Here is a trip report on a recent trip in the Tetons. My crude attempt at a video is at the bottom for those who can't handle my story telling. Enjoy.
Like any ski mountaineer, I have a list of objectives to ski in the Tetons. The North Face of Buck Mountain holds two of the more compelling lines in range, the Newc and Bubblefun Couloirs. Seen from the north, any skier's eyes are immediately drawn to them. After years of staring at these runs, I finally skied the Newc Couloir earlier this spring. From an access standpoint, the Newc is the easier of the two since the snow is contiguous from the bottom. The Bubblefun, on the other hand, has a 60 meter cliff guarding it's bottom, necessitating a top down descent. Further to the west of these two lines lies the Northwest Couloir, the tamest of the three. I got the crazy idea to ski all three in a single push.
Planning comes first
The first thing I did was enlist some willing partners. Fellow ski mountaineering racers were the likely choice as they would have the fitness and the "light and fast" attitude needed to get it done. We traded emails about gear, timing and conditions for weeks leading up to the attempt.
Next was getting the conditions we needed. This hasn't been an easy spring for getting bigger things done in the Tetons. We waited and waited. Tactics for the approach also had to be considered. Typically, skiers approach the Bubblefun via the East Face of Buck Mountain, summit and then descend northeast to the entrance of the Bubblefun. The downside of this is that you don't have any idea of the conditions in the couloir. Second, you expose yourself to potential objective danger climbing the East Face.
After some thought, I felt that approaching through Avalanche Canyon and climbing the Newc Couloir first made the most sense, allowing for a conditions check on a similar exposure and avoiding the East Face. Climb what you ski, right?
Timing is everything
Finally, things settled enough to consider it and I rallied two friends from Salt Lake, brothers Jared and Sam Inouye. They drove to the trailhead the night before and stole a couple of hours sleep before I showed at 3 AM, rousting them from their slumber. While they were getting their gear together, Rod Newcomb arrived, meeting a partner for a tour up Garnet Canyon. We spoke for several minutes about conditions and objectives. It was a little strange talking about climbing and skiing the "Newc" Couloir in the presence of the namesake's father.
At one point, Jared asked me if I, "…knew that old guy." I laughed and said that that old guy was Rod Newcomb. Jared almost choked realizing he was in the company of a skiing legend. Somewhat star-struck, he introduced himself and gathered us all for a group photo.
Finally, at 3:30 AM we pushed off for Avalanche Canyon, my partners depending upon my familiarity with the terrain to get us there in the dark. We skirted Bradley Lake and I occasionally found signs of the out-track that usually exists in Avalanche Canyon from skiers coming out from popular runs like Turkey Chute and Chute the Moon. We crossed several large slide paths full of debris and finally skinned across fully frozen terrain just below the Turkey Chute apron. Neither Jared nor Sam had ever skied up here. In fact, Sam had never skied in the Tetons at all. Boy, was he ever in for a treat. Their only complaint is that we had to ski quite a ways to get to the business, something uncommon in their home range of the Wasatch. The sun rose as the north face loomed into view. It's ridiculously filled in this year, perfect for this kind of adventure.
Skis off, crampons on
Two and a half hours into the approach, we had skis off and crampons on and were booting up the lower face toward the Newc Couloir.
Conditions were still good for climbing. As we got into the shade of the actual gully, we found a skin of ice over some of the snow which seemed to be related to the reflected heat from the overhanging rock. Higher, the snow was winter perfect. The skiing was looking good.
After about 1.5 hours of booting, the cornice capping the couloir loomed just overhead. Although the line is almost completely shaded all day, the top 20 feet, cornice included, gets baked by the early morning sun. This was a little nerve-wracking as we moved up and over the 60+ degree slope to exit. I was glad to be out from under that.
Jared led through this section and, as he topped out ahead of me and got a look at the summit ridge before me, he commented that we might be screwed. Indeed, when I turned the corner and looked, the final 150 feet of blocky rock and snow was intimidating. On the other hand, I knew from experience that our perspective lent a disadvantageous perspective for assessing the difficulty. I told him to withhold judgement until he was on it.
As I thought and hoped, once he got to the climbing, it wasn't too bad. Jared stubbornly scraped and grunted his way up the rotten, insecure, exposed ridge. We were ropeless here carrying only 6mm cords for the rappel. I encouraged him from the shotgun position with Sam confidently bringing up the rear. We all nervously laughed at the potential for disaster on this section. But with enough excavating to get down to the granite, the hand holds appeared and we were soon standing on the summit.
