Book Review: Jackson Hole Backcountry Skier's Guide South

Thomas Turiano
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If you’re looking for a holiday present for the backcountry skier in your life, Jackson Hole Backcountry Skier’s Guide: South is the most exhaustive guide to Jackson Hole’s backcountry ever (and it’s just the first volume).

And while the $95 price tag for the book, the latest by ski mountaineer and guide Tom Turiano, might seem a tad high (I paid less for my first pair of backcountry skis, a mint-green pair of now-defunct Tua Sumos that cost $75 at Jackson Hole’s annual ski swap), the guide is a bargain, considering that it covers upwards of 1,000 routes in Wyoming’s southern Tetons, Snake Rivers, Caribous, the western Salt River Range, the southern Gros Ventre, and the southeastern Winds.

Feel free to double-check my math, but that comes out to less than $.10 per ski line.

Cracking the spine of this hardcover, I had high expectations. (Also, my biceps were prepped for a mini-workout: Including a 10-page index, Jackson Hole: South is 406 pages, and weighs in at a hefty two-and-a-half pounds). I was already impressed by the comprehensiveness of and fine writing in Turiano’s two prior books: Teton Skiing: A History and Guide (1995) and Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone: A Mountaineering History and Guide (2003 and now out-of-print with copies selling on eBay and Amazon for upwards of $400!).

On the inside front jacket, a blurb by Bill Briggs, the first person to ski the Grand Teton and a member of the National Ski Hall of Fame, calls the book “a Bible for backcountry skiers.” He goes on to write, “the extent and depth of coverage is excellent… It is a seminal foundation,” and Turiano is a “visionary.”

Having spent the last month poring over its pages—yes, it’s taken me that long to get through it—I agree. Although I’d call Jackson Hole: South an encyclopedia rather than a Bible.

It certainly transcends a description as a guidebook, which would do Turiano’s work on it a disservice. After all, he’s been percolating on this idea since 1995, has aggressively researched it for more than a decade, and spent several years writing it. “You have to make it a priority to go somewhere different every time you ski,” Turiano says about how he’s managed to cover so much terrain. “I knew it would take a while to do all the research—both outside and with history—that I needed to for this book.”

Thomas Turiano

Also, a guidebook is something you can imagine carrying with you while adventuring. This hefty hardback, on the contrary, is not something you will ever take out skiing.

Instead, it's about the closest thing you can get to being out there. I read the book when there was no skiing in my near future. I read it while eating breakfast and before going to bed. Yes, I was flagging lines that sounded particularly appealing for future adventures, but even if I wasn’t, it still made for a great read.

And, with history and geology mixed in with route descriptions and more than 500 photos and virtual renderings, Jackson Hole: South is not a resource just for backcountry skiers. Anyone interested in the history of the mountains around the valley will enjoy it. (If you fall in this group, tell me you haven’t wondered how Mt. Elly, on the south side of Teton Pass got its name. Turiano explains on page 36).

“I believe if you’re going to write a book about a place you have the responsibility to do that place and the people that came before justice,” Turiano says. “If you’re not going to educate, what’s the point?”

And therein is the sweet spot of the book: Educating winter backcountry explorers about terrain they may not even know exists. The book covers plenty of runs with long, consistent pitches, and then, because it has upwards of 1,000 lines, it has descriptions for every other kind of line imaginable.

Turiano says he had a simple test for deciding which mountains and lines to include: “If it was worthy to pique my interest, it was worthy for the book.” Turiano’s interest is most often piqued by sparsely populated mountains and lines that have a consistent pitch.

Moonlit backcountry skiing in Jackson Hole
Moonlit backcountry skiing in Jackson Hole Zach Dischner

Following an introduction with sections on how to select an objective, deal with avalanches, cross lakes and rivers, encounter wildlife, etc., Chapter 1 digs into  Teton Pass South.  Like me, many valley backcountry skiers probably consider themselves fairly familiar with this terrain. But I picked up some fascinating knowledge about it, such as runs called Devils Slide and Tittylympics.

In addition, I knew Neil Rafferty had put a lift up Telemark Bowl in the 1940s, but I didn’t know Betty Woolsey and Margaret Schultz had guided Trail Creek Ranch guests skiing on Teton Pass. Many of the runs up there were named in honor of these intrepid guests.

Neither did I know there was so much skiing off Mt. Elly.

If you like to explore and search out lines you might only see one other party on, the book only gets better from there. And although backcountry skiers with a snowmobile will get the most from the book, as many of the routes require one for access if you want to do them in a day, there are still plenty of options if you don't have a snowmobile.

Still, some of the done-in-a-day-with-a-snowmobile areas look so good you might find yourself planning an overnight ski trip. At the very least, you're almost guaranteed to be anticipating the 2014/2015 season in Jackson Hole like never before.

Jackson Hole Backcountry Skier’s Guide: South is available at SelectPeaks.com, in backcountry ski shops, and at Valley Bookstore in Jackson Hole.

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