The Undercover Giant – Skiing the East Face of Mount Wister (Feb. 2020)

During a high pressure cycle in late February 2020, Sam Johnson and I set our sights to Mount Wister, the criminally overlooked 11,455 foot giant lurking deep in the heart of Avalanche Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. The East Face is the peak’s test-piece descent, requiring a long (for the Tetons) approach and several thousand feet of committing “no-fall” face skiing through a matrix of ridges and threatening cliff bands – a Teton ski mountaineer’s delight.

The East Face of Mount Wister viewed from the Shadow Peak skin track

Introduction

Among the prominent 11,000 foot peaks of the central Tetons, Mount Wister plays underdog, flying beneath the radar better than any other. Most local ski mountaineers have heard of Wister, but only a slim fraction have skied it. Situated deep in the heart of Avalanche Canyon, Wister stays obscured from sight unless perfectly viewed from the northeast. On other adventures I’d caught glimpses of the beast, but with a relatively lengthy approach and little local notoriety, dwarfed by the South Teton to the north and Buck Mountain to the south, Wister got continuously kicked to the back burner – ironic, because a descent of the direct East Face into the North Couloir trumps, or at least rivals, any of the neighboring summit ski routes. Both ascending and descending involves long stretches of time spent in high consequence and avalanche prone terrain. Perfect conditions are imperative, and because the route exists on many aspects, the ability to predict changes in the snowpack is crucial. The intricate East Face has rollovers exceeding 45 degrees and is not for the faint of heart, with hundreds of feet of skiing perched above monster cliffs. Until you reach the North Couloir, Wister is about as “no fall” as it gets. Put all the pieces together and you have one incredibly worthy Teton ski mountaineering objective.

Approximate approach route in red, North Couloir in green and egress in blue
See below picture for summit detail
Google Earth screenshot
Approximate ascent route in blue and descent route in red
Pink arrows mark shared ascent and descent routes
Google Earth screenshot

Mount Wister – East Face

After skiing Buck and a few satellite lines the day prior, Sam Johnson and I set off later than usual from the Bradley-Taggart parking area, donning lead legs and foggy heads. With piercingly low temperatures promised, we rolled the dice in favor of extra sleep – skins on by 6:00AM. True to forecast, the morning was heinously frosty. Parking lot temps of twenty-two below had me dreaming of Cowboy Coffee and questioning my sanity for even considering stepping outdoors – yet here I was, frozen eyelashes and all, skinning up the bushy expanses of Avalanche Canyon with numb toes and expedition mittens buried deep in my puffy jacket.

Sam skinning across Bradley Lake into Avalanche Canyon

In the shaded confines of Avalanche, Sam’s backpack thermometer bottomed out at negative twenty-six degrees. If it weren’t for the opportunity to ski blower powder on a tick-list line, I’d have been halfway to Jackson before Sam uttered a peep. Overhead, the broken couloirs streaking down Wister’s East Buttress brought fantasies of further adventures, but our crowing jewel loomed far higher and further away. The true summit never really comes into view on the approach. If you look closely at the image below, a suspicious shark’s tooth rises over the centermost buttress in the right background. That’s the pot o’ gold – sexy but intimidating, playing hard to get.

Wister’s East Buttress viewed from Avalanche Canyon, with the true summit visible high right.
Some rowdy rowdy lines here

At the convergence we delved left into the South Fork, working our way up multiple steep headwalls and gullies towards the canyon’s terminus. Once I was all but certain we’d gone too far, an obvious south facing gully came into view. The moderately sloped approach couloir forms a direct highway to the prominent saddle, rising about 1,200 feet from the canyon belly. As we climbed through perfectly softened corn we spotted two skiers ascending the Northwest Couloir on Buck Mountain. The line looked burly, making our adventure seem like a side-country jaunt at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I enjoyed the cross-canyon spectacle at every available break – the gutsy crew damn near pulled it off – but by the time we topped the saddle they were pulling the plug. Who knows what went wrong, but they conceded a mere fifty feet short of the ridge and never did unsheathe the planks. As we rested and transitioned to crampons for our technical sabbatical, we watched as they down-climbed the upper couloir and the crux – a long walk for no turns, but that’s just how the game of ski mountaineering goes sometimes.

