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Skillet Attempt – Mount Moran

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

Trip Report:

Date: 1/16/2016
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!

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Sickle Couloir Attempt, Mount Moran

The Sickle Couloir is a major ski line off Mount Moran, with slopes maintaining a consistent 40-50 degree pitch and numerous rock bulges towards the bottom of the run that often require rappels.  It is a line I have been longing to ski for a few years and a definite on the “hit list” for this year.  It tops out around 11,800′ on a north shoulder of Mount Moran and continues down to a cirque at 9000′.  It has hang fire from above, is a “no-fall-zone” and one of the prettiest lines in the park. With all this in mind; Dane, Tristan and I woke up on Wednesday morning (after skiing the Southeast Couloir off Bivouac Peak just the afternoon before) at 5am to give it a go.  In hindsight, 5am was too late.  With the light of the moon and proximity to the run, we should have been moving at 4am, but the -10 degree temperatures gave us second thoughts about an alpine start.  Nevertheless, we awoke and tried to boil some water after a fitful night of sleep.  We moved slowly and before we knew it, we were leaving camp at 6:30am.

Camp.
Camp.

Dane, soaking in the sunrise.
Dane, soaking in the sunrise.

From our camp, the cirque below the entrance to the Sickle Couloir was around 2300′ of elevation gain and 1.5 miles of skinning.  This should have taken around 2hrs, but instead we immediately ran into some problems.  The first and major issue was our skins.  Instead of sleeping with them in our bags, we left them inside the tent thinking they would be fine.  This wasn’t a problem for Dane, who had new skins, but Tristan and I soon found that our glue was too cold to actually stick to our skis about 20 minutes into the skin.  With the sun behind a moraine, our only option was to try and make it work with the skins sliding all around unattached to our skis.  After numerous disastrous switchback, we decided to pull the skins and put them in our jacket to try and warm the glue while we bootpacked up the moraine.  This lasted about 20 minutes, until the constant postholing became too much and we tried to put our skins back on, hoping the glue was “alive” again.  Unfortunately, the skins didn’t stick and we were left in the same spot 4 switchbacks and 20 minutes ago.  The good news was that the slope had mellowed a bit and we could make due with the garbage skins until we found some sunlight to thaw the glue out.  About 1000′ from the cirque, we found some good morning light and were able to let the skins warm in the sun to a point where they would adhere to the skis.  This took around 15 minutes and we were soon hustling to make up all the lost time, calculating that we would be skinning across the lake in the dark if something didn’t change.

View of Moran from our skin warming delay.
View of Moran from our skin warming location in the sun

Dane working his way up into the cirque.
Dane working his way up into the cirque.

After about 45 minutes, we came into view of the cirque, but I had another problem. My foot had gone numb a while ago (which is normal for me), but now that numb foot was having shooting pains that caused me serious issues.  I thought that I must have some form of frostnip developing and knowing the entire couloir was in the shade, decided to stop in the sun and try and apply some foot warmers before the climb.  This was a first for me, but I would rather not continue on, than get frostbite and have serious issues lingering for the remained of the season, or even worse.  So my stop caused yet another delay and after I was finished, tried to catch up the Dane and Tristan who were working their way up to the start of the climb.  As we came into the cirque, you could see the wind was howling up high.  Mount Moran was alive with spindrift, a large contrail trailed off the summit and all of a sudden BOOM!  A large “sluffalanche” came crashing down into the cirque off a 100′ cliff.  The remnants of this failure kept coming off the cliff for 30 seconds.

Lingering remnants from the "sluffalanche"
Lingering remnants from the “sluffalanche”

Then a massive gust of wind came off the mountain, blowing snow everywhere and creating a near whiteout.  This gust lasted for a bit, but the wind lingered with several other gusts over the next few minutes.

Looking up the Sickle with the wind creating near whiteout conditions.
Looking up the Sickle with the wind creating near whiteout conditions.

All the while, Moran was demonstrating her might, releasing “sluffalanches” off all her slopes.  While all this was happening, the three of us had to decide if we wanted to begin the climb up the Sickle Couloir.  We had come so far: skinning across Jackson Lake, spending a night in negative degree temperatures and persevering the delays from earlier in the day.  Our main concerns were: the wind chill, the poor visibility due to the wind gusts and being knocked off the mountain by a “sluffalanche” that we couldn’t see or hear racing towards us.  The decision was easy… all the signs were working against us. Today would not be our day to ski this iconic line.  We discussed this briefly, then changed over and skied some powder down to Jackson Lake and our camp.

