The hard lessons of surviving an avalanche in the Tetons
The sky was dark and the air crisp on the morning of February 4 as we skinned toward the Spoon Couloir in Grand Teton National Park. Moving along in meditative unison, my mind began to wander to the events of the past two weeks. A lifelong friend, Darren Johnson, had died in an avalanche while patrolling at the Yellowstone Club on January 19th. This massive loss had ripped a hole in my soul and I was heading into the mountains to repair the damage. I could have never imagined that later in the day I would nearly suffer the same fate as my dear friend……
I am writing on the 8 week anniversary of an avalanche in the Spoon Couloir, off Disappointment Peak, that nearly killed me. As many of you know, I was airlifted from Amphitheater Lake by a TCSAR’s helicopter with the expert pilot, Nicole Ludwig at the helm. The Jenny Lake Rangers were incident commanders on the rescue and rangers Case Martin and Jim Martin were the professionals on scene. They performed the extraction from the lake in a matter of minutes and were nothing short of amazing. These two groups are absolutely essential to our community and you should all donate to their causes (TCSAR and Jenny Lake Rangers) to ensure they will act on a moments notice when you are at your most vulnerable point.
After being admitted to St. John’s Medial Center, I had the privilege of having Dr. Heidi Jost as the surgeon who repaired my broken leg. As it turned out, my tibia was broken into 22 pieces and she did an exceptional job putting everything in place and giving me the opportunity for a full recovery. I spent a total of four nights in the hospital, including Super Bowl Sunday, where I “hosted” one of the more expensive four person “party’s” ever.
I have been on the mend since, but it is a slow process. I am suffering from significant PTSD, but making progress moving-albeit at a snails pace. I recently was able to get into a pool and practice putting weight on my leg. Since I have been on crutches and non-weight bearing for the past two months, it was a very strange sensation. Despite the pain, the slight movement was exhilarating. For someone who craves physical activity, the stillness of this recovery has been a huge challenge. Simply being able to move under my own power brought a rare smile to my face.
Powder.com is going to be posting the full account of my experience here on Tuesday April 5th. I will also have an extended version of the article on OutdoorBeta with additional photos. It will share many lessons learned and give everyone an insight into the experience of nearly perishing in an avalanche. Those of us fortunate to live in mountain towns have all heard of people losing their lives in avalanches-doing what they love, but we never think it can happen to us. I can say for certain that I have never heard a story like the one I am going to tell. I hope you all take a moment to read the article, share it with all your friends and let it sink fully into your soul. I was once someone who thought this could never happen to me, but here I am, alive and able to tell my story.
Most importantly, I want to thank my loving girlfriend Zelie Dunn-Morrison and my friends and family for coming to my aid during this trying time in my life. One might think that surviving a near-death experience would be the hardest part of the process, but the emotional impact has been eye-opening. The struggle, anguish and frustration an event like this has on your soul and those around you has been hard to comprehend. Without all of you: Dane Etter-Garrette, Beau Etter-Garrette, Maureen Garrette, Diane Johnson, Brian Close, Mike Bessette, Tyler MacPhie, Tristan Droppert, Danny Filice, Ben and Kate Shanks, Lexie Hunsaker, Brian Donner, Brian Collins, Chase Sandbloom, Paco, Casey and Tom Kalishman, Bill and Lannie Hoglund, Victor Morrison and Patty Dunn, Braden Masselink and many others, I would not be here today moving forward to live another day. I love and thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
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.
Location: GTNP, Prospectors Mountain, Open Canyon
Elevation: 11,180′, 4,894′ gain/loss
Distance: 14 miles RT
Difficulty: 3+ stars
Time: 6-9 hours
Snow Conditions: Powder, consolidated powder between 10,000′ and 8,000′, wind crust up high-first 400′, sun affected snow down low
Tuesday night, while tuning some skis at Teton Village Sports–Tristan and I discussed what we should ski the following morning. There was a chance of some weather blowing in, so we immediately ruled out a few objectives we had been eyeing in the high alpine and decided on skiing something that I was able to accomplish last year. The Banana Couloir is not quite a couloir, but rather a large gully that runs from the northeastern shoulder of Prospectors Mountain into Open Canyon. It is fairly steep towards the top, but mellows out near the bottom. It is a big avalanche path and does have a cliff/waterfall at its precipice, so it is not a run to be taken lightly.
