After a week off the skis while in Mexico, I was SO jonesing to get back skiing when I arrived back in Jackson on Monday. Though I found some potential touring partners at the gate in the SLC airport, I started to panic when my first phone call didn’t result in a partner. However, my phone was soon ringing with people who wanted to ski calling me back and the objective was set on the East Ridge of Mount Wister.
Back in the late nineties, Reed Finlay and I made an attempt to ski from the summit of Mount Wister, approaching from the south, but were turned back not too far from the summit due to thin and discontinuous snow. The upper east ridge is an intricate route which connects small slots and snow patches, that don’t always fill in, before one traverse to the east to ski the steeper, but more open face the brings you to the Northeast Snowfields. With all of the snow the Tetons had received while I was gone, I hoped it would be good to go this time.
Cary Smith skins below the North Face and Northwest Arête on Mount Wister.
Skiing the peaks in the Tetons in the spring requires an early start to beat the heat and I connected with my partners, Travis and Cary, around 5am to get a jump on the sun. Unfortunately, I had some cuts on my feet from surfing in Mexico and I was worried about how they would do being crammed back into ski boots. A bit painful to start, but once they were in, they seemed to be okay for touring. We chatted with some other skiers at the trailhead who commented that they were scoping some lines in the park the previous day and that the East Ridge of Mount Wister was looking in shape, and kept our spirits high as we set out across Taggart Lake and then into Avalanche Canyon.
Travis McAlpine and Cary Smith climb the East Face of Mount Wister.
A steady and consistent pace kept us plugging along for about 2 hours until our first real rest for refueling at Lake Taminah. I love the views from this location, the north side of Wister right in your face and the south sides of the Garnet Canyon south fork peaks right there as well. It felt so good to be back and soon we were skinning up the Northeast Snowfields. The snow looked to be holding up pretty good on this aspect. I hate it when a skin track slices through an otherwise untracked run and I kept the switchbacks tight so as not to track out the entire bowl. After about 1000′ of elevation gain from the lake, the slope was getting too steep for skinning and we transitioned to boot packing with our crampons and ice axes.
Making our way up the East Face, it was quite a bit steeper then I had anticipated, hovering around 50 degrees, but the old-powder looked good and the sun would soften up what little crust had formed. Nearing the top of the face, we traversed around to the south-side of the peak and then on to the summit via the East Ridge. Luckily, the skiers in the parking lot were right and it looked as though small chutes and aprons held enough snow and connected, making a descent from the summit possible.
Veiled Peak behind Mount Wister summit marker.
After a few minutes enjoying life on top of a peak surrounded by other peaks, we were ready to go. I clicked into my skis about 10′ from the summit marker and side-stepped over a couple rocky sections right off the top. Cautiously, I made my way down the ridge, skiing over unseen, though serious exposure to the north and falling away slopes to the south. The snow was nice in this section, but a little firm still on the most southern aspects. Travis reconnected with me above the East Face and we both waited for Cary soaking in the views of the North Face of Buck Mountain in the distance.
Travis hit the face first and he rode out of view as the slope steepened, but we soon saw him pop out below. Cary, a little tentative, made his way down the steep and exposed slope next. Finally it was my turn. This section of the route I would consider to be the tenderloin of the line and I pushed a few turns over to the skiers left, above some cliffs, before being forced back to the right and the exit chute back onto the Northeast Snowfields. Relieved we all had made it safely down to this point, thought he snow was a little unpredictable, it was all butter from here down. Travis, on his splitboard, hopped off a little rock and threw in a grab for good measure.
Though my feet hurt a lot (from the cuts) on the descent and I looked forward to taking my boots off back at the rig, I was elated to have such a wonderful ski day back in the Tetons. I’m looking forward to many more this spring season.