Successful ski mountaineering outings are born from a combination of planning, conditions, the right partners and technical ability. A ski descent link-up of the Grand, Middle and South Tetons has been on my radar since I first heard of Jimmy Chin completing it a few years ago. He was not the first, however, as local legends Mark Newcomb and Stephen Koch successfully climbed and skied all three peaks several years before that. The stars aligned and we got it done last Saturday.
The problem with being a ski mountaineer with a full-time job is that I really only have two days each week to ski or climb. As we all know, this spring has been tough conditions-wise and we haven't seen an extended period of high pressure settle in over the area that typically ripens the desirable lines in the high peaks. It's been making my partners and I crazy. We've managed to get some great skiing in but I've also experienced some anxiety watching the calendar turn over into June wondering if the window is closing on some of our projects.
Each day's ritual involves a cup a tea and a look at the extended forecast. Quick emails out to all concerned soon follow with possible objectives laid out on the table. Some of my eager posse live in Salt Lake so there's an additional level of logistics for them. Even still, these guys are extremely fit and game for anything and will typically come on short notice. Their willingness has been, thus far, rewarded with amazing skiing on stunning peaks in my home range.
The Window Opens
With this latest weather window, we were torn between a fast go at the classic Grand Teton ascent/descent or the more ambitious Teton link-up. Conditions were looking right for either or, in our case, both. You see, I originally had Jason Dorais and Sam Inouye teed up for the trip with the always-up-for-it Jared Inouye opting out due to social/family obligations. At the last moment and testimony to his need for a 12-Step intervention for his skiing addiction, Jared rationalized a way to get the Grand done and drive home in time to make it to a recital. You can't buy partners like this.
So, we had four of us ready to rock at 1:30 am Saturday morning. By the time we met at the trail head, distributed the gear and performed our usual ready-to-go vigil while Jared sorted through the permanent gear explosion that is the back of his Subaru, it was 2:30 and we were off. Dirt quickly turned to rock-hard snow and we booted all the way to the Valley Trail junction. From there, we simply went up, and up, and up on hard snow. The guys had ski crampons and used them but I continued on foot.
Having walked and guided clients up Garnet canyon well over a hundred times, I usually know exactly where I am and any time up there. But in the pitch darkness and lacking the usual dry ground features that give me clues, I over-shot the traverse into the canyon proper and we ended up cliffed out about 400 vertical feet too high. A quick descent got us back on course but we wasted about 25 minutes with the detour.
I finally put on skis as we got into Garnet canyon and we were soon skinning quickly towards the Middle Teton. As a party ahead of us came into view it was amusing to watch the response from the three competitive rando racers in our group. Our tempo increased and Jared, who was actually on his skinny Trab World Cup race skis, got into full skimo stride and pole technique. We all laughed at our hopeless competiveness.
I exchanged skis for crampons under the headwall below the Middle and took aim for the Jackson Hole Mountain Guide camp at the base of the Teepee Glacier. We were by the group ahead of us before we reached the glacier. Although I felt bad for those guys since we would now be dropping bombs on them as we climbed and skied the Stettner/Ford, I was relieved not to have to worry about the same.
We actually hit soft, winter snow on the Teepee Glacier which made the booting tiring. Eventually, everyone switched to crampons and we were able to pace line our boot pack to Teepee Col. A quick traverse over to Glencoe Col followed and we descended to a small wind drift at the base of the Stettner Couloir.
Every Ski Mountaineer's Dream
Finally, the business was at hand. I was excited for these guys as they had never been there before and I knew they would shit themselves as they turned the corner and got a look up the Stettner. As expected, hoots of joy echoed around the rock walls as part of the day's objective came into view.Their excitement kept the pace high and I was afraid they would blow right by the entrance to the Chevy. I was also getting pelted by the frozen crust they were dislodging as they climbed. I yelled ahead for them to wait and I could see them twitching with impatience as I arrived. I pointed to the Chevy to our left and they launched upwards like a NASA mission lift off. The climbing was easy and we had fun group soloing, only occasionally cursing the projectiles from above. The wind was active up high and waves of spindrift poured down the route every few minutes. We would surge upwards as each wave abated.
The snow deepened in the Ford and we slowed a little from the effort. We each took pulls and I kept my eager partners pointed in the right direction. Although I had only been there once before some 4 years earlier, the trip remains one of my fondest Teton memories due to the iconic nature of the route and the details of that day were still sharp. The upslope wind stung our eyes with spindrift and I climbed much of the Ford with my eyes closed. Goggles would have been nice.
