According to the late great Steve Romeo, acclaimed Teton ski mountaineer and founder of TetonAT.com, “The Ellingwood Couloir on the Middle Teton is one of the most classic steep descents in the Teton Range”, and if Romeo deems it a classic, I’ll give it my humble blessing too. The Ellingwood is one of the very, very few lines I’ve skied that maintains an average slope angle of 50 degrees for over 1,000 continuous feet. Adding to the spice, rollovers in excess of 55 degrees and rarely (if ever) filled in mid-run cliffs make this incredibly striking line both a true bear and a true beauty. On March 14, 2022 the stars aligned for a solo climb and descent in stable knee deep powder – without a doubt the best turns I’ve ever had on skis.
Why I Ski Big Lines Solo
(to jump straight to the trip report, scroll down to “The Ellingwood Couloir”)
At first glance, one might say skiing a line such as the Ellingwood Couloir, one of the steepest descents in the Teton Range, by one’s self in knee deep powder is irresponsible, dangerous or ill-advised. Though the answer to this dilemma is more nuanced than possible to discuss in two paragraphs, I’ll just say I beg to differ. Assuming the descentionist has the fundamental ski mountaineering skills required to assess a snowpack and subsequent avalanche conditions, read the weather and make accurate assessments of the many other objective hazards that come with big mountain alpine climbing, the safety-defining variable gets widdled to one: is the skier, or is the skier not, physically capable of skiing the terrain. Steep skiing is not rock climbing. One is almost never on a rope, and to use a rope on a line like the Ellingwood would be overly time consuming and impractical. In 50 degree terrain falls are very difficult to arrest. Should one blow a turn and begin to tumble in the Ellingwood, they would almost certainly rag-doll through thousands of feet of cliffs, maybe even ping off the gigantic easterly wall, before coming to rest somewhere in the south fork of Garnet Canyon. The same fate pertains to anyone who gets caught in an Ellingwood avalanche. No amount of partners, shovels, probes, beacons or satellite phones will aid in 98% of these scenarios. Frankly, falling in a line like the Ellingwood with partners could be perceived as worse, since the burden and everlasting scars of body recovery will be left to the fallen’s friends. Not to be fatalistic, but oftentimes on big mountain ski descents, whether or not one is with a partner, they are actually all alone.
I ski big mountain lines alone for the same reason I scramble alpine rock routes alone, go backpacking alone and ride my bike alone. In a world flooded with never-ending noise, I’ve come to appreciate silence. Just as I am aware of my abilities on a bicycle and do not exceed certain speeds when biking on rocky terrain, I am aware of my abilities on skis. After years of skiing steep terrain I have cultured clarity on whether or not I should make another turn or side-slip, when a rollover warrants a ski cut and when it’s best to cut my losses and down-climb. In many ways I would argue I am safest when skiing alone. Fundamentally, even the best of partners are a distraction. I find it easiest to make sense of and heed my intuition without the input of a third party, and am much more likely to ski something I wouldn’t otherwise ski, or climb something I wouldn’t otherwise climb, if I have a partner “hyping me up” or even just innocently “making it look easy”. This kind of synergistic energy is advantageous in sports without serious consequences, say sport climbing or ultra running. In these sports the good ol’ “you got this” or “come on man, I know you can push harder” can be of serious benefit, with the worst outcome being a well-protected fall (sport climbing) or the dreaded bonk, sit on a rock and feel bad about yourself (running). But in a sport like ski mountaineering or alpine climbing, pushing one out of their comfort zone, or encouraging them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do (except in the rare case of a strong partnership where both members have a massive experience bank adventuring together and intimately know each other’s abilities) can have life threatening repercussions. Simply put, so long as I am mentally sharp and acutely aware of my own surroundings and abilities, I feel just as safe, if not safer, traveling by myself in high consequence mountain terrain. Furthermore, the brilliantly empowering and humbling sensation of being totally self reliant in dramatic terrain such as the Ellingwood Couloir, carving arching and flowing turns in knee deep, relentlessly exposed, fifty-five degree powder at 12,300 feet, with the whole breadth of the southern Teton Range spewed beneath my skis like chocolate chips on a freshly baked cookie, is a divine and transcendent feeling that cannot be adequately expressed in words.
