The East Face of Buck Mountain, summit elevation 11,943 feet, is without a doubt one of the iconic king lines of the Teton Range. When viewed from the Grand Teton National Park foothills, it’s face looks nearly vertical, ringed with cliffs and utterly terrifying. Fortunately, only some of this is true. Buck is widely considered the entry level peak for Teton ski mountaineering. Though not to be taken lightly, Buck is an attainable objective for the seasoned backcountry skier ready to pick up an ice axe and test their skills on a bigger stage. I recently completed my third descent of the East Face, and having skied each one in different conditions, with three different ascent routes, I figured I would share a comprehensive review of what you could expect to see up there. From early Feburary powder, to bulletproof March ice and finally some sloppy May corn, here’s the beta. Each section will linearly unveil the goods, with hopefully no repeats so it’s worth reading from start to finish!
Take One – Icy & Breakable Crust
Without a doubt, breakable crust is the most feared snow condition for any skier, let alone a ski mountaineer attempting a consequential line. The first time I skied Buck I was flying solo, a mid-week, late March sabbatical. The weather called for high pressure and perfect sun, but unfortunately my aspirations for solar-softened snow were thwarted by clouds. The morning went exactly as planned, hammering up Stuart Draw with ski crampons (definitely recommended) for the several steep canyon walls overlooking the river below. It took me about four hours to reach the base of the “exit couloir” – the obvious entry and escape chute on the north side of the East Face, which is also an excellent place to stash skins and any other non-essential gear. Unless you plan to dive north into one of the excellent (a hear-say review, I haven’t personally skied them) albeit less popular couloirs into Avalanche Canyon, you will be retracing your steps and will not need skins. From here, it was a few hundred feet of steep snow climbing with aluminum crampons to the top of the East Ridge. Nine times out of ten you will find a sturdy boot-pack. The East Ride route is considered much more technical than the East Face, both summer and winter. However, the ridge provides safety from rockfall hang-fire. The whole East Face is shadowed with cliffs ready to shed snow, ice and granite. Plus, an avalanche on the face would almost certainly be deadly, and the ridge protects well from that hazard too.
That said, the East Ridge route does not come without it’s perils. Though mostly low angle walking, a few massively exposed knife edge sections challenge the nerves and mind. Thousands of free-falling feet into Avalanche Canyon loom only inches to the right, and a viscous tumble over cascading cliffs stalks your left. Consequences remain high through several lengths of foreboding cornices, spicy down-climbs, rocks and wind drifts, but again, the route is basically free from avalanche hazard. The East Ridge was actually best in firm ice. With crampons and an axe I felt glued to the snow, and a well-beaten footpath blazed my way. The final push to the summit is a broad and relatively low angle (only 40-45 degree) boot-pack, which also felt very secure.
The skiing on the other hand… well… let’s just call it demonic. Unfortunately I have no pictures from this particular outing, but just imagine resort skiing on a dark and completely frozen day with no new snow. Clouds overthrew sun twenty minutes before my summit, prompting the immediate hardening of beautiful corn. The rollover pitch flirts with 50-55 degrees and splits a sustained cliff band, a place where a fall could be unarrestable. Luckily, I am an East Coast boy – icy snow is my “alma mater” – so at least I wasn’t going to die. However, I experienced just about the worst Buck Mountain ski descent possible, side slipping through the choke without a single turn, ice axe in hand, only to battle a heinous breakable crust through the lower angled belly. Though seemingly steep when viewed from the road, the traverse to the exit couloir, the “belly,” never exceeds 35 degrees and is as wide as a football field. The final crux is the short couloir, often filled with avalanche debris and/or frozen sloughs. At war with a smattering of bulletproof soccerball chunks, I opted to down-climb the final hundred feet to my stash. A direct re-tracing of my approach saw me to the car in under six hours.
Long story short, Buck Mountain is not the place to find yourself in icy conditions. If the weather is cold and the snow is firm, it would be better to stay home. Save yourself, and your poor knees, a brutal experience.
Take Two – Punchy Powder
My second run at Buck Mountain came during an early Feburary high pressure cycle. In my estimation, this is about the earliest a safe descent of Buck can be made. The line is quite rocky and takes a healthy dose of snow to fill in. This time we took a different approach. For a longer and more scenic tour, Buck can be reached via the Chute the Moon Couloir on “25 Short” to the northeast. This option requires a start from the Bradley-Taggart winter parking area instead of the traditional Death Canyon road. Plenty of information can be found on Chute The Moon online. The very short but sweet north-westerly line gets tracked out quickly, but in fresh powder can be quite a delight. It’s important not to get suckered into Avalanche Canyon below. The first obvious bench to skier’s left marks the path to Buck. Traverse southwest to the prominent exit couloir – presto – a 4-5 hour approach far more stimulating than slogging up Stuart Draw.
We followed another well-trodden boot-pack to the East Ridge and repeated the same dance as before. This time I had a partner far more climbing savvy than I – much appreciated because the East Ridge is far more intimidating in fresh snow. About a foot of light powder made the rocks and cornices less distinguished. We cautiously made our way along the knife edge ridge, but ultimately, the ascent wasn’t much worse than my first. The skiing was where I saw a drastic improvement.
