The Southeast Couloir of Teewinot Mountain is an often overlooked alternative to the highly sought East Face route. Topping out at 11,600 feet on the southernmost shoulder, the 600 foot couloir starts narrow, finishes wide and maintains a steady slope angle in the mid-forty degree* range. Despite impressive views of the Grand Teton and a phenomenal fall-line descent to the valley floor, relative shortness and lack of prominence keep the Southeast on the back burner – ready for enthusiasts of the obscure.
In 2019, ultra-marathon fever hijacked my spring ski season. In pursuit of the Spitfire 50 kilometer trail race I traded alpine starts for long runs in Southern Idaho – I guess I needed a change of pace. Nevertheless, once the race wrapped up (fifth place baby) and my glycogen stores rebounded, I took aim at the Tetons and what little snow was left.
Teewinot had always been atop my hit list. The prominence of the East Face rises so strikingly over the valley below, just begging to be skied. But the Southeast Couloir – not so much. Hidden from the Grand Teton N.P. foothills and resembling more of an acute triangular fan than a couloir, the line just doesn’t call down from the ski mountaineering heavens. Honestly, the Southeast wasn’t even on my radar. I was gunning for the big enchilada and this unassuming gem became an oh so sweet and completely unexpected consolation prize.
The Southeast Couloir
Writing this report almost three years down the line, I only remember the keynote points. Number one, I fumbled the approach – shocker. Having never been up Teewinot’s East Face, I mistakenly climbed the southeast ridge instead of the traditional “Apex” approach (for more information on the proper approach, click here). This misnavigation landed me on the unfavorable side of a large avalanche path, about one third of a mile south of where I needed to be. The second lynchpin in my jumbled outing was a decimated snowpack, non existent for the first thousand feet, and isothermal for the next thousand. As I rambled through the pathless woods, hurdling deadfall and scratching at wiry bushes to ascend steep slopes of mud, I started to question my sanity. Well after sunrise I gained the impostor apex’s summit and realized just how far from the East Face route I actually was. Directly ahead was a splitting twelve inch crown from an old wet slab avalanche, likely naturally triggered, at least 500 feet wide with an equally long slide path, a sobering reminder to never sleep on avalanche terrain, no matter the season. Between the already significant solar warming, signs of recent avalanche activity and the many hours I would need to recover lost ground and summit, I tossed my East Face aspirations into the 2019 scrap pile. Still hungry for good skiing but needing to act fast, I shifted my eyes to the obvious Southeast Couloir looming directly ahead. I recognized the humble beauty from a Steve Romeo Teton AT trip report, and from this vantage point in particular she looked to hold some valuable skiing. I could bypass the most prevalent avalanche terrain by ascending the southeast ridge, and because of it’s concealed nature, the steep upper couloir wouldn’t be as susceptible to warming. I would still need to hustle, but at least the door was open.
I ascended to approximately 10,400 feet on the moderate southeast ridge before traversing onto the steeper face by way of a thin snow ribbon bisecting two cliffs. Despite the rapidly intensifying sun the snow remained supportable – no rollerballs or pinwheels. However, as I moved into the couloir itself my crampons started to sink deeper. The rate at which thermal warming can deteriorate snow is astounding, and because this aspect had already shown the capacity to avalanche, my danger senses heightened tenfold. The couloir itself maintains a mid-forty degree slope angle* before funneling into a dangerously consistent 35 degree* apron. Rocks studded the thin snowpack like great white sharks ready to feast on an unfortunate skier. This was no place to tumble. Should the punchy and slushy snow continue I vowed to fold my cards, but luckily I found consolidated snow, as suspected, in the upper neck of the couloir. With newfound vigor I used the firm surface and my 50K fitness to sprint up the remaining 500 feet like a desperate skier chasing his last chance at alpine adventure. Needless to say I gained the narrow notch and the terminus of the Southeast Couloir at 10:15 beneath crystal clear early summer skies.
I changed over as fast as humanely possible, forgoing food and only snapping a few hasty pictures. I was beyond stoked to be high in the Tetons again, but time was of the eminent essence. My first turns in the Southeast were blissful corn, much appreciated while negotiating narrow, bony and technical terrain. As I exited the tight upper confines the snow shifted to dense corn and began to rollerball. Wet sloughs released readily and I traversed south to keep them from sweeping me away. Although the apron and bowl below looked dreamy, I stuck purely to my ascent path and escaped any and all avalanche terrain as quickly as possible. My reward for this unconventional exit was a few hundred feet of buttery turns on the southeast ridge before returning to the highpoint of the imposter Apex. I didn’t dodge a bullet per say, but I definitely flirted with one. Though no wet slabs propagated, I was likely tiptoeing on a sleeping dragon. That said, my expedited pace allowed “safe” and efficient passage through dangerous terrain with the reward of splendid views and ultimately stellar skiing. For May in the Tetons, days like these are about as good as they come!
