It seems high pressure is in the house in the Tetons lately and here for a long term stay. With a ton of avalanche classes and other skiers making their rounds on the lines close to the parking lots and trailheads, I teamed up with Reed Finlay for an adventure far from everything else. We loaded up our pulks with overnight gear, and headed out for a quick (but long) one night trip into Leigh Canyon and Mount Moran.
Randosteve skis the Southwest Couloir on Mount Moran.
The approach slog was long and pretty boring, since low clouds blocked all the views of the peaks. We followed the groomed park road nearly all the way to the North Jenny Lake junction before veering off towards the Leigh Lake parking area. It probably added a couple miles to the skin in, but it was nice to be on the firm, groomed track just the same. After close to 15 miles of skinning, past String Lake and Leigh Lake, and into Leigh Canyon, we made camp directly below the Southwest Couloir and watched the sunset on Breccia Peak and Togwotee Pass.
Sunset on Breccia Peak.
We wanted to get an early start the next morning, since we would be climbing Moran and skiing back out the trailhead the same day. Our alarms were set for 5am, but we didn’t pull ourselves out of our comfy and warm sleeping bags until 6. Overnight, a cold fog moved into the canyon and everything was covered in a thick frost, and it slowed our progress as we prepped our packs and drank coffee before we set out towards our objective.
Morning light on an unnamed peak near Paintbrush Divide.
Once we started skinning, it didn’t take long for us to rise above the fog layer and the sun began to light up the fog bank, and shine on the surrounding peaks in the canyon. Unfortunately, we would be in the shadow of Mount Moran for most of the climb and away from it’s warming rays.
Randosteve climbing the lower crux of the Southwest Couloir.
After a few hundred feet of elevation gain, we arrived at the exit crux to the Southwest Couloir. It was filled in with snow and ice, so we put on our crampons and pulled out the ice axes and began bootpacking. There was 4,000 feet of climbing still ahead, and while we probably could have put our skis on and skinned again once above the icy crux and past a short rocky scramble, we embraced nature’s stairmaster and continued kicking steps up towards the couloir.
Nearing the top of the couloir.
I was feeling strong at the start of the climb and lead the way for the first portion, but let Reed move in front for the final 1000 feet in the gut of the Southwest Couloir proper. We popped into the sun for a short stretch, but once in the couloir, were back into the shade. Above 10,000, the wind picked up and it was hard to keep the hands warm, since they were above our hearts as we bootpacked. At the very top, the looker’s left split appeared to go higher than the right and we climbed to where the snow meets the rock, which was about 100 feet from the ridgeline and 200 feet from the summit of Moran. With many more steps to take that day, we called it our turning around point and clicked in for the decent.
Reed negotiates rough seas.
With wind pressed snow, sustrugi and weathered powder as our base, avalanches were far from our minds and it was nice to make turns without having too worry about slabs or sloughs taking us out as we skied. I kung-fu turned down the wind formed fin at the top and kept the arms wide to maintain balance. The tall cliffs of the couloir framed a beautifully bright Leigh Canyon (and beyond) and I couldn’t wait to get back into the warmth of the sun.
The elusive Hidden Couloir on Thor Peak peaks out at the top of the photo.
As we lost elevation, we could see our megamid down in the cold trap of the canyon below. We would be there soon, packing our gear back into our pulks for the long sprint back to the trailhead as the sun dropped behind the peaks. But before that, we would still have to negotiate the narrow, icy crux at the bottom.
Randosteve glad to be back in the sun.
Sidestepping into the double fall-line snow-tongue that led to the ice bulge, it became too narrow for my skis and I contemplated what to do next. Feeling confident, I pointed my ski tips downhill, straight-lined the remaining 15 feet, then aired the 10 foot drop over the ice bulge. Landing at the transition at the bottom of the bulge, the snow was quite soft from the sun and a couple smear turns quickly brought my speed down. Reed decided to play it safe and downclimbed the ice bulge. Probably the smart thing to do, since an injury this far from the trailhead and with no cell service would not have been good.
Reed skins on Jenny Lake Road.
The skin back to the car was uneventful and we skinned in complete darkness for about two hours. We had headlamps, but didn’t take them out of our packs and relied on our Jedi senses to stay on course and arrived back at the trailhead at 8pm. The long and strenuous two days gave my lingering head and chest cold a chance gain the upper hand and now I am paying the price. But you only live once, so c’est le vie.