2018 was a healthy snow year. By April the snow-pack had set up seamlessly for tremendous corn snow skiing. The Tetons were “popping off” as some would say – big lines were dropping, free of avalanche worry. After bagging my first significant Teton descent only seven days earlier on the Middle Teton’s East Face, I was itching for round two.
John Walker, a longtime local ski mountaineer whom I knew purely socially and had never skied with, proposed the Amore A’ Vida for our partnership’s maiden voyage. I was both honored and surprised he chose this line. I was nothing more than an ambitious Teton rookie, and the Amore A’ Vida had a serious reputation. Yet, like a well behaved and humbled apprentice, I heeded sensei’s orders and packed my bag for another big day in the mountains.
A Hairy Approach
Only seven days earlier I put skins on in the parking lot, but today was different story. Substantial warming from the week prior shifted the foothills of Grand Teton National Park into summer, exposing dry trail for miles. With skis on our backs we marched “Teton Style” into the pitch black morning, a phrase coined by John’s late ski partner Steve Romeo – start and finish in ski boots, no shoes, no matter the dirt, no exceptions.
We started walking by 4:00AM, quickly got lost and found ourselves scouting the shores of a swollen Bradley Creek for any viable crossing. In winter the standard skin-track crosses the wide creek and it’s flanked marshes by way of a robust snow bridge, but today there was no such passage. Instead we took to a sketchily slick log. I plunged a boot, John reached the shore unscathed and without a word we were off. Shortly thereafter we hit deep and dreadfully isothermal snow. Temperatures in the valley hadn’t dipped freezing for days, and the weak summer snow didn’t have the slightest chance at supporting our weight. We arduously toggled between skins and boots for the next long while, eventually reaching the beach of a dangerously melted Bradley Lake. Seven days ago I skinned right over the frozen water, but today we’d be taking the long way, as visible pools of blue dotted the first fifty feet of ice like swiss cheese and we hadn’t brought our bathing suits. After 90 minutes of clawing around a pitch black alpine jungle, fording rivers and punching through early-summer slush, we were barely a mile from the car, and tensions were escalating. Come late spring, skiing big lines requires optimal time management, and we were far, far behind schedule. If we wanted a crack at the Amore A Vida we’d have to recover not only minutes, but hours. Carbonated with frustration John was ready to burst, suggesting we cut our losses and pull a u-turn – but I had enough stoke stored for three. I made my plea, John conceded, and together we marched with an agitated vigor into the canyon we both knew too well.
Sketchy, In A Different Kind of Way
Lucky for the Teton’s newest team, the snow was much more supportable in Garnet Canyon. We plowed ahead in fifth gear, eating on the fly and making our way towards the back of the south fork as efficiently as possible. Ski crampons proved crucial on the steeper headwalls, but ultimately we cruised to the base of South Teton on auto-pilot. I was very surprised to find fresh snow above 10,000 feet, and even more surprised to switch into crampons before 9:00AM. We had righted the ship. Things were looking up.
Being as Teton naive as I was, I hadn’t the faintest clue we weren’t ascending the Northwest Couloir, the South Teton’s primary and easiest ascent route. With John’s experience I figured he’d virtually guide the way, and guide the way he did – just not as I expected. We ended up climbing an unnamed north facing couloir to the saddle separating the South Teton and the Ice Cream Cone (to the east). From the col we pivoted west and ascended the East Face/Ridge, a popular 4th class summer route commonly used by climbers attempting a Grand or Cloudveil Traverse. However, when chocked with snow, we found the East Face a steep, spicy and unreliable field of sparsely covered choss. I trailed John’s wake as we plunged through intermittent solar snow and scrambled a few bands of loose granite. (at the time of this article’s conception I have climbed the standard NW Couloir route several times, and can definitively say we made our day far more complicated by choosing the East Face) Once again route finding cost us significant time, but once again we got bailed out. Instead of the forecasted bluebird skies, intermittent thin clouds provided just enough cover to keep the snow cold. Even though we summitted after 11, the snow hadn’t softened an inkling. After many hours of racing Father Time our day finally came to peaceful stillness. We were on top of the South Teton, the fifth tallest peak of the mighty Teton Range, and the best was yet to come.
The Amore A’ Vida
Just over two years ago (2016) a young mountaineer plummeted to his death after skiing below the entrance of the Amore A’ Vida, dropping mistakenly into a deadly imposter couloir on the lower south face. By the time he realized his error he was trapped above 1,400 feet of cliffs, and either due to variable snow or a binding malfunction lost his balance and fatally tumbled. In 2011 another bold skier triggered an avalanche on the same face and got washed over the same cliffs, to the same tragic result. The upper snowfields leading to the Amore A’ Vida are both prime avalanche terrain (averaging 41 degrees with steeper rollovers) and notoriously difficult to navigate, so we took every pre-caution possible to ensure safe passage. We had unbeatably safe snow underfoot, and used the altimeter on John’s satellite phone to pinpoint the exact elevation of the couloir’s entrance. No skiing below 11,750 feet, period.
The snow was still very firm when we dropped in around 11:15, however we knew the lower couloir would be at least an hour ahead on the warming schedule. To reach the south face we had to traverse across the mega-steep Southeast Couloir, arguably the spiciest part of the descent as the snow was still cement firm. I believe we could have down climbed on rocks to the west instead, but we desired a continuous ski descent. Above the south face the snow turned to shallow corn, suitable for careful ninja turns. John lead the pitch and accurately navigated to the bail-out notch – altimeter confirmed. Unburdened by worry I followed with broader and more ambitious turns, laying into the edge-able snow and soaking in the serene views.
The main couloir is accessed via a very small west-facing chute on skier’s right of the face, identified by a sizable ledge at approximately 11,750 feet. Some years this gully completely fills in allowing a continuous ski descent, but we found a snow deprived hallway of scree. We down climbed about 100 feet of easy third class terrain and were overjoyed to see the unmistakable and uncompromised Amore A’ Vida staring back at us.
The turns through the couloir were utterly immaculate corn, soft but supportable with two inches of bite. The central gut was stuffed with avalanche debris, so I stuck to the steeper but smooth eastern wall – link a few turns, traverse right, repeat. Wet sloughs propagated intermittently, but I managed the hazard by avoiding the fall line, taking breathers to let larger monsters run their course. About halfway down John initiated the party ski, and together we took full pulls through the Amore A’ Vida, salivating every turn. Many hoots and hollers were had, steep turns enjoyed and high fives exchanged, for we just skied an A-list Teton classic in about the best conditions any ski mountaineer could ask for.
Beta & Numbers
For all you aspiring skiers
- South Teton Summit Elevation: 12,519 feet
- Trailhead Elevation: ~6,500 feet
- Total Vertical Gain: ~6,000 feet
- Total Technical Elevation Loss (ski descent): 3,000 feet
- Trailhead: Bradley/Taggart, Grand Teton N.P.
- Access Canyon: Garnet Canyon
- Standard Ascent Route: NW Couloir
- Egress Canyon: Avalanche Canyon
- Round Trip Distance: Unknown
- Total Trip Time (approximate): 7-10 hours
Recommended gear for ascent of NW Couloir and ski descent of Amore’ A Vida Couloir
- Crampons (light duty)
- One Ice Axe (light duty)
- Ski Crampons
- Altimeter (Satelite Phone, etc.)
- Detailed Route Map/Topo
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Skiing is dangerous. Mountains are dangerous. This article was written strictly for informational and storytelling purposes. If you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk.