Cowboy Corn - Old Boys and Outlaws Take on the Tetons
Written by Adam Howard Photos by Chuck Waskuch
text Adam Howard
photos Chuck Waskuch
"What's cool about skiing in June is when you're not skiing you're hanging out in your shorts. Plus, with a fast horse you're pretty close to the bar if you need to re-supply."-Peter Linn
Piloting the land ship at a comfortable 60 miles per hour up the Wilson, Wyoming side of Teton Pass, Peter belts out a few lines of the Ian Tyson country track playing in the tape deck, while his hired man Patrick Gilroy points out some of his winter's skiing exploits on folds of earth south of the road. It's the first week of June and ample late season snow still lays in the shadows and wherever cornices grew big in winter. Both men are just back from a three-week hold up in a tent by extreme cold on Alaska's Denali, and I sense they're ready to cut loose.
"What's cool about skiing in June," Peter says as he reaches to turn down the volume, "is when you're not skiing you're hanging out in your shorts." He mashes his sneakered foot on the accelerator to get around a slow moving camper with Missouri plates and with that we crest over the pass and are now plunging toward Idaho. "Plus," he adds. "With a fast horse you're pretty close to the bar if you need to re-supply."
We're shuttling four days of beer, moose meat, eggs, whiskey, cheese, coffee and assorted other staples from Linn's family ranch in Wilson to the his uncle Peter's spread in Victor, Idaho, where we'll round up the horses. "The Dairy," as it is called, is no longer home to Holstein milking cows but a small herd of Morgans, the odd warm blood and a mix of the several dozen Appaloosas, and Quarter Horses, which he and his father use to run summer pack trips and a hunting guide outfit in the fall on the western side of the Tetons in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. But our group isn't packing heat. We're packing in to snowline to ski-tour on the Teton's finest late-spring corn snow.
Peter steers the 'burban east off the highway onto a straight dirt road that leads into the rolling, sedimentary foothills of the western Tetons. This lesser-known side of the range is much different than the jutting towers of igneous rock that form the classic skyline surrounding the Grand Teton. We roll over an irrigation ditch, past a
group of stout Morgans and up to a large paddock, where Pete's daddy, Gene, is waiting with a fifth-wheel stock trailer hooked to a one-ton pick-up. I half expect the younger Linn to enter the house where his grandmother still lives and reemerge decked out in classic cowboy duds, but instead he and Pat step into the corral and go right to work selecting today's rides.
Gene, one of five Linn brothers, is a third generation rancher and outfitter. His Norwegian grandfather drove a small horse herd here from North Dakota in 1905. Ranching families like his once dominated the valleys on each side of the range, but his way of life is one that's quickly disappearing-replaced by $300,000 "low income" homes and multi-million-dollar one-week-a-year third homes for the super wealthy. Much of the area's population growth has come in recent decades as the result of the tourism brought to the area by skiing and the National Parks Yellowstone and Teton. Gene and 26-year-old Peter provide a stark contrast of this effective change. Gene wears a button-down; Peter a t-shirt. Jeans; bush pants. No hat; visor and shades.
"I drive over the pass and see the steady line of cars coming over from the Idaho side," the elder Linn laments as we watch Pat get nearly run over by an ornery gelding. He explains how Victor and Driggs, Idaho are fast becoming bedroom communities for Jackson, Wyoming. "I wonder sometimes who's got it right. We're Norwegian though. We're pretty used to everyone else being wrong."
It's hard to argue with a fourth generation Norwegian bachelor cowboy who lives in some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Why would you want to? Especially when he's so far up the trail that he's barely in sight. I nudge my chestnut Foxy Lady with my heel so she'll catch up with the string of horses clopping along behind Peter. There is no response. Jimi may play two chords-she plays but one. But I'm in no hurry to get up the south fork of the Darby Creek, where Peter has a wall-tent village tricked with cots, a privy and a mess hall.
