Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Steven is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! Good luck Steven!!
I look at my watch and it says 5:30am. I was awoken by the sound of rain on the tent, which is not exactly what you want to hear on a spring ski trip. The first thing I think of are my three friends in their tents, probably cursing me for convincing them to join me in the middle of a state better known for nuclear testing and strippers than big peaks and great skiing. My only hope was that this moisture was turning to something a bit more solid higher up.
Morning rain at camp.
Several months prior, I emailed the idea of a spring ski trip to some friends I had met while working at TVS in Jackson. Two still lived in the valley, while I had moved onto Boulder and another was residing in Salt Lake. “Perfect location”, I said. “Not a soul around”, “ You’ll love it”. I felt like I was given a few skeptical looks through the steam rising out of their coffee mugs that morning. After a couple fried egg sandwiches and several more cups of coffee we decide to gear up regardless of the crap weather. “This is what it’s like in Alaska, right? Rain in the valley, snow in the mountains?” None of us had been there either, but it sounded good.
We decided to drive a mile up the road to access a drainage whose trailhead was roughly 600 ft. higher in elevation than where we were camped. On the drive up, we broke through the cloud layer and suddenly we could see the upper ridgelines and sunlight was breaking through to the valley below. The bigger peaks were still buried further up the drainage, but we were jazzed to catch a break in the weather and to see some of the terrain around us. We danced around singing silly songs as we threw our gear in our packs.
Clearing skies at Thomas Canyon trailhead.
We started up Thomas Canyon. The clouds moved in and out of the valley bringing periods of light snow off and on and kept the temperature down. The snow pack was a mixed bag at the lower elevations; bottomless rotten stuff to re-frozen slush. As we moved further up in elevation the snow became more consistent with a nice firm base underneath and a few inches of new snow on top. Mike was happy to point out that with any luck, we would be skiing his favorite spring conditions; “porn” (i.e. powder on corn).
We climbed a bench around 10,000 ft and made our way to the cirque below Snow Lake Peak. Visibility had dropped back down to vertigo inducing flatness. We felt like exploring at bit more and decided to traverse west around the northern rock fin of Snow Lake Peak and into the northeast drainage of Mt. Fitzgerald. Traversing one at a time through the upper snowfield, we found ourselves 100 ft. below a saddle between the two peaks. Never having been up there before, we decided to boot pack up the last bit to check the view and get a little more vertical in before we had to turn around.
The clouds were lifting just enough to give us some definition to the slopes below us and the views off to the south were astounding. Mike dropped in first making easy turns through the top portion of the bowl out to the broader slopes below. Alby and I slipped to the left and found another notch that allowed us to drop in a bit further out. Ned jumped in last as we all ripped down the open bowl below us. Mike had called the snow conditions perfectly, 3-4 inches of new powder on top of a 1/2” of corn. We ripped big fast GS turns down the bowl laying huge trenches and making a mess of the place knowing that we were the only ones around that day and we had another whole drainage to explore tomorrow. We met up about a 1000 ft. below where we started, shuffled out to the top of another pitch and bombed the lower slopes to the flat valley bottom. We rolled back down to camp, poured some stiff bourbon drinks and BS-ed about how we knew it was going to be a great trip.
We woke up on day 2 to brilliant blue skies. The only clouds around were the one’s stuck in our heads from the previous nights shenanigans. We rolled out of the tents and stuck around in camp longer than we should have. We were not blessed with the cloud cover we had yesterday and the temperature was climbing fast. We decided to head up the drainage right out of our camp. Having a lower starting elevation than yesterday, we had to fight our way through beaver ponds, willows, deadfall, and avi-debris before we could get our skis off our backs and onto solid snow. We decided to aim for the north face of Mt. Gilbert that we scoped on our way back down to camp the day before.
After an hour or more, we made it to the base of the climb and we were crushed. Between the time we had left camp and made it to base of the climb, three locals on snow machines had made high marks on our intended route up the face. They had found their way into the drainage from the south somehow and were now hitting everything they could find. Emotions were a combination of anger and awe as we watched these guys rip straight up 2,200 vertical feet of consistent 35-40 degree pitches. We all agreed that it would have been even worse if we had finished the climb and were about to ski the damn thing when they came ripping up the slope. The reality was that these guys were no rookies and this was their home turf. There was still plenty of untracked snow, so we deciding that some turns were better than none, and pushed up the route.
Halfway up the climb to Mount Gilbert.
Even though it was north facing, the sun was punishing us. It took another hour or so to finally reach the upper hanging valley. Ned and Mike had stopped lower down wiped out from the climb. Alby and I boot packed up the last 100 feet to a notch in Mt. Gilbert’s east ridge. The summit was another 400 vertical feet above us, but we were losing stability in the snow pack by the minute and needed to get some turns in. We ripped our skins off, grabbed a sip of water, snapped a few photos, and turned our tips down the hill. The descent was fun, but feelings were a bit deflated every time we had to cross the snowmobile tracks. We were completely wiped out from the party the night before and sweating like mad on the day’s climb. We made our way back down to camp through the debris and beaver ponds longing for shade and cold one.
The next day, Ned and Mike were heading back to Jackson; Alby and I were headed to Salt Lake where I needed to catch a flight that evening back to Denver. We said our goodbyes and made promises about doing it again next year. Since leaving Jackson, our lives have moved in different directions, but the friendships made in the short time we did spend together were forged by the shared experiences skiing cold smoke on up on the pass, laps in Granite, and countless other locations too good to share.
Ya, they may be pissed that I’m spilling the beans on this place, but I’ve got another one picked out for year’s trip that nobody knows about, and it is going to be great.