Award-winning film Swift. Silent. Deep. opens floodgate of memories of Jackson Hole Air Force

Posted By: The Ski Channel on February 3, 2010 7:02 am

Thanks to Steve Casimiro for finding this gem and re-posting it on The Adventure Life.

Thanks to the recent release of the ski documentary “Swift. Silent. Deep.“, the Jackson Hole Air Force is back in the headlines. This profile of the Air Force originally appeared in Powder Magazine in 2005.

It’s February 2004 and twenty members of the Jackson Hole Air Force, skiing’s biggest underground ski fraternity, are clustered at the top of Rendezvous Peak in the sun, preparing to go out of bounds. The Tetons stretch north and south, the valley lies 4,000 feet below, and tourists meander before testing their legs in Rendezvous Bowl. It seems a Jackson day like any other, except for this gathering, which is a reunion of sorts for locals who see each other around town but rarely ski together. Unlike traditional Air Force bombing runs, however, there’s nothing furtive about the cluster on the wooden deck at Corbet’s Cabin, other than the general air of surreptitiousness that hangs over chronic poachers. A patroller walks by with skis in hand, takes in the crowd, shakes his head, and mutters, “Trouble,” which generates good-natured laughs.

Times have changed for the Jackson Hole Air Force. This is a crew that ducked ropes and broke laws and violated the resort’s strict boundary policy for years. A gang of scofflaws that eavesdropped on the ski patrol’s radio channels, built on-hill huts to hide from prying eyes, and led their nemeses on dangerous high-speed chases through the thick lodgpole pines of Jackson Hole’s backcountry. This is group that cultivated a reputation for secrecy, sneakiness, and wanton poaching, that snuck O.B. under the cover of storms and taunted patrollers, and yet there they are, chilling in the sun, chatting with the red jackets, gathered for the benefit of a magazine story.

A few minutes later, chief instigator Benny Wilson makes a move toward his skis and everyone else follows suit. Their clothes are old-school—lots of snug, well-worn Patagonia is draped over forty- and fifty-something bodies—but the skis are fat and modern. They click into bindings, pole away from the deck, and dive-bomb East Ridge, turning the reunion into a Chinese downhill as they blow past Corbet’s and S&S couloirs and haul around the corner into Tensleep Bowl at mach three. Snow is flying, bodies hurtle past, it’s the mayhem of a powder day in packed powder conditions, twenty of Jackson’s finest skiers charging for the boundary in clear sight of the tram. But instead of a rope to duck, the boundary is open, wide open and legal, and instead of a troller hot on their heels, there’s one at their head—longtime Air Forcer Kevin Brazell, who crossed to the other side. Somewhere in the pack is a videographer, there to grab the first official gathering of the Air Force in, well, ever. For the Jackson Hole Air Force, times have changed indeed.

In 1989, the skis were skinny, the snow was fat, and the slopes beyond the northern boundary of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort were a rope-ducking no-man’s land of cliffs, closeouts, and mandatory airs, a sharply tilted terra incognita where getting caught in an avalanche was a real possibility and having your pass pulled was the least of your worries. As a visitor, you could only lean against the rope and peer into the depths of Granite Canyon, wondering. The boundary was locked tight, the patrol militantly anti-poach, the terrain a complex jumble of trouble lying in wait for the ignorant and the cold snowpack lurking with instability. Locals called Granite Canyon the dark side, and for good reason: Those north-facing shadowlands held secrets not everyone should know.

A few skiers, it was said, had teased some of the mystery out of Granite. If you skied around Jackson long enough, you’d hear rumors about a posse of locals who made exploratory probes into the unknown terrain, who flaunted the boundary and eluded the patrol in search of the finest snow, but never talked about it, keeping things instead on the QT. “Air Force,” is all anyone would say, as if that was sufficient explanation for the mysterious tracks leading into the woods. If you paid attention in the tram line, you might begin to notice the patches on packs or a tiny little diamond pin on a goggle strap…a skull with crossed ski poles and the words “Swift. Silent. Deep. 1st Tracks OB. JHAF.” Ask the wearers what they meant and they’d probably just smile a knowing smile and change the subject. One day in January of that year, I was skiing with a local on the inbounds hardpack when he offered to take me “somewhere else”. He used a tone that implied that “somewhere else” wasn’t one of Jackson’s official trails to the base. I said sure, and as clock drifted toward 4:00 we made our way to the Apres Vous lift, caught one of the last chairs of the day, and then slid out along the left resort boundary. He turned into the Granite woods and disappeared from sight, moving quickly, saying nothing, and I followed silently, downward, through blissfully deep snow. Bird-dogging him the whole way, we crested a little spine, peeled right into a gully, and were swallowed by waist-deep blower. The vertical was solid, the turns unreal, the mix of trees and rocks intense. Too soon, we hit a traverse, made our way back to the hill, and slipped onto a trail at the bottom in the gathering twilight.

