The Ford-Stettner route on the Grand Teton is arguably the range’s most classic and sought ski mountaineering descent. On January 19th, 2022, I completed my second successful climb and ski descent of the Ford-Stettner, this time with a brand new partner. In classic Grand Teton fashion we battled copious unknowns, learned many lessons and returned to the car much later than expected, but alas, victorious!
As one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, and the most universally desired steep skiing descent in Jackson Hole, the Grand Teton’s Ford-Stettner route needs little introduction. By the same rationale, skiing the route multiple times needs no justification. To me, skiing the Grand Teton represents a certain benchmark of competency in alpine climbing and ski mountaineering. 7,000 feet of vertical gain, 12-14 miles round trip, extensive technical ice and/or mixed climbing, highly exposed skiing and dependably undependable conditions on a multitude of aspects makes skiing the Grand Teton a widely recognized test-piece worthy of repeat ascents, obsession and ongoing perfection. My broad goal for this January 2022 mission was to perfect approach efficiency, test my newly developed skills in lead alpine ice climbing and help an aspiring Grand Teton winter ascentionist achieve his dream.
The Approach – Cold, Dark and Sleep Deprived
After a 1:50 AM rendezvous in Victor, Idaho, Eric Boomer and I made the hour long pilgrimage to Grand Teton National Park aided by coffee, A Tribe Called Quest and the impending nervousness of attempting to climb and ski a big, complex and notoriously volatile mountain. After sleeping a mere hour and fifteen minutes, I struggled to repress feelings of sluggishness, dread and doom for the lengthy approach ahead. If it hadn’t been Eric’s first time skiing the Grand Teton I almost certainly would have bailed. I rarely suffer pre-trip anxiety anymore, but that evening my heart wouldn’t stop palpitating, my mind churning through thoughts of leading exposed alpine water ice at 12,000 feet in winter conditions. On my first climb/ski of the Grand Teton I followed the technical pitches, leaning on experienced partners to shoulder much of the risk. Today I would be on the sharp end, and though I’d spent the last two years honing my alpine climbing skills of all disciplines, I was just nervous enough to keep tossing and turning until 11:56 PM, with a 1:15 alarm on the way.
A Long Walk
My legs were heavier than lead as we silently marched the polished Garnet Canyon skin track by headlamp, stopping only briefly to shed a layer or admire the suspiciously still morning. Silhouettes of the Tetons adorned the sky like dream-state hallucinations, just vague enough to wonder if they were really there. The night was cold, but not too cold. Our skins struggled with purchase on the glassy skin-track, buffed to ice after weeks of high pressure and firm evening freezes. Above the Meadows we switched to boots and enjoyed supportable snow to the base of Teepee Glacier – hour three. The sun rose through thick clouds as we kicked more steps to the top of Glencoe Col, admiring the inspiring rock on Teepee Pillar’s north face and fantasizing about the climb to come. As much as I wanted the sun to burn through and warm my numbing feet, cloudy skies and cool conditions are an ally on the Ford-Stettner. All of the climbing and skiing from Teepee Glacier onwards is south facing and highly susceptible to rapid warming and heavy overhead hang-fire. Last May I aborted a Grand Teton mission at this very stance because of unforeseen nuclear sun, but today grey skies and a light breeze kept the mountain intact and safe for climbing – at least for now.
The Stettner Couloir
In the Stettner we encountered very thin conditions, prompting the use of a rope earlier than expected. Along with four ice screws I carried three medium sized cams (Metolius 4-6), a half dozen medium-small nuts and a pink tri-cam (more on the rack below). The Stettner itself was primarily WI2 and steep snow, protecting well with short 13cm screws. We reached the Chevy Couloir in two quick pitches and a small bought of easy simul-climbing, belaying at fixed anchors.
The Chevy Couloir
In the Chevy the technicality ratcheted up a notch, ice quality deteriorated and sun broke through the haze, meaning our climbing just got more difficult, dangerous and rushed. If the Ford Couloir above gets too warm, everyone and everything below is in the gun barrel. If we wanted to summit we’d have to gun it. The steep crux bulge (WI2+/3-) was aerated and unprotectable, but provided solid sticks and hooks for secure climbing. After I cleared the crux on a traditional belay, we simul climbed another 100-200 feet to the base of the Ford with big run-outs interspersed by sparse but solid rock protection. I gave Eric a quick body belay off a single cam while he climbed the crux, and used a rock spike for a natural belay on the rocky lower Ford. My rational mind wished to keep the climbing tighter, but if we wanted any chance of reaching the summit we had to place faith in each other, take some risks and execute. It felt foreign and slightly scary to simul through high consequence alpine terrain with a completely new partner and spotty rack, but all in all we climbed efficiently without bobbles, reaching the final fixed anchor on the west side of the Ford Couloir at high noon.