The Ellingwood Couloir
Alright, shall we get to the feature film? As mentioned above, the Ellingwood Couloir is one of the steepest continuous fall-line ski descents in the Teton Range. I feel the “no fall zone” designation gets tossed around a little too liberally in the ski-mountaineering world, but this line really is no place to hook an edge. The Ellingwood is pure south facing and therefor highly susceptible to solar warming. Rock bands liberally stud the direct fall line and need to be strategically navigated both on the up and down. This line is done in both “top-down” and “bottom-up” fashion, the former involving the north fork of Garnet Canyon and Middle Teton Glacier, or connected to a summit descent via the Middle Teton’s East Face, and the latter by way of Garnet’s South Fork and a direct boot-pack ascent. I prefer the latter, especially because optimal snow conditions are imperative for a safe descent in the Ellingwood. Obviously, climbing a line eliminates snowpack surprises on the descent. Beginning at 12,300 feet from the saddle separating the Middle Teton and the Dike Pinnacle, and dropping approximately 1,700 feet into Garnet Canyon’s South Fork with over 1,000 feet of sustained 50 degree skiing, the Ellingwood is truly a special line worthy of more attention.
The Ellingwood wasn’t my first intention when I arrived in the Garnet Canyon Meadows after breaking trail every step of the way from Bradley Lake. In six winters of traipsing around Grand Teton National Park I’ve never put in the full Garnet skin track. A valley dusting turned to eight inches around 8,000 feet, and about 12 inches at 9,500 feet. Gusty winds and low visibility diverted my attention from the high country and towards the lower couloirs of Nez Perce, though 500 feet of climbing in the West Hourglass Couloir revealed heinous wind battered conditions. Generally westerly but equally erratic winds over the past week tossed snow every which way, and apparently the West Hourglass got the brunt end of the stick. After battling high winds two days ago in nearly the same location, I was reluctant to climb any higher into Garnet’s South Fork. For the past week I’d been dreaming of skiing the Ellingwood or Chouinard Couloirs, but feared cross-loading and wind slabs, with danger further exacerbated by each line’s steep and cliffy nature. On such a low snow year, both couloirs were also candidates for not being “filled in”. But just as my apprehension began to get the best of me the low-hanging clouds burned off, and sights of the upper Ellingwood were just too much to bear. I was already this far, and figured I might as well go preform some first hand recon.
Instead of the traditional approach via the broad gully looker’s left of the Cave Couloir, I monkeyed across the chossy scree fields beneath Nez Perce (only because I was already in the West Hourglass), slipping, cursing and traversing generally west into Garnet Canyon’s South Fork. I reached the bottom of the Ellingwood at 11:30AM, three and a half-ish hours after leaving the car.
Booting – Fifteen Hundred Feet of Hell
Much to my surprise, both the Ellingwood and Chouinard Couloirs were filled in, with the former looking ever so slightly more approachable. Both had substantial whale tails, slough piles and wind mank on their lower flanks. The Chouinard seemed mostly good, but a few snow undulations birthed fear of wind slabs. The Ellingwood on the other hand looked mostly uniform, fit for a great alpine climb at bare minimum. One of the nicest parts about the Ellingwood is the opportunity bail onto the north facing Middle Teton Glacier, which begins at the same skier summit, if faced with unfavorable ski conditions. The Glacier Route is still steep and technical but not quite Ellingwood level, providing an almost always easier and shaded descent fit for anyone with the skills required to consider skiing the Ellingwood in the first place.
The sun was shining full force, but relatively low air temps combined with relevant, twenty-ish mile per hour winds preserved the soft snow that’d fallen over the past two storms. However, should the wind have ceased I’d be stranded in an alpine convection oven capable of producing high consequence wet slabs – no time for leisure. The lower couloir was sandbagged with avalanche debris, slough and wind deposited snow which made for difficult climbing. At points I sunk to my hips and had to traverse onto exposed rock for some insecure fourth class winter scrambling to continue upward. Luckily, as the slope angle wrenched up the snowpack became more consolidated and provided a firm crust beneath two feet of powder for tenuous but reliable climbing. A rocky ski-width choke with exposed water ice and one particular stretch with many exposed shark teeth were noted as descent cruxes. Besides the inherently exhausting nature of punching a boot-pack through 2-3 feet of fresh snow all by oneself up 1,700 feet of very steep mountain, the climb was actually quite routine. A few pockets of seriously deep and unconsolidated snow were quite frustrating, but in an hour and a half I was standing on the saddle separating the Middle Teton and the Dike Pinnacle, staring wide eyed at brilliance in all directions, the Grand Teton’s Ford-Stettner Route to my north, the Dike Pinnacle’s corniced west ridge to my east, the Middle Teton’s ultra-classic East Face to my west and of course, the impending steepest ski descent of my life to the south, just below my feet.
