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It’s been two or three years since the last time I skied the Grand Teton and recently I have been jonesing to get back up there to check it out again. Chris Onufer joined me for this trip and we started walking on the dry trail from the Bradley/Taggart trailehad just before 1am. I felt surprisingly good on the approach in the pre-dawn hours and the peaks of Garnet Canyon began to glow at about 4:30am…about a hour and half before the actual sunrise.
The snow was very firm on the skin above the Meadows, but I was able to ascend without ski crampons all the way to the JHMG camp and the zone below the Teepee Glacier. From here, we ditched the headlamps and stashed our ski crampons since we would begin bootpacking pretty soon.
Below the Teepee Glacier, we hydrated and tried to catch up on calories. For me, it’s hard to eat in the middle of the night, so swallowing food is usually hard and I tend to live on GU and Chomps during those darker hours. It was pretty chilly and Chris’s thermometer read 6°F, but we knew things would be heating up fast once the sun came up, so we quickly got going and proceeded upward.
As the sun came up and shined on the exposed aspects, we quickly booted up the Teepee Glacier. The snow was a bit of a breakable crust here and I wondered what the snow conditions would be like higher up and more south facing.
When we reached Teepee Col my energy and excitement spiked in anticipation of getting into the sun and feeling it’s warming rays. It’s wild how at one point of a day you can be welcoming the sun so much, yet at other times you just wish it would go away.
Our timing was perfect and the sun began to shine on Glencoe Col as we traversed the exposed slope that connects it with Teepee Col. The guides have a name for this section of the Grand Teton (Couloir of Death, Couloir to Nowhere???) but right now…it escapes me.
It felt so good to be in the sun at the col, as we pulled out the ropes and ice axes. We also stashed the rest of what we wouldn’t need here (like skins, headlamps, etc…) to lighten the load on our backs. From here it is about 1500′ to the summit and we departed at about 7am.
Step by step, we rhythmically booted up the Stettner Couloir towards where it forks off to the climber’s left and connects with the Chevy Couloir. I was amazed at how filled in the Stettner Couloir was and it looked completely skiable. Other times I have skied the Grand Teton via the Stettner, there have been two ice bulges in this section and have required one or two rappels on the descent. Things were looking good.
I placed two ice screws on the way up the Chevy Couloir, mainly to protect one ice bulge. A couple blobs of snow came down on us as we ascended, but I knew it was too early in the day for anything larger to develop. It left great to be in the heart of the climb now and cramponing up steep snow and ice.
We simul-climbed through the Stettner and regrouped at the bottom of the Ford Couloir. Confident in the conditions above, we unroped and left them at this location so we wouldn’t have to lug them to the top.
Hearing a couple shouts in the distance, we looked back and saw what looked like two people on the summit of the Middle Teton. We wondered if they were hooting at us? The East Face of the Middle was looking pretty nice, but it looked like they might have descended off the back side.
Now, we had about 1000′ to go to the summit and it was the last big push to the top. We were hoping to be on top by 11am and it seemed like we were right on schedule. Chris jumped in front and broke trail, and it felt great to be in the back for a little while, enjoying the views and the experience of climbing the Grand instead of huffing and puffing while trail.
We slowly made our way up the Ford and the snow conditions looked marginal…but decent. There was about 2-4 inches of fresh snow on top of a breakable crust of unconsolidated snow. I thought the snow conditions would be a bit more powdery and we wondered how it would ski.
I moved back in front when we reached the upper section of the East Face and out of the Ford Couloir, as Chris hydrated, had some food and put on sunscreen. I was lazy with the sunscreen and paid the price with some sunburn, but I just wanted to keep charging and keep things moving forward.
Soon enough, we were on the summit and we were both elated. This was going to be Chris’s first time skiing the Grand Teton and he was psyched to be so close to doing something he has dreamed about for years. We were halfway there, but with the trickiest part yet to come.
Some clouds began to build. They weren’t a threat weather-wise, but they added to the visuals since they were at the same altitude as us and we could look directly across at them. This was going to be my fourth time skiing the Grand Teton. Someday I will attempt another route besides the Ford/Stettner…but today wasn’t going to be that day.
