Turning around is one of the hardest decisions to make when climbing a mountain. To start in pitch blackness, queasy and sleep deprived, commit so many hours to endless climbing with aspirations for a wondrous summit only to get rejected – empty handed. However, this decision is the one that most frequently save lives, or at a bare minimum prevent perilous rescues. Opting to forgo your goal in favor of safety is one that requires self-discipline, honesty and humility. For this reason, I call knowing when to cut your losses an art form.
In my opinion, the majority of mountain accidents occur when people push beyond their intuition – when that tiny voice in the back of their heads whispering “things aren’t right here” is ignored. However, if a mountaineer listens to that voice every time it speaks, they probably wouldn’t get anywhere, ever, either. I’m a math-minded guy, so I play the odds. If I am not at least 99.5% certain, realistically higher, that I will return home safely, that’s my sign to pull the plug. Today, during a valiant summit attempt on the Grand Teton, we made the heart-wrenching decision to abort our mission at 12,000 feet, a mere hour or two from the top.
The Push – The Grand Teton
We were loaded with a full rock climbing rack, two half ropes, harnesses, ice screws, ice tools and all the other odds and ends needed for a mountain expedition. Our lofty goal was to climb the Grand, Middle and South Tetons in a single day, a gargantuan full-day outing – a true test of alpine endurance. New snow had fallen overnight, but seemingly not much as I pulled into Grand Teton National Park at 9:00 PM Sunday evening. I had run a ten mile trail race in Pocatello, three and a half hours away, earlier that morning, so my legs felt a little damp. When our alarms sounded only two and a half hours later, I was in a splitting fog. Nevertheless, by 12:30AM we set off for the top of the universe.
The day went according to plan. Basically we punched our way through ankle deep snow, skated on frozen ice and occasionally walked some dry trail for a solid five miles, in summer shoes, until we reached Lupine Meadows, the gateway to the high-country of Garnet Canyon and the Grand Teton. Here we hit a reliable snow-pack, so we changed into our ski boots we had dutifully lugged for the last two hours, along with our skis. I successfully skied the Grand Teton last year around this time, so I knew the trail well and guided our two-man team efficiently to the base of Teepee Glacier. The snow depth deepened linearly with our progress. Two inches turned to four, then boot depth and finally, at the top of Teepee, to a staggering knee’s depth. For May, this is beyond uncharacteristic. Though exceptionally light and fluffy, abundant snowfall on a hard spring crust is a dangerous recipe for avalanches, especially when combined with solar warming popular on southerly aspects. Our route up the south face of the Grand Teton is not a friendly place for an errant slip. By this point we discarded our dream of the traverse, simply because we were losing valuable time booting through such deep snow. However, we still figured we had plenty of time to knock out the main attraction, the Grand Teton.
RED FLAG NUMBER ONE:
As we finished our final push to the top of the steep glacial cirque, the sun rose. The warmth felt amazing on our frozen extremities, but apparently the Grand Teton liked it too. This time of year, rapid warming from the sun can be the bearer of rockfall. Just like pavement, as granite warms chunks can dislodge from cliff-sides posing a significant threat to climbers. Obviously melting ice would behave the same, as well as snow perched on steep slopes. To some degree, wet slab avalanches are born from the same process. Right on cue, as the sun beamed off the prominent east facing cliffs above Teepee, snow began to slough. Plumes rained upon the glacier, gaining momentum as they cascaded like waterfalls. With light snow density these slides seemed harmless, but they are certainly far from ideal when climbing technical ice and rock, two things we would have to do in abundance if we wanted to summit. Cautiously, we continued to move upward as the second, third and fourth sloughs released. We were out of hang-fire danger, but soon we would have to venture into the gun barrel. Nearing the top of the saddle, we heard our first ice fall. This event upped the ante, as ice packs a much greater punch than soft snow, well capable of breaking limbs, knocking a climber off balance and peeling them off the mountain. Carl and I turned to each other. The game was over. We had seen enough.
