The Crooked Thumb Couloir is the prominent avalanche path directly north of Teewinot Mountain’s classic East Face line. The couloir tops out at 11,600 feet on the mountain’s north ridge, and despite looking benign from below, drops over 2,500 vertical feet with several tight sections of 40+ degree fall line skiing.
Sadly, my camera is in the shop getting repaired. All photos shot on Samasung galaxy
I have long gazed at the Crooked Thumb, just about every time I find myself in a snow covered Lupine Meadows. The line looks different than most Teton couloirs – in fact, it doesn’t look like a couloir at all. To my eyes the Crooked Thumb appears a big mountain face broken by several bands of rock, with potential for great, but not necessarily fall line, technical skiing. Armed without a single trip-report, no partner and only a vague idea of where the proper route lied, I set sail from the Bradley-Taggart winter lot with an open mind ready for adventure. I had skied the other two prominent lines on Teewinot’s east aspect, the East Face and the Southeast Couloir, and was highly motivated to complete the trifecta.
A Cruiser Approach
A well-beaten XC trail brought me to the base of Teewinot in well-under an hour, propelled by an added incentive to keep warm amidst sub-zero temperatures. As the sun rose I could feel my frozen eyelashes melting onto my cheeks. Without proper approach beta I stuck to the traditional East Face approach via the Apex. Another packed track saw me up the first 3,000 feet with ease, and in less than two hours I was clicking into skis atop the forested high-point. My first sights above tree-line revealed a smattering of old avalanche crowns on north, east and southerly aspects – basically everywhere. Six days had passed since the end of a vicious storm cycle that buried an early December weak layer with 4-8 feet of snow across the range coupled with colossal winds. I needed to be very confident of conditions before committing to the 2,500 foot boot-pack that beckoned, but with reliable weather, clear evidence of widespread avalanche activity, recent firsthand reports of stability on similar aspects and a decreasing forecasted danger following nearly a week of high-pressure, I felt confident the Crooked Thumb was willing to accept a one skier party. I ripped my skins and traversed north across the East Face runout to the base of the line – total elapsed time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.
A Heinous Climb
As I skirted around the rock buttress on the southern toe of the Crooked Thumb, the couloir revealed its’ glory loud and clear. Staring back at me was an expansive swath of rolling terrain, gently funneling into an obvious gully that terminated on Teewinot’s north ridge. I ascended the first thousand feet on skins, enjoying easy travel through six inches of supportable powder. The lower half of the Crooked Thumb reminded me of the Mount Moran’s lower Skillet Glacier – steep headwalls bisected by short cliff bands and long ramps of mellow (30-ish degree) terrain. Around 10,000 feet a clear constriction emerged on looker’s left, signaling the “technical beginning” of the Crooked Thumb.
For the latter 1,600 feet I was confined to a deceptively narrow, highly committing and invisible-from-below avalanche path. The “couloir” itself is more of a snaking gully, narrowing to fifty feet at its’ thinnest, twisting in line with the prominent granite buttresses to the south. With rollovers exceeding 45 degrees, virtually nowhere to escape an avalanche and a myriad of exposed cliffs to strain an errant tumble, the Crooked Thumb would be a terrible place to roll the dice in questionable snow conditions. As the saying goes, “once you’re in it, you’re in it.” The higher I climbed the more variable conditions became. Dreamy powder quickly vanished into heinous punch crust, three inches of firm styrofoam atop three feet of sugar. My pace came to a literal crawl as I swam mercilessly up the deteriorating slope, regularly sinking to waist depth. Occasionally I found bands of powder with a supportable crust underneath, but unfortunately these were the exception. This trend continued for the remainder of the boot-pack, threatening a maddening mental collapse. A partner or three would have done wonders, for alone I covered a scanty 500 vertical feet per hour. By the time I reached the summit I was depleted beyond belief, completely out of water and urinating golden – hungry beyond words – yet stoked above all for the January stability, amazing views of Mount Owen’s Northeast Snowfields to the west and my pre-season fitness that allowed for such a suffer fest. I thought I’d be at the car by the six hour mark but no, the adventure had only just begun.
A Mixed Bag – The Descent
Just as I expected, skiing the Crooked Thumb was a mixed bag of blissful powder, bulletproof sastrugi, avalanche debris, breakable crust and hooky cream cheese. At least I enjoyed a few hundred feet of tremendous windblown duff before the chaos ensued. Even when the snow was good I had to remain on constant vigil for the insidious ski-swallowing punch crust, prompting a cautious pace until the narrows widened. Once the grade eased off on the moraine below, 1,000 vertical feet gifted spectacular turns on a remote, scenic and exposed alpine face. After a month of fretting about impending avalanche doom, it was relieving to release tension and ski without worry of overhead obliteration. Lesser flat light would’ve been handy, but alas this is ski mountaineering – and a true ski mountaineers’ journey the Crooked Thumb was. To reach terra firma I traversed north onto the buttress adjacent to the Apex, but one could easily traverse south to the Apex as well. Following the drainage would get one to the ground, but several waterfalls, errant cliffs and scraggly bushes would likely bar a smooth exit.
I reached the car in the vicinity of eight hours after a leisurely lunch in Lupine Meadows. After all, I did drag a full container of homemade vegan baked potato and cauliflower casserole up 6,000 feet of mountain – time to chow. Absent of utensils I dug in with the spike of my axe, ironically the only thing I used my axe for all day. The snow was so deep in the Crooked Thumb I didn’t bother with any tools, crampons included.
The Crooked Thumb area on Teewinot holds tremendous potential for steep and exciting skiing. A few spicy couloirs dove south from the north ridge, and just north of the Crooked Thumb would be excellent face skiing later in the season. Several interesting rock gullies, some chocked with ice, lead from the belly of the couloir to the summit pyramid. To the adventurous winter alpine climber, a new route or two probably exists in this area. All in all the Crooked Thumb was a surprisingly stimulating route worthy of more traffic, especially in the springtime when 2,500 feet of ripper corn could be devoured.
Approximate trip statistics for the Crooked Thumb are as follows:
- Vertical Gain: 5,500-6,000 feet (approach dependent)
- Round Trip Distance (from winter lot): 12-14 miles
- Round Trip Time: 6-8 hours
Recommended Technical Gear:
- Light Ice Axe
- Light Crampons
- Ski Crampons (spring/late season)
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