Skiing the East Face of Teewinot – By the Skin of Our Teeth (03.01.20)

Rising a staggering 6,000 feet directly from the foothills of Grand Teton National Park, the East Face of Teewinot Mountain is a prized ski mountaineering descent sought far and wide. Instead of the usual Teton technical couloir shenanigans, the East Face resembles primetime descents in the Montana Rockies and High Sierra – steep bowl skiing on expansive terraced cliffs, all funneling through a nasty choke. If any route encapsulates the definition of a terrain trap, this is the one – but in safe conditions the East Face is a unique and ultra-classic Teton objective.

A snow-chocked Teewinot Mountain rising high above the meadows. Ski descents annotated below.
(not taken on day of ski descent)
(Purchased and licensed photo. Original credit: ejnelson314, Adobe Stock)
Teewinot’s East Face ski route annotated in pink. Crooked Thumb and S.E. Couloirs listed for reference.
(Edited image is copyright of Ten Thousand Too Far)

Introduction

After the lifting of road closures in mid-April, Teewinot Mountain is easily approached from the Lupine Meadows Parking Area – simply park and start climbing. Before official road openings (but after sufficient snow-melt), many parties will do a bike-ski-bike adventure. In mid-winter, when candidates must invest hours of time traversing several miles of cross-country ski trails starting at the Bradley-Taggart winter parking area, Teewinot sees exponentially less attempts. The earlier in the season, the less humans on Teewinot – plain and simple.

Hazards

The East Face is one of the most threatening avalanche paths in the Tetons, another reason attemptees often starve off til’ spring. Ascentionists must spend several hours both climbing and descending a massive bowl that funnels through one minuscule chute the size of a swollen bowling alley. Depending on snowpack and recent slide activity, this choke is likely narrower than your skis are long. Any debris released on the upper mountain, avalanche, ice, rock or tumbling skier, is sure to ricochet mercilessly through the granite lined gun barrel. A dear friend was struck with a large block of rouge ice while climbing through this crux late spring – luckily, he escaped unscathed. According to him they were “late to the party” and the snow was warming fast, a dangerous situation on any mountain, but especially so on Teewinot, where falling projectiles are a major concern. In late-April 2019 I attempted a solo climb and descent of the East Face, but arrived at the main technical section in dangerously warm conditions. I bailed, headed south and made a successful descent of the shorter but still worthy Southeast Couloir just in the knick of time. From the parking lot I watched as one lone skier stood stranded on the summit – natural wet-slides and tumbling rock cascading beneath. With binoculars I watched the motionless skier stare longingly into the breadth of Teewinot below, as if contemplating his ultimate demise. I sat nervous on the hood of my car, eating lunch, drinking seltzer and standing vigil for my new friend, who hadn’t moved for over an hour as natural sloughs continued to release. Eventually he slipped the massive cirque of slop clean, triggering many small avalanches and sending thousands of pounds of wet snow through the funnel. I breathed a sigh of relief as the man escaped the closing grips of Teewinot – I was nearly certain the poor skier was in for a dance with the devil. Those two anecdotes illustrate just how finicky Teewinot can be. Ultimately, a successful ski descent of the East Face requires stable conditions, good timing and a cool head for several hours spent in high-consequence terrain.

Our Adventure

Our Teewinot adventure took place on March 1st, 2020 and began at the Bradley-Taggart parking area, somewhere around 4:00AM. The morning was bitter cold, temperatures weren’t projected to rise much and a fresh batch of snow was due mid-afternoon. The previous weekend Sam and I had skied Buck Mountain, Mount Wister and a few other satellite peaks in the core Tetons, and with the same high pressure cycle still intact (at least for the next few hours), we had no concerns about snow stability. Instead, the crux of our day revolved around a desperate window of mid-morning sun, no more than two-hours, within which we hoped to nab a semi-softened descent – otherwise, she’d remain rock hard and merciless, and we’d be in for an epic – exactly what happened.

Enjoying a clouded sunrise from the foothills of the Teewinot Apex

Beneath a crystal clear night we knocked off the four-ish mile approach to the base of the East Face before 6:00AM, working our way generally north on a maze of existing cross-country ski trails to the Lupine Meadows Parking Area. From here, the whole enchilada of Teewinot’s glory spilled before us. In some ways the directness of the climb skews just how colossal it actually is. I remember thinking “we’ll just hammer up this thing”, and several hours later wondering where in the world the summit was – Teewinot is a seriously sinister optical illusion. Hugging the north ridge of the Apex, we switched our mouth’s off and began an expedited slog towards the East Face. Gunning for the 9:00AM cloud break, we had our work, albeit significant work, cut out for us.

Our first views of the East Face from the Apex
Sam skinning towards The Worshipper and The Idol

Warrior Sam was battling a nasty chest cold and nearly backed out hours before leaving town, that is, before I made the bold proclamation that I would lead every pitch of skinning and climbing, massively chopping his workload. Reluctantly he agreed, but as we climbed past 10,000 feet I could feel my legs growing heavy. True to promise, I had punched every step from Bradley-Taggart to the moment we changed into crampons – but at this blistering pace I was gassed, and even with follower’s luxury, Sam was hacking a lung. As I stared up the massive swath of alpine looming above and wrenched on my spikes, dark clouds began to build overhead. As a one man wrecking crew we weren’t clocking great time, and despite direct sun the snow wasn’t softening much either. A healthy foot of powder was concealed beneath a nasty breakable sun-crust, terrible for climbing but doubly worse for skiing. Without Sam’s help we’d never make it – and even if we did, the weather was sure to butcher our descent. Nonetheless, we weren’t in current eminent danger, and avalanches certainly weren’t a concern, so we saddled up, rolled the dice and punched it.

