Dan carving calculated turns down the half-pipe.
The voice came from above. It wasn’t God.
“Are you guys OK?”
Dan was pounding a piton into a seam and I was flaking the ropes. We looked quizzically at each other, and then up at the couple poised on the edge of the natural half-pipe. We both began to snicker. The humor of the situation swelled deep inside. We confirmed that we were fine.
“Is this Triple A?”
We cracked and began openly laughing. Unfortunately for them, it was not AAA and we relayed that information to them. Dan asked if they had harnesses in their packs. The misguided duo didn’t and I’m not sure what would have happened if they had. We knew their pickle precisely, for we had booted out of this location while on a recon mission a few days earlier. On that day, Dan and I made our way up and over into the depths of the Northwest Passage. Their disappointment would only be matched by the difficulty of putting a boot-pack in the fresh snow to a friendlier location…hopefully to AAA. We informed them that the only way out was up and returned to the task at hand. The mood was much lighter after this encounter, chasing away some of the jitters as we set what would be the first rappel.
The rappelling section of the line as seen from near Granite Creek.
Dan Petrus and I were not just packing ropes and seeing what kind of trouble we could get into. We had noticed a chimney system in the cleft of rock known as the Northwest Passage (Granite Canyon, Grand Teton National Park) and planned to take advantage of the rock’s weakness.
Somewhere between the NW Passage and AAA lies a steep entrance. Beyond which, a few more turns brought us to a downed tree that acted as a gate to a unique clearing. On the left side of this clearing was a natural half-pipe that funnels into what I, much to my mother’s chagrin, term “Death Air”. The snow was a couple days old, shin deep and stable. We skirted by the log sentry toward the half pipe making precise pow turns up and down the drain. At the bottom of the funnel, we peeled out to the right where some exposed rock afforded a good anchor location. Dan, with a small interruption from our visitors, equalized a very good piton placement and a brassy with some cord. Going on rappel, Dan and I showed all those ladies out there that we don’t have commitment issues. After descending over a huge chock-stone that created a deep cave, it became apparent that this would not be the rappel, but rather…the first rappel. Below the cave, a hanging snowfield stretched out to a snow-schroomed aerie. I could easily imagine a Yeti living in the cave and tossing the bones of wayward skiers out onto the snowfield and down the chimney.
“Death Air” does not exist when a rope is properly employed.
The second anchor was a near-perfect horizontal piton placement backed up by what honestly wasn’t much more than a shrubbery; albeit a solid pine variety. We, of course, had hoped that this would put us squarely on the canyon floor, but instead we ended up perched on a snowy shelf in a five foot wide chimney without enough rope to deck.
The mood had shifted to a more serious tone as we began clearing the sugar-snow in order to expose the rock, knowing full well that a bollard was out of the question in this kind of snow and in such a tight area. There were no usable cracks, but we did find what would be our crystal ticket to terra-firma. The four-inch diameter ice pillar that revealed itself was more transparent than some of the lead-glass windows in my parent’s Victorian farmhouse. Serendipity.
The ice pillar anchor.
We inspected the connection points of the shaft that spanned a little over a foot and were unable to break the ice chunk free. A lot of questions floated around, without any answers to keep them company as we threaded the ropes. We each took hold of the strands and shock loaded our icy friend as best we could, without risking a ground fall if it failed. I was immediately convinced. Dan was not as sure and I said, “It’s good”, with a reassuring smile. I knew that he was going first, which, I am ashamed to admit, may have influenced my thoughts. Keep in mind that I would also be in quite a quandary if it blew. Dan locked in and tentatively lowered himself down the shaft. A cloudburst of obscenities filled the air as the ropes went taut. I was unable to see from my vantage point, but a coffin sized sugar-cube broke loose, violently adding its weight to the system before Dan could shake it down to the snow apron below. The pillar held and I followed without incident.
Sweet turns to Granite Creek.
Once we were both safely down, we pulled the ropes from the most amazing anchor I have ever seen and enjoyed making turns in a seldom skied pocket down to Granite Creek. After stashing our gear for the granite shuffle, we exited as if it were just another stroll in the park.