Fifty years ago Jackson was still a small town, not yet defined as a “resort community.” The winters seemed long and quiet as visitors disappeared, leaving the valley to the residents.
Earl Shane Ward was about 7 years old when Paul McCollister and Alex Morley realized their dream of opening a European-style ski area in Jackson. That year they opened two lifts, Apres Vous and Teewinot. Ward, along with his classmates at Wilson Elementary School, was among the first to ski what would become a world-famous resort.
Opening day yesterday marked the start of the 50th season for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. It also marked the start of Ward’s 50th season of skiing there.
Ward was born in Jackson, and like most of the kids in the area, learned to ski on the rope tow at Snow King Mountain not long after he mastered walking. But he’d only skied a few times when he arrived at what was then known as the Jackson Hole Ski Area for his elementary school’s ski program.
That first year, the runs off Apres Vous seemed impossibly steep, Ward said. But in the winter there wasn’t much else to do in Jackson Hole other than ski. Earl Ward’s father Joe Ward worked at the resort as a shop foreman and mechanic, so Earl skied for free. He spent most of his spare time in the winter at the resort. He skied with his school, but then also on the weekends when sometimes his dad could join him.
“We both hacked our way down the hill a few times together,” he said.
The second year the resort was open it debuted the aerial tram, taking skiers up more than 4,000 feet to the top of 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain. Ward didn’t ski from the top that year. It took another year or so before he mustered the courage for his first ride up the tram to Rendezvous Bowl.
“Rendezvous Bow kinda scared the s**t out of me to be honest,” he said.
But he made it down, following his instructor and the other kids in his ski class, mostly carving z turns, pausing and adding kick turns, punctuated with a few tumbles.
“I don’t know if you could call it skiing,” he said.
But after that, Apres Vous seemed easy.
Ward kept skiing whenever he could. In high school he spent his summers at the mountain working on the trail crew that built the Casper lift, stacking brush and cleaning bathrooms.
When he graduated from high school he started working as a lifty on the Thunder lift.
A couple of years later he started grooming ski runs, a job he’s kept ever since.
For the last 12 years he’s worked as the trail grooming manager. Depending on snow conditions, when the weather is right, his crew grooms up to 400 acres a night, he said. Some of his staff have worked at the mountain 25 years or more. Some were his classmates in high school.
It’s a job that doesn’t get old, Ward said. He likes working at night. He likes having the mountain to himself. He likes the view from Grand, a run that even at night, offers a beautiful fall line and open view of the valley.
Ward spends his days at the mountain, too. He skis the areas he grooms looking for thin spots in the snow and checking conditions.
It’s the same mountain where Ward grew up skiing, but in 50 years things change.
When he started skiing, there weren’t snowmaking machines. Natural snow provided the cover. There weren’t crowds. Ward said he can’t remember ever waiting in a lift line as a kid.
The first season the mountain opened there were only 22,000 skier days, Anna Cole, a spokesperson with Jackson Hole Mountain Resort said. In 2013-2014, the resort saw a record 563,631 skier days.
Today 13 lifts service 2,500 acres.
The town of Jackson exploded after the resort opened, Ward said. Suddenly winters weren’t quiet and lonely, and there were plenty of options for activities.
But Ward still chooses to ski. It’s like therapy, he said. Even with the crowds, he likes to clear his mind as he carves down the mountain.
As a kid his favorite run was St. Johns off the Apres Vous chairlift. He still likes it. But this year he thinks he’ll have a new favorite, the Crags run off the new Teton Lift, scheduled to open Dec. 19.
The new lift is the first inbounds expansion on the mountain since 1998 and will carry 2,000 skiers an hour up 1,650 vertical feet.
From the Crags you can see to the north into Grand Teton National Park. You can even make out Jackson Lake, he said. He knows. While he hasn’t skied it yet, he’s groomed it.