RED FLAGS NUMBER TWO AND THREE:
Rapid warming and rock/ice fall
The linchpin was the sight of a fully “loaded” (skier slang for a slope primed for avalanche) traverse across Glencoe Col, a massive hanging snowfield that needs to be crossed to gain access to the summit route. A slide, tumble or avalanche here, above hundreds if not thousands of feet of cliffs, would bring certain death. A healthy 12-16 inches of new snow greeted our eyes, confirming exactly what we already knew. After a short snack we clipped into our skis and began our descent back to Lupine Meadows. To our surprise, even though the slope had only been sunlit for less than an hour, our first turns on Teepee Glacier produced some small wet-slab avalanche activity. These slides weren’t enough to bury a skier, but could certainly provide a healthy sled ride, ‘no bueno’ on mountains like the Grand. We traversed carefully north, mitigating all danger and regressing cautiously into the canyon below. The snow on the upper glacier fell on a bed surface of old avalanche debris, making the turns chunky and underwhelming, a skier’s version of rodeo bull riding. But as we transitioned to mellower slopes we were rewarded with the fruits of our labor – BLOWER MAY POWDER! Two thousand feet of truly epic (for May) turns accompanied us back to Lupine Meadows, empty handed, but full of gratitude.
RED FLAG NUMBER FOUR:
Signs of recent (or current) avalanche activity
From our safe spot in Lupine Meadows we watched as the ice on the Middle Teton began to buckle under the fresh sunlight. Crashing loads of ice and rock created booming echoes as they rained into the canyon below, shattering like giant sheets of breaking glass. Larger slough avalanches shot off like inverted fireworks blasting into the earth. We imagined swinging ice tools on the Grand Teton amidst a war-zone of winter shedding and were relieved to have bailed. The mountains did not want us here today.
A Consolation Prize – The West Hourglass Couloir
After second lunch we decided to salvage the remainder of the day and target a tamer objective on the opposite side of the canyon Nez Perce’s West Hourglass Couloir is somewhat classic by Teton standards, probably the last major line left unchecked on my Garnet Canyon resume. The short but steep chute lies beneath a north facing cliff-side which wouldn’t see sun until the very end of the day. We stashed our rock and ice gear, heading up for our consolation prize with lightened loads. We made quick work of the lower couloir but were stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of the upper bottleneck. The steep ramp pictured below was gloriously filled with fluffy powder, but the upper stretches were stripped to ice by apparently voracious winds. We pushed through the fractured concrete for a short while before I asked Carl “why are we doing this?” The slope was low enough angle – it didn’t threaten our safety – but the skiing looked absolutely miserable. In the spirit of the day we played our trusty bail card, but were again rewarded with epic May turns in a place with natural beauty that rivals any landscape in the world. The steep lower head-wall is the meat of the run anyways, and the fifty degree rollover certainly caught my attention, but with stable and supportable powder we picked our way down with ease and smiles, sweeping into the apron below and relishing the last scraps of powder skiing for the ski season.
We put third lunch in the tank before heading back to the car. In typical late spring fashion the retreat wasn’t glamorous, but we got er’ done. Rounding out the day at fourteen hours, we swore off another Lupine Meadows mission until summer. Alpine climbing season is only weeks away, and because of our respect for “the art of the turn around,” we’ll get to enjoy the mountains for years to come!
Avalanche Evaluation: ALPTRUTH
For the non-skier, this section might be a little redundant and wordy. But for the back-country skier or mountaineer, using the ALPTRUTH acronym is a great way to make decisions in avalanche terrain. Let’s take a look at our experience through the lens of ALPTRUTH:
- A: Avalanche – Recent signs of avalanches? YES. Fresh snow sloughs, rock/ice fall (definitely counts) and the wet slides we kicked off.
- L: Loading – Recent signs of fresh snowfall? YES.
- P: Path – Traveling in an avalanche path? YES.
- T: Trap – Traveling in a terrain trap? (cliffs beneath, rock walls, etc.) YES.
- R: Rating – Avalanche rating above moderate? YES. No forecasts in May. But rating would have likely straddled considerable and moderate.
- U: Unstable Snow – Signs of instability? YES. Falling ice and snow.
- TH: Thaw – Warming? YES.
The American Avalanche Institute coined the acronym and reports that of 1,000 incidents analyzed, three or more ALPTRUTH factors were involved in 90% of accidents. Clearly, with a score of 6/6, the Grand Teton, on May 9th 2021, flunked the test. The West Hourglass, on the other hand, scored a 2/6 (loading and path violations) which gave us a solid green light for adventure. As you can see, the right choices were made today, and as such, a wonderful and safe day in the mountains was enjoyed.
Thank you as always to Icelantic Skis for supplying me with amazing wooden planks for epic adventures.
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Much love to my readers. Skiers, stay safe out there!