Tag Archives: winter camping

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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.