An over contrasted shot of the upper NW Couloir of Buck Mountain, two skiers mid-frame, minutes before turning around.
The Newc Couloir rises to the left

From the saddle we followed the obvious ridge towards the summit, which eventually dead ends at an expansive cliff. To reach the upper snowfields we did a delicate traverse onto the East Face (highlighted with blue arrows in the second Google Earth screenshot above), following a boot-pack from skiers past. Stepping onto the face was wildly exposed and pretty unpleasant, but totally reasonable in the given conditions. Once around the cliffs we re-gained the ridge, stepped south and headed for the summit block. The final 100 feet were swept clean, bulletproof and severely steep, likely in the fifty degree ballpark. Side by side we front-pointed through more exposed terrain, weaving between patches of ice and dancing above another swath of life-swallowing rocks. Fortunately the firm snow provided ideal penetration for our spiky implements, and within a few short minutes we were standing on the 11,455 foot summit enjoying an absolutely stunning February morning.

Sam and I enjoying a marvelous February morning on Mount Wister

Blame stoke, blame pride, but I opted to ski from the summit. After watching me hack three of the steepest and highest consequence turns off my life, skidding unglamorously between each one, Sam pulled out his ice axe and initiated a down-climb. I couldn’t blame him, the consequences for catching an edge were damning. In corn-snow conditions the upper headwall wouldn’t be so risky, but we were battling sun-crusted, wind-blasted and refrozen sastrugi, about the closest snow comes to water ice – had I not a whippet, I’d have folded my cards.

Sam teeing up a few turns on the upper snowfield before down-climbing

After traversing and regaining the East Face proper, the rest of our technical descent was a powder filled glory run down one of the most uniquely featured faces I’d ever laid eyes upon. Teton legend Steve Romeo called this section the “tenderloin” – and it sure was a fine cut. Customizable lines came at the hands of surfy ribs, dramatic cliffs and tight chutes, all balanced on the fringes of a massive hanging alpine face. The North Couloir got a little punchy and unruly, swept clean like the southeast facing summit headwall, but the gradient and consequence had tapered off. After battling blistered quads for god knows how long, I finally succumbed to one sloppy turn and buried a ski, resulting in an impressive alpine cartwheel – par for the course I’m afraid.

A video our ski descent can be found here:
(Wister is the second peak captured, after Teewinot)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBO0ieQCq8o

Carving up the Tenderloin

After exiting the North Couloir, many pitches of steep and enjoyable skiing brought us from the shores of Lake Taminah to the main fork of Avalanche Canyon. Given the impeccable conditions, we were surprised to see no other skiers on the likes of Turkey Chute, Chute the Moon or the South Teton. Negative double digit degrees must’ve scared them away, but lucky for us, the sun provided just enough warmth for an excellent outing, without affecting snow stability.

Summary

All in all, the East Face of Mount Wister provided just about everything I crave in a mid-winter ski mountaineering objective. Remoteness, route-finding challenges and a complex descent on multiple aspects made for a stimulating mental challenge, while the sheer extremity and aesthetics of the “tenderloin” satisfied my deepest skiing desires. Powder in the North Couloir would have jacked up the epic-ness, but so long as the snow is safe, you’ll rarely see me complaining. I’m not sure if this line would linger far into spring. The amount of rocks present in late February is testament to the severe wind battering the East Ridge endures. A corn-snow descent would be stellar, but skiing this face in powder was simply all-time.

The Beta

For aspiring skiers, here’s some numbers.

  • Trailhead Elevation: 6,500 feet
  • Summit Elevation: 11,455 feet
  • Total Vertical Gain: ~5,000 feet
  • Round Trip Distance: Unknown
  • Time to Complete: 6-8 hours
  • Recommended Gear:
    • Ice Axe (light duty)
    • Crampons (light duty)
    • Helmet (because your brain is awesome)

As always, thank you to my sponsors Icelantic Skis, purveyors of my favorite downhill sliding sticks, and Chasing Paradise, makers of local mead and phenomenal whole-food energy bars.

A double thank you to loved ones, family and friends for supporting my endeavors.

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Disclaimer: 
Skiing is dangerous. Mountains are dangerous. This article is written strictly for informational and story-telling purposes. If you attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk.

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