I felt like I’d been transported to another dimension or had an out of body experience, and when I asked if he was Air Force and he said yep, the group came alive right before me. These weren’t just rumors or ghosts, but real people risking their season passes, the wrath of their neighbors, and perhaps even their lives in pursuit of the elusive goal of perfect skiing. In that light, the Jackson Hole Air Force seemed like the coolest underground ski fraternity in the wide world of skiing. And the more I collected bits and pieces of Air Force lore, the cooler it seemed.

Members were hand-picked and if you tried to join you were even less likely to get in. Membership arrived only when other members decided you were worthy, either through your heroics on skis or pursuit of O.B. or for lighting it up day after day on the toughest mountain in the United States. There wasn’t much fuss made over initiation, either: A member most likely would hand you a patch as you were standing in the tram line, not say a word about it, and that was it, you were in. There were no functions, no meetings, no parties, no dues, not the slightest bit of organization. The Jackson Hole Air Force was simply a common identity, a way of recognizing real commitment and incredible skiing. And well, yes, it was a bit of bird-flipping at those closed signs, too.

The Air Force has its roots in Benny Wilson, and Benny Wilson has his roots in Jackson Hole. Wilson’s dad, who sold type metal for printing presses in Cleveland, grew tired of hauling his family of seven around to ski, so he bought land in Teton Village and in 1966 opened the Hostel X, giving skiers rooms at ten bucks a night (2004 rate: $15 a night if you share with three others). Wilson was just a grom in Jackson’s early days, and he also competed on Jackson’s freestyle team, which called itself the Jackson Air Force for its obsession with hang time.

“We were always going past the landings and going too big for the judges,” says Wilson, “and then we’d get scored low because they thought we were out of control.”

Back in the day, the “air force” was a label laid loosely on rippers, nothing formal, but in the early 1980s it settled more firmly on Benny and his friends. “Benny told me that Lonnie Ball, an old Jackson patroller, used to say ‘Jackson Hole Air Force’ whenever someone was out skiing and charging,” says Howard Henderson, one of the earliest members of the Air Force. “And Benny had this thing going called the Teton Village Mafia, him and a bunch of guys who lived in the village…but then he started calling it the Jackson Hole Air Force and he explained to me that it’s all about skiing down, taking air, skiing some more, then taking more air, and continuing. It was this whole Jackson Hole concept of a continuous 4,000-vertical-foot run. The air’s only cool if no one sees it and it’s just in the middle your run.”Wilson sketched out the Air Force logo and, inspired by a phrase from his stint in the Marines, came up with “swift, silent, and deep.” He ordered patches and pins and then he handed them to his friends. The Air Force had begun to take form.

Posses of rippers are nothing new to skiing, nor are self-appointed tribal names, but the patches and pins and slogan nurtured a common identification among Air Force members that was unique—and uniquely Jackson. The breadth and depth and challenge of the mountain has long fostered a certain low-key toughness, and the Air Force, although certainly calling attention to itself by flying the colors, let the tracks speak for themselves while encouraging members to push the boundaries of skiing both literally and figuratively. “The rule was, keep your mouth shut,” says Jason Tattersall, a second-generation member who arrived in Jackson in 1988, “but keep teeing off.”

