Location: GTNP, Death Canyon Trailhead, Stewart Draw
Elevation, Gain/Loss: 11,938’, 5,652’ gain/loss
Distance: 11 miles RT
Difficulty: 4 stars
Time: 6-8 hours
Snow Condition: Hard sun crust, wind blown pockets of dense snow, some sun warmed “corn” like snow, dense powder on north facing aspects with a mild breakable crust.
As everyone around the Jackson area knows, the weather has been warm and dry lately. Despite that, we still have a deep snowpack and a low avalanche danger. These combine for primetime opportunities to ski some big lines, if you can get over the fact that more than likely you are not going to be skiing anything resembling powder. So, with this in mind: Dane, Tristan and I chatted Monday night about what to ski the following day. We threw out a bunch of options, but settled on the East Face of Buck Mountain. I have skied it once and attempted to ski it twice, being turned around last spring due to warm snow conditions. We met at 6am and departed for the Death Canyon Trailhead. We were moving at 6:40am and worked our way up the track and towards the turnoff for Whimpys Knob and Albright Peak.
We climbed up the field in front of Whimpys for about 300 vertical feet, before veering right towards the open field beyond a small stand of trees and some large rocks. This is the summer “climbers trail” to Buck Mountain. We sidehilled across the field and began to contour into Stewart Draw. Be sure to go far right, because if you go up too fast, you will be in Static Draw instead. Once in the “canyon”, we began the slow climb up towards Buck. It is a frustrating skin, because you are constantly sidehill climbing, which can be a little annoying. Both Dane and Tristan had some ski crampons, which seemed to help with the firm snow conditions, but I just battled it out with the firm snow. We made it up to the base of the East Face as an ungodly wind began whipping out of the northwest in about 3.5hrs.
We geared up with crampons and stashed our skins in the rocks to the right of the entry “couloir”. At this point, I was beginning to wonder if I should have brought my ice axe. I had a whippet, but with the wind howling at a solid 30mph, with gusts up to 50mph, I was a bit concerned with the decision to climb the East Ridge. I had anticipated we would just boot up the face, but with a bootpack already in on the ridge, the group decided the East Ridge made the most sense. So, we started up towards the East Ridge and the summit of Buck Mountain.
We cruised up and onto the ridge in no time, stopping once to discus if the ridge was in fact the route we wanted to proceed up. Once on the ridge, the wind was definitely going to be a factor, but it seemed manageable. We began climbing up, trying not to look to our right where the ridge dropped off 1200′ at points.
We were making pretty good time until we got to the more challenging ridge climbing. Here, I definitely missed my ice axe. At times, I was being blown off balance while staring down the 1200′ drop into the South Fork of Avalanche Canyon. I made the most of it my ramming my crampons in lower then the set bootpack and punching my whippet into the snow, but it was still not ideal. We slowly worked our way along a few exposed areas, eventually finding our way off the ridge to the steep upper East Face.
It is not often that the climb up to the skiing proves to be the most memorable, enjoyable part of a ski adventure, but that was the case with the East Ridge. It proved to be fun, challenging and most of all spicy. We worked our way up the upper East Face as winds whipped us from the right, a couple times knocking me off balance, but in no time we were standing on the summit.
We took some time to look around and enjoy the scenery, snapping a few reconnaissance photos of lines in Death Canyon, then geared up for the skiing.
The upper portion of the East Face is pretty steep (45 degrees plus) and rolls over about 200′ down, so we made some cautions turns on the firm surface, testing out the snow and our edges. We did find some half decent snow just below the summit, firm snow with a slight crust and made our way down to the left, below the major cliff band on the East Face.
After joining up below the cliff band, we worked left and down the fun, low angle “belly” of the East Face. The snow was decent here, not quite corn, but soft and fast with a little crust to keep you honest. After I skied down to a point above the “entry” couloir, Dane and Tristan decided to ski that section “Canadian Style” and put in some powder 8’s on the face. While not recommended, the snow conditions allowed us to have some fun!
From here, Tristan worked his way down and through the “entry” couloir while Dane and I waited for his hoot to signal he was through. After that, we both worked our way down and through the couloir, being careful not to catch a ski on the many frozen chicken heads littering the zone.
After making it down safe, we gathered our skins and had a quick rest before skiing out of Stewart Draw. In past trips up to this zone, I have always enjoyed the out. There are many options for playful skiing and a couple fun north facing slopes to make some turns on. While the snow was not great, we did find some decent wind blown pockets to make some powder turns in and cruised out of the lower fields; feeling like it was April, not February.
We made it back to the skin track and cruised out to the truck in 6hrs 30min. We were happy with the day and decision to summit a big peak. With the weather looking to stay dry and warm, we may be trying to tackle some larger lines in the coming weeks. More to come…