FEATURE: If I Knew Then…

By on December 15, 2015

Gleaning wisdom and perspective from the valley’s golden agers.

The conservation couple: Ted and Addie Donnan.

The conservation couple: Ted and Addie Donnan.

Jackson Hole, WY – Addie Donnan, 91, skied her last run at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when she was in her late 80s. She stuck close to the side of the trail, making careful, tight turns to stay out of the way of the skiers and boarders who zoomed by. She’s always loved skiing and enjoyed that last run, but the rush of people flying past was disconcerting. Addie doesn’t think she’ll ski again.

It’s not just skiers who bomb by Jackson Hole’s elders. With the valley’s youth-obsessed, partying, extreme sports culture, those who move slower and more carefully are often pushed to the side or ignored. But there is much to be learned, to contemplate from those who’ve spent multiple decades on this earth.

Folks today think they have it good living here now, but imagine what it was like to arrive 50-some years ago to find your own private paradise? Just ask your older neighbors about their youthful adventures and you may find yourself longing for the good old days.

If Donnan knew then — when she was 20 or so in the 1940s — what she knows now, she says she would have moved to Jackson right away. “If I didn’t want to spoil Jackson Hole, I’d tell everyone to come out here,” she said.

Donnan first visited the valley when she was 12 to stay with her cousins who owned the Bear Paw Ranch, a guest ranch that was located near the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park, just north of Teton Village. Donnan was put to work as a cabin girl. Her job was to make the dudes’ beds each morning. “I got to be really fast at making beds,” Donnan said, “because when I finished I could catch my horse and go riding.”

She rode up along the flanks of the Tetons above the ranch and beside the Snake River. She went on long pack trips into the mountains where they wouldn’t see another soul for two or more weeks. On Sundays, she and her cousins saddled their horses, put on their best riding clothes and headed up the Moose-Wilson Road to the Chapel of the Transfiguration for church, picking up other horse-riding churchgoers along the way. The town of Jackson — and Donnan’s life back in Connecticut — felt like another world during those idyllic summers on the ranch.

Addie and Ted Donnan (center) on a family ski date.

Addie and Ted Donnan (center) on a family ski date.

Donnan loved the riding and later the skiing she found in the Tetons, and the western migration from her home in Greenwich, Connecticut, to Jackson Hole became a regular part of her life — first for annual summer visits to her cousins, the Huylers, and later with her husband, Ted Donnan. The Donnans, who bought property and created a home from old motel cabins on what is now the Snake River Ranch, quickly established themselves as a conservation force in the valley.

“I think we were rather troublesome,” Donnan said. “But I thought Wyoming was so special. We didn’t want to keep people out, but we wanted them to care. We tried to keep people from harming the valley.”

Donnan doesn’t look back on her life with many regrets, although she does say she liked Jackson better when it was “little old Jackson” rather than the busy commercial center it has become. But in her mind the fact that so much of the valley has been protected as open space means the changes that have taken place over the years are OK. That young people today still get to experience many of the things that brought her joy living here for so many years.

Jackson’s early hippies

Mary Louise “Lou” Breitenbach, 79, arrived on the Jackson scene in 1959 when she was 23. Like Donnan, she says if she’d known what was out here, she’d have come even sooner. “We arrived at night and went to sleep in the campground,” Breitenbach said. “I woke up to the sunrise lighting up the Tetons. I had never seen anything like it. The mountains in the East are not like these. I was very impressed. I love it here; I’m going to die here.”

Evidence that Lou Breitenbach was more ‘fit’ than she let on.

Evidence that Lou Breitenbach was more ‘fit’ than she let on.

Breitenbach came to Jackson with famed skier and musician Bill Briggs. They settled down at what was then the CCC campground off Lupine Meadows Road in Grand Teton National Park, hooking up with a gang of other climbers and guides who were here to explore the area’s craggy peaks. Luminaries such as Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Barry Corbet, an infamous group of climbers from New York’s Shawangunks called the Vulgarians, and Breitenbach’s future husband Jake Breitenbach were all camped out there together. They comprised a rag-tag community of young people living out of their cars on the few dollars they could earn guiding.

