Location: GTNP, Mount Moran, Jackson Lake, Skillet Glacier
Elevation: 10,780′, 5,094′ gain/loss
Distance: 24 miles RT
Difficulty: 5 stars
Time: 12-16 hours
Snow Conditions: Powder, consolidated powder, faceted powder, crust 20″ under new snow
Skiing the Skillet back in May of 2012 was one of my first major ski descents in the Tetons. I can still remember the feeling I had entering the runout under moonlight, looking upwards 6000′ to the summit of Moran. It took us a long time, but we made it to the top of the Skillet and enjoyed the views from the summit of Moran. We skied the whole “couloir” down to Jackson Lake without issue, despite my alpine boots and lack of skins. Ever since than, I have looked up at Mount Moran and wondered what a 6000′ ski down the Skillet would be like in winter conditions. You certainly couldn’t paddle a canoe to Bearpaw Bay, or bring a 12 pack for the afterparty-but the advantages would be the potential powder. The Skillet lies in one of the more remote places in GTNP, requiring a 7miles (one way) skin from Colter Bay and a 6000′ climb to the summit of Moran. This type of day requires a level of fitness and snow conditions that don’t happen often. With that said: Dane, Brian Close and I decided to give it a try on Saturday with the weather conditions calling for snow after 11am….
With all this in mind, we left Jackson at 5:15am and were moving from Colter Bay at 6:25am. It was dark, but I used my Suunto Traverse to make the way in the direction of the northern edge of the Skillet Couloir. We continued on for about an hour in the dark until the sun stared to shine through and at that point, we realized we were on target-heading right for the Skillet!
Around this time we crossed our first of three major areas of “slush pockets”. These occur when, “the ice cracks and water can rush up through the crack on top of the ice but under the insulating snow, and form slush pockets. These slush pockets can become very broad, sometimes covering entire lakes under the snow, and they are a hazard to travelers.” (Wintertrekking.com)
These points on a skin are a little scary, considering we had yet to hear of anyone crossing Jackson Lake and it was very early in the morning. Regardless-we gingerly continued on and hoped for the best. We had been making great time for the first half of the lake (about 3.5mph), but the last half was SLOW and we hit land at 9:25am, 3hrs after beginning.
After cleaning off our skis (the slush freezes quickly) we ate some food and got our gear ready for the climb up the Skillet. It was around this time I realized that the handle of my Black Diamond pole was hanging on by a thread. I touched it and it fell off my pole….
After some wonderful “Gorilla Tape” construction by Dane, my pole was functional, but not ideal-considering it was missing the handle. It was only 120cm long, not the 145cm I usually skin with, but we had to move on. We worked our way up and to the left through willows and tight pines, until we were finally in the runout of the Skillet. Here we took a look at the time and saw that we needed to move fast. It had begun to snow lightly over the past hour and we were still around 5000′ from the summit. We continued up, stopping only once to drink water-very aware of the time we had to make up.
The snow was exceptionally deep and we were not able to make good time. We worked our way into the gut of the couloir, finding more consolidated snow in avy paths on the lower portions of the run. We continuously were looking around and taking check of the snow conditions. We didn’t see any “major” concerns, despite the fact it was snowing on a huge line in a remote area-so we continued up. At around 9000′, the sun crept out of the clouds and we were greeted with limited visibility. The couloir appeared to have flushed at some point in the past few days and the wind was blowing from the northwest….with this new information, we continued on and into the belly of the Skillet.
At about 10,000′ the run mellows out into a 20 degree zone with massive cliffs on either side. Here, there clouds rolled in and the snow picked up. We moved up for a while, but eventually the sound of snow flushing off the upper reaches of the mountain became too much to ignore. We stopped at 10,780′ on a raised portion of the belly to discuss going further. We could see the last cliff band in the couloir that we had to overcome before the “handle” of the Skillet. We had a quick chat about what to do next, but there wasn’t much of a discussion to have. Everything would have had to happen in our favor for this to be a success and with the visibility near zero, we only had once choice….ski down to the lake. While we were disappointed, the snow was DEEP and we had a blast ripping our way down to the lake.
We tried for something most wouldn’t even consider and failed. While it was a tough pill to swallow, I am confident to be back at the Skillet in the near future to accomplish the rare feat. We made it back across the lake and to Colter Bay just before sunset, 11hrs after starting. We were tired, thirsty and cold-but at least we tried.
Keep on Adventuring!