By: randosteve|Posted on: May 1, 2011|Posted in: Avalanche Safety, Mount Saint Johns, The Tetons | 63 comments

Today on Mount Saint John.
Click all photos for larger image.

Well, I think I need to have my head examined for not heeding my own advice to pull in the reigns this weekend due to a current questionable snowpack at the higher elevations here in the Tetons. Sometimes though, the lure to try and ski bigger, steeper and more exposed lines is just too great. Luckily though, my partner and I dodged a bullet today in one of the South Couloirs that come off Mount Saint John and drop you into Hanging Canyon, and I’m still here to tell the story.

The day started off great with not a single car in the
String Lake parking lot as Chris Onufer and I pulled in at
5:30am, and we were greeted with a fantastic sunrise.

Down low and with an overnight low temperature in the teens,
the snow is rock solid and makes for fast travel
if you have the right gear and know how to use it.

Chickens in the Tetons.

As we made our way into Hanging Canyon and towards one
of Mount Saint John’s south couloirs, the clouds began to roll in
and the snowpack started to ever so slightly become a bit more punchy.

We transitioned to bootpacking just below the lower choke
of the couloir and try to stay in the more protected areas
as we make our way upward.

Now above 10k’, the snow begins to get deeper.

The high peaks of the Tetons in the clouds and wind today.

Though we tried to stay in the safer zones of the couloir, we were occasionally
forced to crossed some more open sections.  The snow pack now consisted of a few inches
of a melt-freeze crust, on top of about 8″ of softer snow, on top of
another rain/sun crust that was semi-supportable.

We thought about turning around and pulling the plug a few times, but the temps
were still cold and we though that we’d be able to make our way safely down the
skiers left side of the couloir, without any problems.  As we got higher, summit fever
started to build and the stoke to ski was hard to ignore.

We topped out at about 9:30am, in the sun and with a temperature
of 14F, before the sun went behind the clouds for much of the rest of the day.

I think this is the true summit of Mount Saint John.

Now the fun part.  Feeling pretty leery of conditions, we planned on being as cautious as possible as we made our descent, making ski cuts when we could, skiing one at a time and from island-of-safety to island-of-safety.  On my first turn off the top though, a soft-slab 10-12″ deep, 10-20″ wide and about 50″ long pulled out and began moving down the upper face.  It continued downward for about 200′ and then propagated another avalanche that  fractured wall-to-wall about 18-24″ deep.  It produced an impressive flow of snow that crashed into the lower walls of the couloir and raged over the broken rock bands below.  We could see the powder cloud roar out from the bottom of the couloir and into the bottom of Hanging Canyon.

We were now pretty freaked out and really hoped no one was in the canyon as they for sure would have gotten nailed by the avalanche debris.  We still needed to get down though and there was a bit of hang fire lingering on the upper face.  We choose to ski the slide path of the first soft-slab that released, before we dropped over the lower crown line and where pretty much the whole couloir became the slide path.

There was some pretty good force created by this slide
and some trees and boughs littered slope.

The whole slope was totally scoured by the avalanche and there
would have been zero chance of survival if one were
to be caught in it.  Thankfully, we weren’t.

As we exited through the choke, our focus began
to turn back towards the thought that someone just
might have been ski-touring below us.

To make sure there is no one buried in the debris, we pull
out our transceivers and start to do a course search of the debris zone.
We didn’t get any hits, which eased our minds.

The slide ran about 2k’ and though the debris was quite spread out, the majority of it ended up just above this last photo and maybe up to 10′ deep. About 2 minutes after we arrived at the toe of the debris pile, a group of three skiers came up the canyon.  Thankfully they weren’t there 20 minutes earlier, or it might have been ugly.