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It’s been two or three years since the last time I skied the Grand Teton and recently I have been jonesing to get back up there to check it out again. Chris Onufer joined me for this trip and we started walking on the dry trail from the Bradley/Taggart trailehad just before 1am. I felt surprisingly good on the approach in the pre-dawn hours and the peaks of Garnet Canyon began to glow at about 4:30am…about a hour and half before the actual sunrise.
The snow was very firm on the skin above the Meadows, but I was able to ascend without ski crampons all the way to the JHMG camp and the zone below the Teepee Glacier. From here, we ditched the headlamps and stashed our ski crampons since we would begin bootpacking pretty soon.
Below the Teepee Glacier, we hydrated and tried to catch up on calories. For me, it’s hard to eat in the middle of the night, so swallowing food is usually hard and I tend to live on GU and Chomps during those darker hours. It was pretty chilly and Chris’s thermometer read 6°F, but we knew things would be heating up fast once the sun came up, so we quickly got going and proceeded upward.
As the sun came up and shined on the exposed aspects, we quickly booted up the Teepee Glacier. The snow was a bit of a breakable crust here and I wondered what the snow conditions would be like higher up and more south facing.
When we reached Teepee Col my energy and excitement spiked in anticipation of getting into the sun and feeling it’s warming rays. It’s wild how at one point of a day you can be welcoming the sun so much, yet at other times you just wish it would go away.
Our timing was perfect and the sun began to shine on Glencoe Col as we traversed the exposed slope that connects it with Teepee Col. The guides have a name for this section of the Grand Teton (Couloir of Death, Couloir to Nowhere???) but right now…it escapes me.
It felt so good to be in the sun at the col, as we pulled out the ropes and ice axes. We also stashed the rest of what we wouldn’t need here (like skins, headlamps, etc…) to lighten the load on our backs. From here it is about 1500′ to the summit and we departed at about 7am.
Step by step, we rhythmically booted up the Stettner Couloir towards where it forks off to the climber’s left and connects with the Chevy Couloir. I was amazed at how filled in the Stettner Couloir was and it looked completely skiable. Other times I have skied the Grand Teton via the Stettner, there have been two ice bulges in this section and have required one or two rappels on the descent. Things were looking good.
I placed two ice screws on the way up the Chevy Couloir, mainly to protect one ice bulge. A couple blobs of snow came down on us as we ascended, but I knew it was too early in the day for anything larger to develop. It left great to be in the heart of the climb now and cramponing up steep snow and ice.
We simul-climbed through the Stettner and regrouped at the bottom of the Ford Couloir. Confident in the conditions above, we unroped and left them at this location so we wouldn’t have to lug them to the top.
Hearing a couple shouts in the distance, we looked back and saw what looked like two people on the summit of the Middle Teton. We wondered if they were hooting at us? The East Face of the Middle was looking pretty nice, but it looked like they might have descended off the back side.
Now, we had about 1000′ to go to the summit and it was the last big push to the top. We were hoping to be on top by 11am and it seemed like we were right on schedule. Chris jumped in front and broke trail, and it felt great to be in the back for a little while, enjoying the views and the experience of climbing the Grand instead of huffing and puffing while trail.
We slowly made our way up the Ford and the snow conditions looked marginal…but decent. There was about 2-4 inches of fresh snow on top of a breakable crust of unconsolidated snow. I thought the snow conditions would be a bit more powdery and we wondered how it would ski.
I moved back in front when we reached the upper section of the East Face and out of the Ford Couloir, as Chris hydrated, had some food and put on sunscreen. I was lazy with the sunscreen and paid the price with some sunburn, but I just wanted to keep charging and keep things moving forward.
Soon enough, we were on the summit and we were both elated. This was going to be Chris’s first time skiing the Grand Teton and he was psyched to be so close to doing something he has dreamed about for years. We were halfway there, but with the trickiest part yet to come.
