There are some events, that regardless of the intelligence of the action at the time, can only happen at one specific life juncture. While the opportunity to drive 36 hours west in the dead of winter to chase a storm which may or may not actually come to fruition is theoretically always possible – it really isn’t. You only get to be 19 once. At 25 today, I’ve only paid less than $1.15 for gas once – during this 4 day period. And while it was only 5 years ago, there are some elements of this trip that can never be replicated. In the time immediately before the widespread advent of smartphones, there no ability to read a map with traffic conditions and navigate on the fly, or have any kind of live updates on how the weather was behaving. The Iowa ice storm likely would have been avoided. We certainly wouldn’t have attempted to drive over Togwotee Pass into the teeth of a storm that ultimately dropped almost 4 feet in the region. While it seems like a small detail, the lack of the ability to obtain information in the way we do today inherently changed the adventure, and was part of what created the kind of memory that I will be telling the story of for the rest of my life.
In 2008, we were still very young in the world of western skiing. Far from our well thought out current strategy of booking refundable flights to generic ski locations and accepting the possibility of long drives to find the deepest pow, we were still in a very elementary phase of exploring pow – both eastern and western. What we were not short on was enthusiasm. It was Christmas Eve when we caught wind of the potential for a very large storm to be rolling into Jackson, and we were on the road at 5pm Christmas day. 5 of us piled into a 1996 Dode Caravan and began the 36 hour voyage going west.
The food shopping we did before the trip was haphazard to say the best. Between the Mondos (that had a tendency to make you MORE thirsty than less) and the tub of animal crackers as our major food and drink, it’s surprising one of us didn’t get scurvy. Either way, spirits were high as we left New England, and began to cross into New York and into the night.
Five people is really too many to fit in a Dodge Caravan when you factor in all the gear that we had inside the car as well as the duration of the trip. Things got pretty tight, but having a chance to rotate drivers every four hours helped, as did a recurring stream of ski movies. We also determined an absolute rule: in order to get to Jackson by first chair on the 27th, we could not stop for any reason other than to refuel. That meant if you had to go, it was going to be in a bottle. Tensions sometimes flared for no discernible reason, – in one memorable incident, EZE and Ginger Falcon engaged in a shouting match and nearly came to blows after G. Falcon disposed of a empty plastic water jug to purchase another one instead of refilling it with tap water.
Massachusetts through Indiana ultimately went off without a hitch, while changing driver every 4 hours. We found ways to entertain ourselves.
And arm wrestling.
It was in Illinois that things really started to get interesting. With a dense fog settling over our otherwise perfectly straight highly limiting visibility to less than 50 yards, Rock Bobster took over the wheel and decided that this was the best possible time to do 85 for his entire segment in order to make up some lost time. It was frightening. Eventually, Bobby’s reign of terror ended, and we entered Iowa, where conditions did not improve for us.
What was heavy fog and light rain in Illinois had left a solid coating of ice on the road for the entirety of the state. This brought traffic to a crawl, and left us inching up the slightest grades on the spinning tires of our heavily laden two wheel drive ski van. In Nebraska, the skies cleared and we got our first taste of snow since we left New York state.
Nebraska was a breeze, and it was here that we learned from a trucker that Nebraska and Wyoming allowed us to have open containers as long as they were kept out of the reach of the driver. We ended up celebrating for the length of the state, and adopted a policy where the driver would immediately start drinking for two 4 hour shifts, followed by 4 of sleeping, 4 of copiloting and then be ready to drive and begin the process again.
Decisions made in the early part of Wyoming ultimately had the most significant ramifications of the trip. As mentioned, this road trip was the last long trip I ever took without more or less constant access to live radar. This meant, that when we looked at our road map, what was quickly apparent was that Route 287 from Rawlins over Togwotee Pass provides a significant shortcut in terms of raw mileage. This much is accurate. What wasn’t clear was that the route led us over Togwotee Pass, which is prone to the same weather patterns that was also currently dumping feed at Jackson Hole. Furthermore, because the storms tend to stack up on the western side of the pass, we had little more than a few snowflakes as a harbinger as we crossed through the currently open access gate.
As five dudes and a minivan continued to climb up into the pass, the snow intensified. Later, it seemed as if the state never had any intention of keeping the road open during the storm at all. The eastern access gate was closed soon after we entered, and the western gate was allowing only exiting traffic as we finished the ordeal. We never saw another vehicle during the three hours we spent between the gates. As we neared the top of the pass, we were plowing through 18 inches of untracked pow on a road that was only visible due to the roadside plow markings and the vague depression left by the larger snow banks of the sides of the road. The van often strained against the weight, leaving us to periodically consider who would be eaten first should we end up in a Donner Party-style situation. Finally, we crested the top of the pass and began the even slower process of skid-steering the car through increasingly deep now. At least we had gravity on our side.
It was about 3am when the grade of the road began to level and we experienced a moment which will never be forgotten. We were still cruising through about a foot of snow, but the straight nature of the road allowed us to crank the speed to about 35 miles per hour. All of a sudden, from the right side of the road darted a mother moose and a baby moose. In the split second between when I saw them and impact, I remember having only one marginally rational reaction – I can’t hit the baby moose. I slammed on the brakes and turned slightly right, away from the leading calf. The car didn’t slow much, but as the two continued to cross my field of view, it started to look as if both were going to pass. At the last second, the mother inexplicably slowed, and the front left of our van slammed into the entire rear of the moose, causing her front side to wrap around the left side of our car and slap her face into the driver side window. As we came to a stop, I could see mama moose dart off into the woods with her calf. We’ll never know if mom and calf turned out OK, but if I had to guess I would venture to say that she was left with only a bumper-shaped bruise. Inexplicably, the only damage on our vehicle was a big Moose-drool on the driver side window (I’m not kidding). We eventually made it to Jackson at 5am, and had a short van bivouac before catching first tram that morning.
Ultimately, this post isn’t meant to be about the powder. After driving 36 hours through fog, ice storms, blizzards, large mammals and interpersonal strife, we did, in fact, ski some of the the best snow of our lives. I’ll always remember that the first time I skied Rendezvous Bowl and Hobacks, it was as deep and untracked as we had all hoped it would be. The weather, however, ended up being too strong for its own good. After a day rivaling the 72-inch opening at Crested Butte in ’08, several in-bounds slides forced closure of the resort early in the 2nd day, and we had to head home due to time constraints. This all begs the question: Is 72 hours of driving worth the best 1.1 days of skiing in our lives to that point? After everything that we got to experience on that trip, and may never again, the answer is clear – absolutely yes.