The main difficulty with the run is the route finding. When we skied it last year, we went north on Moose-Wilson Rd, then cut left at a point and broke trail into Open Canyon. This worked, but I thought that going towards Olive Oil on the normal skin track, then continuing on into the canyon would be a little faster. I also wanted to test out my navigation capabilities on my new Suunto Traverse. I mapped out the route to the base of the Banana the night before and was hopeful that it would work.
Tristan, Stu and I left the Granite Canyon Trailhead at 7:25am as another group was getting ready a few cars away. As we passed them, we asked what they were planning on skiing-already pretty sure it was the Banana because of the ice axes. They confirmed our suspicions, but we were going to have a head start and felt comfortable sharing the line if we had to.
We cruised out on Moose-Wilson Rd., cutting left into the woods about a half-mile from the trailhead. We followed the track all the way to the northeast ridge of Olive Oil, then continued right (North) into Open Canyon. We were following an old skin track, but my Suunto said we were on target-so we continued on. Eventually, we made our way into the canyon and a clearing. We knew we were a little ways down canyon from the end of the couloir, but decided to take the faded skin track in front of us up for a bit, then cut left and make our way into the Banana.
We worked our way up on the track, eventually breaking trail left at 8,600′. We knew that the “V-Couloir Gully” was pretty nasty and wanted to be below that. It worked out perfectly and we made our way across that gully and then into the east ridge of the Banana.
We cruised up the ridge, slipping at times on a sun crust/faceted snow, but making good time. Towards the top, we bootpacked a steep section-then continued skinning to the upper bowl. At the bowl, we bootpacked up-eventually reaching a spot near the top, but not actually on the summit (It is part of the Winter Wildlife Closure in the Mt. Hunt area). We topped out at 5hrs, which was almost 2hrs faster than the last time I skied this line.
After quickly gearing up, we decided on a plan of attack for the upper portion of the run and gave it a go. The top 400′ was wind affected and a bit grabby. It was a little slow going, but still fun snow. Once off the upper bowl, the snow became consolidated and very fun. Some people call it “cream cheese snow” and whatever your name is for it, the snow was fun! We skied down in a few pushes, not wanting to waste the big open run with numerous stops. The snow near the bottom was a little isothermal in spots, but it was still fun and we made it down to the canyon floor in no time.
After making it down to the bottom, we worked our way down canyon until we caught the track back to Olive Oil. It was a very easy out and we were soon skating back to the truck on Moose-Wilson Rd. We made it to the trailhead in 6hrs 30min, pleased with the day and conditions. Once again–another fun day in GTNP schussing around.
Having made plans with Tyler to ski a quick lap in Grand Teton National Park on Monday a few days before, I slowly got out of bed and began to get ready. I was tired from the past two days (The Nugget, West Hourglass), but figured what’s one more schuss! Based on the conditions in the West Hourglass Sunday, I was hopeful the Four Hour Couloir would ski well. The wind had been coming from the West/Northwest for about two days and the temperature has stayed low, so a South-facing line seemed to make sense. With these thoughts in mind, we took off from the trailhead at 8:20am. We made easy work of the up and were at base of the couloir in 2hrs 30min.
(For a more detailed description of the route, etc take a look at an older post – 4 Hour Couloir.)
We geared up, took a look at the couloir and decided it was good to go. There was a noticeable sun crust about 5″ below soft powder, but the couloir looked to have flushed a few times recently. Down lower, the snow was soft and fluffy. We milked the last 800′ of powder all the way to the track out of Avalanche Canyon on the south side (which is in and crossed the creek). We cruised back to the truck at 3hrs 59min, happy with the quick lap and decent snow.