My watch read an elevation of 13,750′, only 20′ from the Grand Teton’s true elevation of 13,770′. I thought this was pretty accurate as far as altimeter watches go. Nice job Suunto!!!
As one would hope, we were able to make turns directly off the summit block and we began the descent. Picking our way through some rocks, we made our way down to a flat area just above the East Face.
Since it was Chris’s first time skiing the Grand Teton, I let him have first tracks here without argument and he linked turns as he descended.
Chris continued downward and stopped at where you would enter the Ford Couloir and waited for me to join him. I began to ski and the snow conditions were what I would call…marginal. Kinda punchy, but not the full-on breakable crust that wants to rip off your leg with every turn. We’d have to stay on our toes though, or should I say…ski tips.
I continued further down the mountain and began skiing the upper section of the Ford Couloir. This part is one of the steepest sections of the descent and is quite thrilling as you stare down the couloir and at the rest of the Teton summits to the south.
There is a nice island of relative safety on the skiers right about a third of the way down and I pulled over to wait for Chris. He cautiously made turns toward me and then continued past.
The middle section of the Ford Couloir mellows out in steepness for a little bit and Chris skied through it, pulling behind some rocks on the skiers right. Below him, the pitch rolls over again and gets your heart pumping as you ski above the Chevy Couloir.
I skied past Chris and through the lower section and towards what sometimes is the first rappel at the bottom of the Ford. The skiing was still somewhat challenging, with slough piles in the middle of the couloir, combined with unpredictable breakable crust on the sides. I pulled into the rappel station and waited for Chris.
Once back together, we packed the ropes and decided the ski down to the next rap station which sits at the top of the Chevy. I had never skied this section before, having opted to rappel it on previous descents. It was very exposed on the skiers right, with a thousand foot drop on the other side of the ridge, combined with very steep pitches as you come in to the top of the Chevy.
I clipped-in to the anchor and started pulling out the ropes as Chris skied down to meet me. He was almost at the rap station when a relatively large slough came sliding down the Ford and continued past us and crashed down the Chevy Couloir right where we would be rappelling. Not really what you want to see right before you rap into confined gully and I volunteered to rap first, and let Chris keep an eye out for more sloughs.
Needless to say, we both rapped as fast as we could, at least in the upper sections until we felt more protected on the skier’s left hand side of the couloir, and even more still when we were both finally clipped into the next anchor.
On the next rappel, the second in the Chevy, we were forced back into the line of fire once again, but it thankfully went by without indecent. At the bottom of the Chevy now, we packed the ropes again and clicked into our skis to ski the Stettner Couloir.
I had never skied the entire Stettner Coulior before and it was as filled in as I have ever seen it. The turns here were better than they were higher up, but my legs were more tired as well.
I skied to the bottom and waited for Chris. I was excited to have skied the Grand with only two rappels and I wondered if there will ever be a day when it is skied with no rappels. The challenge creeps into the back of my head sometimes, but conditions would have to be just right and your confidence level extremely high.
Still with over 5000′ to go to reach the valley floor, once Chris arrived at the bottom of the Stettner, we side-stepped back up to Glencoe Col. We took a quick breather here, since we had to grab our skins and stuff we had stashed earlier, but got moving again quickly.
The skiing was mostly crappy mush as we descended further, but there was some decent corn here and there on the way down to the Meadows. After that, the snow was mostly isothermic and manky, and my knees were screaming at me by the time we reached Taggart Lake and the valley floor.
It seems every time I ski the Grand it is a different experience. Sometimes there is stable powder snow, other times it is perfect, consolidated corn snow and like this time, it was relatively challenging with some scary moments…and I’m glad to still be able to sit here and type these words. If we were 5 minutes earlier coming into that first rappel, things could have ended quite differently.
NICE! way to go! One allways needs a bit of luck 😉
i’m seeing that endangered freeheeler all over the tetons….
Way to go Chris! I bet he was elated to get that one done and the photos of him are really good– especially the black and white one! It was fun looking for you guys with the telescope that day!
Nice work guys! My buddy Ty and I were the two on top of Middle that you heard, although we did not see you guys on the Grand, we were simply hooting as it was our first time and summit in the Tetons. We skied the SW couloir in great conditions, 3-4 inches of fluffy goodness.
