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Saturday
Mar162013

My Otter Body Experience

For Teton ski mountaineers, there exists a list of ski lines that we covet and hope to climb and descend at some point in our lives. Skiing the Grand Teton is undoubtedly at the top of this list for most of us.  This event typically involves skiing the Ford-Chevy-Stettner couloirs, which has become a classic ski line in the range and is now even guided on a regular basis.

But the Grand Teton sports other ski lines, all of which require significantly more commitment, risk and just right conditions to bag. These are the Hossack-McGowen Couloir, the East Ridge, the Briggs Route and the Otter Body Face. The Owen Spaulding is often listed but rarely has the snow on it to be entertained as a ski line. The Vision Quest, Black Ice and Northwest Couloirs are all options involving the adjacent Enclosure formation. Compared to the Ford, these other lines have seen only a handful of descents, some rarely, if ever, repeated.

The Otter Body

photo courtesy of Colin O'FarrellOn the Grand Teton, the other line that draws the most attention is the Otter Body snowfield below the East Face. This line represents the most straightforward, if not technical, ski descent of the iconic mountain. Because of its position and exposure, the route has an almost mythical status amongst skiers.

First skied by Doug Combs and Mark Newcomb in 1997, the Otter Body sees only a few descents each year, some years, none at all. Seasonal snow pack variation changes the nature of the line and alters the tactics required for a successful run.

The Route

Unless the snow on the East Face is particularly fat, the first crux of the route after descending several hundred feet from the summit is rappelling from the face, through the choke and onto the Otter Body proper. Anchors for the 30-meter drop are often hard to establish. Once on the snowfield, moderate skiing on a less-than-40 degree ramp to the exit chimney provides a welcome respite from the gut-churning exposure.

Finding anchors on the far wall bordering the chimney involves more 50+ degree skiing. In fat conditions, bold skiers can descend down the “tail” of the Otter Body, possibly eliminating one or two of the rappels. The ever-present threat of the upper face shedding in the warming temps keeps tension levels high through the typically three rappels down the chimney to the Teepee Glacier. A frantic coiling of ropes and a quick ski down out from under the massive face yields giddy high fives and a potent sense of relief.

My Otter Body Experience

The first time I entertained skiing the Otter Body was two years ago. I had skied a few bigger lines in the range and felt ready to consider it. I sought out advice from my friend, Mark Newcomb, arguably the most prolific ski mountaineer in the range. His email response to my query was sobering.

Brian,

The Otterbody is a serious, serious line.  If anyone but you had asked "How many raps?", I would have said, "If you have to ask, you probably shouldn't be thinking about doing the root."  I don't say that with any disrespect.

The Otterbody is the most visible line on the GT from the valley.  You can easily scope it.  It's a little hard to see the tail and the rap (should be the only one this year) onto the Teepee.  Otherwise it's all right there.

The bulk of the East Ridge overhangs the Otterbody and this time of year on a year this big can dump a lot of snow onto it.  And the Second Tower shades the bottom half of the Otterbody and its tail all morning long. Expect bullet proof conditions.  Turns there were the diciest I've ever made in the Tetons.  I'll attach a photo of Coombs contemplating skiing 60° bullet proof with a shallow but white-ice runnel in the middle.

We downclimbed from that point about a hundred feet to the rap.  The rap was about 60 feet, but we down-climbed a little to an anchor used by Andy McLean and Doug on a past effort.

Doug and I watched the Otterbody for three years before we finally had our day.  I think that's a fundamental difference between the first descent and subsequent descents of a line.  The first-descent parties take a line like that very seriously.  The spend huge amounts of time watching it, thinking about it, thinking about escape options, calculating descent times, coming up with an optimal time line, imagining the perfect weather scenario.  Even after Doug and I did all that for the Otterbody, we were surprised about how long the shade lingered on the tail and how fast the East Ridge started unleashing snow and ice.  Not five minutes after we departed our rappel lz, a wet slide came off the ridge, down the tail and over the cliff not ten feet from our rap. It washed out our first few turns.  We were already a safe distance down the Teepee.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you don't have to ski it just because you climbed to the top of the Grand.  If you're on top, and anything doesn't feel right, choose another option or head down the west side.