We wasted no time, shivering in our light clothing, Jared suffering the most since he chose to leave his puffy at our cache at the bottom. What was he thinking? Regardless, we soon pushed from the summit down a short ways on the East Face in search of the entrance of the Bubblefun. Truth be told, we skied right by it and then back-tracked up 50 vertical feet.
The entrance was very mellow with a gentle roll-over coaxing us in. Jared made some tentative probing side steps down trying to get a feel for the conditions. I came in behind and threw a couple of turns, liking what I felt underfoot. I continued a combination of side-slipping and jump turns for a hundred feet or so and then signaled the others to follow. We continued on like this for hundreds of vertical, opening it up a little where the pitch eased and the snow was perfect. It was awesome to actually ski this incredible line.
But as the bottom neared and cliff at the end got closer, I became more careful. The idea of such a big drop looming just below, knowing that if I fall or the snow destabilizes, I'm dead, really started pressing down on my enthusiasm. In this section, the accumulated snow from the face above creates a double fall-line just where you'd rather not have it. One hundred feet from the edge, I cracked, stopped and put on my crampons.
I booted the last few feet to the skier's left side of the couloir where we hoped to find places to build an anchor. Jared and Sam were right behind me as I started to dig. I kept moving down, wanting to anchor as low as possible in the odd chance that we could get to the apron in a single rappel. I had heard horror stories from the few skiers I know who had skied this line. The granite is compact and does not lend itself to building anchors. This one fact occupied most of my thoughts concerning this trip and here I was living the harsh reality.
After scratching around with ice tools for at least 30 minutes, Jared got out his shovel and we started to really move some snow. Sometime during this process, I asked Jared to hand me the pitons he brought. These would be crucial for the thin cracks. He told me that I had them and we looked at each other dumbstruck. Uh, excellent communication at 3 AM, apparently. Although I had a selection of eight small stoppers and Jared brought two Peckers, I suddenly got that sinking feeling that an epic was brewing. Shit!
The last thing I want to be doing was hanging from the rappel rope 50 feet off the apron desperately trying to find placements for a second anchor. Regardless of the potential epic, we still needed something good right here. After an hour, we got two decent nuts and a bomber Pecker placement. Having never done much hard aid nailing, I had never placed one of those things. But after hearing that satisfying, ever-increasing pitch of the pin singing home, I LOVE them.
We equalized the whole thing, not quite to AMGA standards, but in our haste to get out of there, we made a compromise or two. I signed up to be the Guinea Pig, getting to try out my new, super cool Rock Exotica Micro Eight descender. This thing is the bomb for skinny ropes. The guys assured me everything looked good as I gently weighted the anchor and down I went. The first 50 feet was on a steep, snow-covered slab. Once at the edge, it was time to commit. It was near vertical below me and the fog drifting around the face obscured my view of the apron.
I continued down, somewhat relieved to see more cracks in the rock in case I did have to stop and build another anchor. You can only imagine my tremendous relief in seeing the ends of my ropes just kissing the snow at the bottom. I hooted up to the guys and touched down.
It was warm down here. Without the fog protecting us it would be smoking hot. I quickly descended another hundred feet and waited. The face above was shedding rime and snow constantly. It was eerie because I could only hear the stuff falling. No rocks came down, thankfully. Sam and Jared were soon down and, after a brief rope sticking moment, we had the cords coiled and skis on.
Pulling the plug
Because of the building heat and the eleven o'clock hour, we decided that the trilogy was not going to happen on this day. Too many surprises and delays conspired against us. Having that sun-ripened cornice come barreling down the Newc onto us would be disaster. I felt like we had gotten away with enough on this day. Down we went.
The skiing on the apron was still steep and inviting. The snow was pretty damn nice in its softened state. We gathered our skins and extra water, shed some layers and enjoyed perfect corn for part of the descent down the canyon. Unfortunately, the inevitable isothermic shit snow was also part of our exit from the canyon but we got through it without consequence.
For sure, the Bubblefun Couloir is an intimidating line. This year's fat snowpack made skiing it a little easier. Finding anchors is, indeed, tricky but I know of one three-point affair that will get you to the bottom in one 60 meter go… at least this year. Get up there and give 'er.
For whatever reason, the margins of this blog cut off some of the screen for the video. Better to click here and go to YouTube to watch it.
Dynafit TLT 5 Performance boots - no tongue or powerstrap
Dynafit Broad Peak skis - 167 cm
Plum 145 race bindings
Grivel Haute Route hybrid crampons
(2) 60m x 6mm Edelweiss accessory cord rap lines
Camp Alp 95 harness
Rock Exotica Micro 8 descender