The Skillet Glacier on Mount Moran has been called the longest fall-line ski descent in North America, presumably excluding Alaska. Over six thousand vertical feet of continuous skiing separates the 12,605 foot summit of Moran from the shores of Jackson Lake below. When viewed from the East, the absolute classic ski descent pops like no other. For any North American ski mountaineer, the Skillet Glacier is not only a must, but a captivating gem encapsulating everything there is to love about high alpine snow climbing and skiing. Adding to the incentive is the line’s presence in Chris Davenport’s 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America book. Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for checklists, so naturally I was one hundred percent committed. Why I hadn’t got around to skiing the Skillet after so many years of living in the Tetons is beyond me, but I finally laid the procrastination to rest this March. The peak was last on my conquest to ski the Teton “Big Seven” – the seven ultra-prominent skyline peaks of the range including Buck Mountain, the South, Middle and Grand Tetons, Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain. After eeking out a burly descent of Mount Owen only a week prior and recovering from a rebound head cold, I was fully charged and ready to put a cap on my long lived Teton dream, to climb and ski the Big Seven.
My girlfriend and I arrived at Jackson Lake’s Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park, around 2:00PM the day before my ski. Despite a beautiful Saturday afternoon we were pleasantly met with a mostly empty parking lot consisting of a few cross-country skiers and snowshoe-rs. I had never skied this far North in the park before. Unlike the core Teton Range, Mount Moran lies on the distant fringe, barred from roadways by the vast Jackson Lake. Not only is Colter Bay about thirty minutes further than the lot I typically ski from, but the approach to the base of Moran involves a six mile slog across a barren “snow desert” – or more accurately, frozen lake. To ski the Skillet you basically have two options, leave as early as 11:00PM to summit safely in the early morning, or break the journey into two digestible chunks by spending a night on the far shores of the lake. An overnight stay seems like the obvious choice, but the caveat is hauling a fifty pound load of winter camping gear six miles to the other side. There really is no way of avoiding the inevitable. To ski Mount Moran mid-winter is a big objective. In the late spring skiers will use a canoe or motorboat for easier access, but by that point the snow quality is usually sub-optimal. Ultimately I chose a two day sabbatical, with the added motivation to hone my virgin multi-day winter expedition skills. As such, I loaded up a fully strapped 75 liter winter backpack, clicked into my skis and began the voyage across Jackson Lake around 3:15PM.
The push across the lake started smoothly but degraded exceptionally fast as I hit sticky and breakable snow. My girlfriend tagged along with cross country skis but doubled back at the halfway point, making the latter half of my journey a tenuous slog of aching shoulders and hamstrings with absolutely no distractions. Every step came with breathtaking views of the Skillet Glacier and Mount Moran, but the far bank of Jackson Lake stayed minuscule, almost appearing further the closer I drew. As anyone who has ever walked longingly across a desert will tell you skyline objects often seem closer, much much closer, than they appear. I stopped at a few ice fishing holes to fill up water and talk with fishermen but otherwise held a steady pace, reaching the far bank in about two and a half hours. As I rounded up the conclusion of my flatland extravaganza a half dozen tents came into view. My first thoughts were of excitement, maybe I would meet a few friends to eat dinner with? I quickly sobered up and realized there was only one king line on Moran, and a half dozen tents meant at least double that number of skiers chasing my goal. Ordinarily I’d be just fine with a crowd, except on a steep and consequential line like the Skillet, falling debris from above can pose serious danger. Over the years this particular line, and the park as a whole, has grown quite popular, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see such a turnout. The snow had been stable for well over a week and the weather for Sunday morning looked splitter, bluebird skies, low wind and highs in the upper thirties. All signs pointed to epic corn conditions, so naturally the ski mountaineering community turned out full force. As I boiled water for a dehydrated vegan mushroom risotto, staked down my tent and unfurled my sleeping gear, I came to the conviction I’d be first to the summit and first down the Skillet, no questions asked. I set my alarm for 1:30AM and curled up by 8:00 to give myself the best chance for success.
