First Ski Descent of the Grand Teton’s Hossack-MacGowan Route Revisited

Hossack-MacGowen Couloir looking pretty good May 6, 2008
The Hossack-MacGowan Couloir on the Grand Teton
looking pretty good, May 6, 2008.

Though I’m completely scared shitless of what has to be the raddest line off the summit of the Grand Teton, the more I study it, the more I want to ski it.� But finding it in good, ski-able conditions is key and on multiple trips into Glacier Gulch over the years, I try to make a point to eyeball the Hossack-MacGowan Couloir to see what kind of shape it is in.� Hossack-MacGowen Couloir looking thin  December 17th 2004I’ve seen it thin and rocky in the early season and in light snow years, but I’ve also seen it look pretty damn good, like last year, though I never heard of anyone giving it a try.� No surprise really.

The Hossack-MacGowan Couloir on the Grand Teton has to be one of North America’s gnarliest skied lines.� It was finally nailed in February of 1996 by Mark Newcomb and Hans Johnstone.� The second and only other descent was in 1998 by the belated Hans Sarri and Andrew Mclean, who often recounts it as the scariest thing he’s ever skied.� I don’t think many people have read Mark Newcomb’s account of he and Hans’ descent from the 1997 American Alpine Journal, so I thought I would post it here.� Enjoy!� -Steve

The Grand Teton, Hossack-MacGowan Couloir
? First One-Day Winter Ascent and First Ski Descent ?
From the 1997 American Alpine Journal, By Mark Newcomb

Hossack-MacGowen Couloir on the Grand Teton

On February 16, Hans Johnstone and I started from the Cottonwood Canyon Parking lot hoping to climb the Hossack-MacGowan Couloir to the summit of the Grand Teton and descend it on skis. Tom Turiano, Stephen Koch, and Jeff Fell are some of the most notable names on the list of ski mountaineers who had tried skiing the Hossack-MacGowan on previous occasions. They and others made their attempt in spring or early summer, often climbing the entire route only to find soft, runnelled, unreliable snow and ice. Hans and I were the first to attempt it in winter conditions.

We began our ascent at 3:30 a.m. carrying our alpine skis and ski boots on our backs and wearing mountaineering boots and randonnee skis. The mountaineering gear performed critically through technical sections of the ascent while the alpine ski gear performed optimally through the steepest and most exposed sections of the descent. Once we were on the terminal moraine of the Teton Glacier the snow was firm enough to walk on with crampons, allowing us to jettison the randonnee skis and pick them up on the descent.

We reached the Teton Glacier just as the morning sun spilled brilliant pink and orange down Mount Owen and the Grand’s north face. After a coupe hours of steady slogging up firm, consolidated, chalky snow, we faced the cave traverse from the lower to upper couloir. Unroped for speed, we traversed across thin ramps of snow up and right to a short chimney filled with steep snow. From the top of the chimney we climbed easy but exposed and unprotected rock slabs to a final tongue of snow that led to the apron of snow which, around the corner to climber’s right, connected to the bottom of the upper couloir.

the upper couloir of the Hossack-MacGowen route on the Grand Teton
Looking up at the upper section of the Hossack-MacGowan Couloir.
Imagine traversing skiers right….above all that exposure.

The rest of the ascent entailed trudging up perfect snow through the upper couloir and across the east face snow field to a huge wind-scoured groove below a rock feature known as the Horse on the mountain’s south side. We were 50 or 60 vertical feet below the summit, which was too rocky and wind scoured to descend on skis. The time was around 1:30 p.m.

The descent back across the east face and down the upper couloir offered incomparable skiing amidst spectacular exposure. The steady 50-55 degree pitch of the couloir kept our attention, though its width and the perfect snow enabled us to link turns the entire distance to its termination above a 1,500-foot cliff.

From there we traversed (skier’s right) around two corners and across an apron of snow just about steep enough to keep our up-hill knee within biting distance of our chins. Near the end of our traverse we set up a half-rope rappel off a snow bollard that dropped us over an eight foot snow and rock step. A second half-rope rappel off a piton diagonalled down and to the skier’s right across a four foot runnel, and a final half-rope rappel dropped us over a 15 or 20 foot vertical rock corner, depositing us 60-70 feet above where we traversed (climber’s right) on the snow ramps during the ascent.

Hossack-MacGowen Couloir looking very good April 11 2008
The lower section of the Hossack-MacGowan. The most filled in I’ve ever seen
the Hossack-MacGowan was on April 11, 2008, when this picture was taken.

