I first heard mention of the Big Four Traverse, albeit not by that name, five years ago while picking the brain of a veteran lift mechanic over morning coffee at Grand Targhee Resort. He spoke of the four remote, seldom skied and closely grouped peaks, Fossil Mountain, Mount Bannon, Mount Jedediah Smith and Mount Meek, with a certain folklore mystique, as if I was really missing out by directing all my attention as an aspiring ski mountaineer at Grand Teton National Park. At the time I wasn’t ready to listen, too starstruck by classic Teton lines to venture off the beaten path; but after a half-decade of chipping away a ski resume in Teton Valley, “unconventional” strikes a certain kind of appeal. The Big Four lied well dormant until I went on my first tour with Carl Osterberg this past winter. Carl, a nordic skier and overall endurance machine, stated his intent to ski all four peaks in a single day, that the route was “something the locals do” and it had a name, the “Big Four.” After several more trips with Carl, a traverse of the Palisades Range and a noteworthy descent of the Targhee classic, Treasure Bowl, talks of the Big Four began to flourish again. The more I looked into the route, the more excited I became. Not only was it a substantial challenge, but all four peaks offered a variety of excellent ski terrain, skyline prominence and the opportunity to break new ground in a range I’ve skied hundreds of times. After many hours of trip report scouring, Google Earth mapping and drop-car shuttling, Carl and I found ourselves in Darby Canyon at 3:02 AM, skis on our backs, headed for Fossil Mountain.
The Big Four as we know it, is any traverse that involves climbing Fossil Mountain, Mount Bannon, Mount Jedediah Smith and Mount Meek in a single day. To my knowledge this traverse is rarely skied and often assisted by snowmobile; no machines for us though, we’d be walking from the get go. From the winter closure, five miles of snow covered road stands between the car and the summer Wind Cave trailhead. From the trailhead, approximately three miles of average grade climbing takes you through the South Fork of Darby Canyon to the col at the base of Fossil’s south ridge. We chose Fossil first because we planned to ski the East Face, a steep and exposed, often cornice-d line, studded with cliffs and a prime candidate for solar influenced avalanche danger. Fossil is not one of those mountains you want to be on when the day warms up. From Fossil, we planned to follow the geological crest north, up and over Bannon, Jedediah Smith and Meek, all of which offer North facing skiing less susceptible to sun effect. From the summit of Meek, we planned to ski a beautiful but relatively short couloir to the Death Shelf, where we would either re-gain Meek via “The Wedge” and ski out the Main Fork of Darby Canyon, or descend the Devil’s Staircase and exit the South Fork of Teton Canyon. Undoubtedly the fastest choice would have been to ski directly into the Main Fork from the summit of Meek, but that would’ve meant bypassing potentially the best ski descent of the day, which we were not willing to do. We left a shuttle car at Teton Canyon to give us a variety of exit options, packed our bags with as many calories as possible and prepared for an estimated 10,000 feet of elevation gain over an approximate distance of 20-22 miles.
The Big Four
3:02AM was by far the earliest I’d ever clicked into a pair of skis, and it wasn’t long before I realized why it wasn’t a popular start time. After a few hours of shuffling quietly along the snow covered access road, stopping every once and a while to cross a patch of dry land, Carl and I both admitted we weren’t necessarily in top notch head space. Three hours of sleep and two cups of coffee can only get you so far, and I was really feeling it. Shadows danced between the trees and snapping branches stopped us in our tracks more than once. There was something eerie about being so deep in the wilderness, wandering around a thickly wooded canyon home to grizzly bears, mountain lions and moose in the middle of the night, aided only by a one-directional beam of light. If Carl hadn’t been with me I’m not sure I would’ve kept my sanity. Queasy and sleep deprived we continued the slog past the summer trailhead and into the South Fork of Darby, where the woods only got deeper, denser and darker. The higher we climbed the colder the morning became, dropping from a modest thirty degrees to a bone chilling fifteen. We layered up as the first glimpses of morning light illuminated the surrounding cliffs and eventually the summit of Fossil. Standing like a guardian over the basin below, the rock wrapped West Face of Fossil loomed with foreboding ferocity over the canyon below, the morning wind whisping clouds and spiraling snow off the summit. Seeing the mountain did little to boost our enthusiasm; it looked wicked up there, and we had still yet to see the sun. Carl struggled to stay warm as I took the lead, forging our path to the col and continuing up the south ridge. Much to our excitement, the ridge was windswept and looked perfect for a quick climb, with plenty of rocks for traction and very little new snow. With a mere 800 feet of prominence, Fossil is less of an individual peak and more of a humongous rock perched atop a long, long, long ridge, so by the time we switched to crampons 95 percent of the work was behind us. Quickly and efficiently we climbed a mix of firm snow and ice up the modest 35-40 degree face, topping out on the 10,916 foot summit somewhere in the vicinity of 10 o’clock,
Just as we expected, the East Face of Fossil Mountain was guarded with a hulking bulge of overhanging snow, putting into question whether or not we could even access our planned ski line. We brought a light rando-rope and harnesses with the intention of belaying the first skier into the face, but with the rapid warming of the morning sun our confidence in the cornice’s strength waned. The summit was also void of rock, meaning we would’ve had to build a ski anchor to rappel from. Ski anchors are notoriously sketchy to begin with, and to put the cherry atop this menacing sundae, we weren’t even positive the East Face was filled in enough to ski. With half a dozen red flags glaring back at us, we swallowed our pride and opted for a conservative ski down the same face we ascended, scoring some hippie powder on the windswept ridge before traversing above a chute on the southeast flank and popping into the lower East Face. When we looked up at our original plan, bailing out was immediately validated. The East Face had avalanched recently, exposing the entire cliffband and filling the run-out with debris. Also, the school-bus sized cornice we suspected was definitely real, actively releasing wet snow and looked eager to separate from the mountain at moments notice. We couldn’t help but smile and exchange a few “Thank God’s” as we scurried beneath the face to the foothills of Mount Bannon’s southern ridge.
