After she moved to Jackson from Tlaxcala, Mexico, nearly two decades ago, Nancy Hernandez taught herself to ski. Even then she realized that the ubiquitous winter pastime was central to the culture.
Yet, she noted, it’s still an uncommon pursuit among the Latino families that make up 12 percent of Teton County’s inhabitants, according to a 2018 University of Wyoming study. Most parents aren’t skiers themselves, and the situation isn’t helped by the language barrier and lack of disposable income that in many ways keep Latinos isolated from the rest of the populace.
“A large part of the Hispanic community doesn’t feel like part of the community,” Hernandez said.
The Doug Coombs Foundation rose to meet this de facto segregation in the 2012-13 winter and has since taught hundreds of children from low-income families — the overwhelming majority Hispanic — to ski, free of charge. The problem is, the original program ends abruptly when high school begins, leaving few options for older kids to stay on the slopes.
Enter Powder Pals, a new foundation program that pairs adolescents with adult mentors. Each Sunday this winter they’ve met at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to practice everything from navigation to whirlybirds.
Hernandez enrolled her two sons, 11-year-old Abraham Cos y Leon Hernandez and 15-year-old Emmanuel Hernandez.
“You can already see,” she said, “they are integrating into the community.”
Though the boys can be reluctant to reallocate all that potential video-game time to skiing, they admitted Sunday — the last session of the season — that they did learn something over the past few months.
“It’s made me a lot better,” said Emmanuel, who goes by Manny.
The Powder Pals began the bluebird day with a tram run. At the top of Rendezvous Bowl, Morgan Graham and the other mentors began planning the down route among themselves, but then turned to their proteges.
“You guys are in charge here,” Graham said. “Do you wanna ski the wiggle, the bowl or Corbet’s?”
“The wiggle,” Manny decided, and they headed to the top of the snaking, tight-turned track.
It was just his second time standing atop the experts-only Rendezvous Bowl. He watched a couple of the adults, banking hard on the berms as they deftly sped through the run. Then it was his turn.
“What do you say, Manny?” Graham said.
He flashed a nervous grin. “I’ll give it a try.”
He started slow, carefully negotiating the steep curves. It wasn’t a perfect performance, as one might expect of a second tram run, and Hernandez eventually abandoned the wiggle. But he resolutely, even enthusiastically, worked his way down the mogul-strewn bowl.
All the while, another mentor, Joey Sackett, cheered him on from below: “Get it, Manny!”
Graham, who volunteered with Powder Pals every weekend this winter, said Manny and the other kids were slow to come out of their shells. But after the first few weeks of basic training on easy runs, he witnessed his group grow more engaged and determined to improve.
“When we did a little more exploring in the trees,” he said, “they started to not want to take breaks and be on their phones.”
Powder Pals is the brainchild of Laura Gaylord, special events coordinator at the Coombs Foundation. The idea, she said, was to fill the gap in noncompetitive programs for older children who still want to develop their skills. Like all good mentors, the adults throw in some life wisdom, too.
“[The goal isn’t] making world-class skiers,” she said. “The goal is creating confident, young adults that want to challenge themselves and seek adventure outside and in life.”
With about 30 children this year and as many mentors, Gaylord plans to resume Powder Pals next season. She even hopes to expand it into a year-round program, adding summer activities like climbing.
Caroline Drayton, another mentor, said it’s been fun to watch the kids grow. But more than that, she was happy to see how much the families appreciated the opportunity for their children to partake in the quintessential Jackson Hole diversion.
“Getting to be a part of that culture is really important,” Drayton said.
At the end of the day the Powder Pals gathered at the base while waiting for the teens’ parents to arrive. In the meantime, Gaylord handed out prizes, including one to 15-year-old Bethany Enriquez for achieving the only perfect attendance record.
With all those ski sessions under her belt, Enriquez “got a lot better at jumping … and landing,” she joked.
When her mom came to pick her up, Gaylord approached them with a proposition: Next year, she’d like Enriquez to be a mentor to the younger kids. Enriquez, and her mother beside her, beamed.
“That,” she said, “would be awesome.”