A day after heading up Garnett Canyon to ski The Nugget, I once again was skinning up the canyon for a schuss. Dane, Zelie, Lexie and I had decided to take a look at West Hourglass off Nez Perce. I have skied it a couple times, but was hopeful that the conditions would be better than past skis. It seems to get a lot of wind based on its location in Garnett and is typically wind scoured, but based on the day before, I thought we had a shot for couloir powder.
We left Bradley/Taggart at 8:30am and within no time we were in the Meadows where we came upon a group of two skiing down towards us. They stopped and chatted for a second, saying they bailed on the West Hourglass because of 6″ windslabs and a crust on the lower apron of the run. We took what they said with a grain of salt and decided to have a look for ourselves. They beauty of Garnett is that there is always another line you can ski if you decide to bail on your first objective.
As we worked our way up to the apron of the Hourglasses, we didn’t see the slabs they were talking about, but did notice a pretty solid wind crust. We decided to continue up and assess the situation as we progressed. Here, the skinning wasn’t too bad besides a few buff spots and we were at the base of the Hourglasses fairly quickly.
At the base of the West Hourglass, we took our skins off and stashed them near a rock. When doing this, I lost control of Dane’s rolled skins and they went careening down the apron and out of sight-Oops! We later found them, but it was a reminder that you never can be too careful with your gear in the mountains. With that behind us, we started up the initial first pitch. I would guess it reaches 45 degrees and has a fairly large rollover at the top. We knew this would be the most dangerous part of the climb and stayed close to each other near the lookers left wall.
About 100′ from the top of the pitch, Dane tapped out below a safe spot and I continued on solo over the rollover. It was hard going, but I made it up and over into a safe zone. The others continued up to me as the wind began to howl, moving snow down the couloir and into the void.
After the group reached my spot, we all took a look up the couloir and saw it was not in great shape. There was numerous wind ripples in the snow and what appeared to be bulletproof snow throughout much of the middle section. Regardless, we continued on to the top. The going was fairly easy, with only the upper section holding deepish snow.
We stopped about 200′ from the true top of the couloir, because it looked to be unskiable at this point in the year. We took our time getting ready, snapping a few pictures and eventually were ready for some old fashioned survival skiing!
The skiing down wasn’t as bad as I had thought. In spots is was a little unpredictable, but the wind ripples were soft and the firm snow wasn’t awful. We made our way down to rollover with anticipation of powder turns and velvet snow…
We gathered at the rollover and decided I’d ski it halfway down and then the rest of the group take it down to the gear stash. While we were not too concerned about the snow moving, this would have been the spot to go if it decided to. It was very stable and pretty deep on the skiers right side of the pitch-which more than made up for the rest of the lines subpar snow.
We gathered our gear and made our way down the apron, making a pit stop to grab Dane’s skins which had stopped about 500′ down the slope. The skiing here was at times great and others terrifying. The wind crust was inconsistent and very grabby in places. We all made it down safe, but there were a few dicy turns that kept us on edge.
After regrouping in the Meadows, we cruised out of the canyon and made our way back to Bradley Lake. The snow was decent on the last pitch above the lake, but still a little thin and slightly grabby. We cruised across the lake and eventually to the truck in 7hrs. While the snow wasn’t the best, it was still great to get into the park on a double date–who needs dinner and a movie!? Keep on Adventuring.
With some light snow falling over the past couple days and a little more forecasted for Saturday: Dane, Tristan and I set out for a line we have been talking about for a couple years. The Nugget Couloir, or just simply the Nugget is a technical ski line on the southern wall of Avalanche Canyon. It terminates at a huge “chokestone” that can only be surpassed via rappel, or a 60′ air (which I don’t believe has happened).
With the objective set and snow flurrying, we set out from Bradley/Taggart at 6:40am. It was fairly warm to start out and we were quickly shedding some layers on the way to Bradley Lake. We crossed the lake (which has an ice depth of 5″) as twilight began to take affect on the morning.
