The “Banana Couloir” is more of a massive gully than a true couloir, providing 3,300 feet of moderate fall-line skiing on the most commanding east face of the southern Tetons. Beginning at roughly 11,000 feet, “the Banana” maintains an average slope angle above 30 degrees for over one whole skiable mile (take a second to digest that), quite possibly the longest continuous avalanche path in the Teton Range. On March 25th, 2022, John Modlish and I ticked the line in a mix of buffed powder and stellar corn, making for one of the more memorable spring descents of my half-decade Teton ski mountaineering career.
Up and Over, and Up and Over… and Up… and Over
Yes, we drove up and over Teton Pass three times before reaching the Granite Canyon trailhead at 7:00AM on Friday morning. Why you ask? After waking up at 3:00AM to get an early start on the South Teton’s Southeast Couloir, we arrived 75 minutes later in Grand Teton National Park without my backpack. We had no choice, we were headed home. After landing in Victor around 6:00AM I somehow convinced John to swap cars and drive over the pass one last time for a run at the shorter, but still significant, Banana Couloir on Prospectors Mountain. The obvious first thought was “f*%k this, let’s go back to bed”, but lately I’ve been in more of a “make lemonade from lemons” kind of mood. We thought about skiing something on the Idaho side, but with pre-dawn valley temperatures already above freezing, we needed to access the high country fast, and Grand Teton National Park is the tried and true way to do so. Prospectors is over 1,500 feet shorter than the South Teton, and the Granite Canyon trailhead is about 30 minutes closer than the Bradley-Taggart lot used to access the core range. As such, we landed in Teton Village just before 7:00AM, ready to try our hand at a less technical but no less iconic line neither of us had skied before.
The Banana is one of those moderate classics I’ve wanted to ski for years, but is just tame enough to hide in the periphery. From flipping through many despairing trip reports I knew the king crux of the line was the approach, finding an efficient way into Open Canyon and choosing the right gully for initial ascent. There are a half dozen look-alike gullies on the eastern flanks of Prospectors Mountain, and the Banana isn’t quite steep enough to eye from below. Luckily, it’s the year 2022 and modern GPS devices have more or less solved these problems. Instead of wasting time searching for a skin track, John and I blazed trail along a mostly frozen forest crust beginning at the Death Canyon horse trail, contouring along numerous gullies in the general direction of Open Canyon. Every 15 minutes we’d pull out the phone and confirm our position, correct course and continue. Fortunately this shoot-from-the-hip tactic worked like a charm, and landed us at the GPS confirmed base of the Banana Couloir at approximately 8:45AM.
Up the Banana
At the base of the Banana a savage spring sun came out full force, reminding us of the three hours wasted retrieving my backpack, that wet avalanches were a real problem and time was of the essence. Luckily, once one finds the right approach gully, climbing the Banana is a simple game of plug and chug. We spent the first 2,300 feet of our ascent in ski crampons, crunching up the barely frozen melt-freeze crust, oscillating between the gully belly and the ridge on climber’s right. The lower elevations were already corning as we passed by. The race was officially on.
Around 10,000 feet we switched to boots, facing a steepening upper headwall and unfortunate unconsolidated snow. The barely frozen surface was already wet and penetrated to about cuff depth, hinting our Banana could be a little overripe. Had the slope angle been steeper we may have pulled the plug, but a sub-par sloppy descent appeared the primary concern rather than avalanches. Powered by stubbornness and desperation we punched up the remaining 1,000 feet in a jiffy, following an old boot-pack to an exhausting summit time of four hours and thirty minutes. I think John wanted to strangle me, but hey, even if the skiing was terrible and we woke up three hours too early to do it, we achieved a new Teton summit!
The Skiing? Straight Bananas!
A few isothermal turns off the very top forced us to traverse skier’s right, with hopes that the slightly north facing ramps on the south side of the gully might be less sun affected. Presto, we found the secret sauce. I almost couldn’t believe it while shooting pictures of John skiing the boot deep chalk, but sure enough, the south side of the Banana held some seriously sleeper powder. The turns weren’t quite cold smoke, and the odd sun crust kept us on our toes, but ultimately the top 1,000 feet was steep, soft and fifty times better than we ever could have imagined.
After milking the south wall for everything it had, minefields of old avalanche debris forced us to try the other side. Once again, we struck gold. In one single traverse conditions morphed from boot top powder to perfect spring corn, a transition like I’d seen few times before. Good fortune continued for the next 2,300 feet to Open Canyon, where surprisingly consistent corn conditions held from 10,000 feet to 7,700 feet. Still rocking carbon race skis I carved up the scene “East Coast style” while John let loose a bit of western, my-skis-are-fatter-than-yours flare. The dichotomy between the isothermal travesty I imagined and the truly superb turns we scored was simply brilliant.
Egress, Summary & Gear Check
To escape Open Canyon we traversed southeast to the next primary drainage and followed a well beaten out-track to the Moose-Wilson Road, lots of double poling, half-assed skating and waddling included. The forest between Open Canyon and the road is just barely sloped enough to rationalize keeping skins off, yet far too flat for anything other than mental, “when the heck is this going to end” torture. From the road, a half mile skin brought us to the car. Six and a half hours later, we had conquered the Banana.
All in all, the Banana Couloir is a line I look forward to repeating in mid-winter powder, whenever conditions are optimal but warrant staying below 11,000 feet and off steeper terrain. The approach isn’t trivial, but is worth every second for 3,000 feet of unrelenting fall-line alpine gully skiing. In stable, high-pressure, bluebird powder, the Banana could be one of those “all-time” descents. Despite being an absolute top candidate for corn harvest, I doubt the approach drainage, Open Canyon or initial gully hold snow much later than early April. For how bushy the final 500 feet of our descent was, I’d reckon Banana attempters will be removing skis coming up in a week or two. Who knows, we may have just scored the final continuous Prospectors Mountain descent of the 2022 season.
As far as gear, a spring ascentionist with ski crampons could nearly skin the whole enchilada. A light duty ice axe and crampons could be handy in firm conditions, especially on the steeper upper headwall, though we didn’t end up needing ours. Our total round trip distance was about 11 miles, with just over 5,000 feet of vertical gain. It should be noted that the true summit of Prospectors Mountain is closed to human traffic from December 1st through April 30th. To respect the National Park’s Winter Wildlife Closure, all uphill traffic on Prospectors Mountain should end at the skier summit of the Banana and V-Notch Couloirs. All terrain south of the Banana Couloir is also closed under the same mandate. All terrain north of the Banana Couloir, including Rimrock Lake, Gums Gulch and the many couloirs of Prospectors Mountain’s lower north wall, are fair game.
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 soy hotdog? Hmm… Nevertheless, mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to March 25, 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!