They’d build a fire every night and sit around singing folksongs. Black bears routinely prowled the campground in search of bacon and other goodies the campers stored in their coolers. Breitenbach remembers waking up one night to the sound of a bear clambering over the canvas of her tent. Everyone living in the campground got used to chasing the bears away and sharing their supplies if someone lost too much in a raid. They got their drinking water straight out of Cottonwood Creek, scrounged a weekly shower at Signal Mountain and went to the bar at the Jackson Lake Lodge or into town to The Wort for dancing, drinking and singing. During the day, they explored the high peaks.

Life was simple, Breitenbach remembers, and full of adventure, parties, friends and music. A free-spirited hippie, who believed in free love even though it wasn’t called that then, Breitenbach said among the crowd of climbers scrounging out a living during the short summer season there was an intimacy and freedom that foreshadowed the flower children of the ’60s and ’70s. Breitenbach was never a climber, but she hung out with the gang like a band groupie.

“I would describe myself as a wuss,” Breitenbach said. “I was always terrified. I was a terrible skier, a terrible climber, but they put up with me. Women didn’t have to be fit back then. I wouldn’t have changed that. I liked not being fit.”

Three years after he and Lou got together, Jake Breitenbach was killed in an icefall collapse while attempting to climb Mount Everest. Breitenbach found herself lost, alone and angry at god for killing Jake. She left Jackson for California where she became a fringe member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Breitenbach said she was too scared to go all the way with the Pranksters and their casual dalliance with drugs, sex and alcohol. But she did her fair share of experimenting as she struggled to get her life back on track after Jake’s death. It wasn’t until she met the minister at the Episcopal Church in Jackson, Phil Zimmer, that she began to find a way to cope with her rage from losing her young husband. Zimmer and his wife allowed Breitenbach to live in one of the buildings on the church’s property for $50 a month and a little gardening work. She stayed there nine years while she learned to make peace with tragedy. After that interlude, she felt ready to reenter the world. With funding from friends in Jackson, she headed to Harvard to earn a counseling degree, returning after a year to work in Jackson. She’s never left.

When asked if she ever gets nostalgic for the old days hanging out with climbers at the CCC campground in Grand Teton National Park, Breitenbach smiled and shook her head. “I thought that way for a long time,” she said. “But it doesn’t do you any good. So I focus on my job of being here now. I ignore stuff like the traffic. I go up to Jenny Lake. I go into the mountains. I love reading. I fall in love with people. I take what comes each day. I don’t have time to be depressed or angry or to get caught up in the past.

“Life’s lessons are very hard and change is agonizing,” she said. “That’s why I look aside at change. I take it when I want it. All those cars on the road? I just pretend they are not there. All those people who are gone? I look back at them sideways. It’s too much pain to contemplate the change face on.”

More opportunity, more complications

Jean Webber circa 1955 donning her handmade apron.

Jean Webber circa 1955 donning her handmade apron.

Jean Webber says she wishes she’d known how lucky she’d been when she was young. It’s not that life was perfect — Webber, 83, is quick to point out the challenges and limitations women of her generation faced — but things were simpler, at least in Iowa and Minnesota, where she spent her youth.

“We were so clueless,” Webber said. “We went to college to get married. I was married by the time I was 24. That’s what we were expected to do: get married, have kids, be a housewife. If you weren’t married by the end of your 20s, you were an old maid.

“It’s different now. There are lots of options for girls. But it’s harder too,” she said. “Girls think they can have it all, but you can’t have it all. That sets you up for failure. Either you have someone help you with your kids or you don’t do as well at your job.”

Webber, The Planet’s “Galloping Grandma” columnist, says the changes that have occurred in the world since her youth came along so slowly that she didn’t really notice what was happening. She was too busy raising four little girls to pay attention to hippies, free love and changing opportunities for women. By the time she emerged out of her baby bubble, she says, women had a lot more going for them, and a lot more expectations. In retrospect, she’s grateful for the simplicity of her life. But she understands that the gender dynamics of yesteryear may seem absurd, and certainly unacceptable, to women of today. That you had to ask your husband for permission to get birth control (which was true when she was young), and that the only real job possibilities for women were in teaching or nursing.

“We know so much more about everything now,” Webber said. “I’m not sure that makes us happier though.”

