On a sunny (for December) Saturday afternoon, the newest addition to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort came alive.
Beginner skiers and snowboarders, from tots to adults, congregated in front of Solitude Station, a new lodge for those still finding their legs on the mountain. Hundreds of eager learners flocked to red-coated instructors for trips down the magic carpet and the gentle, undulating terrain that leads from the lodge back to the bottom of the Sweetwater Gondola.
Saturday’s open house was the kickoff for the new complex, which has been operational since the resort opened Thanksgiving weekend.
“The building is to address our growing family segment,” said Jess Milligan, the resort’s vice president and chief of products, sales and services.
If the name rings a bell, that’s because the new lodge is built on the site of the long-gone Solitude Cabin, which was once a popular place for families to take sleigh rides in the winter. Unfortunately, a propane explosion took care of the cabin in 2008.
The resort replaced it with a big tent for kids to eat lunch in, but the location is prime real estate on a mountain known for steep slopes, so something bigger was always in the works.
“It’s one of the only flat spots on the mountain besides the base,” Milligan said. “We’ve been planning this for years and years.”
The opening of the Sweetwater Gondola in 2016 gave the resort the chance to build more beginner-friendly terrain. The work on the lodge, which took 18 months, included a regrading of the area where the foundation of the building was poured.
“We had some minimal earth moving right up around the building,” said resort spokeswoman Anna Cole.
And with the midstation came the chance to use the Solitude area for more than a tent or sleigh rides.
The complex, which consists of three connected pods and looks a bit like a chic mountain lair in a James Bond flick, allows the resort to move the majority of its mountain-sports school out of the base area.
“If you think about that beginner skier, the base area is a lot,” Milligan said.
The new building splits the mountain sports operations — younger tykes still meet at the Kids Ranch — but that doesn’t mean parents will need to hoof it to two places to drop their progeny off in the mornings.
“We’re trying to make it easy and a one-stop shop, so you start where your youngest kid starts,” Cole said. “We’ll have instructors to take the older kids up from the Kids Ranch.”
The Solitude Station lets beginners board the gondola, in tennis shoes if desired, and cruise up to the midstation, where they can walk off, grab rentals, buy lift tickets and meet their instructor, all while escaping the mayhem of the base.
“The building itself is one thing, but it’s about the whole experience,” Milligan said, “having the gondola bring you up, getting you out of the hectic base area and to a building that is calm and spacious.”
Kids enjoyed the solitude Saturday, kicking themselves in circles on one ski and wedge turning — the infamous pizza — in lines behind instructors. The lodge feels like its own little world, and in addition to the rental shop and locker rooms includes a pair of cafeterias, one for kids and one for adults.
The kids lunchroom was packed Saturday, filled with hungry children refueling before their afternoon on the slopes. A bank of screens fills one wall, a place to watch ski films on lunch breaks or when the weather drives groups inside.
For adults the cafeteria is decidedly upscale. Huge windows overlook the valley next to a large fireplace. TVs fill another wall, and an espresso bar offers novice adults a place to perk back up. Though it was designed for winter use, that doesn’t mean the place will close in the summer.
“The kitchen was designed to do those cafeterias and to do catering events,” Milligan said. “It’d be a great venue in the summer for things like weddings.”
But summer use is months away, and the hundreds of children who visited Saturday were there for its main purpose, helping novice skiers and snowboarders improve.
The resort has a reputation for steep, aggressive terrain and the talented athletes that hurtle down its chutes and bowls. But everyone, even Jackson legends like Tommy Moe or Jess McMillan, must start somewhere, and the Solitude Station is for those not ready to tackle Alta One.
“We want them to be able to come to Jackson and debunk the myth that you have to be an expert skier,” Cole said. “We want to show they can learn and grow in Jackson Hole.”
But that doesn’t have to come at the expense of the terrain that draws masses of ski bums and thrill seekers.
“It’s not compromising what everyone knows about Jackson Hole,” Milligan said. “We’re just trying to soften up a bit and have a more accessible experience for families.”