A video of our ski descent can be viewed here. Buck is toward the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBO0ieQCq8o
Off the summit we skied supportable and delightful snow. Even with stability the roll-over got my full attention. I struggled to keep the fear of avalanches from my mind. Through the choke and belly the powder was a bit wind hammered. As a split-boarder Sam had a better time than I, but nonetheless our run was very safe and full of hoots and hollers. We skied the exit couloir with grace this time, returning to our stash in style. Instead of retreating via Stuart Draw, we wrapped back around 25 Short and re-ascended Chute the Moon (you likely won’t find a boot-pack here), climbed Peak 10,696 to the south and enjoyed a half-decent powder run down Mavericks to close the day. This egress was difficult in the fresh snow, but provides another 3,000 feet of skiing for the light price of 1,000 feet of extra climbing – highly recommended if you have the energy.
Long story short, if snow conditions are stable, Buck Mountain in fresh powder is about as epic as Teton ski-mountaineering descents get. An approach from 25 Short is a far more interesting tour, but adds an estimated 1,000 feet of vertical to an already big day.
Take Three – Sloppy May “Cornslush”
“Cornslush” is my new term for perfect corn baked into a wet mess by early summer sun. Buck is an excellent peak for late season skiing, but requires a very early start. On May 16th, with open skies and 45 degree alpine temperatures looming, we got underway far too late – just before 5:00AM. This time of year, with a slightly lesser snow-pack, we donned tennis shoes until Stuart Draw. Finding the climber’s trail from the Death Canyon parking lot can be difficult. Shortly after the second bridge on the Death Canyon trail, you are looking for a faint footpath to the west. The path becomes more pronounced in the meadow above, winding to the north and eventually into a wide canyon west. On a map, Stuart is the next unlabeled canyon to the South of Avalanche Canyon, the one aiming directly at Buck. At the snow line we switched to skins and began the slog up the south side of the canyon.
Instead of the steep Stuart Draw embankments, we opted for Static Draw to the south. Static forks south approximately halfway up Stuart. On a map, look for the drainage leading directly to the base of Static Peak. This is the traditional summer trail, and now my preferred direct approach on snow – longer by mile but far less strenuous. The sun rose as we winded up the smaller drainage, side-stepped some melted creek sections and eventually rounded back to the north up an obvious col to the base of Buck. Basically, we followed the path of least resistance in a circumnavigating pattern. From the top of the col it’s a line of sight approach to the exit couloir. Total time from car to crampons was about three and a half hours.
Instead of the East Ridge we opted to climb the East Face. Avalanches were not a primary concern, and with warming conditions we were racing the clock. The East Face is definitely the quickest option for late-spring and summer. The couloir was firm but the face quickly turned into sloppy solar rot, however, it felt oddly supportable on the surface. My partner and I hammered through knee deep snow up the fifty degree snowfield with a blistering pace. We topped out by the four hour and fifteen minute mark under an epic blue sky. Buck has spectacular 360 degree views. As the southernmost high-point of the range, mountain skylines to the east, south and west stretch for eternity. Unfortunately, our short sleeve picnic was blunted by the omnipresent need to escape the melting face quickly. We enjoyed perfect corn off the summit, spooky wet slough through the crux and more perfect corn through the belly and couloir. All in all I was able to link perfect turns for the entire descent, an epic way to close another brilliant winter in Grand Teton National Park. It was also my partner’s first Buck Mountain summit, so sharing the experience with him was a pleasure. Our egress followed our ascent through Static Draw, and from now on this will be my exit choice as well. The skiing in Static is far better than Stuart, and far more sustained. We skied buttery corn to about 9,000 feet where the snow got heavy. But even then, our turns were reasonably good to the snowline.
Long story short, if you are skiing Buck in late-spring or summer, GET AN EARLY START. We probably started at least an hour late. We were at the tail end of the safety window with a very slim margin for good snow. One group behind us had to turn around. However, if you nail it perfectly, a corn snow descent on Buck is a Teton bucket-list experience.
The Cliff Notes
Here’s a quick summary of the information above and what I will/would do on future ski descents of this amazing mountain.
- Trailheads: Bradley-Taggart for winter approach via 25 Short and Chute The Moon. Death Canyon for summer or fastest winter approach.
- Approach: 25 Short and Chute The Moon for winter. Static Draw for late-spring and summer.
- Route: East Ridge for winter, higher avalanche danger or deep snow. East Face for late-spring, summer, fastest ascent and firm snow.
- Descent: East Face to exit couloir.
- Egress: North into Avalanche Canyon or reascend 25 Short for Bradley-Taggart Trailhead. Static Draw for Death Canyon Trailhead.
- Recommend Technical Gear: Ice axe, almunium or steel crampons, ski crampons and a cool head for exposure.
Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is strictly for informational purposes. MOUNTAINS ARE DANGEROUS. Conditions change season to season, day to day and sometimes, minute to minute. If you decide to attempt anything discussed in the article above, you are doing so at your own risk.