Well done guys! Excellent TR Steve, made me feel like I was right there!
It’s so cool to ski Chris make the smooth transition from uber TetonAT fan to solid partner. You guys killed it.
Great detailed report, way to get it done!
Nice job squeekin’ that one in…however…highly dissappointed that Chris wasn’t wearing the cool, retro, white frame shades?! Total let down:)
glad you all like it. i was looking for the white blueblockers as well kevin. and ned…nice job on the middle…cool summit.
it has been skied w/o rappels. i’ve heard of downclimbing the chevy, and i shredded the chevy on belay(didn’t use the rope for any catches), so skiing it top to bottom would be next except for the uphill slope out of the stettner. congratulations. so how about the hossack? seen it lately?
Nice one! I know what it’s like watching avalanches rip by while setting up to rappel in the Chevy.
Man your skis are skinny 😉
travo…i guess when i say w/o rappels…i mean continuous…so down-climbing doesn’t really count for that. and i’m confused…you rode the chevy…but not top to bottom???
haven’t seen the hossack lately…but other lines of that aspect don’t seem too filled in. never know though!
wicked – thanks for the stoke
Tracks are still visible Monday afternoon from Dornan’s (with their new binocs). Well done.
ptor…but they are very light. and i had a small hope that conditions would be good for a continuous descent…so i took the shortest skis i own (excluding rando-race skis) in order to fit through the constrictions.
thanks craig. i think another party hit it on saturday…so lots of tracks up there now.
Simply amazing! Love the report and pics.
[…] reading a trip report on TetonAT.com about a recent ski descent of the Grand Teton I experienced butterflies in my […]
Great write up and photos! Loved feeling like I was there. Some of the comments got me thinking about clean/ideal descents on GT and in general and I ended up writing a blog post about it. http://stephenkoch.com/2010/05/ski-and-snowboard-mountaineering-descents-grand-teton/
thanks for the link SK! i think it might be a little easier for snowboarders than skiers to descend the chevy with their boards on their feet…since their boards are probably much shorter than the skis most skiers are on. the shortest skies i have right now (not including my rando race skis) are 175cm. i wonder what size board you ride on when on the gt???
steve, the size snowboard i usually ride on steeper, more technical terrain like on the GT has generally been between 155cm to 165cm. i have on occasion ridden even smaller boards, especially where weight is a major factor (high altitude). the small boards don’t hold an edge, nor float in powder as well longer boards. that being said, they sure do come around quickly and one can squeak through some very narrow terrain!
i have a pair of 95 cm igneous skis (145/135/140 width) with adjustable dynafit bindings that you are welcome to use.
i agree with you. a snowboard is the better tool for descending mountains (steep, snowy, icy, rocky) for the following reasons:
1. snowboards are generally shorter than skis – less so nowadays with the continual fffattening and shortening of the ski. snowboards for an expert adult male rider are generally 155cm – 165cm (the 195 cm Igneous Powder Gun is the exception!) and skis for an expert adult male skier are generally 170cm to 185cm. a competent rider (snowboard) can descend narrower terrain that a skier (skis) of equal ability.
2. riders can completely face the mountain on their toeside edge, which allows for increased security on steep terrain compared with skiers. it is arguably more secure to sideslip on a snowboard (especially with axes…see below) than to sideslip/step with skis because the rider can completely face the mountain – toeside edge.
3. poles are not needed/used (except for RG!) to snowboard, which allows for practical and full use of ice axes (to provide an anchor point or control a slide), the main tool of mountaineers.
let me know if you want to borrow those skis, or a snowboard!
thanks stephen! i think you touch on a few good points and this would be a great post in itself…”skiing vs snowboarding in the mountains”. i’ll get working on it.
it’s hard for me to think that in all aspects of descending mountains that a snowboard is the better tool. for now, i think i will stick to four edges instead of two. for ease of travel and speed, there is no way a splitboard or approach skis are faster than skis. there is a reason that the splitboarders finish way in the back in rando races. some more of my thoughts…
1. shorter skis typically hold an edge better than longer and fatter skis. some skiers regularly ski on short 160-170mm skis. in softer snow and variable conditions i like fatter/longer skis. but if i knew snow conditions would be firm, i could see using 160cm skis for a grand teton descent.