I hope the weather gives you the conditions you want.  It's an aesthetic, and interesting line.  A real gem.

Mark

The late Doug Coombs during the first descent photo: Mark NewcombMark’s comments had me questioning all kinds of things. At least he didn't sandbag me. He sent along the above photo of Doug for proper impact. For a variety of reasons, my attempt never materialized and I moved to Alaska the next year after a fairly lean season where the Grand was rarely skied. But the Otter Body has remained at the top of my list and my upcoming trip to the range was another opportunity to consider it.

I was visiting from Anchorage for what seems to be my quarterly Teton fix. The weather was looking unsettled for the ten days I planned but my ambitions remained high. The usual three-day period of altitude adjustment was followed by a rest day. Then the call came from Zahan Billimoria, one of my frequent partners, that the Otter Body was on the menu for the next day and the weather was looking promising. He had a client to potentially guide on the route the following week and needed to see it first hand.

Conditions up high were changing daily but the face had seen its share of sun over the previous few days. We reasoned that the last storm’s snowfall had settled and stabilized. The predicted warm temperatures would demand an early start and careful assessment from the summit. Further complicating the day was a guided party of three in position at the saddle for a descent of the Grand via, yep; you guessed it, the Otter Body.

Zahan and I had several discussions regarding skiing the line with others on it. But we came to the conclusion that we would be far enough behind them that there should be no issue. The route also diagonals across the face, keeping everyone at a safe distance until the final rappels. The guides were friends and they knew we were coming. We hoped to keep things chill through the end.

Owen Spaulding

With predicted temperatures up high getting above freezing by midday, we pushed our departure from the Bradley-Taggart trailhead to 3:30 am. I hardly slept with all kinds of thoughts swirling in my head about the objective. I was scared. Mountaineers are fond of their “inner voice” and heeding the messages heard. I’ve never been comfortable with these fanciful notions. Smacks too much of religion and superstition. Always makes for great lore, of course, but I rarely entertain them beyond recognizing their ability to turn my sleep to shit. I’ve learned to differentiate between “voices” and judgement.

Zahan finally out of the mank and into upper Garnet CanyonThe iced up spring chunder on the skin track tortured us for the first two hours. I wished I had ski crampons. Once in the meadows, we made short work booting the headwall beneath the Middle Teton. We hit the Lower Saddle at 3:40 from the car and continued up in the stiff wind strafing the barren rocks.

Z battling the wind on the Lower SaddleFrom the Black Dike we were out of the wind and we each brought our frozen fingers back to life. At the Watering Hole we donned crampons for the booter up the Idaho Express. It was almost pleasant drafting Pat and Brendan’s tracks up the 45-degree snowfield.

The author drafting steps in the Idaho Express

We caught a break at the Upper Saddle and the start of the climbing on the Owen Spaulding. It’s rare not to be hammered there by the wind but we enjoyed calm, clearing skies and brilliant light on the range. Zahan was in full guide mode and I happily encouraged him as he gingerly lead on the rime-slickened granite. Zahan leading out on the Belly Roll, Owen Spaulding, Grand Teton

We’ve each ascended this terrain dozens of times in the summer but winter conditions, crampons and skis made the climbing spicy and we both enjoyed having a belay through the Owen Chimney.

Scrambling up into the Sargent Chimney

We stashed the rope and soloed the Sargent Chimneys up to the summit. As we walked around the Horse to the south and into the sun I could see Pat coiling ropes far down on the East Face below three sets of perfect powder turns. Zahan and I couldn’t believe the boot top snow at our feet. Thoughts started churning and a sense of urgency descended on us.