Skiing – The Best Run of My Life
After a handful of slow turns to quell my nerves and calibrate the ski mountaineer senses, I settled into the best run I’ve ever had on a pair of skis. With the exception of a few grabby turns off the very top, the snow in the Ellingwood was light and bottomless but perfectly supportable, with no signs of instability. My biggest concern was slough management, prompting diligent terrain awareness. Even through the crux cliff sections I found the courage to ski confidently, jump turning through tight rock bands as if they weren’t there. In 55 degree terrain one isn’t skiing as much as they are “controlled falling”. With each turn I would throw myself down the slope, catch legitimate hang time, rotate 180 queued in to relishing every moment. At the lowermost and tightest constriction I intentionally ski-cut one small wind pocket and side slipped over the following water ice before enjoying a few hundred feet of lower angle turns into Garnet Canyon below. When I stopped at the base of the line to admire my tracks, the first thing I noticed was the utter silence. The wind had completely keeled off. I reckon I could’ve heard a pin drop. I stood stunned beyond belief, in a daze state, as if I’d woken from a dream. Staring up at my tracks winding through the couloir I felt consciously out of my body, in a transcendental, lucid dreaming sort of space. If I find a way to encapsulate the feeling I had at the base of the Ellingwood Couloir within the confines of written human language I will report back, but for now let’s just say I was really, really happy, and the skiing was very, very, very good.
Egress, A Quick Summary & Gear Check
After snapping a few pictures at the base of the Ellingwood I made moves for Bradley Lake, traversing the north wall of the canyon to the Cave Couloir, milking another 1,000 feet of silky pow and eventually relenting to the reliably heinous Garnet Canyon out track. Maybe I’m just a baby, but I hate isothermal moguls. Breaking trail from start to finish, my Ellingwood couloir mission logged nearly 6,000 feet of vertical and culminated around seven hours. Depending on the party and snow conditions I could see anywhere from six to ten hours being a comfortable round trip time. I was definitely incentivized to push the tempo given an unexpectedly under-filtered sun. Steel pointed mountaineering crampons and a light duty ice axe, as well as ski crampons, will be in my pack for my next trip up the Ellingwood. All in all, skiing this line encompassed virtually everything I love about Teton ski mountaineering. Aesthetic, steep, exposed, engaging climbing, relatively easy access and the added bonus of fresh stable powder? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t get much better than that.
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. 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 14, 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!
I am from Colorado and I am a snowboarder. A solo in the backcountry almost exclusively these days. I’ve been snowboarding Backcountry for about 32 years and have always done solo trips. Have done Backcountry trips with partners and groups but they’re all old and lazy now. People tell me you should not go in the backcountry alone. My response is oh, you want to go with me? They never do. I loved your article where you explain the advantages of going solo. My thing is I don’t have to worry about anybody else. I can concentrate and focus on me and me alone. I am Never more focused than when I’m snowboarding backcountry by myself. And like you I love the serenity. I do feel safer by myself. Truth is, people I used to snowboard with in the backcountry really or pretty unreliable. I think if I was caught and buried in a slide they probably couldn’t have saved me. So you may as well be by yourself. Another thing is when I do a run I really don’t like to stop. I would much rather do the whole thing non-stop top to bottom. I love back country it is my passion. Nothing like standing at the top of your line with not a single track in sight. I’m 60 years old and I’m still doing it. I’m going to do it as long as I can. People say to me, aren’t you too old? And I say, not yet.
Glad you enjoyed the article – I think it goes both ways. Certain adventures and conditions lend themselves favorably to partners – others less – though I couldn’t agree more that skiing solo holds a certain magic, a special place in my heart.