(May 18th, 2020)
The Grand Teton is a true masterpiece of mother nature, capturing the attention of all Greater Yellowstone visitors and stealing the hearts of locals from Jackson to Teton Valley and beyond. The 13,775 foot peak dwarfs the rest of the world-class Teton Range below, rising above the National Park foothills with a staggering 7,000 feet of prominence and a magnificent east snowfield seemingly suspended in space, guarded by a ring of towering cliffs on every side. The Grand is the subject of mountaineer folklore and aspiration alike; intimidation, inspiration and adversity wrapped up in a single package, as tall as the eyes can see, as far as the legs can walk and as beautiful as the heart can desire. For myself, the Grand Teton is truly a polarizing north star, a representation of my home, the mountains I seek sanctuary within and the life I’ve built for myself over the last six years. I can’t remember the first time I saw the Grand, but I do remember being a 19 year old lift operator at Grand Targhee ski resort, fresh off a plane from Massachusetts with a head full of steam and absolutely no mountaineering experience, claiming one day I would make ski turns off the iconic summit. For many years those words were simply a far fetched fantasy, but season after season of exploring, studying and learning the Teton backcountry finally led me to the Lupine Meadows trailhead, donning a fifty pound backpack draped with ropes, ice climbing tools and skis, headed into Garnet Canyon to attempt a ski descent of the Grand Teton.
Our mission would follow the Ford, Chevy and Stettner Couloirs for a piecewise climb and ski of the peak’s southern aspect. A few other options have been pioneered over the years, but the people who ski anything other than the Ford-Stettner are cut from cloth of legend. Besides being by far the most practical and commonly used winter route, the “F-S” earned a few pages of praise in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America for it’s all encompassing, full spectrum mountaineering experience. The route begins with an arduous slog up Garnet Canyon, through Lupine Meadows and up Teepee Glacier to the col between the Grand Teton and Teepee Pillar. From there, a steep traverse to the west takes you across Glencoe Col to the base of the Stettner Couloir, where the real fun begins. With a hefty chunk of climbing already in the bank, mixed rock, steep snow and ice bulges await in three exceptionally high consequence couloirs that zig-zag across the southern aspect of the Grand Teton like a Harry Potter scar. After topping out the Ford, a moderately sloped but undeniably “airy” east facing ridge brings you the final few hundred yards to the summit, complete with some of the most spectacular views North America has to offer. Now click in your skis and try to forget about the sleep deprived psychosis, jelly legs, fifty pound backpacks and oxygen shortage, because it’s time to ski one of the most exposed lines of your life on a snowpack that’s likely been battered, bruised and disfigured by cataclysmic weather for months. The worst part? We knew all of the above when Sam Johnson, Simon Garcia and I strapped skis to our packs just before midnight at the Lupine Meadows trailhead. The route has become increasingly popular over the years. There are more blogs and videos of the line than anyone could possibly use to plan their own mission, and in my opinion they can all be condensed to one simple statement from Jimmy Chin in the ’50 Classics’ book: “Skiing the Ford Couloir on the Grand makes for a perfect day in the mountains.”
The Ford-Stettner Couloir
There was no sleep to be had the night before, or better yet day of, our 11:45 PM departure into the confines of Grand Teton National Park. Stricken by a dueling trifecta of anxiety, fear and excitement, I cut short the misery of tossing and turning, firing a pot of coffee fifteen minutes before my 10:30 alarm. Guided by headlamp and powered by my typical early morning expedition “there’s no way I’m cooking a damn thing” smoothie, I began loping down the pitch dark and partially snow obscured Lupine Meadows Trail with a near fifty pound backpack complete with just about every winter mountaineering tool I could fathom. I was surprised by how quickly the three of us moved down the trail; nervous energy can be quite the stimulant. We switched to skins as soon as the trail started climbing and ended up following the footsteps of shoe’d hikers into the mouth of Garnet Canyon, almost exactly on the summer trail. Occasionally the dirt single-track would reveal itself on a melted out hillside, confirming we were indeed on the fast track to the Meadows. By 2:45 AM we reached the boulder field where we stocked up on water and stashed shoes, slapping on the good ol’ ski boots. The starscape was unobstructed and spectacular as we skinned through the wide-open Meadows and up the first pitches of Teepee Glacier, heading directly for the moon-shadow of the Grand Teton. We had all logged enough time in Garnet to infer our surroundings from the little we could see. Bootpacking the glacier turned out to be the hardest part of the trip, a soul crushing blend of rotten snow and a seemingly endless gradient without any light to gauge progress. There was a party of two just above, and they weren’t moving fast either. Step by step we kicked our way up the steep north fork headwall, overtaking the leading group powered almost entirely by a very determined Sam. Simon and I simply wallowed in his footsteps. I can’t really describe the fatigue I experienced on the upper part of Teepee Glacier, except that I felt like a climber in one of those Himalayan expedition films, where one stagger is taken about every three seconds. Collapsing to knee depth regularly, we practically crawled up a debris-laiden slope to the col between Teepee Pillar and the East Face of the Grand, Simon and I still following the lead of our ever motivated leader. To cut short any further complaining or accounts of muscular treachery, we regrouped at the saddle and enjoyed an dazzling display of alpenglow over the National Park foothills and Jackson Hole beyond – 6:00 AM and we were already two thirds of the way to the top of the world.