Some clouds began to build. They weren’t a threat weather-wise, but they added to the visuals since they were at the same altitude as us and we could look directly across at them. This was going to be my fourth time skiing the Grand Teton. Someday I will attempt another route besides the Ford/Stettner…but today wasn’t going to be that day.
My watch read an elevation of 13,750′, only 20′ from the Grand Teton’s true elevation of 13,770′. I thought this was pretty accurate as far as altimeter watches go. Nice job Suunto!!!
As one would hope, we were able to make turns directly off the summit block and we began the descent. Picking our way through some rocks, we made our way down to a flat area just above the East Face.
Since it was Chris’s first time skiing the Grand Teton, I let him have first tracks here without argument and he linked turns as he descended.
Chris continued downward and stopped at where you would enter the Ford Couloir and waited for me to join him. I began to ski and the snow conditions were what I would call…marginal. Kinda punchy, but not the full-on breakable crust that wants to rip off your leg with every turn. We’d have to stay on our toes though, or should I say…ski tips.
I continued further down the mountain and began skiing the upper section of the Ford Couloir. This part is one of the steepest sections of the descent and is quite thrilling as you stare down the couloir and at the rest of the Teton summits to the south.
There is a nice island of relative safety on the skiers right about a third of the way down and I pulled over to wait for Chris. He cautiously made turns toward me and then continued past.
The middle section of the Ford Couloir mellows out in steepness for a little bit and Chris skied through it, pulling behind some rocks on the skiers right. Below him, the pitch rolls over again and gets your heart pumping as you ski above the Chevy Couloir.
I skied past Chris and through the lower section and towards what sometimes is the first rappel at the bottom of the Ford. The skiing was still somewhat challenging, with slough piles in the middle of the couloir, combined with unpredictable breakable crust on the sides. I pulled into the rappel station and waited for Chris.
Once back together, we packed the ropes and decided the ski down to the next rap station which sits at the top of the Chevy. I had never skied this section before, having opted to rappel it on previous descents. It was very exposed on the skiers right, with a thousand foot drop on the other side of the ridge, combined with very steep pitches as you come in to the top of the Chevy.
I clipped-in to the anchor and started pulling out the ropes as Chris skied down to meet me. He was almost at the rap station when a relatively large slough came sliding down the Ford and continued past us and crashed down the Chevy Couloir right where we would be rappelling. Not really what you want to see right before you rap into confined gully and I volunteered to rap first, and let Chris keep an eye out for more sloughs.
Needless to say, we both rapped as fast as we could, at least in the upper sections until we felt more protected on the skier’s left hand side of the couloir, and even more still when we were both finally clipped into the next anchor.
On the next rappel, the second in the Chevy, we were forced back into the line of fire once again, but it thankfully went by without indecent. At the bottom of the Chevy now, we packed the ropes again and clicked into our skis to ski the Stettner Couloir.
I had never skied the entire Stettner Coulior before and it was as filled in as I have ever seen it. The turns here were better than they were higher up, but my legs were more tired as well.
I skied to the bottom and waited for Chris. I was excited to have skied the Grand with only two rappels and I wondered if there will ever be a day when it is skied with no rappels. The challenge creeps into the back of my head sometimes, but conditions would have to be just right and your confidence level extremely high.
Still with over 5000′ to go to reach the valley floor, once Chris arrived at the bottom of the Stettner, we side-stepped back up to Glencoe Col. We took a quick breather here, since we had to grab our skins and stuff we had stashed earlier, but got moving again quickly.
The skiing was mostly crappy mush as we descended further, but there was some decent corn here and there on the way down to the Meadows. After that, the snow was mostly isothermic and manky, and my knees were screaming at me by the time we reached Taggart Lake and the valley floor.
It seems every time I ski the Grand it is a different experience. Sometimes there is stable powder snow, other times it is perfect, consolidated corn snow and like this time, it was relatively challenging with some scary moments…and I’m glad to still be able to sit here and type these words. If we were 5 minutes earlier coming into that first rappel, things could have ended quite differently.