The Amor A’ Vida Couloir is an ultra-classic Teton ski mountaineering objective on the south face of the South Teton. The full technical descent into Avalanche Canyon is nearly 3,000 feet – the first 900 on a vast and airy alpine face, and the latter 2,000 in a continuous, unique and especially aesthetic couloir.
(trip report from April 2018, edited May 2023)
2018 was a healthy snow year. By April the snow-pack had set up seamlessly for tremendous corn 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, proposed the Amor 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 Amor A’ Vida had a reputation. Yet, like a well behaved and humbled apprentice I heeded orders and packed my bag for another big day in the mountains.
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 towards 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, and Teton legend, 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. A tightrope warmup on a polished log left me with wet toes, John 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. After 90 minutes of clawing around a pitch black alpine jungle, fording rivers and punching through early-summer slush, we were barely two miles 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 Amor 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 – 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 well.
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 up the South Fork as efficiently as possible. Ski crampons proved crucial, and 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 standard 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 Ice Cream Cone, east of the summit. From the col we pivoted west and ascended the East Face, a popular 4th class summer route commonly used to traverse the South Teton/Nez Perce Ridge. 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. 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 snow surfaces cold. Even though we summitted after 11:00AM , 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.
Tragically, the Amor A Vida has been the site of at least two fatalities, in 2011 and 2017 respectively, speaking to the complexity and unforgiving nature of the line. The upper snowfields leading to the couloir are prime avalanche terrain, an unsupported snowfield averaging ~41 degrees with significant solar and wind exposure. The traditional descent involves skiing the Southeast Face to approximately 11,750 feet, where a notch on skier’s right provides access to the couloir. The couloir might be able to be accessed from higher, but definitely not lower. We caught the face in prime conditions, perfect edge-able corn providing pleasantly airy jump turns above the breadth of the southern range. We used an altimeter to confirm the location of the notch, which can be “ski-through” mid-winter, but for us required a brief third class down climb. Below the rock we enjoyed the best of views – 2,000 feet of untouched Amor A’ Vida corn staring back at us.
The turns through the couloir were utterly immaculate corn, soft but supportable with three inches of bite. The central gut was stuffed with avalanche debris, so I stuck to the steeper but smooth skier’s right wall – link a few turns, traverse out, repeat. Wet sloughs propagated intermittently, but I managed the hazard by avoiding the fall-line altogether, 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 Amor 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 spring conditions any mountaineer could ask for.
For all you 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.
- Round Trip Distance: Unknown
- Total Trip Time (approximate): 7-10 hours
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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but I am only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.