I had a fun ski on Tuesday with Exum guide, rope gun, former rando-racing superstar and general fun-hog, Brendan O’Neill The day started a bit warmer than anticipated, which was nice, and we arrived at the Bradley/Taggart Trailhead just as the sun started popping on the high peaks.
The plan was to attempt to ski the East Face of Teewinot. We would take an unconventional route to the summit however, and climb up from Glacier Gulch and the southwest, pop through the notch between the North and South summits, leaving the conditions of the Narrows unknown until we arrived on the way down. The Narrows is the crux section when skiing the East Face, doesn’t always fill in enough to be skiable and there are many stories of people taking major falls (even fatal) trying to negotiate the tricky section. We brought some rope to up the odds that we would make it to the valley in one piece.
There was patchy fog in the valley as we skinned on the flats into Burned Wagon Gulch and the sky turned a pinkish orange as the suns rays reflected off the water vapor crystals in the air. Frost collected on our heads as our bodies warmed up and we skinned higher. Once in the lower section of Glacier Gulch, things dried out a bit and we skinned in the sun, which felt wicked good, considering we had both froze our butts off on Togwotee Pass the day before.
We arrived at Delta Lake in very good time, 2:10, and we both agreed that arriving at Delta Lake never gets old and the views of the Grand Teton, Mount Owen and the Teton Glacier welcome us once again. We take our first break, eat some food and surprisingly, I find myself out in front, breaking trail again, as we begin the skin up the moraine towards the southwest side of Teewinot.
Although it is warm(ish) in the sun, we are in the shade for a short bit and our hands instantly freeze up from the cold. I lead the way to the top of the moraine through some great looking snow. It’s usually wind hammered or sun effected here, so it’s nice to see, but we aren’t skiing down this way, so we keep heading up. Some spindrift comes off the north side of the Grand Teton, as well as the Grandstand, and we watch it like our favorite YouTube video.
When we arrive at the top of the moraine, Brendan takes over and we continue up a ramp. We stop again to refuel our bodies, but then continue on and eventually are forced to bootpack, as the slope just gets too steep for skinning and slows us down. Brendan launches out of the gate before me and it’s all I can do just to keep up as we make our way to the Teewinot/Owen Plateau, and one of my favorite places in the range.
We decide to keep booting instead of trying to skin again, which in hind site I think wasn’t the best call, and we punch our way back towards the east. The snowpack thins, but then comes back again and we boot up a short couloir to the ridge. Some scrambling on some loose, 3rd class terrain with an exposed downclimb got my heart going even though the pace was slow.
Arriving at our next landmark, the notch between the north and south summits of Teewinot, we are less than two hundred feet from the summit. We try to move climber’s right and onto the standard route on the East Face, but it looks problematic, so we move down a bit through some very deep snow and around a rocky out cropping. Though a straight forward climb from here, and one we have both done many times, we both sense danger as we think about pushing further. I poke at the snow with my pole a bit, and it dives deeply through weak, faceted snow to the base of the snow pack. We are on 50Â° terrain now, with serious consequences below us and we opt for life, instead of risking more to reach the summit.
After a short bootpack back up to the notch, it’s time to ski, so we begin to transition into downhill mode. It’s freezing cold again and we both don heavy mittens for the descent. The condition of the terrain below is unknown and we put on our harnesses as well. I ask Brendan to check mine, as I can barely see the buckle under the giant puffy I’ve got on to stay warm. It’s uncomfortably cold, but the psych to ski is on.
This tour was Brendan’s idea, so he skis first. The skiing and snow looks fantastic as he links slow turns to a point where we can see down more of the face. I ski down to meet him. The slough gets moving quickly and reminds us the we will need to be on our toes for this one. We inch down some more, towards the “Narrows” and Brendan leads the way to a stance where we can check out things better. A ski through is a no-go and he digs around a bit until some cracks in the rock for an anchor are found. It’s a short rappel back to skiable terrain, but the rope and rappel, instead of down-climbing, is welcome and almost relaxing.
We are now below the crux of the descent, but the terrain isÂ steep, we are a still about 5,000′ above the valley floor and soft slabs release with every turn, so we are far from golden. (Look close in the picture below and you can see one cutting out to the right of Brendan.) We link a few turns, then cut right to avoid the slough, link a few more, then cut left…and repeat.
Once we move through some more rocky terrain, things ease up a little bit, since it’s now only a 4000′ slide-for-life over a couple large cliff bands if the mountain decides to let loose, but its all relative. Now arching bigger turns and longer pitches, we leapfrog past the Worshiper and Idol rock formations that we have been staring down on for the past hour. It’s a good feeling.
We cut right at the top of the Apex and contemplate our route down the final 3000′ to the valley. We opt for the direct line and simul-ski cowboy powder through open slopes, slide paths and gullies to the flat terrain below. A small drop in the gut keeps the entertainment factor high but then the long slog back to the trailhead begins. We opt for “arm-wax” over skins for the hour long shuffle and we barely say a word to each other on the trek, as we lower our heads to get it done.