Webber first came to Jackson Hole on camping trips with her young family. They had an old Rambler and a pop-up tent as they traveled through Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. “It was the only thing we could do as a family,” she said. “We didn’t have any money. But with all those kids, it could be a nightmare. I spent all my time cooking in the rain, combing hair. The girls sat on the backseat fighting with each other.”

But that trip opened the whole family’s eyes to the glory of Jackson Hole. They loved it. Later, two of their daughters got summer jobs in the valley. One, founding publisher of The Planet, Mary Grossman, stayed. Webber and her husband followed, buying a house in 1994 for $190,000. Webber says if she knew then what she knows now, she’d have bought 10 of those houses if she could have found the money.

Writing his own ticket

A pioneer of ski culture, Rod Newcomb was born in 1934. He was backcountry skiing before anyone knew what backcountry skiing was, and in the winter of 1960 he and Frank Ewing, another Jackson notable, skied from Moran to Cody. They wore single-layer, leather boots, carried Kelty frame packs, and used “backcountry” skis that allowed their heels to rise about an inch off the ski when they traveled. They did not see anyone. In fact, even today, there aren’t many people who’d make such a trip.

Rod Newcomb after completing the first ascent of the East Buttress of Denali in 1963.

Rod Newcomb after completing the first ascent of the East Buttress of Denali in 1963.

Newcomb, 81, says that they had no idea what Jackson Hole would become. They were just figuring things out as they explored the area’s mountains on skis in the winter and on foot in the summer. He said they were smart enough not to ski Glory Bowl until the spring when it corned up. During most of their ski tours they used vegetation clues to help them identify avalanche paths. But they didn’t have any idea about snow science and weren’t even talking about risk management.

In those days, Neil Rafferty set up two ropes tows on Teton Pass’s Telemark Bowl that pulled the skiers up the hill for some turns before Snow King opened. Newcomb and his buddies often took a longer line and hitched their way back to the top when they were done.

In the winter of 1963/64, the Tetons had what is now called a continental snowpack. Basically the bottom layers of snow were made up of sugary, unstable depth hoar and when a big storm hit, the upper faces of Snow King slid to the ground. For Newcomb, that experience marked a turning point that would define the trajectory of his life. He began studying avalanches.

To do that, he spent time with snow rangers in Utah who were doing the most advanced avalanche control work in the country at the time. Later he got a research job in Colorado, where he studied snow for three years. But as soon as he finished his training, he returned home to Jackson with his family, which now included three kids. Although the valley became his home base in 1959, Newcomb says if he knew then what he knows now, he’d have moved permanently to the valley even earlier.

Newcomb on the summit of the Grand Teton, 1979.

Newcomb on the summit of the Grand Teton, 1979.

Newcomb spearheaded the American Avalanche Institute (AAI) in 1974. His approach to avalanche education was revolutionary.Unlike the only other avalanche educator operating at that time, Newcomb believed classroom work on snow science had to be coupled with backcountry travel. To really learn about snow, he says, you have to get out and touch it, dig in it, play in it and, of course, ski it.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Newcomb said. “There was a market for people interested in learning about snow and avalanches. Looking back, I see that if I had moved here 10 years later, I don’t think it would have worked. I was in on the beginning. If I’d tried to do what I did in 1984, someone would have already beaten me to it. And there’s no way to start something like AAI now. No way to get the permits. You have to buy an existing business to get started now.

“In those days we could pretty much write our own ticket. We didn’t really know that at the time, but that’s what I did.”

Newcomb first saw the Tetons in 1953 when he got a job through a friend of his family’s at a guest ranch in Grand Teton National Park. The guest ranch, called the Square G, is long gone, but Rod was hooked. He came back the next year and learned how to climb after borrowing a rope from Paul Petzoldt. He had to skip a couple of years to serve in the army, but in 1959 he returned to Jackson and stayed for good. He met his wife, Anne, and the pair got married in 1964. They borrowed money from a banker friend and got a little help from their parents, and with $17,000 bought 1.25 acres near Heck-of-a-Hill south of Jackson, where they built a home. Newcomb fell into a life of patrolling and teaching avalanche courses in the winter, guiding in the summer and raising kids. In the meantime, the valley changed around them.

“We were kind of isolated for a long time,” Newcomb said. “I didn’t really pay attention to what was going on in town. The only thing I noticed was when a new stoplight would interfere with my travel plans.

