Spring break turns into the ultimate winter adventure for a group of Twin Cities Venturers.
By Jordan Rane
It’s 9:09 a.m. at 10,450 feet on a storm-brewed weekday in late March. An aerial tram crammed with first-tracks warriors whooshes through a bleached swirl of clouds, howling wind, and not-so-lightly falling snow. In 10 seconds, the doors will open, releasing the day’s first load of undaunted skiers and snowboarders into the ultimate alpine playground. They’re at the top of the longest lift-served vertical drop in the country.
“Please use extreme caution, everyone,” barks a ski patroller in the crowd as the tram jerks to a stop at the summit. Winds are pushing 50 miles per hour. Visibility is very low. Another foot of snow is expected. “Anyone who wants to ride back down to the base can remain on the tram,” adds the patroller. “The rest of you, be careful out there—and have fun.”
The doors slide open. A crew of Venturers bursts on the scene with their skis, their boards, their goggled helmets, their raw enthusiasm, and hard-earned confidence.
Needless to say, nobody in this group will be riding the tram back down to the base this fine, blizzardy morning. This is what they bused 20 straight hours from the Twin Cities to experience. After a full winter of Sundays on the tamer slopes of Minnesota, this week of wild and radical adventure in the heart of Wyoming ski country is the ultimate expedition for the ski and snowboard Venturers.
“This is it,” says Ian Cochran, a boarder from Minnetonka, Minn., hurling himself into a virtual whiteout with his crew of Venturing buds. “Stay together, guys.”
“It’ll be easier to see down there in the trees,” says Cochran’s pal, Kyle Lidstone, cutting a path through the churning snow and fog with fellow crew members Eiel Bach and Jon Roed. Soon he’s swallowed by the mountain, “Hey, where are you guys?”
The next few minutes are a blind, mirthful soundtrack of whoops, hollers, and laughter—mixed with the occasional ecstatic observation.
“Wow! We’re definitely not in Minneapolis anymore,” says an elated voice in the trees.
“Hold up,” says another voice. “I think Jon just fell. You O.K., Jon?”
“Yeah, man. I’m good,” says Jon, catching his breath. “What a week this is gonna be. Wiping out in powder is the best!”
Part of the BSA’s Minnesota-based Northern Star Council, the 25 teenage snowboarders/skiers and a dozen adult volunteers are part of one of the more innovative Venturing crews in the country.
The crew was launched more than 20 years ago in Minneapolis by some dedicated adult volunteers and a small crew of young ski enthusiasts. Their objective: provide a fun, organized, and affordable way for teenage skiers and snowboarders to hit the slopes, hone their alpine skills, enjoy the great outdoors, and meet like-minded peers. The group’s founder and veteran crew Advisor, Jim May, says this may be one of the largest snow-sports crews.
“I don’t know of any others out there that concentrate on skiing and snowboarding—but it would be great if there were,” says May, gathering with Advisors, chaperones, and Venturers for some après-ski pizza back at the hotel in Jackson after an unforgettable first day on the slopes. “It’s a terrific way to provide experiences and opportunities that these kids may otherwise not be able to have,” he adds. “We try to cover all the logistics by keeping the costs down, providing transportation and adult support, and even offering free ski instruction over the course of the season. I think we’ve built a pretty great group over the years.”
Today the group comprises more than 300 greater Minneapolis-based Venturers, who together travel to ski hills outside of town. The group attending this year’s annual spring break “Big Trip” out West have motored to western Wyoming for five days at two of the nation’s top ski resorts: Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee.
“It’s always a group decision, our final ‘Big Trip’ destination,” explains Chip Campbell, a crew Advisor and ski instructor whose daughter is part of this season-ending ski voyage. “This year, everyone seemed in agreement that Jackson Hole was the place. It’s got a great, challenging reputation, but the group has been skiing all winter, so they’re conditioned for it. Judging from today, I don’t think anyone will be going home disappointed.”
Between pepperoni slices, an array of Venturers—old and new—are quick to confirm.
“This is my second year with the crew and my first big trip with them out West,” says Loegan Benkler. “I still can’t quite believe I’m here. I never thought I’d make it out to a place like this.”
“There’s really no other way I’d get to go snowboarding this regularly at all the major hills back home, let alone at places like Red Lodge, Mont., Copper Mountain, Colo., or here,” adds Keegan Cell, who has been on several spring trips with the group.
“It’s fun skiing with my dad,” says Nicholas Loes, whose father, John, is one of several parent chaperones on the trip. “Plus, you meet skiers from all over the city. I’ll definitely be doing it again next year.”
After dinner, May gets up in front of the group for some evening announcements. Helmets, he reminds everyone, are a must on this trip, just like during the regular season. So is the buddy system. There is a range of levels in this group from beginner to expert, but no Venturer skis alone. If problems arise, crew Advisors are equipped with radios and can quickly contact one another.