We made quick work of the first few thousand feet up Garnett, only having a few issues with the track on some steep sections. As we approached the Caves in Garnett Canyon, we were greeted with an arctic chill. The wind was whipping around the canyon with a ferocity that I can’t recall in the past. We put our layers on, but we were a little sweaty from the warm walk up so it didn’t do much good. Regardless, we trudged on through the Meadows and into the South Fork of Garnett.
We made our way past the apron of the Hourglass’, which was looking a little thin, and continued up above the steep section of the South Fork that is a mini waterfall in the summer. Here we noticed some cracking in the newly deposited snow, but there was no movement, so we continued on.
From here, we worked our way up the canyon in the direction you would to climb the South or Middle Teton in the summer. After gaining the bench at about 10,500′, we started working our way left towards the col between Nez Perce and Cloudveil Dome. That is the start of the line, but we had a ways to go until we were skiing….
We worked our way up and into the couloir that ended at the col we were headed for. The snow was soft and deep here and we were a little concerned about skinning to the top, so we switched over to bootpack mode for the remainder of the climb. It did get fairly steep towards the top and while we were on the lookout for snow activity, we didn’t see any. We topped out at 5hrs, into intermittent sun and a lashing wind.
We quickly got geared up in harnesses and all our warm clothing in the howling wind and had a look at the line. It looked a little thin up top, but lower down it looked to be holding some goods, so we had a quick talk about how to ski the top section and had a rip.
Skiing the bottom half of the upper portion-we cut left towards the narrow section at the rock 500′ down on the left. (Visible in photo)
While we were on high alert for movement, we only saw some small wind slabs and loose sluff here. We made our way down the first pitch, dodging a few rocks here and there, eventually traversing left to the tight middle section. Here, we were a little concerned because there was a large hanging snow field above the tight section. We decided on a few safe ski cuts, but we could not mitigate the skiers left side of the bowl. We assumed that the snow would move, but mainly low energy slabs. I skied down into the bowl and stopped below some rocks, only kicking off one small wind slab. Dane and Trist stomped around near some rocks and finally were able to get something to move that ran down into the narrow section. This made us feel a little better and decided that dane and Trist should ski down the path of the small “slabalanche”.
While we were a little tentative, these turns were top notch! We made our way down into the narrow section and decided on how to proceed. It looked like there was some constriction/bulge halfway down, so we decided to ski down to that and have a look.
From here, Tristan skied down to the bulge and found a way through on the right. He made his way down for a little bit after and pulled off and waited for us to make our way through the constriction.
After this, we knew it was powder skiing all the way to the rappel. It stayed a little tight for 500′, then opened up to the huge snowfield above the chockstone. We skied it in several sections, milking the turns and enjoying the exposure that was below us.
Near the end of the run and the 60′ drop, we grouped up and talked about how we wanted to approach the rappel. We had heard that the anchor was on the skiers right of the rock, but couldn’t be sure. Since I had the rope, I gingerly skied down to the rock and looked right. After a little while, I saw a cord that I assumed was the anchor. I quickly cut across an open slope and came upon the anchor about 30′ from the chockstone.
I clipped into the anchor and dug around a bit for the end while the others skied down. I went down 3′ and only found what looked to be the carabiners to rappel off, but there was another cord running from that into the snow. While we couldn’t be sure, we figured it was anchored to the wall as a backup. We felt good about it and threw out our 70m rope and rappelled off down into the unknown. We assumed that the rope would reach, but you never know. Thankfully there was about 20′ of rope to spare (I’d bring a 70m if possible, but a 60m would probably work) and we all made it down without issue.
We were pumped! This had been a line on our minds for years and we finally skied it, in POW no less. We ate some much needed food and then skied down to the traverse out of Avalanche Canyon-still finding some solid powder down low.
We pulled into the trailhead at 8hrs 15min, tired and happy. It was a great day and one I won’t forget for a while…!