Mark Newcomb, co-owner of Exum Mountain Guides and Marmot athlete, is one of my biggest ski mountaineering idols and when he talks about skiing…people listen. His pioneering descents of such lines as the Spooky Face and the Hossack-McGowan in the Tetons blow the minds of aspiring skiers like myself.
Mark has got to be one of the most skilled ski mountaineers on the planet, yet he is rarely seen tooting his own horn. Mark gets respect the hard way, by earning it…100%. Here, Mark talks about the style of some of his past descents and future possibilities in the Tetons.
Doug Coombs skis toward the Otterboby on the Grand Teton
in extremely ‘phat’ conditions in 1997. Courtesy Mark Newcomb
Stephen is right on. As for the Tetons, some things to keep in mind:
There are routes which have been skied from a climber’s perspective, but from a skier’s perspective…are actually much longer. The Black Ice, the NW on the Middle and the SW on the Middle are three examples. Stephen and I, (in 1994, not 1995), descended the Black Ice to the Valhalla Traverse. However, the snow continues (perhaps with more down climbing or another rap) into Valhalla Canyon…and from there into Cascade Canyon. To me, that would make the complete descent.
In 1998, I returned to the BI with Hans Johnstone…to try and ski it without raps and to complete the descent into Cascade Canyon. Hans turned back at the top. I skied the upper portion without a belay and started downclimbing without a rope when I couldn’t fathom making another turn. I downclimbed to the crux, but dinner plated away too much ice to give me security making the big step down over the chock stone. I climbed back out and caught up with Hans to ski down to the Saddle and back to the valley. It was mid May and conditions were perfect, and I could have skied almost to Jenny Lake that year. Alas, I didn’t quite have the huevos and skill for it. That was the first time I tried Dynafit bindings and shorter skis (in order to make the down climb easier), and on my third turn, my heal released, and I suddenly found myself in tele mode on 60° snow. Kind of woke me up!
To continue on that theme, in 2001 (I think), I skied the NW couloir from the top of the Middle…all the way into Dartmouth Basin and then as far as I could out Cascade Canyon, making it to the airport just in time to catch a 2:00 flight to California. As far as I know, that’s the only descent of the complete line. There are some excellent challenges and a LOT of outstanding skiing below the cut-off back to the Saddle that most (if not all) skiers have taken in the past.
This early season photo shows the lower section
(not very filled in yet) of the Northwest Couloir Mark refers to
As for the SW couloir on the Middle, the only time I’ve been down the bottom half that leads to Ice Flow Lake was with a ski camp, and we cut in at the half-way point. So I believe that complete descent, from the top of the Middle all the way to Ice Flow has yet to be done.
I guess I feel that we should try and maintain a standard in the Tetons that has a complete descent without raps as sort of the diamond rating, as far as style goes. And I do think that conditions matter, though it’s incredibly hard to quantify as far as style. I know the Grand gets skied routinely now, but generally the descents include upwards of 4 rappels. The first time I skied it (with Stephen), I downclimbed where I couldn’t ski, and Stephen downclimbed with one crampon and his snowboard on his other foot. Then we went on to ski the upper half of the SW Couloir of the Middle and the South…and that was with alpine skis and boots…and starting from the parking lot that morning.
After the Hossack-MacGowan and the Otter Body, I became intrigued by the idea of making a descent of the Grand with an absolute minimum of downclimbing or rappelling. The closest I came was in 1999 (I think), when I skied the Grand a mere two or three days after the big May storms stopped. I downclimbed about 30 feet at the very top of the Chevy where the runnel was already too deep to wiggle skis through. I then skied down to the prominent ice bulge, rapped with skis on over that, then side slipped, with a couple turns, from there down into the Stettner. The Stettner was well filled in and skiable except for one ice bulge where I chose to use the rope again to slide over it with skis on. Then I skied out Teepee and as far as the snow persisted down the switchbacks.
Mark’s 2007 descent route of Talk is Cheap on Cody Peak
For Talk is Cheap, the first time I skied it, after Stephen’s descent, I was working on Patrol and OB wasn’t open, so I approached from the Valley, skinning up on my mountaineering approach skis and carrying my alpine skis on my back. I skied Central to warm up, looped around, skied Talk is Cheap, hiked Powder 8’s and skied out Green River and Four Pines. I had to sneak back the next day and retrieve my mountaineering approach skis. Oddly, none of the other patrol asked me why I skied up to the tram dock with a pair of mountaineering approach skis strapped on my pack. Last year I used the tram to access the line and skied it from the top to a traverse on a ledge into Central…without having to take skis off.
Ski mountaineering is very personal, and staying alive is the bottom line. But there is a certain satisfaction in waiting until conditions are right for a certain line, then giving it your best shot. And it might be worth cataloging the best style descents to keep others inspired.