At the col we transitioned to climbing mode – axes out, crampons and harnesses on, ropes at the ready. Across the firm Glencoe Col we shimmied to the base of the Stettner Couloir, where the ever familiar steep and crooked chute from all my internet reconnaissance stared back sternly. Luckily the snow was supportable, letting us make efficient work of the first few hundred feet up to a small lump of water ice. To keep matters moving we opted to solo the ice, forgoing the trusty nylon. This was my personal crux, as I had never even swung an ice tool, let alone climbed an exposed ice bulge at 12,000 feet. Following the lead of Sam and Simon, I slammed the tip of my brand new Simond tools into the ice and luckily found the maneuvers quite intuitive. With the front points of my crampons engaged I hoisted myself over the bulge and continued into the upper couloir with confidence.
Following the Stettner comes the Chevy, a narrow strip of chossy rock, snow and water ice that accounts for most of the climb’s complexity. From year to year the Chevy’s ice varies dramatically, but when we rolled through two pronounced, refrigerator sized bulges blocked the way. Using a previously established and easily located rock anchor, Sam lead the lower Chevy, placing an ice screw in each bulge on his way to his first ever ice climbing lead, and a commendable one at that! Simon and I had the pleasure of following suit under the comforts of a top rope, and confidently cruised the bulges in excellent time. As Sam and Simon recoiled the ropes, I took the liberty of blazing our path through the upper Chevy and into the seemingly endless Ford Couloir.
We stashed ropes and harnesses at the final rappel station connecting the Ford and Chevy Couloirs, lightening our loads for the summit push. From here, 1,000 feet of picturesque Teton couloir was all that separated us from our ultimate objective. Paying respect to Sam’s thus-far herculean effort, Simon and I tandem lead the Ford, leapfrogging in the middle and carrying the crew to the summit ridge beneath beautiful bluebird skies. Standing on the upper east ridge of the Grand Teton, my eyes welled with tears. Emotion possessed my body like I’d never experienced in the mountains. We were going to make it. The summit was within sight. We were actually going to make it. With a hefty dose of gratitude and adrenaline, our final walk to the summit pyramid felt effortless, all tension dispelled by panoramic views of Jackson Lake, the Tetons and beyond.
As told above, skiing the Grand Teton poses more layers of complexity than an average day in the mountains. An exorbitant pack weight throws off your natural balance, a lack of oxygen at 13,775 feet feels like breathing through a cocktail straw, sleep deprivation slows your neuromuscular system and the sheer fatigue of 7,000 feet of climbing over ten consecutive hours makes your legs wobble like a baby deer. I only took one turn before realizing this wouldn’t be the glory lap I anticipated, at least from the style angle. Almost getting flipped backseat and sent tumbling into the Ford by a punchy turn through breakable crust, I immediately adjusted my mindset to tactical, precise skiing. Wind crust, punchy powder, bulletproof ice, edge-able corn; we saw just about every ski condition possible on our descent of the massive 1,200 foot hanging couloir. Halfway down, the sun-baked snow on the western edge softened to allow a few excellent hop turns back to the rappel station where our gear was stashed. Carefully we regrouped and geared up, exchanging high-fives but also acknowledging the truth – we were far from out of the woods. The day was warming fast and the Grand Teton is notorious for shedding massive amounts of snow, a situation that could be very problematic when paired with rocks, ice chunks and occurring in steep cliff zones. With an air of haste we decided to bypass the first rappel station, skiing the remarkably steep upper Chevy to the second anchor on the skier’s right wall. Despite scoring a few tremendous corn turns, the margin for error here was far too high to justify, for the smallest tumble through the Chevy would be a grizzly and nearly certain death. In hindsight, rappelling from the uppermost station would’ve been the responsible call, and will definitely be my protocol next time I ski the route. Nonetheless, we utilized both 70M ropes, requiring two rappels from our anchor to to reach the Stettner Couloir, and one more to get us through the first ice bulge we soloed. We skipped the final rappel and down climbed into an alcove below the Stettner. Free and clear of the avalanche gun barrel, our mission was complete. The Grand Teton was ours.