Several turns down some of the steepest snow yet brought us into a 150-foot section of couloir narrow enough to force us to side slip. Beyond that we skied for another couple of hundred of feet before making one last 40 to 50 foot rappel over an 80 degree ice bulge. The skiing became easier below that as the couloir widened and the pitch eased, bringing us to the final five foot drop over the bergschrund near the base of the couloir. We arrived back at the Teton Glacier around 4:15 p.m. and made it to the car by around 6 p.m.

This was the first successful ski descent of the complete Hossack-MacGowan Couloir. Also, according to Renny Jackson but unbeknownst to Hans and I at the time, it may have been the first successful winter ascent.

13 Comments

13 Responses to “First Ski Descent of the Grand Teton’s Hossack-MacGowan Route Revisited”


  1. 1 FreshTracks Dec 22nd, 2008 at 9:38 am

    While factually accurate, Mark’s humble account of this descent doesn’t begin to truly describe how bold and harrowing a route this is. The upper section has to be among the most exposed lines in the Tetons and this is a long technical route with no room for error. To even attempt it– let alone nail it in perfect snow conditions– is a testament to those guys’ ski mountaineering skill and supreme confidence.

  2. 2 randosteve Dec 22nd, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    As many know, Mark is one of the most humble of the ski mountaineers pushing the sport. Imagine if he hadn’t been in school the past few years, I would guess some more Teton ski lines would have gotten skied. And to think that Mark and Hans climbed and skied this route in about 15 hours…in the middle of winter…is really impressive.

  3. 3 gringo Dec 22nd, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    ….seems like whenever the stakes were highest Hans is/was the partner of choice. CMC, East ridge, Hossack-Mcgowan, et-al.

    Hats off to that bad ass gentleman. The common denominator of big line success in the Tetons, it would seem.

  4. 4 Grant Dec 22nd, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    While climbing from the Teton Glacier area (albeit summers on the Grand, Owen and Teewinot), I’ve eyed Hossack-McGowen a number of times and just the thought of folks skiing it makes the heart pound and the palms sweat. Just climbing it would be trophy enough for the like of me. Hats off to Hans, Mark and Andrew.

  5. 5 randosteve Dec 22nd, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Good point Gringo.  Hans Johnstone=STUD

    Funny, after he “skied” the East Ridge of the Grand, I asked him if he wanted to talk about it…or if he had any photos he wanted to share.  He told me he had had enough media already that week.  Low-pro for sure!!!

  6. 6 Mark Dec 24th, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Steve, Thanks for revisiting that great descent. It is truely one of the most impressive lines and skied with style by Mark and Hans. Those to are the most humble bad asses around. I have a picture of Hans Sarri ski rapping the upper part of the lower couloir on a failed attempt at the line. Let me know if you want it for posting, it shows the some of the determination needed even get on the line.

  7. 7 randosteve Dec 24th, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Right on Mark! I would love to see that picture…I sent you an email. Thanks!

  8. 8 tturiano Dec 25th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Hi Steve, thanks for posting this about the Hossack-MacGowen…my nemesis for sure after four failed attempts in the early 90s with partners Mike Collins, Andy Matz, Stephen Koch, Hans Johnstone, and Mark Newcomb. Hans, Newc, and I tried it in spring of 95 together, and that’s when they realized that the best chances of success were in winter…a real novel idea at the time on routes of this nature. My heartrate still flutters and my hands shake when I think about it (and read your post), as that route occupied so much of my thoughts and energy back then. I had forgotten that Mark and Hans didn’t go from the top. I will have to check my “archives” (or ask Andrew) to be sure, but I don’t think Hans and Andrew went from the top either. I think they started from the notch. So perhaps the line has still yet to be skied from the top! TomT

  9. 9 randosteve Dec 25th, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for your comments Tom. The HMC is one of those lines that haunts many people. I know a few from out of town who have tried it and failed miserably. Seems like most people ski from the summit of the Grand these days when the conditions are right…and I would think that would coincide with good conditions in the HMC.

  10. 10 Phillip Lim Dec 13th, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Improbably. It seems impossible.

  11. 11 drew Mar 10th, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Steve:

    Can you post this again? The pictures do not load. My hands get sweaty when I think about finding myself in a couloir like this. Anyone who attempts it is a badass…success or failure. I know you have revisited this in the past…but with conditions this year, it would be cool to have this re-posted as a carrot to an ambitious reader!

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