Skiing the Northeast Ridge of Mount Moran has been on my Teton hit-list ever since I started getting more serious about ski mountaineering in the late 90’s. Reed Finlay and I made our first attempt at it in 2006, shooting for the line Stephen Koch did on the first descent, which continued past the gendarme (about half-way down the route) on its north side and followed the ridge-line proper to the shores of Jackson Lake. We got shut down trying to pass the gendarme without a rope due to deep snow and exposure over large cliffs to the north.
Planning for our second attempt and wanting to ski it cleanly (meaning without using a rope or down-climbing) the other option was to take the route Ed Bushnell, Jared and Brandon Spackman used (possibly the second descent of the NE Ridge) which dropped to the south into the Skillet Glacier zone before the gendarme. This was going to be our route until Cameron Romero pointed out that it would be feasible to connect the upper ridge into the Sickle Couloir area to the north. After analyzing pictures and getting a closer look of the route while skiing the Sickle the week before, it looked doable and quite aesthetic.
Approaching this line nearly two weeks after skiing the Sickle meant that Jackson Lake was now melted out and with a little help from the rangers plowing the road access to Spalding Bay, we found ourselves putting the canoe into the water at 2 am. Under very dark skis and only a sliver of a moon that night, the paddling was somewhat eerie, yet a great way to start on a cool adventure. We stayed close to the shore and cut the angle into Moran Bay, using some headlamps from some other early risers camping on the shore as a lighthouse, keeping us lined up. A few hundred yards from where we wanted to beach the canoe, all of a sudden the water route was blocked by ice still on the lake, so we pulled into shore early and walked the shoreline.
The upper Northeast Ridge…more of a face really.
Having just done the bushwhack up to the cirque just over a week prior, we moved fast, nailed the approach and made good time booting the whole way. As the sun began to rise, we put our crampons on and stashed our headlamps and skins which would be dead weight in our packs for the rest of the climb. The snow was firm and we zigzagged into and up the exit couloir on the north side of the ridge. As the slope steepened and the exposure increased, we pulled out our ice axes and continued upward. Once gaining the ridge, we finally had a close up view of the upper section, which looked good, but with some runnels over 500′ cliffs to make things interesting.
It was about 9am and we were about 200′ from the top of the ridge. The snow was holding up well, but was getting a little punchy near a rock band close to the top. Knowing that we needed to move fast, Reed pushed it to the top and we found a good spot to transition to ski mode. I skied off first and made some traversy turns to the skiers left, lining up for the steep, fall-line section above the massive cliffs below. Reed came down and dropped in…it was perfect corn.
Moving down the upper section, the skiing was great. Just enough soft snow to allow for smooth skiing, but not enough to really build momentum and worry about. After a few hundred feet, we encountered some 2-3′ deep runnels that we poked around delicately and as we made our way more to the skier’s right to join up with the ridge proper. Though we were skiing directly above some huge exposure, the slope angle was moderate and the snow still in good shape, so the runnels were our only concern.
Reed Finlay skiing high above Jackson Lake.
Once back on the ridge, the snow noticeably smoothed out and the intensity level dropped a little to really be able to enjoy our position on the peak. Following our route up, we skied to the north and down into the steep section the connected us with the Sickle cirque. A few tight and icy sections forced us to keep the radar on full alert. Descending further, we dropped into the shade where the snow was still frozen solid, forcing us into survival skiing mode.
Finally, we exited out onto the apron where the skiing improved again as we cruised back to our stashed gear. With big smiles on our faces, we chilled out for a bit and watched the boats motoring around in Jackson Lake, soaking in the sun and the enjoying the moment….one that will be hard to forget.