2. if a snowboarder has ice axes, yeah i see your point about security while facing the slope. But the opposite can be said about the healside position as well and it seems a rider is pretty vulnerable in that stance. in addition, it is nearly impossible to side-STEP with a snowboard, which can be a very useful technique for getting over bulges and rocky steps. with a snowboard and having to side-SLIP, it seems as though the rider kinda just hopes and prays that his edges will catch again once he/she starts to slide downhill. you’re always edging with skis, the benefit of 4 edges over only 2 i guess.
3. granted…it looks pretty core when snowboarders ride with ice axes in hand and it probably is safer in some instances. BUT whippets are useful just the same and poles are pretty much an integral part of skiing. what’s more pure? well…I know my opinion.
i actually tried snowboarding once…i think it was in 1995. i was a liftie on casper at jhmr and worked with some snowboarders. i took one (maybe two) run(s) down EDI on a slow, overcast day in the spring. i think i will probably wait for my 25th anniversary of that date until i try it again.
Looking at what happened in the alps i can sort of see Stephen’s point, but i would’nt take it all the way to calling snowboard a better tool for descending mountains..
I personally feel that fat skis (with proper torsional rigidity) hold a better edge on the steeps. More leverage over the edge kind of thing and I thinks that’s why snowboards can hold such a good edge. I’d also say that camber and side-cut are hindrances to effectiveness on the steeps. The Megawatts so far are the superior steep ski for me, even for hard snow.
If you’ve climbed what you’re skiing and don’t need to keep poking the snow below, then skiing with an iceaxe in each hand could be pretty sweet. No mess with the uphill pole and would look really core.
I do it and love it but isn’t snowboarding just skiing standing sideways on one big fat ski???
hahha Ptor! you’re the best!
Gilles, I am NOT the best, but I do think I’m funny and that’s all that matters.
I Guess It Is All About What You Are Into. I Have Been Skiing For Fourty Years & Riding For About 25. Backcountry Skiing & Riding For The Last 15 Years. I Would Hate To Have To Pick Just One. I Love My AT Set Up For Touring But To Be Honest When Hiking For Spring Descents In Colorado I Am Often Waiting On My Two Planker Friends, Especially When I Just Carry My Board Rather Than Pack It. On Long Treks Into The Goods, I Often Find Intermitent Fields Of Snow That I Can Just Throw My Board Down Without Even Strapping In & Within Seconds I Have Put Hundreds Of Yards Between Myself And The Skiiers Who Aren’t Sure If They Should Take Their Skis Off Of Their Packs To Cover That Patch Of Snow. Also The Difference In Hiking In SB Boots Rather Than AT, Tele, Or Alpine Boots Is Like Night & Day, I Feel Like I Am In Air Jordans. And No I Don’t Care For Hiking In Trail Shoes While Packing My AT Boots, I Like To Go Light, I Rarely Even Throw My Board On My Pack.
Spring/Summer, I Usually Ride With An Axe, I Have Taken Too Many Scary Slides To Leave Home Without It. If I’m Skiing Something Real Steep, I Will Duct Tape My Tools To My Poles, I Have Heard That Whippets Are Handy But I Remember Lou Dawson Saying That There Is No Substitute For Ice Axes, I Tend To Listen To Lou.
Now If We Are Talking Winter Conditions And The Goal Is To Ski Or Ride Some Deep Pow, I Hate To Say It But I’m Bringing My BOARD, It Might Be Because I Come From A Skating/Surfing Backround, But To Me There Is No Feeling Quite Like Surfing The Cold Smoke, You Just Have The Sensation Of Floating Which You Can Not Experience Doing Anything Else.
That Said, The Feeling Of Maching Down A Slope On Skis Is About The Greatest Adrenaline Rush That I Have Ever Come Across. I Live For Skiing On The Edge, Just At That Point Where One Wrong Move Will Cost You Dearly, All Your Focus Is On The Here & Now And You Are Thinking Of Nothing Else Besides Skiing.
interesting take jt.
[…] it comes to snowboard mountaineering. In addition, in the comments section of a trip report from skiing the Grand Teton a couple weeks ago, there was some chatter about a continuous descent of the Grand and some […]