As we skinned towards Bannon, the powerful, unobstructed sun began to unleash it’s fury. Within two hours we went from borderline frostbite to rolled up sleeves and baseball caps. Whilst certainly more comfortable, we also knew that warming to this degree could create dangerous avalanche conditions, especially with the new overnight snow. Because we were planning on skiing north for the remainder of the day, where surfaces see little sun and often remain cold, we didn’t feel the need to abort ship just yet, but we were certainly on our toes. We reached the summit of 10,971 foot Mount Bannon after a relatively uneventful skin, but we weren’t quick to linger. In similar fashion, our planned descent route was guarded by a nasty cornice, prompting us to once again take the bail out route. We hop-turned our way through a slushy mess of solar snow on the NE Ridge before taking the first opportunity drop a safe line onto the lower portion of the North Face, scoring a few hundred feet of tremendous powder turns to the base of Mount Jedediah Smith. Looking back at a network of beautiful couloirs and ledges on the North Face, we were bummed to have left it behind, but also knew the mountain wasn’t ready; we made the right choice. With the two crowning descents behind us, we savored a longer break and packed in some extra calories for the back half our day to come.
Mount Jedediah Smith came and went with relative ease. The peak is more of a lump than an actual mountain, requiring only a few hundred feet of climbing from Bannon and a benign, moderately sloped ski on the north side. Ushered off the summit by a nasty wind surge, we battled a few hundred feet of wind scoured crust to the saddle between Jedediah and Meek, and immediately began making our way up our final climb of the day. While far from a behemoth, Mount Meek, standing tall at 10,686 feet, is deceptively larger than it’s neighbor to the south. By the time the summit came into view, lactic acid was invading my legs and the unrelenting sun was making me dizzy. Carl didn’t seem to have any trouble, but hey… I guess that’s one of the perks of being a competitive nordic ski racer. He was already scouting our descent as I came up several minutes behind, tired and out of breath. From Meek I could see directly down Death Canyon to the flat-lands of Grand Teton National Park. Just north was the always impressive Grand Tetons and to the west, my hometown, Victor, Idaho. To the south was Jedediah Smith, Bannon and Fossil, lined up perfectly like three ducks in a row, reflecting the first hues of late afternoon sun into my glasses. With my finger I could trace our path over all three, right to my skis on the final summit. I was overcome with a feeling of relief, accomplishment, and at the same time, the sobering realization that our adventure was far from over. By this point we’d decided conclusively on skiing Meek’s North Couloir and exiting Teton Canyon. I knew roughly where the Teton Canyon parking lot was, and it wasn’t close… not by a long shot. However, I had a plate full of powder to indulge in before worrying about any of the above!
The couloir was exactly as we’d imagined, steep, aesthetic and filled with phenomenal snow. I dropped first, skiing the line in one pull and scoring some of 2020’s best turns. I pulled up below the cliffs to shoot pictures of Carl before following him out the apron and beginning our never-ending traverse along the Death Canyon Shelf, ultimately to Teton Canyon. Our post-powder highs quickly dissolved as we battled dangerously heavy snow on the Devil’s Staircase, intentionally triggering a handful of wet slab avalanches to clear our path. Safely navigating to the bottom of Teton Canyon took much longer than expected, but you can’t put a price on survival, so we took the delay in stride. The rest of our day involved a few miles of bushwhacking, one sketchy creek crossing, one moose encounter and 3.5 miles of cross-country skiing on the Teton Canyon road. As soon as we hit the groomed track, I set Carl loose; I could tell he was anxious. When I finally reached the car around 8:00 PM, cramping feet and aching knees, he was stripped down to bare feet and sitting in the parking lot, grinning from ear to ear. The Big Four was ours, 17 hours and change, a record smashing tour for the both of us!
A Spiritual Take: “Living is Victory”
Diversions are part of the game in ski mountaineering, and a good mountaineer needs to be able to take them in stride. On Fossil and Bannon alike, our original objectives were barred with cornices and unsafe to descend. The first thought that flits through my mind in these situations is usually disappointment, closely followed by resistance and finally, often reluctantly, acceptance. Atop Fossil in particular, I spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out a safe way onto the East Face, even though I knew we were best off leaving it behind. I let myself have these moments, as long as am able to see them for what they are and ultimately accept the option that brings me home safely.
In the words of John Troillet, a famous french mountaineer, “Living is Victory.” The phrase was coined during Jean and his team’s 2008 attempt on the South Face of Nepal’s Annapurna, where they spent over 50 days in base-camp, attempting to climb at least three times, only to return empty handed. I remind myself of Jean’s words when deciding whether or not to take a risk in the mountains, and though much less dramatic, opting for the safe route down Fossil and Bannon was our way of accepting that “living is victory.”