The Ford Couloir
At the base of the Ford we stashed our climbing gear and evaluated the weather. A completely unfiltered sun was beginning to bake the fresh top-layer of snow, which sat unadhered to a firm crust, a traditional recipe for wet slab avalanches. That said, no rollerballs or signs of natural sloughing were present. We tossed around many ideas before committing to a light and fast siege ascent of the 800 foot hanging snowfield. The higher we climbed a cool breeze circulated, and coupled with wispy intermittent clouds kept the snow just cold enough to rationalize continuance. I have a strong distaste for racing whether in the mountains, but on the Grand it’s almost inevitable – and sure enough we did. After following exclusively my steps to 13,000 feet, Eric took charge in the Ford and helped drive our team to the summit by the not incredibly impressive, but certainly humbling, ten hour mark.
Descent – “Almost Great”
The summit of the Grand Teton was stunning as ever. A sea of clouds hovered around 13,000 feet, blanketing every other peak in the range. Our view reminded me of an airplane breaking through a storm layer, discovering a sunny sky invisible from below. I thought about my girlfriend, valley pals and material life, existing in a cloud of grey 7,000 feet beneath my ski boots. We were quite likely the only two residents of Teton Valley to see the sun that Wednesday, and with snow conditions holding strong, we took our time enjoying every last minute of it.
Much like our ascent, ski conditions were a mixed bag. 6-8 inches of wondrous powder awaited us on the Southeast Face, where I carefully milked silky turns on the flanks of monstrous cliffs. We skied as low as we could on the ridge before committing to the Ford. Ski cuts produced nothing but sluggish slough, but in such consequential terrain we took the nominal risk seriously. To get swept off your skis in the Ford, even by an otherwise trivial slide, could spell a fatal magic carpet ride down the rugged south face. Unfortunately, beneath the fresh powder we forcibly ski-cut a heinous crust remained. A few “softish” turns were the exception as we skied mostly bulletproof or breakable glass spiked with the occasional chunk of refrozen avalanche debris – not glamorous, but par for the course on a mountain as exposed and varied as the Grand Teton.
To curtail our sob story, we needed five rappels to reach the base of the Stettner, all done amidst an incoming windstorm that mounted by the second. We used a 60M rope and tagline, reaching many of the fixed anchors with little to spare. By the top of Teepee Glacier my feet had frozen to numb bricks, useless for just about everything, including skiing. To make matters worse, the skiing from Teepee to the car was some of the worst I’d seen in Garnet. Low light and harsh winds added insult to injury, and many fully blind jump turns were needed on the steep North Fork headwalls near Spalding Falls. We reached the car in just under 16 hours, headlamps on, just as we started.
A Quick Reflection
Skiing the Ford-Stettner for the second time was just as magical as the first. Granted I knew where I was going, but the climbing and skiing conditions change so dramatically by the season that I may as well have been on a completely new route. Much to my pleasant finding, leading the ice in the Stettner and Chevy Couloirs felt very secure – I reckon I could have been soloing and remained just as comfortable. As a team Eric and I made sound decisions. Having the skillset to head a joint effort to the top of the Grand Teton was a new notch on my ski mountaineering belt. Skiing the Grand in January is far different than May, or the many summer summits I’ve enjoyed over the years. Maybe it’s just always different, every time? Instead of resting on my laurels I am looking forward to more Grand Teton adventures this winter. If I can normalize these adventures, shave hours off the clock and continue to refine my alpine climbing efficiency, new ceilings may avail themselves in these mountains I revere so deeply. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Tetons, every time I think I’ve “done it”, there’s something bigger, more alluring and worthy of my full attention right around the corner – and then there’s somebody who’s already going bigger… and bigger.
For the climbers out there, here’s a few quick notes on the technical equipment we brought on our January 2022 climb and ski descent of the Grand Teton’s Ford-Stettner Couloir.
- One 60M 8.7mm lead line
- One 60M 5mm tag-line
- Two 13cm ice screws
- Two 16cm ice screws
- Half dozen medium-small sized nuts
- One pink trim-cam
- Three medium cams (Metolius 6, 5 and 4)
- Five quick-draws
- One double (120cm) sling
- Extra cord, lockers, etc.
Ultimately this rack was sufficient, but I wished for a few extra slings, both 60cm and 120cm, for clipping fixed anchors as lead protection. With 2-4 more screws and extra slings we could have simul-climbed the entire Chevy and Stettner in one pull, but then again, do you really want to lug that much gear? I think I placed every piece of rock protection at least once, except the #4 Metolius cam. It should be noted that many of the fixed anchors, especially in the upper Chevy Couloir, can be hard to reach (very high on the wall) in low snow conditions.
As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise, purveyors of great skis and delicious locally sourced food, including my favorite whole-food “Rob’s Bars” and craft mead.
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