Rumors spread beyond the Teton Valley about the renegade powder hounds, but the Air Force commitment to staying mum kept them just that, rumors, and a small local mystique grew to become a kind of folk legend, fanned by imagination and nurtured by the black hole of silence. The Air Force, whatever it might really be, was seen as a liberating force against the tyranny of closed boundaries that barred skiers from accessing their public lands, a shadowy band of freedom fighters risking their skiing in the pursuit of freshies. Of course, the Air Forcers weren’t the only ones going O.B.— others were poaching, and the patrol did open the boundary occasionally in the spring—and they were motivated selfishly and not for the greater good, but nonetheless they spearheaded the charge that led to deeper knowledge of both sides of Jackson’s ropes. Under cover of wind and blizzards, they set stealthy but safe boot tracks that are still used today, populated what’s known as Paranoid Ridge, on the northern side of the resort, for its shelter from the patrol, and pioneered and named many of the runs, such as the Air Force Couloirs in Granite.

The patrol didn’t take lightly to the Air Force’s forays into Granite or anywhere else, especially since it was rubbed in their faces on every crowded tram, when they’d come eye to eye with the not-so-subtle “screw you” of an Air Force patch a few inches away, and as the Air Force continued to press the boundary, the patrol’s mission of mountain safety eventually became overshadowed by the policing of the borders.

“It was our biggest issue,” says longtime patrol director Corky Ward. “The unknown fact for most of the Air Force members is that it wasn’t ski corp. policy that we monitor the boundaries. It was the Forest Service policy. In order for us to maintain our special-use permit, we had to go out and patrol the boundaries and keep people inside. And it was something that most of us hated to do…there were just a few people on the ski patrol who took it upon themselves as a personal challenge, as a personal gripe. It wasn’t a game to them, it was personal.”

As the number of outlaws grew and the rope-ducking became more brazen, the cat and mouse between patroller and poacher escalated. Benny Wilson hiked the hill in the summer time and built a hut from logs atop the Moran Woods where the Air Force could lurk until the coast was clear or patrol had finished sweep. The Forest Service tore it down, so he built another. Members started listening to ski-patrol radio frequencies to learn where trollers were lurking and the ski patrol responded with transmissions of false locations. Ward sometimes instructed patrollers to hide in the woods at prime poaching spots.

“About half of the patrol thought the Air Force was cool,” says Howard Henderson, “and about half was psyched to bust us.” At each bust, a patroller would snip a corner of your season pass—you got three snips before your pass was pulled.

Back and forth went the parries. In 1998, at the annual ski patrol ball, a video was screened showing an effigy of an Air Force member being thrown down the hill and off the cliff next to Corbet’s (“It was weird. It was violent,” says an observer). Benny Wilson dragged a homemade coffin filled with closed boundary signs into the Mangy Moose and deposited it in front of a table of patrollers. He still tools around in a knit hat that says, “Open Area” on the back (i.e., everything in front of the Open sign is legal), and last winter I also saw a patroller sporting a beanie that said, “Closed until trashed.” Any one of these incidents might have been passed off as run-of-the-mill smack-talk and relatively harmless fun, except that collectively they were clear signs of the escalating tension. The mood in the tram grew taut as antagonists stood locked in the big red box fifteen minutes at a time

Eventually, the conflict exploded, coming to a head in 1997 in an incident that made headlines in ski pubs throughout North America and rattled whatever complacency the Air Force might have had about the consequences of its actions.

There was no more volatile pair of adversaries than Doug Coombs, a relentless poacher who was also a mountain employee by virtue of his Steep Camp learning clinics, and Peter McKay, a patroller nicknamed Dr. No. Coombs was caught inflagrante on numerous occasions and given increasingly stern warnings—his popularity and high profile in magazines, films, and the ski culture the only things saving his neck from the noose—and McKay made it his personal mission to catch Coombs in a situation where he couldn’t be pardoned by his patrons in the ski corp. One stormy day, it finally happened: Coombs skied along the line of an in-bounds closure. McKay, gunning for the skier, caught him on the far side of the line, in the off-limits zone. Coombs insisted he was on the proper side of the line and that a closed sign had fallen down or been removed, McKay argued otherwise, and resort management sided with the patrol. Over a cry of protest from local skiers, employees and media, Coombs lost his pass and his job and was banned from skiing Jackson Hole.