Escaping from the Grand Teton was the ordeal we never saw coming. For starts, Sam air-mailed some non-essential gear down the lower Stettner that took us at least an hour to track down. By the time we hit Teepee Glacier it was thicker than a bowl of KFC mashed potatoes, prompting cautious, wet-slab conscious skiing. We did manage a little bit of steeper corn on the lower glacier, but all in all the gummy snow haunted us for the long haul. A few hours of retracing our approach, gathering water, hopping over trees and skiing some natural drainage “wiggles” brought us to the summer trail, and eventually the Lupine Meadows trailhead. When I arrived Sam and Simon were already lying flat in the dirt, two bulky and haphazardly packed bags by their sides. Approximately 17 hours and 45 minutes from car to car, my six year dream of climbing and skiing the Grand Teton was complete; and oh what a Grand adventure it was.
The Shakedown – Gear Check
There is a lot of conflicting information online about what gear you need for skiing the Ford-Stettner Couloir on the Grand Teton. Below is what I brought, how it worked, and what I would bring if I did it again. (Disclaimer: The conditions on the FS change drastically by the season and year. The gear a skier would need at any given point and time could be different than what we used. Anchors, gear and ropes deteriorate over time and could be buried or obscured by snow. This trip report is from May 2020 on a larger snow year. All info is provided strictly for informational purposes)
- Ropes: We brought two 70M ropes. These got us through all the rappelling comfortably with room to spare. If I had an endless rope collection I would have brought two thin 50M ropes.
- Crampons: I was happy to have proper ice crampons, however, Simon got away with lightweight aluminum spikes.
- Axes: All three of us used technical ice tools. I was certainly happy to have mine. I have heard of people getting by with lighter hybrid tools, but I would definitely bring the real-deal sharps.
- Protection: We used two ice screws and no rock gear on the route.
- Other gear: Ski crampons, whippet, standard rappel gear and helmet (lots of overhead hazard)
A Spiritual Take
The mountains have a profound way of exposing things about myself I’ve either tried to ignore, or never knew at all. Big, remote and complex objectives are even more likely to provoke deep introspection, a combination of sheer time spent in the mountains and extensive exhaustion. Sleep deprivation, darkness, pain, frustration, excessive cold or heat, brutal weather, hunger… these are the breeding grounds for emotion, and emotion provides a backbone for self discovery, transcendence and growth.
Sometimes I don’t like what the mountains provoke within my psyche. Often times the experience is uncomfortable. However, I believe insight precipitated by suffering has the potential to enhance conscious existence in the material world. Often I return from missions bogged down, foggy or stuck in my head. Why? Because the truth, especially pertaining my sense of identity, isn’t always pretty. The corollary? Thoughtful integration of truth almost always produces greater potential. Whether received directly or indirectly, in the present moment, or in the days, weeks or months after returning home, beauty, clarity and perspective are gifts of the mountains. For those gifts I am grateful.
As always, thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Yostmark Mountain Equipment, without whom I’d be riding poorly tuned skis that aren’t nearly as fun as the Natural 101’s I have on my feet! If you are in the market for a new, lightweight touring ski that skis as well as it climbs, be sure to check them out!
Enter your e-mail – new content only – no bologna
Mountains are dangerous. Skiing them is more dangerous. Can’t we just admire those beautiful peaks from the parking lot? With binoculars and a lime Lacroix? Hmm… Nevertheless, mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to the titled date. This article is written strictly for informational purposes only. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk!