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PIONEERS OF TETON PASS


With each exhalation, the pack horses huffed clouds of steam into the frigid air as they trudged up through the snow. The carriage sled lurched ahead as the driver called, “up, up, up, up!” Sixteen-year-old Fred Brown sat on the floor of the covered wagon, resting his arm on a sack of mail. An hour earlier back in his hometown of Wilson, Wyoming, the driver had looked at him long and hard when the boy asked if he could hitch a ride to the top of Teton Pass.


“You headed to Victor?” the driver asked.


“No…just to the top.”


“Alright, well, get on in there then.”


Brown now studied the snow-caked landscape gliding by the carriage window. The trees drooped under the heavy layers of snow from last night’s storm. He could almost hear their bows moaning under the weight of it all. Yet even with the huffing of the horses and the snapping of the reins against their hides, the scene was profoundly quiet.


They were climbing up Teton Pass, an old trapper’s trail that now served as Jackson Hole, Wyoming’s connection to the railroad towns of Idaho—the most important connection to the outside world. The route snaked up 8,000-feet of mountain wilderness wedged between Wyoming and Idaho. Back in 1889, it took the first wagons two weeks to make this trip up and over the Pass. The crude wagon track had since been upgraded to a road that was now buried in snow. Brown knew that with every minute he sat in the wagon, the further and further he pulled away from the safety of home. Just the thought of it gripped his chest with exhilaration and fear.


“Whoa! Whooooa!” the driver called out to his horses.


The carriage creaked to a stop.


“Alright kid. This is it…the top.”


Brown climbed out of the covered wagon. The cold immediately fogged his wire rim glasses. He plucked them off his face and quickly cleaned them in his flannel shirt. He slipped them back on and then took in his surroundings. Sunlight ripped through the high-alpine trees, making the snow glitter in the frigid air. Apart from a few rabbit tracks, the snow lay untouched in a pristine sheet of white that went on and on until it seemed to just vanish off the edge of the earth.


The boy drew a long breath and then reached into the carriage and pulled out two skinny planks of wood and pair of bamboo rods. He tightened the laces of his leather boots and then walked out to the side of the caravan, catching the eye of the driver.


“What in the...son, what are you fixing to do here?”


“I’m skiing,” Brown replied.


“Skiing?”


The boy just nodded and then knelt to fasten his boots to the skis.

The driver was dumbfounded. After all, this was 1931 in Wyoming and skiing Teton Pass for kicks was hardly a normal activity. Mailmen had been skiing the mail over Teton Pass since the early 1870s, but it was out of necessity, not recreation. Around the time Fred Brown was born, two postmen had been killed in avalanches on Teton Pass. Nevertheless, when the US Post Office inquired whether any locals would be willing to carry the mail over the Pass in the winter months, Brown volunteered. With the help of his brother, he made his own skis from barrel staves and taught himself to make turns using Otto Schniebs’s book, Modern Ski Technique. But there were no packages for him to deliver today—Brown was here to ski solely for the sake of skiing.


A generation earlier, skiing took root in this rugged corner of Wyoming when the first fur trappers found their way into the shadows of the Tetons. To navigate through the snow, they made skis out of Douglass fir, hewing the trees down to heavy planks sometimes twelve feet long. Instead of two poles, they felled a single sapling that they used to push themselves through the snow and to stop. Later, bees wax, elk fat and pine pitch were lathered on the bottoms of the skis to make them glide better, and they’d tie rope around them to climb up the Pass.


Fred Brown was content with his makeshift skis. With them latched tightly to his boots, he slid his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and then pulled his stocking cap tightly over his ears. “Hey,” he called to the driver. “Thanks again.” The man just stared back at the boy and then stuffed an apple into the mouth of his lead horse. When he looked back, Fred Brown was gone.


The boy moved methodically down the slope from tree to tree, his knees breaking through the snow like the bow of a ship forging through unchartered seas. He took mental snapshots as he went, piecing together each stretch in hopes of recreating them on paper when he got home. The Pass was ostensibly an extension of Brown’s backyard. In 1934, his parents purchased property at the base of Teton Pass and opened one of the first dude ranches in Jackson Hole to stay open in the winter.


