On a bitterly cold March 2019 morning, John Walker and I set off to attempt the “Nez Perce Trifecta” – skiing the Sliver, East Hourglass and West Hourglass Couloirs in a single push – a Teton ski mountaineering classic. We didn’t quite hit the mark. High winds, deep snow and sub-zero temperatures pushed us towards hot coffee at the two-thirds mark, but two thousand feet of knee deep (and stable) chute skiing ain’t too shabby in it’s own.
March marked the first high pressure cycle of 2019, grounds for celebration in the ski mountaineering world – but this weather window had a silver lining. Two feet of featherlight powder was delivered overnight without a lick of wind, presenting a rare opportunity to ski the steep, deep and safe. Those three words that don’t often see the same sentence – time to shoot for the stars.
The “Trifecta” was John’s mastermind. I had no idea the Sliver and East Hourglass Couloirs even connected, let alone how one would manage three descents on three different aspects of an 11,901 foot peak on the same day. However, the link-up actually flows seamlessly. Ascend, ski and re-ascend the Sliver, then rappel into and ski the East Hourglass to the base of the West Hourglass, then one final round of climb and ski – three picturesque, utterly classic Teton couloirs in a modest day’s work. I was amazed, highly intrigued and wanted my run for the money. Each line varies from 800-1200 feet in length, so while certainly exhausting, the day only barely registers on the Teton ski-mo Richter. Approach dependent, the full pull would ballpark around 7000-8000 vertical feet of gain.
The Sliver Couloir
Of the Trifecta constituents, the Sliver takes the unquestionable gold medal in extremity, notoriety and aesthetics. From the Bradley-Taggart parking area the line looks haunting, nearly vertical and hallway thin. The striking white slash bisects the true summit of Nez Perce and Chief Joseph’s Buttress to the north, terminating in a minuscule notch about the size of an average kitchen. With over 1,000 feet of consistently constricted, steep and technical couloir skiing in the heart of the Teton Range, proudly on display for every binocular touting parking lot tourist to gawk at, the Sliver is a true North American classic – a line I’d desired for years on end.
We approached by way of Shadow Peak, following the well trodden skin track from the Bradley-Taggart parking area. As we climbed past 9,000 feet it became obvious there was far more snow than anticipated. Standing on the skier’s summit of Shadow and staring at an eerily clouded Sliver Couloir to the west (pictured above), we deliberated briefly. If there was as much snow as it seemed in the Sliver, and it was any bit unstable, we’d be climbing for quite some time in a deadly gun barrel. We all but wrote off the Trifecta, mostly due to the exhaustion and time tax of breaking trail through such deep snow – heck, our legs were already on fire and we’d barely even started. Nevertheless we decided to size up the Sliver firsthand, dropping into the short but sweet northwest couloir of Shadow to the cirque below.
I’d never stood at the foot of such an equally steep and snow loaded avalanche path. Couloirs filled with feet of powder look scary – like they’re hiding something – like you’ve stumbled across the skier’s equivalent of a Venus Fly Trap. With seemingly stable conditions down low we agreed to give it a tentative go, and an hour later we found ourselves literally swimming through chest high bluffs to gain the 11,200 foot notch. We swung leads through the exhausting powder constantly evaluating avalanche conditions and finding only green lights. Several quick hand pits pointed towards consolidated and un-reactive snow. Temperatures lingered in the single digits and papa sun stayed hidden behind intermittent clouds. Every fiber in my body wanted to be freaked out, submerged in waist deep 45 degree snow at the brim of such an insidious terrain trap, ready to click into a pair of skis – what in the world were we doing here? But try as we might, we just couldn’t find a compelling reason to turn around. As I watched John slash an aggressive ski cut across the top and dip into a protected alcove I realized the truth – this really was “one of those days”, and I was about to have the run of my life.
John took lead for the first half, carving knee deep turns and vanishing into explosions of powder every few seconds. He pulled over halfway and called me in. Although I struggled to keep damning thoughts of the entire couloir ripping and flushing me into the basin below, I pointed my tips and snuffed the irrational fear. Some terrifying pockets of thigh deep snow gave way to more reliable knee-deep goods below, and as I swung ambitious turns into the steepening belly my trepidation dissolved into pure stoke. John waved me through for a full pull, but as I skied by my legs grew intensely heavy. A thousand feet of deep powder crushing is no light expense for the quads, dropping my pace to searing jump turns by the bottom. I watched as John trailed my track with a grin wide as the Teton sky.