Until this year, helmets were strongly advised but not enforced in the program. Injuries on the slopes have decreased dramatically now that they’re a BSA requirement, says Dave Recker, a crew Advisor and former Scoutmaster.
“It’s a great bunch, and we don’t like to saddle them with too many rules,” says Recker as the group disbands for the evening before an early departure to Grand Targhee tomorrow morning. “But the ones we do have are strictly enforced—mainly for safety reasons.”
“Hey, one more thing,” says May, grinning and glancing around the room: “Who was the last person off of the mountain today?”
“You were,” volleys a chorus of Venturers.
In keeping with crew tradition, the last person off of the mountain has to sing in front of the entire group. The room erupts in laughter. May sighs, walks back to the front of the room, and clears his throat.
The 7 a.m. bus ride over the mountains to Grand Targhee, a local favorite ski area hiding on the western edge of the Teton Range, starts smoothly enough. Skis and boards are loaded by the Venturers, coffee is consumed, seats are taken. Chuck, the bus driver, delivers the day’s first canned joke to a groaning crowd (“Why did the ram fall off the cliff? … He didn’t see the ewe turn.”). And the crew’s president, Christian Garman, does the morning head count.
“They asked me to be youth leader last year, and I kind of turned it down,” says Christian. “This year, they ‘asked’ me again, and I decided I’d better do it. It’s actually been fun to kind of step out of the comfort zone and take on some more responsibility.”
The bus chugs west, past the 8,000-foot mark toward Teton Pass. Far below in the rearview is a gorgeous winter scene of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole valley. A few miles ahead is the Idaho border, where a lone moose and some elk traipse through the Teton foothills and another forecast for heavy weather is proving accurate.
An hour later, the bus pulls into Grand Targhee. Buckets of giant flakes are falling. A preselected group of Venturers swiftly handles the unloading of equipment—a well-oiled operation working together.
“Ski trips are great, but they definitely require plenty of day-to-day organization among the crew members and a lot of pitching in to keep things running smoothly,” says crew Advisor Campbell. “I think that’s an important part of the whole experience.”
“Beginners and lower-intermediates over there and experienced skiers and boarders over here with me,” says a Grand Targhee guide named Mike, leading a group of gung-ho Venturers up the Dreamcatcher quad chair to the mountain’s crest. In the annals of the crew’s powder days, today will be one for the record books. “You guys definitely picked the right week to come,” says Mike, wiping snow from his goggles.
At the top of the hill, during a brief cloud break, the signature spire of Grand Teton National Park, 13,775-foot Grand Teton, appears in the east like a mirage. It’s Wyoming’s second-highest mountain, notes Mike, pausing to let the group absorb one of the most spectacular alpine vistas on the continent. “I’m trained in wildlife biology,” he adds, “so if you have any questions about local fauna, feel free to ask.”
“What are those black-and-white birds with the long tail feathers,” asks a goggled Venturer, reattaching his feet to a snowboard.
“Black-billed Magpies,” says Mike.
“Are there any wolves around here?” asks another crew member.
“There’s a protected pack of gray wolves right down there,” replies Mike, pointing a gloved finger toward the neighboring Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
Mike fields a few more wildlife queries before leading the group through knee-deep champagne powder toward one of his favorite runs. “It’s called Middle Earth,” he says. “I think you guys will like it. Especially today.”
Moments later, the Venturers are back in motion, carving Middle Earth into ribbons with whoops, hollers, laughter—and a few more ecstatic observations.
“This has been the best trip ever,” says Charlie Farrell, a recent recruit into the crew. “I wish I could stay for a month.”
“Or longer,” says Jon, thinking aloud. “That would be a very cool job—working at a place like this and showing people all the cool spots.”
Yeah, it really would, Jon’s crew members agree. Hmmm.
On the final day of the trip, back at Jackson Hole, the crew gathers at the base for one last day on the slopes before motoring back east to Minneapolis. Plans are under way to expand the program into the spring and summer with warm-season outdoor programs. But the moguls haven’t melted quite yet.
Waiting at the tram, the group runs into a crew alumnus, Paul Feik, who has since moved from Minneapolis to Jackson Hole where he now works as a mountain manager, volunteers for the Teton Village fire department, and does whitewater river guiding in the summer.
“I’d definitely credit the Venturing program for making me want to move to a place like this,” says Feik, whose story isn’t lost on the current batch of Venturers savoring their last day on the hill—this year, at least.
Chances are good they’ll be back.
Jordan Rane has contributed to Outside, Cowboys & Indians, and Islands magazines. He is the author of The Fun Seeker's Los Angeles.