The Brown’s Teton Pass Ranch was a pioneering endeavor at the time, but then again the family had a history of revolutionary thinking. Fred Brown traced his lineage back to John Brown, the radical abolitionist who famously led an armed slave uprising in 1859. Brown was wounded in the revolt and eventually hung for treason. Later in life, Fred Brown became a communist living in Cuba, this after studying in Chicago and mastering three languages. But now as he moved through the snow on Teton Pass, the only thing on Fred Brown’s mind was skiing.


He came to a stop on a ridge line. Snow clung to his wool pant legs. Brown pulled off his glasses, cleaned them and then surveyed his surroundings again. The peaks went on and on with not another person in sight. Jackson Hole was still years away from installing its first chairlift, but from where Fred Brown was perched in the snow, he could see the future to come. He imagined Teton Pass as a recreational ski destination that would draw people from around the country. Standing on that ridge line on Teton Pass, Fred Brown saw the limitless potential these mountains held, and he was going to dedicate his life to see how deep they went.


But he would not be alone.


*


Betty Woolsey stuck to Fred Brown’s tracks like a shadow. They whooshed from tree to tree, threading the gaps between their bows with synchronized precision. Woolsey admired the confidence in Brown’s turns, how he linked his way down the mountain with a certainty that came from skiing this place since his youth. Though he still possessed the same enthusiasm, Brown was no longer a kid hitching rides on the mail sleigh.


The year was 1941 and Fred Brown was now a veritable statesman in the emerging Jackson Hole ski scene. He’d marked first descents down Rendezvous Mountain and Teton National Park. As president of the Jackson Hole Ski Club, Brown convinced the Dartmouth Ski team to spend a week at his family’s lodge and ski Teton Pass for an exhibition that brought hundreds up from Jackson to watch. Fred Brown wanted to turn Teton Pass into a ski destination, and now he was skiing with someone who would help put it on the map.


In the late 1930s, Betty Woolsey was the definition of a ski star. After learning to mountaineer and ski in the Alps, she became a captain of the US ski team in the 1936 Olympics, or the “Nazi Olympics” as she often called them. Three years later, she was crowned the U.S. downhill champion and became the toast of ski towns from Mount Hood to Sun Valley. But Woolsey eventually grew restless with resort life. After the Olympics were cancelled in 1940 due to World War II, she followed a group of friends on a trip to Jackson Hole where she fell madly in love with Teton Pass.


Brown broke through the tree line and came to a stop along a ridge. Woolsey pulled up alongside him. “That’s Glory Bowl,” he told her. Four football fields of untouched snow stared back at them, just begging to be skied. Woolsey studied the bowl and spotted avalanche debris at the bottom. From where they were standing, the chunks of snow looked as harmless as spilled candle wax. But they both were well aware that avalanches weren’t to be trifled with on Teton Pass. Scores of people had been killed by their wrath since the first settlers arrived. In 1932, a fourteen-year-old was buried under forty feet of snow when an avalanche ripped down Teton Pass. They didn’t find his body until the following spring.


Betty Woolsey had a sixth sense for snow. Maybe she inherited it from her father, a former Forest Service ranger in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Or maybe she learned it from her guides in Chamonix who taught her to ski. Whomever or wherever it came from, Betty Woolsey could sniff out instability in the snowpack like few others could. “Let’s stick to the trees,” she said to Brown. He nodded and then took off again down the ridge.


This would be one of many runs Betty Woolsey and Fred Brown would share on Teton Pass. In 1943, she purchased a property at the base of the Pass and began operating it as a dude ranch known as Trail Creek Ranch. For the first few years, she pin-balled back and forth to Trail Creek Ranch and New York City, where she was serving as the editor of Skiing Illustrated. Eventually Woolsey moved fulltime to Trail Creek and began inviting her former Olympic teammates and friends from New York City to stay with her and ski Teton Pass. Much like Fred Brown in the early days, Woolsey and her friends hopped on the mail truck and made laps back down to Trail Creek.


In the 1940s and 50s, the thought of skiing Teton Pass was still absurd to average folks in Jackson Hole. But that suited Woolsey just fine. Unlike Brown, who hoped to someday turn Teton Pass into a lift-accessible ski destination, Woolsey wanted to keep it as her secret stash. She spent her life guiding hundreds of guests down her favorite runs, giving them names that would remain long after she was gone. Of all the partners she’d ski with, however, Fred Brown always remained one of her favorites. While they didn’t know it at the time, together Fred Brown and Betty Woolsey would be remembered as the forbearers of the Teton Pass ski scene.

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