Coombs’s banishment was widely seen as an overly harsh punishment, but if the forced exile got the Air Force’s attention, most saw the incident as a personal, rather than blanket, morality tale, and the poaching continued apace. In hindsight, however, Coombs’s tossing resonates as the first major blow to the Air Force’s seemingly untouchable mystique; other members had lost passes, but nothing had struck with this magnitude. One year later, there was another development that impacted the Air Force, something that changed the nature of the group forever.By 1998, backcountry use in North America was booming. New alpine-touring gear was hitting the shores from Europe, tele was going off thanks to plastic boots, transceiver sales were zipping skyward. Resorts such as Aspen Highlands, Telluride, even Keystone finally realized that not all skiers want to be spoon-fed groomers, and they fell over themselves to open adventure zones of semi-off-piste terrain. In the midst of this glasnost, the Teton Valley powers-that-be had a come-to-Jesus moment and, in December 1998, in conjunction with Grand Teton National Park, the U.S. Forest Service, and local search and rescue, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort fired up its lifts and opened its boundary to legal backcountry access.

Overnight, Jackson regained the superstar status that had been co-opted by resorts with open-boundaries such as Whistler and Blackcomb and other ultra-rad and wide-open places like the Chugach, and that first season skiers flocked to sample the once-forbidden fruit. Jackson was back in a big way.

And yet, with the open boundary—the best gift it could imagine–the Air Force almost immediately started to change. It had been born from a free-flowing, top-to-bottom style of big-mountain skiing, but the real thread that held it together, the powerful connective force that united its disparate skiers, was its rapturous embrace of renegade poaching. It wasn’t just the pursuit of first tracks that made the Air Force special, it was the illegality of its pursuits. Outlaw status made it cool. And what is a rebel group without the very thing it’s been rebelling against? Without its renegade identity, the Air Force became…what? An above-ground ski fraternity without parties? A nice idea whose time had come and gone?

In this new climate of openness, where going O.B. was sweet but not extraordinary, the membership guidelines became slippery—if the patches weren’t celebrating a certain rum-running, bootlegging attitude, what were they celebrating? People who might never have been considered for membership back in the day, such as some of Teton Gravity Research’s silver-haired financial backers, started sporting the Air Force flag. Even members agree that whatever the Air Force is, it’s lost the cachet it once had.

“Back in the day, it was a pretty big deal,” says John Gute, a member in the group since the ’80s. “It was an honor to be recognized not just for your ability but for your attitude, too. But now…well, you know ‘swift, silent, deep’? With the boundary open, I like to say it’s ‘slow, loud, and hammered.’ ”

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the post-boundary Air Force is the perception that the patches are being sold to anyone who wants one. Even Corky Ward says, “You know, you can buy the patches now.” Actually, you can’t. You can buy an Air Force hat or t-shirt at the Hostel, but the patches have to be earned. Still, if the patrol director and other locals think you can join the club merely by slapping down a few bucks, it isn’t a ringing endorsement for the image of exclusivity that was once a hallmark of the band of bros.

But the Air Force members themselves seem to care less what outsiders think. The old Air Forcers seem to wear their membership lightly, with the understanding that the patch was never an award or gift or grand sweeping statement, it was simply recognition of something you should already know, that you were a skier of uncommon commitment. It’s true there are more Air Force members today, they say, maybe that’s because there are more skiers of uncommon commitment. The conditions that spawned the Air Force have changed, but its underlying philosophy hasn’t.

A tram glides overhead as the reunion crew heads up the Tensleep wall on the northwest boundary of the resort. Snow is on the way, and the light is getting flatter. The pace is strong, the skiers clumped in bunches along the ridge. The front group, lead by Brazell and Tattersall, splits right toward the Air Force hut, while the next group, with Benny Wilson out front, aims left, toward the head of Granite Canyon. I follow Wilson and the tracks of a dozen others into the woods, through an area known as the Seven Dwarfs. We come upon a series of chutes that start tight and stay tight before opening into aprons like upside down Champagne flutes.

Four of us take our turns dropping into one that ends with a sweeping righthander, and then we make our down canyon, to the right, traversing while we descend, an angled roller coaster across gully, ridge, gully, and then we fall-line it into a broad avalanche chute, a shallow pipe that seems to run forever, one of the original Air Force couloirs. Three skiers are plowing through thick powder that metamorphs into creamy cheese on the lower third, but out of the original twenty, that’s it. The rest are nowhere to be seen. Then we hit the bottom, cross the creek bed, and there they are: A group of ten, with more coming out of the woods every second. They come from practically every direction, at all speeds, some silent, some swift, some deep, and then they’re all back together, laughing, joking, there at the bottom of the canyon they pioneered.