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We were disappointed, but felt good about the decision to bail.  In those situations, only one thing has to go wrong for the day to turn into a disaster – and many things had gone wrong, so when the stars don’t align, you don’t push forward.  We packed up camp slowly and tried to thaw our frozen bodies in the sun.  We took off from camp at around 12:30pm, as the wind continued to whip off Mount Moran.  We made our way out of Moran Bay and took one last look up towards the Sickle Couloir.  A large, new sluff pile was sitting at the base of the couloir.  We felt relived about our decision and that each of us would “live to ski another day”.  We made it back to Signal Mountain Lodge in a blistering 3.5 hours, just in time to grab some happy hour beers in town and reminisce about the past few days.

Working our way home.
Working our way home as the wind hammers Moran.

Reveling in the beauty of the most beautiful mountain range North America has to offer. (photo: Dane Etter-Garrette)
Reveling in the beauty of the most amazing mountain range North America has to offer. (photo: Dane Etter-Garrette)

Adventure Skiing in Northern GTNP

So a few weeks back, Dane, Tristan and I started talking about heading up north for an overnight in GTNP.  We wanted to ski some remote lines and thought the best way to do that was an overnight trip.  After a week of planning (gathering gear from friends, talking over different objectives, etc.), we settled on Tuesday/Wednesday for the trip, despite the fact it was supposed to be in the negatives Wednesday morning.  Ideally, we would have had a few nights to camp and ski, but the scheduling didn’t work out and we only had one night to make it happen.  On Tuesday morning at 5am, Tristan grabbed Dane and I from town and we started our way up to Moran Junction.  It took about 1 hour, because the snow was falling at a good clip and the visibility was quite poor.  At the “gate”, we were surprised to see Ranger Jay checking park passes.  We got ours out and started chatting with him about the option to leave from Signal Mountain Lodge instead of Colter Bay.  He said that it was ok to leave our car there and that he would call the visitor center to let them know the change to our camping permit.  Just a few things on all that….

The first is that you do need a permit to camp in the park during the winter.  It is free, but someone does have to go to the visitor center, give your information, trip itinerary and grab a bear canister.  While this is a pain in the ass, it is free and a necessary evil that can actually help out out if something were to happen

The second note on that is that Signal Mountain Lodge is FURTHER from Moran Bay than Colter Bay.  I am not sure why we thought it was closer, possibly a comment from a post on TetonAT about the distance to Leigh Canyon from Colter, but it is in fact about 1.5 miles further to Moran Bay from Signal Mountain Lodge.  I suppose the thought at that moment was that is was pretty much whiteout conditions and we would have more land masses to follow going from Signal.

So, we got to Signal in a “blizzard” of wind and snow around 6:30am.  We chatted about just going back to town for some breakfast, but all agreed that we might as well continue forward with our plan.  We were on the ice at 6:45am and found Jackson Lake in great shape and the travel to be pretty decent.

View past Donoho Point, at the start of the lake crossing.
View past Donoho Point, at the start of the lake crossing.

While the visibility was poor, we were able to make out Donoho Point, Marie Island, then Elk Island in succession and made a fairly straight line considering the conditions.  As we worked our way past Elk Island, the wind began to subside and the clouds started to part, opening up the beautiful Northern GTNP to us.

Clouds Lifting...
Clouds Lifting…

We had been moving for around 2 hours at this point and knew we still had a ways to go.  We ate a little grub and made the push to Moran Bay and our camping area.  The last little bit was a slog, with the weight of our packs and the monotony of the skin starting to wear on us.  Luckily, we had some tunes to motivate us for the last push.

Entering Moran Bay.
Entering Moran Bay.

As we entered the bay, we worked towards the delta of Moran Creek, in hopes of finding a decent spot to camp and running water.  We made landfall 3.5 hours from when we left the car, tired and happy to have made it across.  We quickly setup one tent to store our excess gear in and started up towards our first objective, the Southeast Couloir off Bivouac Peak.

The Southeast Couloir, off  Bivouac Peak from just outside our camp.
The Southeast Couloir, off Bivouac Peak from just outside our camp.

Southeast Couloir-Bivouac Peak

Location: GTNP, Bivouac Peak, Moran Canyon, Jackson Lake
Tags: Backcountry Skiing, Ski Mountaineering
Elevation, Gain/Loss: 10,816’, 4,393’ gain/loss
Distance: 17 miles RT (from Colter Bay), 20 miles RT (from Signal)
Difficulty: 4 stars
Time:  10-12 hours

Trip Report:

Date: 3/3/2015
Snow Conditions: Powder (lots of it), some crust up high, low energy wind slabs up high, sun/wind crust down low.

The Southeast Couloir off Bivouac Peak is an aesthetically pleasing and challenging objective in northern GTNP.  It requires a long skin across Jackson Lake from either Colter Bay (7 miles) or Signal Mountain Lodge (8.5 miles) to just get to Moran Canyon.  Once at the canyon, the couloir starts about 800 vertical feet above the lake shore.  We skied this as part of an overnight, but it could be done in a day with the right conditions and early start time.

Dane, Tristan and I had this couloir in mind for the first of two objectives of an overnight trip to Moran Bay.  We started from camp at 11:45am after dropping some gear and made our way up to the base of the couloir.  It was an easy skin up, only taking 45 minutes until we were at the start of the climb.  I imagine even in the dark, or poor visibility this would not be difficult to route find as it is the first major couloir off the south side of Bivouac Peak.  So, we dropped our skins at the entrance to the couloir and began what would be a slog to the top of Southeast Couloir.  The initial part of the couloir is tight and gradually starts to get steeper as the walls close in.

Making our way up the initial pinch in deep snow.
Making our way up the initial pinch in deep snow.

The snow in this section was about 2 feet of powder with a breakable crust below.  At times, the crust would support us, but often we would break through to a sugary, faceted layer a foot below.  This made the climbing challenging and time consuming.  After making it over the “bulge” at the end of the pinch, the couloir opened up into a large mellow middle section.

Just coming out of the pinch in the Southeast Couloir.
Just coming out of the pinch in the Southeast Couloir.

The snow in here proved to be more challenging than down low.  It was very deep, in sections chest deep and not very supportive.  We trudged up this middle section for what seemed like an eternity and actually took a break to refuel and get mentally prepared for what seemed would be an epic climb up.

Tristan, taking in the views and getting "stung".
Tristan, taking in the views and getting “stung“.

Eventually we found that the right side of the couloir was a little easier to bootpack up, so we stayed right and worked our way up for a while.  It still was not easy, with the snow being anywhere from boot to thigh deep, but it was supportive and we made decent time through the middle section and up to the upper steep portion of the couloir.

On the up. (photo: Dane Etter-Garrette)
On the up. (photo: Dane Etter-Garrette)

Tristan, doing his best to break trail.
Tristan, doing his best to break trail.

Once we got to the steep portion of the climb, the winds began to whip off the summit and the arctic air mass that was moving in began to take its toll on the group.  Our movements became a labored as our extremities started to freeze.  Despite this, we pushed on for the top of the couloir and the summit of Bivouac Peak.

Dane, breaking trail towards the top as the wind gusts down the couloir.
Dane, breaking trail towards the top as the wind gusts down the couloir.

Tristan trying to stay warm in the -20 Degree windchill.
Tristan trying to stay warm in the -20 Degree windchill.

Eventually we made our way to the top after a few steep tight spots near the summit.  We did notice small wind slabs forming at a rollover near the summit, but felt we could mitigate these with a few ski cuts.  We topped out around 5pm as the sun was setting in the West and the wind howling from the Northwest.  We didn’t have much time to celebrate, as the windchill was probably around -20 and the sun was setting, but it was a special summit and we all felt good about the climb.

Getting geared up in amazing light!
Getting geared up in amazing light!

Mount Moran from the northwest.
Mount Moran from the northwest as the wind gusts into the Southeast Couloir.

We quickly got ready to ski as the gusts continued to pound us, covering our gear with snow in a matter of seconds.  We decided to enter the couloir from the right where we could get a good ski cut on the upper slope to test the stability.  With nothing moving, we tentatively made turns down the steep couloir to the first of two tight pinches.

Skiing down to the first pinch after making it down the steep upper "bowl" (photo: Dane Etter-Garrette)
Skiing down to the first pinch after making it down the steep upper “bowl”. (photo: Dane Etter-Garrette)

Tristan coming through the second pinch in style.
Tristan coming through the second pinch in style.

After the two constrictions, we only had one thing to do…..ski powder all the way down to the bottom of the run.  We gladly accepted our duty and made some fantastic turns down to through the lower pinch and onto the apron!

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Southeast Couloir - Bivouac Peak
Southeast Couloir – Bivouac Peak

After making it down to the bottom and out of the couloir safely, we gathered our skins and made our way back to camp.  We felt pretty good, considering the long day we had endured. We quickly setup camp and made some delicious Mountain House meals before climbing into our cold sleeping bags for the evening.  We had one more challenging objective for the trip and needed all the rest we could get.  The next day we were going to make a bid for the Sickle Couloir off Mount Moran.  We went to bed tired, but excited about the great run down the Southeast Couloir and what the next day had in store.