Once out of the Ford and onto the summit snowfield above the East Face, I pointed out the summit block and we were on top before I knew it. This moment is undoubtedly savored by every ski mountaineer who finds themselves there with skis. My partners had dreamed of this moment for years and now they were clicking into their race bindings. We were ready to head down a little more than 5 hours after leaving the car.Downward Bound
It's true, there were no fat skis to be found in this group. Jared was on his Trab race boards with Dynafit Low Techs. I had Dynafit Broad Peaks with Plum 145 Race bindings. Jason was rocking another Dynafit ski(?) similar to the Broad Peak with Low Techs and Sam was on Trab Free Randos with Dynafit TLT Speeds. The three rando racing knuckleheads (me, Jason and Jared) were all in Lycra (we like to call this "French style" - some of you no doubt calling it "gay"). We carried two 6mm cords, some tat, a few pitons and nuts, a layer or two, G-String harnesses, a pair of tools each, crampons, water and Gu to keep us moving. All of this was stuffed into silly light race-style packs from Dynafit or Camp USA.
The skiing on the snowfield was ridiculously good winter chalky powder. We group skied most of it, occasionally leap frogging ahead to shoot a picture or two. One by one we dropped into the Ford where deeper, wind blown powder greeted us.
There was minimal slough management and we made short work of it until we got closer to the anchors. There was more refreeze here and a breakable crust finally forced me out of my skis and into crampons about 50 feet above the anchor.
Although we pondered keeping our skis on through the Chevy, I reminded everyone of the narrow runneled section and common sense prevailed. But we did opt for a downclimb instead of a rappel easing the logistics somewhat. When we popped out onto the Stettner, the party behind us was three quarters of the way up the Briggs route at one of the ice bulges. They looked to be contemplating their next move. When they saw us, they back tracked to what was most likely their first choice and headed up the Chevy.
The gnarly crust and double fall line of the Stettner had us in crampons for a good chunk of the descent. When it firmed up more, we put skis on and enjoyed the last part to our gear stash. Here, Jared headed down to the car (hoping for a sub-7 hour effort) and Jason, Sam and I proceeded to the Middle Teton for round 2.
On to the Middle
Getting over to the Lower Saddle was painless as a high contour required little effort on the hard, frozen snow. The full sun and calm wind at the Saddle had us shedding layers. Although I had climbed the North Ridge and the Northwest Couloir of the Middle several times, I knew the circuitous path to the couloir was going to be tricky in winter conditions. Rotten snow and rime had us moving carefully. Once the climbing got what I considered to be full-on, Sam decided he wasn't up for it and he headed down Garnet.
Jason and I traded leads through the technical exposed sections as I recalled the route into the couloir.
Of course, the giant flat ledge that exists in the summer was now a 45 degree snow slope but it led to the gut of the couloir nonetheless. We were both relieved be on the relatively easy terrain, believing that most of the scary stuff was behind us.
I began to tire and Jason, like a machine, continued to bang out steps for us all the way to the summit. A light wind and warm sun greeted us and we were quickly in down mode and sliding off into the Southwest Couloir.
Now, the SW Couloir is a classic Teton descent but, in my experience, rarely in great condition. Rime, rocks, slush, and general crappiness are the rule for me. On this day, however, near perfection prevailed. It was wide and billiard table smooth. We ripped the still-frozen surface and were soon out in the sun on the apron enjoying creamy corn goodness.
The South Teton
The final objective, the Northwest Couloir on the South Teton was in front of us. Skinning turned to booting and I was hitting the wall. In spite of vigilant fueling with Gu Chomps and Roctane, I was simply getting tired. Fortunately, the machine (Jason) was still ticking over and I drafted his steps up the steep, icy gully.
We enjoyed the views from our third Teton summit of the day, even sat on our packs for a couple of minutes. Jason sent another text to his brother, taunting him with our success thus far.
The top of the NW Couloir was steep and frozen. We thought about down climbing. Instead, I traded one of my skimo race poles for one of Jason's Whippets and down I went, side slipping the tip to tail first 100 feet. Jason followed after I was out of the way and before long we were skiing powder again on the lower slopes. Could it really be June? Powder led to corn and we were finally high-traversing out of the canyon hoping to milk turns all the way to the Valley Trail. We were nearly successful.
I hadn't been that tired in a long time. We were out for just under 12 hours. We climbed and descended a modest 10K feet. In atypical fashion, instead of enjoying a fat meal once I returned to town, I went to bed for a 3 hour nap. I must be getting old. But I'll keep taking my Geritol because there's still plenty to do this spring. - Brian
Dynafit TLT 5 Performance boots - no tongue or powerstrap
Dynafit Broad Peak skis - 167 cm
Plum 145 race bindings
Grivel Haute Route hybrid crampons
Black Diamond Viper ice tools
(2) 60m x 6mm Edelweiss accessory cord rap lines
Camp Alp 95 harness
Rock Exotica Micro 8 descender