I never made it to 1:30, opting to cut my tossing and turning short when I woke up to relieve myself at 12:45. What’s 45 minutes of spotty sleep worth anyways? A favorite mountaineering adage of mine states roughly: “one seldom regrets leaving too early but often regrets leaving too late.” I have had great success heeding this mantra in the past, so I promptly fired a pot of coffee. By 1:45 I had skis on my feet, a bagel in my stomach and a lamp on my head, supercharged with stoke and ready to tackle the beast to come. A few other camps were stirring, but I was definitely first into the woods, just as I wanted.
The first thousand or so feet of climbing Mount Moran involves a bushwhack approach through a tight forest, with many steep banks and cliffs to delay progress. Guided by crusty old tracks I barreled my way through the night, staying mostly on route and occasionally battling patches of thick vegetation. For pitch black navigating I was pleased with my performance, breaking into the lower glacial basin quite quickly. As I emerged from the forest I was met with a gleaming shadow of my day’s quest above, glowing in the pale moonlight. The stars were out in full force as I stopped for my first snack and popped on my ski crampons. A hard freeze provided a slick crust demanding of extra traction. The rhythmic crunch of my aluminum crampons scraping and digging into the ice lulled me into a sort of trance, the shallow beam of light emanating from my headlamp, providing direction. Pre-dawn starts always invoke a sort-of dreamlike state, where my mind wanders far from the task at hand and my body moves intuitively. Perhaps it’s the deprivation of sensory input that spurs this altered state, but I find it quite blissful, so I don’t resist. For the next four hours I saw little more than three feet ahead, marching upwards with a determined but casual stride into the heart of Moran. The further I trekked the steeper the slope became, occasionally registering in the mid-forty degree range. Alex Honnold, the famous rock climbing free-soloist and star of the film Free Solo, describes a phenomenon of disappearing exposure when climbing at night, since he can’t actually see the ground. As I moved higher and higher into the gut of the glacier the thousands of feet of cliffs and spines below were merely a figment of my imagination, as I too couldn’t see anything beneath me besides a half dozen other headlamps far below, crisscrossing along like fireflies. My girlfriend, snuggled up in the van on the far side of the lake, sent a short message to my satellite phone that she was tracking my headlight with her binoculars. Somehow she knew I was the highest speck on the horizon, and as the shallow light of dawn began to illuminate Jackson Lake below, I enjoyed looking down and imagining the warm confines of our van six miles away, an entirely different world than the gut of a lonely, ice riddled and wind blasted glacier.
I caught the sunrise from just beneath the “handle” of the route, the point where the expansive glacier becomes a narrowing hallway to the sky, right around 11,000 feet. To this point I had kept skis on my feet, but faced with an increasingly steep and constricting pitch I transitioned to crampons and pulled out my axe. As I was changing over gear a group of two, one a local Exum Mountain Guide, came chugging past. Apparently they had started from the parking lot that morning; what a day they had in store! Together as a group of three we punched our way through the disappointingly wind-buffed couloir, topping out shortly after 8:00AM.
The summit of Moran connects to the upper Skillet by way of a short, moderately exposed third class rock scramble. On the top the winds gusted well in excess of forty miles per hour, prompting a short photo session and quick retreat. Despite the piercing weather, the views south to the Grand Teton were spectacular. The golden tip of the peak dipped in and out of whipping clouds like a shark’s fin in high surf. While short lived and very intense, my final summit of the “Big Seven” was about as picture perfect as they get… and hey, beach weather isn’t really common fare in the mighty Tetons anyways.