Sickle Couloir, off Mount Moran.
Sickle Couloir, off Mount Moran.

Peak 10,686

10686

Location: GTNP, Waterfall Canyon, Jackson Lake
Tags: Backcountry Skiing, Ski Mountaineering
Elevation, Gain/Loss: 10,686’, 4,127’ gain/loss
Distance: 9 miles
Difficulty: 4 stars
Time:  7-9 hours

Trip Report:

Date: 1/14/2015
Snow Conditions: Faceted Snow, Powder, Breakable Crust, Bouncy Snow

A week of high pressure and some light snow begged me into GTNP to see what the high alpine skiing was like.  After a relatively late alpine start (6:30am from Jackson), Grant and I were off to Colter Bay and the always exhilarating lake crossing.  We were moving at 7:50am, finding the inversion had lifted enough to give us a view of the shore in front of Waterfalls Canyon.

Grant making his way to Waterfalls Canyon right before the fog enveloped us.
Grant making his way to Waterfalls Canyon right before the fog enveloped us.

After about 15 minutes on the ice, we were engulfed by a fog layer that made it hard to see beyond our ski tips.  As we proceeded in the direction we thought was the shore, we quickly realized that we were zigzagging north to south and needed to pull out a compass.  After many, many failed attempts to go straight and several scary “drops” into trapped surface water, we finally saw a faint shoreline and headed for it.  We reached land around 2hrs from leaving the truck, a far cry from the 45min it usually takes to cross the lake, but we were happy to have made it and ready for the uphill.  At this point, we were not 100% sure which side of Waterfalls Canyon we had landed on, but had a hunch we needed to move left.  So, we gained some elevation and slowly made our way out of the fog and into a beautiful, sunny paradise.

Above the clouds.
Above the clouds.

After determining where we were, we decided that Black Hole Couloir and Eagles Rest Peak were out of the question for the day (our initial objectives), but since we were already on a moraine of Peak 10,686, we decided to continue up and ski one of the many bowls it offered.  The up was constant, gaining 2000′ in just over an hour at one point, but we broke trail and kept moving forward until we reached the final ridge that would bring us to the summit.

Grant, making his way to up the summit ridge.
Grant, making his way to up the summit ridge.

From this vantage point, we had great views into Waterfalls Canyon and an excellent look into Black Hole Couloir.  It looked like it would have been amazing and a line I would like to ski again soon if the conditions allowed.

Black Hole Couloir.
Black Hole Couloir.

We continued up the ridge for around 500′, until the wind drifts became too large to skin up, so we transitioned to boot pack mode and made our way up the remaining 500′ to the summit.  From here, the east face of Ranger Peak looked very tempting and an unnamed couloir deep in Waterfalls Canyon, on a sub peak of Doane Peak seemed to be a promising objective for another day.

"Unnamed Couloir", Waterfalls Canyon
“Unnamed Couloir”, Waterfalls Canyon

After the sightseeing, we geared up for the ski and decided on the run down.  Since we were a little unsure of the snow pack, we decided on a minor ski cut at the top of the bowl and then some “safe” turns along the ridge until we felt comfortable with the snow.  Surprisingly, the snow was very stable and playful in the top bowl…allowing us to open up some big turns down to a north facing treed aspect.

Grizz getting ready to ski.
Grizz getting ready to ski.

The upper bowl of 10,686 was skiing nice.
The upper bowl of 10,686 was skiing nice.

Getting into the gully.
Getting into the gully.

We skied the bowl down to the main gully and kept high right to avoid the tight “meat grinder”, making playful turns down mini north facing faces.  Here we came around from the north, now facing Jackson Lake, and were able to take a look at our awful skin track across the lake (sorry!).

Zigzags.
Zigzags.

After taking a moment to reflect on our amazing skin track, we continued down to the lake and were greeted by some fantastic turns down wide open mellow powder fields.  We made our way back to the shoreline and prepared for the skin back across frozen Jackson Lake.  The skin back wasn’t too bad, considering its imperfect line, and we made it across in just over an hour.

Views of the Tetons from Jackson Lake.
View of the Tetons from Jackson Lake.

In total, the trip took us 8 hours and 30 minutes, but considering the time spent on the ice, I was content. It was a fantastic day: great skiing, good problem solving and above all another fun rip in GTNP.