Bonus – Lessons Learned From A Near Fatal Mistake
After dispatching 3,000 feet of isothermal slush, downed trees and steep shrubbery, I returned to the Lupine Meadows lot battered but unscathed. By now the time was after noon, and the summer day had really heated up. As I refueled and stripped off my shirt to soak up some vitamin D, a binocular wielding tourist pointed out a lone skier trapped atop the gargantuan East Face, which was now baking like a batch of Betty Crocker cookies. As a non-skier, the tourist didn’t realize the severity of the situation like I did. This exceptionally “late to the party” skier was at a serious risk of triggering a life-threatening avalanche.
From our vantage point the man seemed to waffle between fear and escape – and truthfully, I didn’t know the right answer. He paced back and forth on the summit ridge and sat motionless for long periods. Should he risk skiing the slushy beast, he would be susceptible to ping-pong’ing through cliffs at the hands of a wet slough or worse, triggering an insidious slab avalanche that would be definitively fatal in such serious terrain. Should he stay camped atop Teewinot he would have to wait for darkness and freezing temperatures to “safely” descend, something only the bravest and most technically sound ski mountaineer would dare. The East Face is a uniquely committing route with no alternative escape. Once you pass the Worshipper and the Idol and continue through the bottleneck crux of the massive avalanche path (see first graphic above), you’re in it. This lone ski mountaineer was truly caught between a rock and a hard place.
To cut a long story short, the man committed to the line and despite setting off a slew of small avalanches, stayed on his skis, slipped through the choke and escaped alive. I could hear the rushing sound of debris cascading over the monstrous cliffs below his skis. His turns were slow and scarily insecure, like he was skiing through concrete, wet sand or better yet, barely melted peanut butter. He was probably the last man to ski the East Face in 2019, as his destructive wake exposed a widespread canvas of rocks and shaved nearly all the skiable terrain clean to a gnarly faceted bed surface of slop and granite. I was just genuinely happy to pack my skis and return home without a second lap up Teewinot, for if sour fate came knocking, I’d have been the first rescue personnel on call. All in all, three main lessons can be deducted from the day’s events – listed below.
Lesson #1 – Set your alarm, then set it earlier.
I had seen the East Face skier only half an hour ahead of me when I left the lot. Both he and I started far too late. It’s easy to get lured into the comforts of sleep and assume your fitness will make up the difference. There is a famous saying in the ski mountaineering world, “one seldom regrets starting too early, but often regrets staring too late.” I have proved this adage true on countless occasions.
Lesson #2 – Know when to pull the plug.
Knowing when to cut your losses is key to survival in extreme mountain pursuits. On this particular day every red flag for wet slab avalanches was waving high and clear, well before this bold ascentionist reached the summit. Previous avalanche crowns, rollerballs, substantial debris and excruciatingly warm temperatures are a recipe for disaster.
Lesson #3 – Be aware of the commitment level, and have an “escape” plan.
Every ski line has varying degrees of commitment, independent of technical difficulty. For example, a line such as the East Face of the Middle Teton, arguably on par with Teewinot’s East Face for technical difficulty, has a much lower commitment level. On the Middle Teton, a skier has the choice of ascending either the East Face (from south or north aspects) or the Southwest Couloir, likewise for descent. Because the Southwest sees sun much later in the day and is commonly wind scoured, it provides a (typically) safe escape in the event of unfavorable easterly conditions. The nature of the East Face also allows for greater control over avalanche exposure. A skier could descend direct fall line into the steepening, slightly funneled face, or stick on a less exposed ridge to the south. Basically, the more agency a skier has over ascent aspects, descent aspects and terrain features, the lower the commitment level.
On lines such as Mount Moran’s Skillet Glacier and Teewinot’s East Face, commitment levels are much higher. Descent paths are confined to a single line on one aspect, east in this case. East facing aspects are the first to see powerful sun and as such, are prone to rapid warming. Also, the nature of both lines don’t allow for much, if any, control over terrain and avalanche exposure. As the saying goes, “once you’re in it, you’re in it.” On Teewinot the stakes get wrenched even higher because unlike Mount Moran, deadly cliffs lurk beneath the East Face ready strain out any debris, including humans, that slide trough. Commitment level becomes of vital importance as consequence and risk increase.
Total Danger = (Commitment Level) * (Consequence Level)
There are many strategies teams can use to help manage committing terrain. Step one is evaluating commitment and consequence levels. Step two is identifying the terrain specific hazards that will need to be managed. From there, a multitude of options exist for danger mitigation. Firm turn-around times or conditions can help alleviate impulsive urges to push past signs of darkness or danger. Carrying a thin rope, rappel equipment and the knowledge to use them could allow access to a safer escape route or protect questionable terrain. Extra calories, a warm layer and an emergency bivy could save lives in the event of serious injury or unplanned weather. Even something as simple as a high-powered headlamp provides insurance against the classic “we only thought it would take eight hours” ski tour. The list goes on ad infinitum.
A monumental shout-out to Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise, who provide me with awesome skis and delicious whole food energy bars to power my adventures!
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