Randosteve skis the upper section of the Sickle Couloir on Mount Moran.
A couple weeks ago, before the heat of summer set in here in Jackson and the snow surfaces were still looking smooth, I managed a trip to the north side of Mount Moran to ski the Sickle Couloir with Wray Landon and Dustin Lemke. We met up at 3am and were at the trailhead with our skis on by 4:00.
Sickle is one of Mount Moran’s most sought after extreme descents for ski mountaineers. Though its first descentionist, Jeff Rhoads and Cory Flandrow avoided the narrow crux near the bottom, it is believed that Bissell Hazen may have credit for the first descent down through the constriction in 2000. This would be my second descent of the couloir, having skied it (also through the constriction) in 2002 with Reed Finlay.
Wray in the spotlight at Jackson Lake.
Taking advantage of the cold temps and frozen snowpack lingering on the lake shores, we skated in our AT gear and linked up String, Leigh and Bearpaw Lakes, making it to Moran Bay (approx 7 miles) in only 1.5 hours. To facilitate the skating, we packed our ski poles and whippets, and used our longer skate skiing poles to increase our efficiency. Once at the base of the mountain, we stashed them on some driftwood on the shores of the lake and began our ascent.
It’s a steep approach up to the cirque that the Sickle Couloir calls home and since the snow was very firm, we boot packed upward instead of skinning. In low snowpack, this bushwack can be challenging, but there was still quite a bit of snow lingering in the north facing trees, making travel over the deadfall much easier. After about an hour, the trees began to thin out and we were greeted with alpenglow on the couloir as we arrived in the cirque.
Though the sun was already up, warming the atmosphere, the wind was ripping up high and sounded like a freight train, and keeping thing cool at the higher elevations. A short skin brought us to the base of the couloir and we fought to stay warm as the wind ripped through our layers as we transitioned to crampons and ice axes. During one particularly strong gust, one of Wray skis was knocked over and sent sliding down the slope. For a moment, we thought it may have gone all the way to the lake shore, but after a short one-ski descent, Wray found it trapped in a small gully about 400′ down the slope. Very lucky to say the least.
Dustin leads above the crux section.
Once gaining our rhythm on the long bootpack to the top, we moved though the choke smoothly, noting how filled in it was. This section of the couloir area can often be trashed with runnels later in the season, making it unskiable, but today it was relatively smooth and looking good. Hugging the climber’s left side of the couloir, we each put in our time at the front and broke trail through dense, boot-deep new snow. The up and right traversing became annoying after a while, but soon we were near the top and able to punch a trail straight up to the col below the upper north ridge.
Arriving at the col, it would have been nice to be able to relax and enjoy the moment, but the wind was still blowing quite hard and it was uncomfortably cold for the middle of May. We found a spot a bit to the north on the ridge and hid behind some rocks for protection as we put our skis on.
Dustin skis the Sickle.
The skiing was very good in the top section of the couloir, but the dense snowpack became more challenging as we got more into the gut. Occasionally, our ski tips would punch below the surface and try to throw us over the handlebars, or we’d hit a firm and icy spot on the skier left side of the line, keeping us on our toes and making it hard to smoothly link up graceful turns. In spots, we found softer snow, but we were always keeping things in check so as not to be caught off guard.
Dustin high above the valley.
The couloir itself is over 2000′ long, so it’s a pretty long descent, but we were soon at the crux with a rocky out cropping proving an intimidating sight as we neared the choke. One by one, we made our way downward and through the constriction to the skier’s right, side-slipping the narrowest section. Once back out on the sunlit slopes, we finally found some corn snow and skied back to where we had stashed our skins prior to the climb.
Wray watches as Randosteve approaches the crux.
Though this was my second time skiing the Sickle, it was also my fourth attempt. Surprisingly I was successful on my first try. On my second attempt, I was turned around at the crux section due to a giant runnel making a clean, skis-on descent nearly impossible. On my third try, my partner and I didn’t even make it out of camp due to warm temps, mosquitoes and low motivation in early June. Though I was psyched to have another descent under my belt, for me, this trip was also a scouting mission for another line I have on my “hit-list”. Stay tuned for more on that one later!