The elite resort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is doing all it can to make its wild peaks accessible for beginners.
The plane dips over Sleeping Indian ridge and lands on icy hard pack in Jackson Hole, a valley - or flat "hole" - that stretches 80 kilometres along the eastern side of the Teton mountain range. Flat snowfields stretch towards bright lights several kilometres away. The largest group pinpoint Jackson - a motel town that grew up as a staging post for summer coach tours to Yellowstone National Park at the dawn of mass tourism after the Second World War. The more distant ones belong to Teton Village at the base of Rendezvous Mountain massif, with many of the finest ski hills in the United States.
Jackson Hole lies in the heart of Wyoming cowboy country, a rural landscape of big pastures, stock barns and muddy pickup trucks. Generations of men born in the saddle have shared glorious wilderness with moose, elk and few pioneering powder skiers. In the 1980s, they were joined by Harrison Ford, looking for a spread where he could watch wild flowers grow in organic profusion and escape from Hollywood. Did he think it would be that easy?
Thirty years later, the area is full of gated communities containing elite homes. Regular visitors include Bill Clinton, Uma Thurman, Sandra Bullock, Robert De Niro and a host of top politicians and movie producers. Where celebrities roam, five-star hotels, fine dining and investment in ski lifts follow.
Historically, Rendezvous Mountain has been the main ski event, a big beast accessed by a scarlet cable car, the Bridger Gondola - even now, a rarity in a country that grew up on chairlifts. This one is branded with the resort's logo of a larger than life-size cowboy mounted on a rearing horse. As you rise up, staff spell out the nature of the challenge: expert skiers only, no shame in riding back down if you don't feel capable. Wrong, of course: you're entitled to look anxious as you shuffle out onto the landing dock, but there's no face-saving alternative to clipping in and launching into the void.
Rendezvous' challenge lies in its diversity. There is a choice of bowls, but picking the spot to jump off the rim determines the degree of difficulty. There are bumps in glades, some inviting, some extremely gnarly. There are extensive mogul fields and huge take-your-own-line adventure zones, notably the Hobacks that stretch over a series of ridges on the lower half of the mountain. And there are chutes galore, as tight and testing as you care to make them. Most famous of all is Corbet's Couloir, a cleft requiring a white-knuckle leap with a pinpoint turn in front of the rock at the bottom to stand up and survive. Nail that and everyone acknowledges you're the real deal.
Next stop for prime bragging rights is scaling Cody Peak near Teton Pass, the gateway to Idaho. Depending on fitness and motivation, the hike takes two to three hours, but the powder payoff in Cody and Rock Springs Bowls is legendry: Pucker Face, Talk is Cheap, No Shadows, Igneous Rocks; the names say it all.
None of this terrain is groomed, but there has always been a single broad velvety highway from top of Rendezvous to the base station that can be negotiated safely by the less experienced. Bridger, the central section of the mountain served by a gondola, is an encouraging intermediate playground, while Après Vous is a mellow zone, all the more perfect for beginners because its isolated location near the boundary with Teton National Park ensures privacy.
So much for tradition, but the resort's current mission is to landscape the mountain to broaden its appeal, a necessary adjustment to attract more people into the ever increasing number of beds. For the 2012-13 season, the new Caspar quad in the Bridger area has replaced the venerable triple chair, an investment that will speed up traffic on the expanded network of blue runs it serves. In conjunction with last year's major installation - a rolling, user friendly piste on what used to be a bumpy black down Lower Sublette ridge on the lower slopes of Rendezvous - it will go a long way towards taming the beast.
The familiar American dilemma - whether to ski-in, ski-out from a mountain resort or stay downtown to take advantage of the atmosphere and nightlife - is even more pronounced in Jackson Hole, if only because both are such tantalising options. The regular Start bus service makes short work of the 19km commute from Jackson to Teton Village, but as parking at the resort is free and easy, hiring a car is a warmer choice.
In winter, when it is only a quarter full, Jackson town retains its cowboy buzz in the main square surrounded by a boardwalk. Four illuminated arches made of elk antlers (that are naturally shed in the Elk Refuge down the road) mark the corners of the town square, while the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar has pride of place on one of the sides. With western saddles for seats, a rampant stuffed grizzly bear in a glass case, locals playing pool and dancing to live Western swing music, this is vintage "see and be seen", cowboy style.
Jackson town has lodgings to suit all pockets. The most famous is the Wort, a designated National Historic Landmark hotel dating back to 1941. The architecture is officially Tudor revival, though Henry VIII might struggle with such an alien interpretation of half-timbering. Located within a minute of the main square, it is warmly welcoming with live après ski music in the Silver Dollar Bar, named for the 2,032 silver dollars minted in 1921 and inlaid in the S shaped mahogany top.
Were it not for its obvious grandeur, the Rusty Parrot could be a hideaway forest cabin. As it is, its imposing timbers dominate a quiet street. When it opened 22 years ago, owner Ron Harrison wanted a name to match its iconic neighbours - the Mangy Moose bistro in Teton Village and the Blue Lion restaurant down the road. The moment he spotted a corroded bird in Sequoia National Park in California, he knew it was mission accomplished.
The Rusty Parrot, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is a boutique with fireplaces and whirlpools in the suites, L'Occitane in the bathrooms and teddy bears on the beds. The Wild Sage Restaurant specialises in creative American cooking: if it's good enough for Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino, it's good enough for me.
In Teton Village, the ultimate convenience is the Four Seasons Resort, dependable five-star luxury carved into the mountainside within moments of the Bridger Gondola and Jackson Hole rental store. Maximising quality slope time means a rise of nearly 900 vertical metres in seven minutes to the top of the gondola, the launch point for all the mountain has to offer.
That includes a speed lunch: graze for Idaho salt-baked potatoes, fresh grilled line fish, a variety of pho or home-made soup. The gondola also runs in the evening, taking diners wrapped in blankets up to Couloir, a gourmet restaurant masterminded by Wes Hamilton. The celebrated chef is proud of a farm to table policy that produces tenderloin of buffalo, Hudson Valley foie gras and Lava Lake lamb.
Amangani lies up a winding road between Jackson town and Teton Village. This gloriously isolated, all-suite Aman resort is neither town nor slope, but the designers were on form when they specified low bath tubs beside picturesque windows. A hot soak watching the sun go down over the Tetons after a day on the mountain is a memorable self indulgence.
One of Amangani's priorities is to provide an appropriate setting for the heads of state and captains of industries who gather regularly for summits and symposia. The spa is sumptuous, but reverential silence is requested. The food is delectable, but silver service and presentation impose impeccable table manners. It's a pleasure to roam elegant corridors showcasing smart art, but staff-guest ratios mean that you rarely have them to yourself.
The antithesis of Amangani is the yurt; not the exotic Mongolian felt variety but a more utilitarian version introduced in 2012 at the base of Rock Springs Canyon. The intrepid cruise in from Cody Bowl, while advanced skiers cross the Hobacks and make their way through the forest. Scott, our guide, lit the wood-burning stove and laid out sleeping bags on the beds around the yurt's sides before preparing a backcountry dinner on the propane stove. We took the precaution of taking a friend who plays the guitar and sang along under a million stars. All too soon, it was time for breakfast and another magical day on the hill.