Downward

We scrambled up to the summit and I had a moment of nostalgia taking it all in. But time was short and down we went to get ready to ski. We had a couple of decisions to make. First was the safety of the snow conditions and whether or not to ski the route at all. A couple of hand pits and hasty block isolation tests confirmed acceptable conditions, at least up high. We were also encouraged by the three avalanche poodles ahead of us.GT summit number 130-ish for me.

Organizing and giving the boys below some time

Tracks down the SE face, Pat can be seen below coiling ropes

Second, we were closer to the party than I had wanted to be at this point. Again, I didn’t want to bum them out. I considered a descent of the Ford, which was deliciously untracked.  Zahan and I decided we would ski the southeast face bordering the Ford until we needed to make a decision. The skiing was easy in the heavy powder. I stopped on the edge of the Ford and watched Z make his way down. I saw no sign of the others.

Z powder farming the SE Face, GT. WTF?

Warming temps were keeping our tension high. Our desire to finally ski this line pushed us to commit to the Otter Body. We followed the others’ tracks across the face and to the funnel leading to the lower snowfield. I was relieved to see them already off the face and beginning the rappels down the chimney. Things were falling into place.

Just a tad exposed. Zahan skiing the East Face, Grand TetonZahan side-slipped to the anchor over 50-degree terrain. It was scary in here and I waited to the side as he sussed the anchor. It was disappointing to see a single piton as the only option. The heat of the day was looming and we decided for a partially weighted rappel/down climb to get through the 30-meter section. The pin was bomber and we felt too time-constrained to muck around for more gear.

Zahan dropping onto the Otter Body FaceOnce he had his rope in place I carefully skied to him as he started down. It was creepy standing there with the whole East Face above me. Before I knew it he was skiing out from under the rappel and headed to the chimney. I got myself on rappel and did the same. At the bottom I pulled and coiled the rope and started skiing the surprisingly mellow ramp leading down and left to the shade of the chimney. The author on the Otter BodyI was relieved to see my slough going over the East Face and not down the chimney onto my friends below. The only bummer was that I now had both ropes and Z waited patiently as I negotiated the steep chute just before the anchor.

Keeping the pressure on, we frantically worked the ropes into position and started the first of three rappels. It was great to be in the shade for a bit. The face was still. Down to the TeepeeThe first rap was 50 meters, the second, 30 meters and the final was 60 meters. At our debriefing the next morning over coffee, Pat and Brendan said that we only hosed them once with slough during the whole process. They admitted being irritated but also said they were feeling the same stress of urgency to get down. At the end of the day, they were simply psyched that we all got it done.Z skiing the Teepee Glacier below the East Face

The Teepee was creamy perfection as was the headwall below the Middle. But from there to Bradley Lake it was knee-blowing cement. Tired legs had me taking my time and we made the car 10 hours after starting out.

Epilogue

I’ve skied the Otter Body. I’m happy to have done it. We did it under unusual conditions with soft, stable snow the whole way. This was not a descent fraught with the doom and gloom firm conditions that everyone fears. No sitting around waiting for corn o’clock. We were lucky. This experience lends more evidence to the growing sentiment in the Tetons that some of these steep lines are best skied in winter conditions, something previously considered ridiculous. Arguments can be made for both. Significant danger is present under both conditions. Choose your poison.

Equipment

This trip has been a good opportunity to put my new Sportiva Spitfire boots and Lo5 skis to the test. They were up to the task. The boots have enough rocker to make fitting with technical crampons problematic. I still don’t have a good solution for this. But my little Grivel Haute Route touring spikes fit fine and were suitable for the mixed climbing on the OS.

Zahan and I both skied short boards (168 cm) with race bindings, probably the lightest setups used on the route, thus far. There was some Lycra buried under my layers. CAMP super light packs were the rule for both of us. We each carried a single tool but really didn’t need it. I had a Whippet and Z carried two.