The East Hourglass
We pulled over below the large chock-stone marking the exit of the Sliver. Snacking and looking back on some of the most amazing turns I’d made in Grand Teton National Park, I was left craving. “That was best I’ve seen you ski” John said. I smiled. Though the snow did ninety percent of the work John’s praise was true, and no matter the fatigue we were heading up for seconds – I’d be sure of it. Hell, we already blazed the trail, and less than an hour later we finished our second huff to the top of the beast.
Getting into the East Hourglass Couloir from the notch required two or three rappels (I believe we brought a 50M rope – this was many years ago) and some exposed down-climbing between stations. Technically we could have stayed on rappel the entire time, but the snow was sturdy enough and the terrain modest enough to rationalize saving minutes at the expense of security. Finding the first rappel anchor took some extensive probing and digging, I seem to remember it hiding on the south side of the notch. The actual cliff-band guarding the upper couloir is very short, but we opted to use the full rope length to descend as low as possible. In the right conditions, the short 100-150 foot section below the first cliffs can be skied – it certainly has by rowdy folk before – but the snow was grabby, crusty and wind-buffed with fatal fall consequences. We stuck to our boots. Eventually the upper snowfield peters out to a very narrow constriction. A large chockstone guards the main couloir and requires a short but awkward rappel. Down below the snow was just as good as the Sliver, slightly shallower but still piled smooth as could be – light and buttery. The first few turns were tight and steep, requiring methodical ninja maneuvers until the slope angle gave way for more style. I took a full pull to the apron below, relishing every last turn and taking time to shoot some shots of John scoring his own. Teton March magic at it’s finest.
We regrouped below the West Hourglass and debated briefly about finishing the Trifecta. The steep and twisted beauty loomed directly above us, but now we were entirely consumed by shade. The sub-zero temperatures felt heinous, piercing every last layer of clothing we had and turning fingers blue. A hefty afternoon wind whistled right up the couloir, bad news for snow stability. Furthermore, daylight was fading fast. Amidst this much snow, just about everything takes double as long as you’d expect. Between grunting twice up the Sliver, digging around for rappel anchors, evaluating sketchy snow conditions and just generally being exhausted, our pace had dropped to a crawl. Adding insult to injury we’d have to set a new boot-pack for the West Hourglass – more swimming and vertical treachery – more precious daylight to the waste basket. At the expense of sanity, and possibly safety, we tipped our hats to the Trifecta and went on our way, enjoying several thousand feet of mellow powder on the Garnet Canyon egress.
Writing this in the summer of 2021, I still haven’t skied deeper snow on such a steep line, and I’m not sure I ever will. It takes a multitude of aligning factors for days like these to manifest. Many years they never do. Between an incredibly intricate matrix of snow stability components including the pre-storm snow bed surface, temperatures both before, during and following the storm, consistent snow density, lack of wind, overall snow depth and the luxury to be in the right place at the exact right time with no other skiers below, skiing a steep and sustained pinner couloir in two feet of powder is a “dime a dozen” experience. On a warmer and drier outing, I cannot wait to give the full Nez Perce Trifecta a second run.
A condensed package for all aspiring Nez Perce Trifecta skiers:
- Trailhead: Bradley/Taggart Winter Lot
- Approach: Garnet Canyon (most common) or by way of Shadow Peak (my preference, more skiing)
- Vertical Gain (climbing, not total):
- Approach: 3100 feet to the skier’s summit of Shadow Peak, 300 foot descent to the base of the Sliver (or 2800 feet from Garnet Canyon)
- Sliver: 900-1000 feet to apron, 1400 feet from Nez Perce/Shadow Peak basin
- East Hourglass: 900 feet to East/West Hourglass convergence
- West Hourglass: 1000 feet to East/West Hourglass convergence
- Round Trip Totals:
- Sliver: 4500 feet
- Sliver/East Hourglass: 5500 feet
- Trifecta: 6500 feet
- Notable Highpoints:
- Shadow Peak (skier summit): 10,100 feet
- Sliver/East Hourglass summit/notch: 11,200 feet
- West Hourglass summit: 11,300 feet
- Recommended Gear:
- Ice Axe
- Ski Crampons (depending on season)
- Helmet (substantial rock/ice fall danger)
- 50-60M rope, rappel gear and spare anchor building materials
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