Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Evan 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 Evan!!
Evan Johnson, stoked in the Tetons!
For some reason my first two college Spring Break trips didn’t involve skiing. One even involved a beach, in Mexico… the exact opposite of skiing. I missed a huge dump at Bridger Bowl that year and saw the error of my ways. Winter is for skiing, after all. It was ski trips from then on. I’ve ranged as far as Whistler and Roger’s Pass but this report is about the year I stayed a little closer to my home in Driggs, Idaho. After all, when your backyard is an epic destination like the Tetons “staying home” isn’t so bad!
Teton snow science.
I was just getting into backcountry skiing that year and so I wanted to do a tour of some sort, instead of just riding Grand Targhee. Fortunately, I had two friends who were also just getting into the backcountry, and who were also looking for a cheap way to spend Spring Break. It was decided. But which Teton tour to choose? One of our group wasn’t a very strong skier back then, we still lacked confidence in our avalanche assessment skills, and the snow was just mediocre Spring stuff anyway, so we had to choose something pretty mellow. Another factor was that my friends had never been in the Tetons before, so I wanted to give them a good view of those magnificent rocks. Put on a show, you know. Pimp the home range. Considering all these factors we figured that 11,000′ Table Mountain met our criteria better than anything else, and the course was set. Since you can’t drive all the way up Teton Canyon in the winter it would be a long tour – about 8 miles and 4000ft of vert to the summit – so we decided to make it an over-nighter. This was exciting because I’d never been winter camping before! And because we were already carrying shovels, didn’t have a good 4-season tent, and are still 8-year-olds at heart, we decided we would dig a snow cave. Yes! We planned our route up the direct “West Face” (or “Boy Scout”) trail looping home down the North Fork of Teton Creek. We hoped to camp up close to the summit around tree line on the ridge, dropping our packs at camp to bag the peak. Plans made, we packed up and rolled out.
Never having been winter camping meant I’d never skinned with a full pack on, either. The easy groomed nordic trail up Teton Canyon was no problem but it was another story once we hit the Face Trail. That bastard trail sends you up the lions-share of elevation in just a couple of miles. Fortunately we were on a solid spring snow pack so breaking trail wasn’t an issue. The steep climb with packs on coupled with only being in ordinary “resort-skiing shape” meant when we hit our camp spot to drop our packs and push to the summit… we just dropped everything instead. I know 7 miles and 3500′ isn’t unreasonable, I really think it was the 30lbs+ packs that did us in. No worries, we had the whole next day! So we chilled for a bit, found a monster drift, and set to work digging our snow fort in it. Not having dug a proper snow cave since I was a kid I was surprised at how much like work it felt! It took a long time to hew out enough room for the three of us. We finished just in time, at sunset. We reveled in the fantastically colorful Teton alpenglow, and passed out.
Winter Teton Alpenglow.
The morning dawned sunny, calm and clear. By the time we finally crawled out of the cave it was almost balmy. We scarfed some breakfast and continued our skin up to Table. I have friends who have been to the Tetons to ski a few times and complain they’ve “never seen the peaks”, but that was not our problem this day. The granite towers gleamed bold and beautiful against the bluebird sky. It was a perfect day in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. 99% of the ridge up to Table is low-angle cruising, but the last hundred feet is kind of sketchy when it’s covered in snow (and you still have old alpine race boots because you’re new at the sport), so while only I bothered to bag the very peak we all got great views. And now, it was finally time to make some turns! Being March and all, said turns were a little uninspiring because prime-time corn still another hour away at that elevation, but you know what they say: better than a good day at work! The hard snow turned out to be a blessing anyway since my huge pack was messing with my game and I would have really struggled to ski thick, sticky corn… or powder for that matter. Lower down things did get creamy and delicious, and the descent into the North Fork was pleasant all told.
Skinning towards Table Mountain.
This decent to lower elevations on a March afternoon is where the trouble started for our split-boarder. The snow got really soft, and in the bottom of the drainage the terrain was the classic Teton mix of rolling granite outcrops and flat meadows and groves. Our split-boarder is about 90% boarder and only 10% “splitter” even in good conditions, so riding the little rolling pitches in split-mode on deep sticky slush was instant failure with the big pack on. What started out as a nice ski run became a game of “extract yourself from slush-craters with a huge pack on”. A game which (I hear) is exhausting, time consuming, and unbelievably frustrating. The obvious alternative for our poor splitboarder was to ride down in board-mode, but on the myriad flat spots between the down-pitches you then either have to split the board again or post-hole, both of which also take a lot of time and effort. So the two or three miles out the North Fork back to the groomed trail became about a four hour epic. Ski and fall, put board together, post hole, split board again, repeat. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if we were all in the same boat, but we weren’t. Not at all. My other friend and I were shredding the little down pitches on our AT gear and striding out the flat sections without even a transition in between. Like butter! So we stood around and waited 90% of the time. Seeing how easy it was for us only added to the boarder’s frustration, of course. It sucked for us too because we were getting tired of waiting but couldn’t complain because there was really nothing to be done except try to help when we could. The last thing the boarder wanted at this point was help anyway, so… it was a long four hours.
Looking back up the North Fork of Teton Canyon.
But we survived! And, once we could chill out and reflect back on the great weather and epic mountain views we had… it was an awesome first overnight backcountry trip!!
Winter Teton Majesty.