Fueling

In my typical fashion, the day was fueled by Gu products, gels and Chomps.  Roughly 200 calories/hour. Fuel needs dropped off significantly once we started down and I didn’t consume my ration. But in spite of the altitude, I was never hungry, my stomach was good and I rallied all the way to the car.   

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Reader Comments (12)

Well done! Inspiring as always.

March 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Dorais

We missed you on this one, my friend. We'll get it again.

March 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

Congrats, Randoman!

Although, it would have been fun to have you around here and off work the past week. If you have a list for Turnagain Arm/the Kenai, many could have been ticked off. Funny that you go to Jackson when Coombs would be go to AK...

Where does the name "Otter Body" come from? Love the title and article.

As always, I'll be looking forward to rallying again soon!

March 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNasty Dollar$

Hey Brian

Another great blog.
Thanks for sharing this.

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill B

Thanks Bill,

Let me tell you I was cursing not having your B&D Ski Gear ski crampons during the first 2 hours up to the Meadows. It was frozen ski track hell. They would have been perfect. Bad choice not having them. Probably would have saved 20 minutes of cursing and sliding around.

Won't be making that mistake again this season.

March 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

'There was some Lycra buried under my layers.' - Much as there is air in the atmosphere, this goes without saying. ;-)

Some great photos. It's a little sad to see so little snow on the lower saddle in March (well worth the trade to have real snow on the actual route, though). Awesome pic of the final rap to the Teepee, haven't seen that one before!

Solid accomplishment. I'll bet you slept well afterwards.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterA OK

Thanks Adam. Real snow, indeed. I think winter descents of that route are going to become the norm. Way easier to manage the skiing but the disaster potential still lurks, of course. Trading one type of danger for another.

Actually, that's the second to last rap. The final rap is a full hanger. Colin O'Farrell has a nice photo of it (along with others) on his post on TGR from a few years ago.

I agree about the snow on the saddle. A couple of years ago JD and I were able to ski from Glencoe Col to the lower saddle without taking our skis off. Makes for some fast time gains when hitting the Teton Trilogy. You'd walk most of it right now. Slow going. I'd like to drive that record down at least an hour but it's unlikely to happen this season.

March 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

Hi Brian,

Good story. Thanks for sharing.! I found it interesting that you guys took only one ice tool...
And that you skied down on top of your homies.!

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterb. fredlund

b. fredlund,

Thanks for reading. Trust me, there was much discussion between all us homies regarding the "crowd" on the face. We all agreed that the conditions were right and we would make it work.

First, Zahan and I waited at the top to let them get further down the route. But the most important detail observers who have never checked out the line need to know is that the line traverses south to north on the face. With good timing, one party is never under the other. That's the way we worked it.

The only time I douched those guys was one point on the final raps. Nothing big but slightly stressful for all of us.

So, as you can see, we never actually skied "down on top of" my homies.

As for the ice tool, I have literally dozens of ascents of the Owen Spaulding over the years and Z is slowly racking them up, as well. I've guided the Grand over 100 times. Even iced up, it's as much a rock climb as anything. Didn't even need the tool I had. Never miss a chance to lighten that shit up!

March 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterBrian

"This experience lends more evidence to the growing sentiment in the Tetons that some of these steep lines are best skied in winter conditions, something previously considered ridiculous"

Very cool observation. It's interesting to read Tom's guidebook and see how approaches, strategies, and timing for the classic steeps have changed in the nearly 20 years since its publication.

April 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenternick

I have been looking for Doug Coomb's video "The Otterbody Experience" since you posted about it a while back. It was recently re-uploaded, thought I would send you the link if you hadn't seen it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcsQG3HZkYU

Carl

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarl Kohnstamm

Hey Carl,

Thanks for this. Really enjoyed watching it again. Classic Coombs and Workman.

April 16, 2014 | Registered CommenterBrian

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