I was the first man to click into skis on Moran that morning, and as I stared into the steep upper crux I saw many a head staring back at me. Along the wall of the couloir was at least two other parties hundreds of feet below. The spectacle reminded me of skiing Mount Shasta or Hood, where people flock from all corners of the states and ski traffic is typically high. I on the other hand, am used to remoteness, maybe one other group below if I choose to ski on a Sunday. Not only do crowds dilute the experience slightly for me, but like mentioned above, I fear putting other lives in danger with actions I would normally think of as inconsequential. One turn has the capacity to send a chunk of ice down a fifty degree chute fast enough to break limbs, or a wind slab avalanche with obviously more serious implications. When truly alone, I am only responsible for me, myself and I. Luckily, the snow was firm enough that I didn’t anticipate any debris or avalanches to endanger my friends beneath. The entry was higher consequence than I expected, a narrow strip of snow no wider than a highway lane, stripped of softness and frozen to a block. I hacked brutal, choppy jump turns until the pitch lessened and the slope widened, at which point I ratcheted up the pace. The lower I skied the better the snow became, turning to modest spring corn around 10,500 feet. Unfortunately, a smattering frozen of avalanche debris prevented me from really unleashing, but smooth turns on such a pristine and iconic line still felt amazing. Every thousand or so feet I would pull up for a breather, admire my surroundings and re-calibrate my bearings. By the fifteen minute mark I reached the lower meadow, and after a sloppy thousand feet of bushy forest romping I came to the shores of Jackson Lake, no more than a few yards from my tent. I turned around and admired the incredible, never-ending ski descent of Mount Moran’s Skillet Glacier, the massive buttress it so starkly bisects and the bright, beaming sky that since broke overhead. My heart filled with gratitude. I had completed my dream of skiing the Big Seven, three years after the thought first crossed my mind.
On the lake the weather was an entirely different animal, a wind-less and unobstructed fifty degree day which felt more like eighty when reflected off the sea of white all around. Just as I began to embark on a soul-crushing six mile slog to the van, a lone cross-country skier came into view. “I think that might just be a girlfriend over there” I said to the Exum pair, who emerged from the woods shortly after I and congregated near my tent. Right on cue Bobbi’s lean figure and red backpack came into view. To have company for the egress was a dream, as the three hour march really was soul crushing. Though I refused to let her carry any of my gear, I did graciously accept a crisp apple and a kiss. I’ll have to keep this trick up my sleeve for adventures ahead!
A Spiritual Take – The Beauty is in the Process
Three years ago, when I first conceived the idea of skiing the seven skyline peaks of the Teton Range, I adamantly declared to my partner I would attempt them all in the same season. With such minimal ski mountaineering experience and a ludicrously over-eager attitude, I was on a fast track to an early grave. I quickly came to my senses and slipped the goal into my back pocket, only to have it naturally materialize years down the line. By that point, hundreds of back-country days and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of vertical feet later, I had ticked off a few of the easier peaks and was building a skill set worthy of the Teton’s finest. Originally, the completion of the Big Seven, as I called it, was my crowning jewel. I imagined the day I completed my final descent, and how it would feel to finally sit back in a chair and admire the whole swath of the range, basking in my own personal glory. However, by the time I reached the van after skiing Mount Moran, I realized the beauty of the “Big Seven” was in the countless adventures had, numerous friends met and dozens of personal challenges overcome along the way. The gift of any journey is hardly ever the finish line, but the memories made reaching it.
If you are planning to attempt the Skillet Glacier and Mount Moran mid-winter, you may find these extra tidbits useful:
- The best winter staging area for Mount Moran is the Colter Bay parking lot in Grand Teton National Park, though some people have started near the winter closure at the Jackson/Jenny Lake junction.
- No skin track? Have no fear. Skin directly in a linear line to the lake shore below Moran and the Skillet. In the morning, skin directly at the Skillet, staying skier’s right whenever possible. All paths lead to the gigantic, open basin below the Skillet. From there, everything should become self explanatory. Follow the path of least resistance to the summit.
- Water is not typically available mid winter, but I got lucky with several ice fishing holes and a barely melted stream at my camp. I bet that stream was frozen no more than a week earlier. I skied the line on March 9th, 2021 after two weeks of unseasonably warm weather. Water probably isn’t reliable until April.
- BRING A SLED. I made the naive choice to carry my fully loaded pack on my shoulders across the lake. It is more common for Moran skiers to drag a plastic sled full of gear behind them, clipped to a harness. Your shoulders will thank you, I promise.
- Technical Gear: At least one ice axe (soft snow), but preferably an axe and a whippet for self arresting. Steel crampons if attempting in the spring, aluminum should suffice in softer snow. Ski crampons. No ropes.
A big thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Yostmark Mountain Equipment, for all the fabulous gear and slidy planks
DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this article is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Mountains are dangerous. Conditions, routes, experiences and gear requirements change by the day, season and year. If you attempt anything you read about on this website, you are doing so at your own risk.