Snow Condition: Hard-packed wind crust, packed powder, breakable sun and wind crust, soft powder to sugar below 7,500 feet.
Stu, Tristan and I decided to head out on Sunday for a tour into the high country of Grand Teton National Park. We had a few things in mind that we felt would be fun skiing and within reason, but we didn’t really finalize the objective until we reached the parking lot at around 7 am Sunday morning. Having just skied the Red Sentinel the day before with Lexie, I felt that the south-facing aspects would hold some of the better snow. There was a decent wind event that came through the area early in the weekend that ended up creating some tough wind packed snow conditions on most aspects, especially the northern ones. Upon dropping into Glacier Gulch on Saturday, I noticed that there were two tracks down the South Couloir off of Teewinot. They looked pretty good and this is a line that I have been eyeing for a long time. With this in mind-and a pretty good photo of the line, our objective was set and we were off.
We made okay time getting up to Delta Lake, which has one of the more beautiful views in the park. Climbing up the moraine, we continued to gain elevation. There was a light cloud cover and a consistent breeze, which helped with the warming.
After switching over to booting shortly after the photo above, we had a decision to make. The bootpack set by the two who skied the South Couloir the day before went up and to the left. We knew we had to go right in order to make it across the lower snowfield below the South Couloir. After following the boot pack a bit we realized that setting our own would cost us too much time and we felt that these guys would eventually go right up around the next rock band. Turned out the bootpack we were following didn’t go right and we were too high to make it onto the snowfield/into the South Couloir. So we continued up, setting our own booter up the SW Couloir, onto the shoulder of Teewinot.
It was getting late when we topped out of the SW Couloir and felt we didn’t have enough daylight to chase down the upper entrance to the South Couloir. We decided to ski what we climbed–the SW Couloir to the snowfield below the South Couloir and then ski the two exit couloirs back down to Delta Lake. So that’s what we did. And it was great! Decent snow, somewhat technical steep hardpack snow, to some breakable crust, down to some soft powdery snow below 7,500 feet. Great skiing all around and another fun day out in the mountains.
After being told I could either have New Years Eve off or I could come in and shovel snow off a metal roof in sub degree temperatures I decided for the former and a ski tour. Zach Simon was quick to get back to my text with some ‘solid beta’ on Apocalypse and after thinking about it for a while I was in. Apocalypse is a very committing ski line and it is not something to take lightly. With the current state of these persistent weak layers lingering throughout our snow pack, I am cautiously deciding on the next ski line. But with the information that Zach had received and the knowledge of the area I felt the snow was safe in there and we would be able to manage the terrain. Zach had already had Tanner on board and with the call from me that afternoon the plan was set.
We got to Death Canyon parking lot an hour before sunrise and the temperature read -21 degrees. Cold! After leaving at 7 am, we were soon warm enough and cruising up towards the Phelps Lake overlook. Took the skins off and after a quick ski we were down at the base of the canyon and back into the arctic cold. By the time we put our skins back on, Zach and mine had lost their stick and we were struggling with them the rest of the skin up! A recommendation: put your skins in your jacket to keep them warm when transitioning!
It took us four hours from the truck to reach the top of the couloir. The air was crisp and the sun was warm. It was nice to have a skin track already set which made all the extra weight a little more bearable. With a slow transition into rappel mode we geared up and were soon dropping into the cold and ominous Apocalypse Couloir. We brought up two ropes, one 60m, one 70m, both 8mm Dry Coat. It really helped expedite the rappels and made for two double raps up high and one on the exit through the ice bulge area.
The snow was pretty good in there. There was a variety of snow: some hard packed caulk, mostly old bed surfaces where it had flushed out on, there was some soft newly deposited cold smoke and there was some wind packed breakable crust that made things interesting. All in all it was skiable, but somewhat slowly caution skiing was in store. With the early season snow, everything felt tight, compacted and the skiing was steep!
We opted for a double 60m rap on the exit to speed things up a bit. It worked out great and we’re back skiing in no time. There was a v-thread about 30m down if you opted for a two rap out. The skiing on the exit was great and the apron opened up with some solid powder turns all the way down to the steam.
All in all, it took us 8 hours from car to car. I think we could have done it faster without the frozen skins, but it was a solid day out skiing one to the more enjoyable and exciting lines the park has to offer.
Snow Conditions: Sun affected powder, mild sun/wind crust, “corn” snow down low.
Ever since Bill Briggs became the first person to ski The Grand Teton over 40 years ago, it has been an achievement for any aspiring ski mountaineer. My brother Dane and I have climbed it a handful of times, a couple in winter conditions, but never felt comfortable with the ice climbing needed to tackle the ski. With the weather around Jackson continuing to be seasonally warm and the snowpack well bonded after last weeks small storm, we were motivated by Tristan to get out and tackle the “standard” route off the Grand, the Ford/Stettner Couloir. Tristan reasoned that despite our limited ice skills, all you had to do was, “climb up and ski down”. This proved to be the push needed and we settled on Tuesday for the attempt.
