The Red Sentinel Couloir has become somewhat of a Teton “trade route” the past few seasons. Why has it taken me six winters to ski this iconic line? Probably the same reason I haven’t skied the Apocalypse Couloir – WHO KNOWS! On March 12th, 2022 I finally tagged the beast, scoring 100% fresh tracks in unnervingly deep snow. To throw a wrench in the bunch, my beloved Icelantics are in the shop, so I skied knee deep snow in 90mm carbon race skis…
The Red Sentinel Couloir
The Red Sentinel wasn’t even on my radar as I pulled into the Bradley-Taggart parking area just after 7:00AM. I was rolling solo and leery of suspect wind slab conditions in the high elevations. My tentative plan was to check out the south facing couloirs of the Middle Teton, either the Ellingwood or Choinard, and exit into Avalanche Canyon via the Amore A Vida Couloir. With avalanche hazards confined mostly to wind, I was aiming for windward slopes despite likely worse ski conditions. Ironically, I ended up skiing north… leeward.
The weather was picture perfect up to 8,000 feet, but quickly deteriorated as I moved into the Meadows. What started as a few unruly gusts and a windbreaker worthy breeze spiraled into a full blown gale storm, right around the apron of Nez Perce’s West Hourglass Couloir. Three other leading parties had already bailed and skied past down-canyon, leaving me alone in a vast, windswept and severely socked in Garnet Canyon. Frankly, the energy in air was downright demonic. There was no way I’d be skiing on the Middle or South Tetons with these kind of gusts. I needed to adapt.
My first audible was to the West Hourglass Couloir with hopes of its’ large westerly walls protecting the snow from strongly westerly winds. I skinned up the apron for a few hundred feet before fracturing two small wind pockets. Citing my aloneness and the heinous wind-boarded snow I cut my losses and skied to the opposite side of the canyon. One trailing crew of four had begun cutting the skin track for the Red Sentinel Couloir and Teepee Glacier/Dike Snowfield. I caught them relatively quickly, confirmed they weren’t headed for the former and immediately began dreaming of untouched powder on a Teton classic I’d never skied. The Red Sentinel has become somewhat of Teton trade route the last few years, and trendy things usually steer me away. I’ve stubbornly avoided the obvious need to ski the super classic, thousand foot, 45 degree fall line shot into Teton Glacier strictly on the basis of popularity. But this day, with at least two feet of fresh snow and not another skier in sight, I had the opportunity to have my cake and eat it too – deep powder on a Teton classic, all to myself!
The Red Sentinel is revered for its’ ease of access, but today I had to fight tooth and nail to reach the 11,200 foot skier summit. Catastrophic winds marred any signs of past travel, leaving me to cut a virgin skin track and eventual boot-pack through two thousand feet of merciless breakable wind-crust. I followed the traditional approach through the trees and gullies east of Spalding Falls before traversing west to the Red Sentinel access couloir. The higher I climbed the worse the gusts became, reaching levels sufficient to knock a 6’4”, 180 pound male (a.k.a. me) off their feet without proper bracing. I switched to boots around 10,500 feet and noticed the trailing party of four was packing up for retreat. All of sudden I was alone again.
Through naivety, stupidity, grit or some combination of the three, furthermore aided by a half-hour pitstop in a luxurious boulder cave, I reached the skier-summit of the Red Sentinel. The wind miraculously subsided as I dipped onto the north facing slope, leaving me peacefully alone with 1,000 feet of blissfully blanketed couloir. After four hours in the battlefield with Mother Nature and Mr. Gravity, the sight of untouched powder seemed a little too good to be true.
I dipped into the goods cautiously, deploying several ski cuts before committing to the crux rollover slope. According to CalTopo.com the Red Sentinel maxes out around 50 degrees, with an average slope angle of 42 degrees, nothing otherworldly, but plenty to get the nerves tingling. For me, the hardest part of skiing the Red Sentinel was the mental hurdle of being alone in a massive, steep and remote avalanche path flooded with thigh deep, wind deposited snow. Ski cuts and hand pits pointed to a stable snowpack, but something about skiing this deep and steep, without anyone watching my back, promoted paranoia and hyper vigilance. Racing slough was the major concern, second only to the skis on my feet. I am still waiting on a binding warranty for a broken heel-piece on my beloved powder slaying machines (the Icelantic Natural 101’s), so I was forced to drag the sub-1,000 gram, 90 millimeter underfoot carbon race skis from the closet. It goes without saying that these toothpick-lookin’ speed demons aren’t exactly the right tool for thigh deep powder. That said, if ski mountaineering has taught me anything, it’s taught me to play with (or at least begrudgingly accept) the hand you’re given. And alas here we were, drowning in steep powder, deep in the heart of the Tetons.
A three inch wind-skin and some residual avalanche debris prevented a high speed descent, but all in all the skinny skis held me back little. On the lower apron I was able to ratchet up the pace and score plenty of high speed powder turns to Teton Glacier. The skiing was altogether phenomenal to the shores of Delta Lake, where I stopped to chow down a homemade hummus, tomato, alfalfa sprout and vegenaise sandwich in suddenly sunny and docile weather. Given three feet of powder and erratic high winds, I’d say the day went about as good as possible. A pair of tracks in the Dike Snowfield suggested two other phantom skiers may have found their way up Garnet without my detection, but otherwise the park was just about vacant. Even the uber popular Delta Lake Chutes only had three tracks. Maybe the low snowpack and two months of dry weather in January and February zapped everyone’s stoke? Who knows. More powder for me I guess!
Egress, Quick Summary & Gear Shakedown
The recommended descent from Teton Glacier and Delta Lake contours immediately south out of Glacier Gulch, across the flanks of Surprise Pinnacle and into Burnt Wagon Gulch. Another 1,000 feet of moderate trees can be skied into Burnt Wagon Gulch, or, for the skier determined to reach the car as fast as possible, the southerly traverse can be continued to the toe of Garnet Canyon and Bradley Lake. I capped my mission at the seven hour mark, though I was substantially hindered by the apocalyptic winds and difficult trail breaking. Without said wind and subsequent need to seek refuge in a cave, 5-6 round trip hours would seem appropriate for a fit party in good conditions. In firm snow conditions, an ice axe, crampons and ski crampons may be warranted. Hell, I don’t really leave the house without them anyways.
As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise.
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Mountains are dangerous, and skiing them is more dangerous. Can’t we just admire those beautiful peaks from the parking lot? With binoculars and a BOCA Burger? Hmm… Nevertheless, mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to March 12, 2022. This article is written strictly for informational purposes only. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk!