The Bottomless Bucket List

Why Owen Leeper’s visit to Jackson Hole might just be permanent

The Bottomless Bucket List

Why Owen Leeper’s visit to Jackson Hole might just be permanent

Jackson Hole by the Numbers

Snowfall: 446 inches
Acreage: 2,500
Vert: 4,139 feet
Trails: 133
Lifts: 12
BC Gates: 7
Parks: 8

Trail Breakdown

Beginner: 10%
Advanced: 50%

Slope Aspects

North-facing: 60%
East-facing: 25%
South-facing: 13%
West-facing: 2%

When Owen Leeper first rolled through Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the winter of 2012-13, a massive snowstorm hit the area. Eye-opening snowfall is par for the course when it comes to playing Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR)—the ski area receives 446 inches of the fluffy stuff annually on average. But, this blizzard was of the epic sort that turned a routine ski trip pit stop into a fortuitous moment—a sign, if you will. The clear message for a “sendy” sort like Leeper: This was a goldmine of opportunity for next-level skiing.

Leeper spent three months on the road that season, trekking all around the western U.S. and British Columbia; in addition to seeking thrills, he sought to promote his new-at-the-time, custom ski pole company, Bold Poles. He enjoyed many memorable days in that stretch but the best snow he found was in Jackson. Leeper recalls, “It snowed about 40 inches in the three days we spent there. We skied the resort, the [resort-accessed] backcountry and we hiked [Teton Pass].

Then we went sled-skiing on the pass. It was all blower overhead powder run after run.” Three days, simply, was not going to cut it. So the next December, Leeper packed up his stuff, waved goodbye to his home in Colorado and headed to Wyoming. He lucked out on a place to live, found a job and got down to business, skiing over 100 days by the time the lifts stopped spinning. He produced a short film highlighting his season; it garnered north of 300,000 views. Suddenly, people were talking about “the Leeper kid from Jackson.”

Three years later, that momentum is still building. Leeper has made a name for himself as a big-mountain maestro and social media darling, gathered an impressive roster of sponsors and ensconced himself in one of the few coveted spots as a JHMR athlete.

It’s not the first time moving to Jackson has changed someone’s life, on the contrary, it’s an oft-repeated theme. Despite its relative isolation, the resort has everything a motivated skier needs to push limits. JHMR—affectionately referred to as ‘the village’ by locals—has long been known for its steeps, massive runs, couloirs and cliffs aplenty. Also appreciated by skiers is the fact that this terrain is easily, quickly accessible, thanks in part to the iconic red tram, a big red box of all-encompassing stoke.

The tram is by far the most visible of the 12 lifts at JHMR and with 4,139 feet of vertical rise in one ride, you can’t go wrong lapping it all day. What you consider a strong skier, a big day or average on-snow skills will all change, simply because the tram and the terrain it services force skiers to step it up, get faster, be tougher and go bigger, often, without even consciously realizing it.

Photo: Fred Marmsater

Furthermore, JHMR’s varied terrain and plentiful snow allows skiers to take advantage of something not many other resorts can offer: hair-raising, inbounds big-mountain terrain and plenty of technical features without the stresses of assessing and dealing with unstable snow and avalanche danger—mandatory tasks for out-of-bounds travelers.

“I ski at the village pretty much everyday during the winter,” says Leeper. “What I love about it is that it’s all avalanche-controlled; you can go up to Casper or the Crags, you know it’s been bombed so you can go ski and hit big airs, whatever you want. Some of my favorite zones are definitely inbounds.”

Leeper got to know the village inside and out his first season. “I didn’t really know anyone here, so I just went out and skied by myself a lot,” he says. “I stayed mostly inbounds, there were cliffs all over the place, and it snowed every day. I had a job at the Four Seasons at the base, serving $25 hamburgers at lunch… but I usually managed to trade my lunch shifts for dinner shifts and ski all day before work.”

Classic goals such as skiing Corbet’s, S&S and Cody Peak were high on the list, but not in an everyday way. “I had a big goal to throw a backflip into Corbet’s, so one flat-light day, there were 15 inches of new snow and a lot of wind, so it was super filled in. I handed my GoPro to an out-of-towner standing at the edge and asked him to film me. I lined it up and went for it, and then he skied around Corbet’s and brought my camera back to me. He was so stoked. I put it in the season edit.”

Although a healthy dose of creativity, GoPros and a few helpful tourists took the place of a “crew” for most of that first season, by spring, Leeper began to find his niche. When the resort ceased its winter operations, he’d acquired a go-to squad of solid, ambitious skiers, including his now-girlfriend, ski mountaineer and racer Meredith Edwards. He’d also lined up a new, “better” job working a few nights a week at Local—a restaurant in town that’s a hub for grabbing a beer, a bite and some socializing; the new gig provided cash to pay bills and kept the daytime schedule free for adventures.

Photo: Greg Von Doersten

Like most newcomers to Jackson, it took a few months for Leeper to gain a solid understanding of Jackson’s unique ski culture.  Most local skiers maintain an under-the-radar mindset and can be reserved in sharing their favorite zones. You might not be able to tell who’s doing what, but the tracks laid out on serious lines let any onlooker know what the locals are up to, and the passion behind this kind of skiing is enough to inspire anyone. And of course, for rippers like Leeper, the right set of shred buddies is just a matter of figuring out who is skiing the things you want to ski… and putting in the effort to make some new friends.

Jackson Hole has long been known for producing famous athletes, but it’s also celebrated for this strong contingent of A-level skiers who do their thing just for fun. This faction traces its roots to the Jackson Hole Air Force—a group of limit-pushing two-plankers who eventually gained fame precisely for trying to avoid it. You’ll never hear about the best powder stashes from the best of the locals, but if you’re fast enough, you might just be able to follow them to the goods.

“There are so many talented skiers here. You are always getting pushed. Everyone is here for the same reason, really excited to be on the snow and it makes a great atmosphere. You have all the old Air Force guys out there sending it down big lines and not saying anything about it. Or guys like Wild Bill [a local legend], dropping into S&S at 62 years old,” said Leeper. For folks who think Corbet’s looks scary, S&S is its vastly less-popular neighboring couloir, uncrowded for good reason: There’s almost no room for error, with a super-narrow entry into a 90-degree turn in the air, and, at the smallest you can take it, about a 20-foot drop onto a flat-ish landing between two cliff walls. Then, you need to hold it together for another turn or two before you’re home free.

The combination of mind-bogglingly-challenging inbounds terrain, the easy access and the collective stoke of the place made Leeper’s first season in Jackson the best he’d ever had. “In the first few months skiing JHMR, I progressed more in my skiing than I had over the past six or seven years prior. I didn’t have a ski career when I moved here, and now, it’s brought me a lot of opportunities,” he explains. One idea filled his head at the end of that first winter that still hasn’t faded: He plans to stick around for a while.

Jackson offers so much that even long-time locals still have tick lists, some inbounds, and plenty out of bounds. And even after three seasons of skiing everyday in Jackson, Leeper has more than a few major objectives he’d like to get his skis pointed down. Armed with solid, capable ski buddies who are also competent in the backcountry, the only things stopping him are the right circumstances. “Not getting injured is a big thing for me, so I wait for perfect conditions to drop these big airs. I still have a whole list of lines in Jackson that I want to ski,” he says. “I’ve never skied zones like the North Shore [in the JHMR backcountry]. You need a big year and super stability, as it usually goes wall-to-wall if there is an avalanche.”

While they say patience is a virtue, in a place like Jackson, it also means that as a skier, there will always be another goal on the list to attain. Whether it’s sending classics like Corbet’s from bigger, scarier launch points after a heavy storm or keeping an eye on the vast amount of backcountry lines that only come into form every now and then, it’s impossible to say you’ve done everything in Jackson. That only adds to the beauty of the ski area: Both the ski lines and each skier’s ability change every season, creating a magical place where no one knows the meaning of the word boredom.

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