The weather for the day called for temps around 30 degrees in the mountains, with sunshine and mild wind, so we decided an alpine start was needed. We were skinning from Bradley/Taggart under moonlight at 1:20am in mild temperatures. The conditions were firm on the up into Garnet Canyon and once again I was swearing that I have yet to buy ski crampons. After 2 hours, we were in the Meadows and staring into an eerie canyon dimly lit by the moon. We decided to boot pack to the left of Spaulding Falls instead of following the “summer trail”, because I think it is faster (but could be wrong). After climbing above the steep face, we put our skis back on and skinned up, into Teepee Glacier.
Here, we saw another party about 500′ above us working their way towards Teepee Col. I knew the guys in the group, having chatted with them about our plan the day before and so far everything was going as discussed. They had planned on skiing the Grand before we settled on it and we were going to let them make first turns down if we all made it to the top. So we worked our way up the steep Teepee Glacier, eventually topping out on Teepee Col as the sun started to rise.
The other group had decided to wait at Glencoe Col for some warming rays and were shouting for us to join them. We worked our way across the Death Couloir/Couloir to Nowhere that links up Teepee and Glencoe Col and met up with the other party. The wind was howling here and we immediately regretted not gearing up at Teepee Col as we had planned. Tristan, Dane and I started to get ready as the sun began to rise, hoping it could warm us a little.
The other group had left for the Stettner by now. We hydrated a little and tried to give the group a head start. Eventually, it got too cold to wait any longer and started down from Glencoe Col to the start of the Stettner Couloir. We worked our way up the couloir and over a mild pinch/ice bulge 100 yards up the Stettner.
After that, we waited at the start of the Chevy (darts up to the left around 200 yards up the Stettner) for the other group to climb through the two bugles. We waited here for a bit, getting very cold, but ready to begin climbing the moment we could. Eventually the group cleared out and we worked our way to the belay station to tackle the ice bulges. We were all interested in taking the lead, but in the end Dane decided to take the sharp-end. He made quick work of the climbing, placing one nut between the two ice bulges on the right and one 16cm screw in the upper ice bulge.
Feeling comfortable with the ice and wanting to make up some time, Tristen and I simul-climbed the pitch as Dane belayed us from above. We made it up to the anchor and quickly decided to simul-climb out of the Chevy and into the Ford.
We found a nice spot to delayer/drop some gear near an anchor at the bottom of the Ford Couloir and got ready for the last 1000′ of boot packing. We were a little behind schedule, so set a turnaround time of 1pm and pushed towards the top. Right after beginning the bootpack, we saw the group ahead of us down climbing the Ford. We worked our way up to them and asked what was up. They said they didn’t feel 100% comfortable with the conditions and were going to bail. We were disappointed for them, but didn’t have much time to waste. The sun was warming the snow a bit and we knew the window was closing on our day if we didn’t hurry. We cruised up the Ford in no time and quickly found ourselves on the East Face of the Grand, working our way through warm, soft snow. We finally reached the summit block at 12:35pm, just over 11hrs from leaving the truck.
Not having a bunch of time at the top of the Grand is something I’m used to, but I barely had time to snap a few pictures before we were starting down towards the East Face. We didn’t want to risk the snow warming anymore than it already had. Unlike other objectives, once done skiing, you are still in harms way until you exit the Stettner after numerous rappels. With this in mind, we skied down from the summit and worked our way onto the East Face. We felt good about the snow, but you never really know until you get onto the face. Dane made a few tentative turns up high and then took it all the way down to the lower entry into the Ford. The snow was surprisingly good on the East Face, with the sun warming the surface just enough to create some early season “corn”. We all had a blast skiing the East Face, which is a feeling not many will ever have.
The Ford proved to be as much fun as the East Face, if possible, even a little more spicy. The 50 degree couloir ends in a 1000′ cliff, so each turn was made with care. We found good snow on the skiers right side of the couloir, some smooth firm snow on the left and made it down safely to the spot we stored our gear earlier.
We discussed rappelling into the Chevy from the anchors on the skiers right, at the bottom of the Ford, but decided to ski down a little lower to the first anchors in the Chevy. This slope was steep and very exposed, so we skied it gingerly and eventually got to the anchors, quickly getting ready for the rappels through the Chevy and Stettner. We rappelled twice in the Chevy and dug our an anchor on the lookers right of the Stettner below the entrance of the Chevy for our final rappel (definitely could have down climbed this portion). We were happy to have brought two 60m ropes for the day, allowing us to get out of harms way as soon as possible.
After making it down, we quickly made our way out of the Stettner and over to Glencoe Col. We gathered our skins, etc and got ready for the 5000′ ski down to the truck. We worked our way over to Teepee Col and made some fun turns down Teepee Glacier, eventually making our way down Garnet Canyon.
At this point we were exhausted, dehydrated and only wanted to make it down safe. The snow was decent all the way down, but that was just icing on the cake for us. We made quick work of the out from Bradley Lake and pulled into the Trailhead at 4:25pm, 15 hours after we had started in the moonlight. We were tired, but all felt great about what we had just accomplished. We rested our tired feet and had a few sodas, staring up at the Grand and the run we had just skied. It wasn’t long after that we started hatching plans for the next adventure in the park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.