Sam kicking steps below the crux. This terrain is substantially steeper than it looks.

With each step my legs became increasingly zapped, and as we gained ground on the choke my optimism faded to near zero. Clouds had swallowed the sun, flurries began to fall and we were still thousands of feet from the summit, but just as I ponied up the courage to throw in the towel, Sam blew past and continued into the gnar with a newfound burst of fire. Sam has a reputation for an incredible reserve of energy, coupled with occasionally non-sensical and cold-hearted determination. The storm we feared was clearly overhead, yet here Sam was, magically cured of his head cold and intent on racing Mother Nature to the summit. I struggled to keep my psyche together as we front pointed through a firm and icy choke that was indeed no wider than a sidewalk, but once we gained the upper mountain I was all in. Drunk on honey packets and adrenaline we flip-flopped a sturdy pace to the summit crown, opting to ignore the inevitable – we were in for a nasty dose of survival skiing, amidst worsening weather, on a major Teton line. In hindsight we made just about every wrong decision possible, and got rewarded with exactly what we deserved – absolutely no views and absolutely heinous skiing. We hit the snow-line, stashed our skis and began to scramble for the summit, at which point Sam suggested we turn around. Without an inkling of bend in my voice, I replied with some combination of “it’s just over there”, “we’ve come too far” and “we’re f**ked anyways.”

Staring down the final summit scramble, an eyebrow raiser in ski boots.

By the time we returned to skis Teewinot was entirely swallowed by clouds, but luckily the wind had tailed off. Despite the lack of visibility and subsequently horrendous snow conditions, the summit was actually quite peaceful. That said, we knew better than to stick around and test our luck. The turns from the top aren’t nearly as steep as they look from distance, averaging only 43 degrees according to CalTopo, but a wicked punch crust kept us on our toes. Unpredictable supportiveness made it nearly impossible to link two fluent turns, slowing our pace to a painful limp. Style and glamour were scrapped in favor of survival. I skied the crux first, originally intent on making turns through the entirety, but as the grade steepened and the snow grew firmer I became acutely aware of just how dangerous a slip here could be. Faced with less than eight feet of wiggle room, I pulled out my axe and began to side slip with metal at the ready. Sam did the same, dragging his pick in a self-arrested toe-edge scrape – but hey, the important part was not catching an edge and cartwheeling back to Lupine Meadows, and we passed that test with flying colors.

A video of our descent can be viewed here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBO0ieQCq8o

My first turns on the upper East Face
Side slipping the crux, barely wide enough for skis!

To say any part of our descent actually qualified as skiing would be grandiose, but the lower apron was especially ugly. Though rocks and other direct impact hazards vanish after the crux, the grade stays significantly steep and still qualifies as a terrible place to fall. We hacked our way down the remaining 4,000 feet embarrassingly slow – according to my helmet camera, the entire ordeal took over ninety minutes. Even after we reached tree-line and regained visibility, the rotten snow kept us skiing like baby deer on an ice rink, in an earthquake. Back on flat ground I collapsed into a snowbank and watched as thick storm clouds devoured the East Face. We escaped in quite literally the knick of time – by the skin of our teeth.

The East Face getting swallowed by our feared storm. High-country shut down.

Summary

Writing this almost two years later, I still have not experienced a mission quite like Teewinot. I’m used to being exhausted, but Teewinot took agonizing, both mentally and physically, to a different dimension. Punch-crust is well known as the ski mountaineers kryptonite, and 6,000 feet of it, half in no-fall zone terrain, would wear any mind thin. However, at no point did I ever feel unsafe. To force a hasty descent would have been a mistake, but with ego safely back-pocketed we were able to focus on the task at hand and execute soundly, despite a true travesty of aesthetics. As ski mountaineers, days like these are par for the course, and if we turned around every time conditions dipped below optimal we’d have several less summits to our belts. So long as I feel confident about survival, I am almost always down to hack together a worthy adventure – here we hacked together 6,000 feet of one, on one of the most committing lines in the Teton Range – I don’t regret it for a second.

The Beta

Some numbers, beta and resources for aspiring skiers.

  • Starting Trailhead (winter): Bradley-Taggart
  • Summit Elevation: 12,330 feet
  • Trailhead Elevation: 6,500 feet
  • Total Elevation Gain: 5,830 feet
  • Round Trip Distance: Unknown
  • Time To Complete (mid-winter, moderate pace): 7-10 hours
  • Recommended Gear
    • Ice Axe (light duty)
    • Crampons (light duty)
    • Whippet (or axe)
    • Ski Crampons
    • Helmet (substantial rock/snow-fall hazard)
  • Useful Resources:
    • The “Black Book” by Connor Miller (arial photographs)

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, and you, for reading this far!

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

If you used this article to inspire or plan your own adventure, please consider supporting Ten Thousand Too Far with a donation. You can also show your support by subscribing and/or commenting below – I would love to hear about your adventures!


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Disclaimer
Mountains are dangerous. Skiing is dangerous. Mountain conditions change by the day and are not reliable. This article is intended for informational purposes only. Should you attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk.

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