Apart from the 4,139-foot vertical drop, 2,500-acres of in-bounds terrain, and dizzyingly high elevation, the Holderness School Freeride team felt right at home when they visited Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in early January.
Not only did students work to balance skiing and academics (their dedicated teachers back at Holderness helped them stay current with their schoolwork, and their onsite coaches ran a three-hour study hall every evening) but people knew who they were. Multiple times a day – in lift lines, at the airport, in town – people would recognize the Holderness School logo on their jackets and share their own connection to the school – whether they had gone to Holderness themselves or knew a friend or close family member who had.
“In the airport and on the hill, we met two Board members, probably a dozen alumni, and had more than 30 interactions,” said Head Freeride Coach Eli Sobel. “It was fun to be in Jackson Hole and have people be like ‘Oh, Holderness, all right!” It felt like they knew we could ski and that we meant business.”
We recently had the chance to chat with Eli about the team’s trip to the iconic Wyoming resort, and how it gave his athletes an early-season competitive advantage in the rapidly-growing Freeride discipline, where athletes compete on some of the East Coast’s most difficult natural terrain.
So tell us about the trip. Why travel all the way out to Wyoming to ski?
I wanted to offer a trip that allowed them to ski some really challenging off-piste terrain and then practice competition-style skiing. We went out to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort for a similar trip last year, which was in British Columbia, but we competed during that trip, and the competitions ate up a lot of time so we didn't get as much training in.
But mostly I just wanted to go there because of its storied reputation for freeride big mountain skiing. People say it has the best in-bounds terrain in North America, it’s steep and consistent and it’s a 4,000-foot vertical drop from the top of the tram to the bottom so you can ski a ton of vert. I wanted to go somewhere out west and I wanted to go somewhere that was challenging and I wanted to go somewhere that I knew would have a decent snowpack in January. We landed on Jackson for those reasons.
What was it like for our athletes to ski at such a huge, iconic mountain?
When we woke up the first morning of the trip, we couldn’t really tell how big the resort was until we rode the tram. The tram is this iconic lift that goes from the base to the summit. It’s over 4,000 feet of vert and as you come up over the second or third tower it’s expansive. I mean, it feels like 10 Loon Mountains stacked on top of each other. When you get to the top you can see Corbet's Couloir and Rendezvous Peak and all the way out towards Grand Teton National Park. It definitely feels like big mountain skiing, which is awesome. At that scale, the length of the runs is kind of mind boggling. On a good day at Jackson Hole you might get eight or 10 big, long runs, where we could do 10 runs at Loon in an hour.
Did this early trip out west give your athletes a competitive advantage?
Our competition season basically runs from February to April, whereas for other teams at Holderness it’s December to April. That’s because we just rely on the natural snow so much. I think this trip helped to get their legs underneath them. They got a lot of confidence as far as steep skiing and hitting cliffs and other features at pace - being able to ski a long run and have your legs be really tired and then still be able to take an air and then land it and make turns coming out of that air, and be in control. That’s something we just weren't able to practice on the East Coast because it just wasn't available to us in the early season.
And of the seven kids that came on the trip, five were new to Holderness. It was a good opportunity for us coaches to bond with them a bit and develop that athlete-coach relationship, to build a good level of trust where you trust me to know that I'm not going to put you in a dangerous situation - and we trust you to know that you have the skill set in order to ski here and not get hurt.
So what was a typical ski day like for your student-athletes? How did they balance training on the mountain with schoolwork?
We went for seven days so we skied six days in a row, which was awesome. The kids were definitely tired by the end of it. We would ski from 9 to 12, take a 30-minute lunch, ski from 12:30 to 2:30, and then they would have study hall from 230 to 530. They would do dinner in town or something and then go to bed and then get back at it again in the morning.
Apart from the amazing skiing, what was one of the key highlights of the trip?
One thing that really resonated with us was people saying “Hi” to us and talking about Holderness. Especially some of these kids that are new to Holderness, it showed them that Holderness has this really deep history of people that love to ski and love being in the mountains and that love sticks with them throughout their life. I think they got some pride and excitement about being a Bull. I think they were kind of like “Yeah, this is cool. We’re a part of something special here.”