Interspersed among the horses are several local outlaws packing skis that are difficult to sling on horseback. Among them is Glenn Vittuci. Peter's the outfitter, camp cook and general big chief, but Glenn is the ski guide. As we saunter along he gives me a lesson in Teton tectonics. As a founder of Rendezvous Ski Tours in the early 1980s, he and Peter represent the complex mountain culture that has come to symbolize so much of the rural West, especially in places where skiing and rustling co-pollinate.
Peter's big family may dominate the local phone book, and his sister may even be Wyoming's recently crowned Miss Rodeo, but Glenn knows these mountains in winter like few others. He's been guiding here for 25 years.
"I've known his parents for a long time. Peter since he was just a little kid," Glenn says. "I used to go up to the dairy once a week to get milk." Though they never skied much together, the odd meeting in the
backcountry got them planning a trip that would combine cowboy ways, skiing and solstice sunshine.
After an hour in the saddle, we stop and tie the horses off. The camp is a few hundred vertical feet above the trail, but we'll have to hoof it ourselves from here. With the ground still soft from run-off, Peter won't take the horses off the trail for fear of damaging the tender flora. In fact, he'll lead the horses back down to the truck and walk back up this afternoon because it's too early to let the horses graze.
Six hours into a tour that started with a 1,500' vertical scree-scramble up the northwest ridge of Fossil Mountain, I'm discovering that while Pete doesn't dress like a cowboy he sure does swagger like one. Not only is he carrying everyone's food and his own monster fat skis, he's putting us to shame with his long Nordic strides. It's then that Pat tells me Pete nordic raced for Division I University of Alaska at Anchorage while studying culinary arts. Only the three cow-dogs hang with him at the front.
After a long slog up the Middle Fork of Darby Creek and over wind-chapped, sun-cupped snow, a few switchbacks gain us the Upper Death Canyon shelf and a fine view of the top of the tram at Jackson Hole-"The Village," as locals call it. We hope to traverse in that direction on our last day and take the tram down, effectively crossing the 20-mile wide range.
After lunch and a quick, easy nap in the summer sun, we contour west again beneath the main buttress of Fossil. The shear south face drops directly into a spoon-shaped couloir that doglegs through twin rock formations 800' below us. Though the slope's pitch is a little over 40°, our main concerns are wet slides and the possibility that the snow will run out on us around the corner with its southern orientation.
"Toilet-bowl couloir," Rob McRae, another outlaw in our clan, says as he follows Pete's cautious line traversing across the top of the chute within a few yards of Fossil's unconsolidated rock. The snow is set into motion and drops straight down the gut, flows like a river against the cliff wall to the skier's right, then defies gravity by going up the wall and then turns the corner out of sight. One at a time, we slip out onto the face, ever conscious of being flushed ourselves.
"That must be why they call it cowboy corn," Rob adds as the poke peels a tight line through young spruce and out into the open bowl below. "He owns it."
Robbie drops in second, or fifth counting the dogs that run back up the slope to herd him, too. Down from Montana for the trip he grew up in another cow state, in another time zone. Before he cranked his first turn, he explains how similar the pressure is here in the Rockies on open space as it is in his native Vermont. How he can really identify with the local boys here.
The only pressure I'm feeling now is Pat trying to sneak by and tag my line, so I take off trying to avoid the hounds who are heading up for their third round. Descending what feels like a few thousand vertical into the valley of the shadow of Death, the only evil I fear is the shrill bark of Coors, the obsessive border collie from Colorado. I give her a little love tap with my ski pole and zip past.
Even with the long daylight hours our lazy morning start puts us back at camp just prior to dusk. Pete hustles into the mess tent and assigns each of us a chore before dinner. Soon, Willie Nelson's latest disk is playing softly. Water is fetched from the south fork, vegetables cut, moose meat put in the pot, fire started, beers cracked. Pete moves around the makeshift kitchen with confidence-the same way he handles a horse or telemark skis-like he knows that what he's doing is right. He is Norwegian.
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