“No one envisioned what would happen to this valley. Coming from a working class family, I couldn’t envision there were enough people in the moneyed class who would fall in love with Jackson Hole. I should have seen it. I guided people who had money and loved it here. But it never entered my mind that they would buy land and build second homes in the valley.”

Shervin, Bobby and Darrell get high at the King, 1959.

Shervin, Bobby and Darrell get high at the King, 1959.

Newcomb says the changes began after Jackson Hole Mountain Resort opened, but it didn’t happen overnight. The resort struggled in its early years. In 1965/66, there were only three chairs: bunny chair No. 1, bunny chair No. 2 and a lift that took you to the top of Apres Vous. The tram was finished the following year. But it wasn’t lift tickets that kept the resort afloat, it was the sale of land in Teton Village. Even then, the Kemmerers eventually had to buy the founders out to keep the mountain going. The founders’ vision for the mountain was sound, but their timing was a bit off for their pocketbooks. The valley, however, would never be the same once Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was established.

“Winter was slow economically since there was no reason to come here except for Snow King Ski Area,” Newcomb remembered about the days before JHMR. “Dude ranches, the national forests and Grand Teton National Park were mostly closed for the winter and not hiring. As a result there was no work for a ski bum or anyone else. Except for Snow King. There was a saying that anyone who came here for the winter and needed a job would end up working for Neil Rafferty. Even Bob Shervin, who subsequently became mayor worked as a lift operator for Neil.

“So with the opening of Jackson Hole Ski Area — that was the name then — all of a sudden there were work opportunities in the winter,” Newcomb explained. “Slowly, Jackson Hole turned into a tourist economy year-round. A booming tourist economy needs workers of all kinds. In the 1970s and ’80s opportunities for everyone were abundant.

“Those of us who were here when the ski area opened and stayed for good were able to become established,” Newcomb said. “The tragedy is that this is not possible today.”

Not all change is good

Barbara, Bob and Bobby Shervin, 1954.

Barbara, Bob and Bobby Shervin, 1954.

As Newcomb pointed out, Snow King provided critical sustenance for those who tried to stick it out year-round in the valley. Breitenbach worked for Neil Rafferty and, as Newcomb mentioned, one of Bob Shervin’s many jobs during his life was lift operator at Snow King. But unlike the other subjects of this story, Shervin was born and raised in Jackson Hole. His grandparents homesteaded in what is now Grand Teton National Park near the Triangle X Ranch. By the time Bob was born in 1933, the family had moved to another ranch where he grew up milking cows. He says he left the valley for a few years when he was a teenager to work on a ranch near Big Piney. And he did a stint working in the oil patch, but he returned to Jackson and set down roots, raising five children, running Shervin Independent Oil, and serving as Jackson’s mayor for six years and as a county commissioner for eight. Once he settled back in his hometown, he never left.

“Why would I leave?” Shervin said. “When you drive out of here heading over any rim to leave the valley, it gets pretty bleak. Coming home, it always feels like you are coming into a dream world. I have been blessed with everything a guy would ever want.”

Shervin thinks that Jackson has changed and not necessarily for the better, however. He says if he had to do things over again, he might have done something in the 1980s to limit growth, which, he admits for a conservative like him, is a bit of an odd position.

Bob Shervin has worn myriad hats during his tenure in the valley, from lift operator to mayor and business owner.

Bob Shervin has worn myriad hats during his tenure in the valley, from lift operator to mayor and business owner.

“I’m pro property rights,” Shervin said. “But maybe that was the wrong thing. Maybe we should have limited growth when we could. Still it’s tricky. I am not sure what you can do. The world has changed and I am not thinking it’s really been for the best.”

Still for Shervin, Jackson Hole remains a kind of paradise. He’s climbed every peak in the Tetons except the Grand. He’s hunted and fished and snow-machined all over the area. He feels lucky he was born here and sees no reason anyone would ever leave.

His main words of wisdom for today’s youth are “get an education, keep your nose clean, stay out of dope, work hard and take care of yourself.” Shervin says those were always his rules to live by, and he’s pretty satisfied with the way his life has gone. If he has any regrets, it’s that maybe he didn’t put aside a bit more money for himself. But he has always been generous with what he has and is proud of how he’s helped his family and friends, so that regret isn’t really one that he loses sleep over. He has enough, he says. PJH

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