made $55 million in improvements, and has raised some cash by selling off slivers of land near the resort's base. In 2006, for example, they sold a 3.2-acre parcel in Teton Village for $10 million.

Tight cash flow became a big issue in June 2005 when Jackson announced that its storied tram — which had whisked skiers from base to summit in just 12 minutes, 52 at a time — would be retired in September 2006 at the end of its 40-year service life. Loss of the tram has hurt the resort's appeal, even with diehards like James Walter, 46, a Michigan physician who has attended seven Steep & Deeps. "I probably won't come back until they figure this out," he says.

The Kemmerers warned in 2005 that a replacement tram was not a sure thing, owing to a $25 million price tag and to their being private owners with finite coffers. They sought government assistance, on the premise that the tram was vital to the region's economy. But that tactic failed. In August they unveiled a plan to finance a new tram privately. The bigger (100-passenger) and faster tram won't get rolling until the winter of 2008-09. Until then Corbet's seekers will have to ride a temporary chairlift open to shearing winds and scathing, blowing snow.

Since the early 1990s the surrounding Teton Valley has gone from spartan to Aspenish, with million-dollar condos and celebrity ranches sprouting. A five-bedroom home on 1 acre with ski-run access listed recently for $12.5 million. A Four Seasons hotel opened in 2003. Still, Jackson enjoys a more frontierlike feel than its western ski resort cousins. A wide swath of federal land plus big ranches owned by wealthy landholders keep the valley free from the congestion that plagues Vail, Aspen and Park City, Utah. Even if sprawl does come, skiers can take heart: A Four Seasons hot toddy won't ever make a two-story drop feel shorter.