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.
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.
Snow Condition: Powder, Mild breakable crust down low (below 7800′), but mainly powder with a slight bottom on SE facing slopes.
Took a little weekend trip up the Spoon Couloir with Zelie to check out the snow and get her into an area she had not skied this past Saturday. The Spoon Couloir is a nice test piece for those looking to graduate from the smaller lower faces to more committing lines, without really scaring yourself. It also offers some great views of the surrounding mountains and some pretty fantastic “face skiing”. I have been up the Spoon a few different times, writing my first trip report about it, and must say I do like skiing this couloir a lot. It is: relatively easy to get to, the East Face of Disappointment is a blast, the couloir is steep and you have numerous ski options once you get to Amphitheater Lake. That being said…this was the best skiing I have had in the couloir to date.
We left Bradley/Taggart at a casual 9:45am and cruised over to the Disappointment Peak skin track. Making it up to Amphitheater in a little over 3 hours (the skin track was pretty awful), we could see two groups of 2 going up the couloir. Now, it’s always a bummer to not get first tracks, but considering the time we left and that it was the weekend, I couldn’t really be disappointed.
We slowly worked our way up to the start of the climb, hoping that the two groups would make quick work of the East Face and ski through before we got to the transition point. Unfortunately, this did not happen. We changed over to boot pack mode and waited 15 minutes in the shade, assuming that the skiers ahead of us would be coming down any minute. Finally, we got cold and decided that the snow conditions did not warrant that we wait until the couloir was “open”, even if it may “taint” someones skiing zen. As we predicted, about 2 minutes into the climb – the first group came skiing through. We moved to the side and said hello as they skied through. I asked if the second group was going to be coming down soon and the skier said it looked like they were about to ski. So we worked our way up keeping an ear above for the remaining group, but didn’t see them until we hit the East Face. They said hello and we continued to work our way up the face, wondering what had taken them so long, but not really concerned with it.
It was getting a little late, so the summit of Disappointment was not in the cards for the day, but we climbed until it turned rocky and got ready for the ski. With the temperature just right and the wind calm, we soaked in some rays and took in the views from this beautiful perch in the park.
After a short while, we decided to do what we came to do….ski some powder and took it down the East Face.
After skiing the face, we worked our way down to the entrance of the couloir. Based on the snow conditions, I opted to enter from the middle, over the rollover, while Zelie came in from the right. The few steep turns I got in this section were definitely the best of the day and I had a blast skiing into the Spoon from the top!
I pulled out about 300′ down on the right and let Zelie ski the entire couloir in one push. The snow was deep and stable, not sluffing or moving at all the entire time we were in the chute.
After making it through the couloir, we made some powder turns down to Amphitheater Lake. After crossing the lake, we contoured left to a little shot that drops you into Delta Lake and Glacier Gulch. I am not sure if it has a broname, but I have looked at it a few times while crossing the Delta Lake and thought it would be a fun variation to the run. The snow in this north facing chute was great and we milked the turns all the way down to Delta Lake.
From here, we worked our way down Glacier Gulch, finding some good snow, but also noticing it change over to a breakable crust around 7800′. Instead of traversing right to Bradley Lake like I have always done, we decided to check out the out from Glacier Gulch for a change. This proved to take a lot more time and effort then traversing, but I suppose if the conditions are right you can get another 800′ of skiing, which might be worth the extra effort. Regardless, we skated back on the groomed Teton Park Road and back to the truck in around 7 hours. It was an excellent day and great opportunity to get the lady into a zone she had not skied. It also was an opportunity for me to scout the conditions for a trip that I was planning to the northern end of the park. More on that later…..
My brother, Dane, and I were long overdue for an adventure in the park and decided on a relatively easy and safe adventure considering the conditions. After an aggressive 2012-2013 winter that saw us ski numerous couloirs and peaks, we had a very slow start to the season and were both eager to get into the park. We started at around 7:30am and made quick work of the tour to Bradley Lake We crossed that swiftly and continued on to our right, working our way up the moraine that separates Garnett Canyon from Disappointment Peak. We continued up and to the right for a while after the moraine, eventually finding a skin track that followed the summer hiking trail. We continued on that for a bit, and eventually found ourselves crossing through a massive whitebark pine stand toward the culmination of the skin. We benched out around Surprise Lake and continued up another 300ft to Amphitheater Lake at around 9:15am. Once there, we were encountered with our first sight of the aptly named Spoon Couloir at the western end of the lake. It rises about 1100′ from the lake, but 400′ of that is the runout from the couloir.
We made our way across the lake and eventually found ourselves looking up the couloir, unable to skin any longer. We took a quick break in a safe spot to the left of the couloir entrance and switched over from skin mode to bootpack mode. We stayed close the whole way up the couloir, switching out the leader on several occasions, thus keeping us fresh the entire bootpack up the couloir. The snow was variable, with areas of hardpack, mixed in with wind pockets of soft snow. Considering the temperature of the day, roughly 10 degrees F, and avy conditions, we felt pretty safe in the exposed couloir. Once reaching the top of the couloir, we kept right and continued up the steep entry pitch (50 degrees) and made our way toward the summit of Disappointment Peak. 500′ from the summit, we decided the snow was getting to thin for a summit bid, so we stopped for a quick break and transitioned into ski mode.
We skied down to the entrance of the couloir and decided on skiing it in three sections, with two stops at relatively protected points along the skiers right of the couloir. I dropped in first, making some “powder” turns on the wind pockets, while they broke apart and funneled down the couloir. I stopped and waited for Dane to make some fun turns down the 50 degree entrance to the couloir.
We continued down the couloir, switching up the lead until we reached the bottom of the true run. It was decent snow all the way down, but considering the northeasterly aspect, I was hoping for better conditions. We did get some fun turns down to Amphitheater Lake and then were greeted with some amazing powder fields on our way down to the moraine of Garnett Canyon and Disappointment. As with many trips into the park, the run out to the valley floor can sometimes be the most fun, and todays snow didn’t disappoint down low. For me, the trip was a real treat, considering that Dane and I had not spent much time in the park and I hope that it was only the start of a great season.