First Winter Grand Teton Solo – East Face/Starr-Workman Variation, Ski Descent – Grand Teton Nat. Park, WY (03.30.22)

On March 30th, 2022 I completed my first solo climb and ski descent of the Grand Teton, with ropes used for rappel. I used the traditional Stettner & Chevy Couloirs (WI2+, steep snow) for ascent, but climbed a new (to me) variation of the Ford Couloir – the “Workman-Starr Sneak” – to access the summit via the Southeast Ridge & Face. Seeking a first personal descent, I reversed the “Workman-Starr” via the GT’s hanging East Face, some of the most exposed turns of my life. Sadly, a thin breakable crust kept conditions sporty, and the “sneak” was virtually un-skiable, but waiting for corn isn’t always an option when there’s a dozen skiers waiting to rain debris on you from above.

The Grand Teton and its’ East Face, viewed from the Grand Teton N.P. foothills
The East Face/Workman-Starr Sneak Ski Route, Southeast Ridge Ascent and Ford Couloir, on the South Face of the Grand Teton. My ski descent follows the red dotted line.

There is just something special about the Grand Teton. I think of it as my Everest. The king looms 7,000 feet above the valley floor, a monolith of North American alpinism and ski mountaineering, dwarfing the rest of the lauded Teton Range by 800 feet at the least. I have now climbed the Grand Teton seven times, three with skis, and my obsession with the peak hasn’t relinquished one bit. After skiing the Grand for my second time this past January, thoughts of a winter solo were born. I back pocketed the idea with no chatter, racking serious mileage on an array of ice and mixed climbs in the months to come, honing my skills and mindset for the unescapable moment of soloing a few stiff bulges of water ice with 2,000 feet of exposure in the Grand’s Chevy Couloir. Really, the whole 13,775 foot enchilada boiled down to this 300 foot strip of ice and snow, well known for ever-changing ice conditions and overhead hazard. I wouldn’t say the Chevy scared me – I was very confident, certain I wouldn’t fall – but if I was going to climb this thing rope-less I wanted to do it right, smoothly, in good style with no hiccups. Hiccups and raised heartbeats are for roped climbing, and soloing, at least for me, is about perfection.

The East Face of the Middle Teton viewed at dawn from the Petzoldt Col on the Grand Teton

The Climb

My day began at 1:27 AM at the Bradley-Taggart Trailhead in Grand Teton National Park. Snow conditions are holding – albeit barely – in the lower elevations, so travel into Garnet Canyon was efficient. I only slept two-some hours in the van, unable to get my propane heater working and subsequently freezing my way through four hours of “sleep”. Originally I planned to wake at 2:00AM, but a pair of EXUM guides sandwiched the van with loud music, headlights and client chatter around 12:30 – ain’t no rest for the wicked… I guess. The guided crew departed with one client, just in time for another trio to arrive. Walking around the lot with a cup of coffee I confirmed both parties, six humans total, were headed for the big stone. I also learned of one other Grand ascending duo camped in Garnet. Yikes. I thought about pivoting and heading for Mount Owen, but there’s fewer things I dislike more than indecision in the mountains. Instead, I resolved to maximize efficiency and out-climb as many parties as possible, in hopes of reaching the summit and completing a safe descent before the technical climb got clogged with ropes and skier induced shrapnel. On a bottleneck style route like the Ford-Chevy-Stettner, human congestion is often the biggest hazard.

I set out ahead of the second party, and overlapped the guide crew at the base of the Stettner Couloir around 5:30AM – hour four. They were racking gear and flaking ropes for a protected climb, and were very friendly when I asked to solo past. The ice in the Stettner was exactly as it was in January, a few easy patches of WI2, none exceeding 20 feet, with long snow ramps in between. This was my first time climbing ice by headlamp, but on such familiar terrain the vibe was mellow, exactly how I wanted. I reached ‘team overnight’ in the Chevy Couloir, with the leader climbing through the notorious, barely vertical but still mean looking crux bulge. As he moved into easier terrain I soloed by, climbing over their rope and proceeding through the ice without interruption. The team head, another EXUM Guide, was once again very friendly as I climbed by, thanking me for waiting as they negotiated the most difficult part of the route. I shot some pictures of the guide and his client as they climbed into the Ford Couloir, and the three of us enjoyed brief rest and nourishment at the nice and flat Petzoldt Col rappel station. Of the two dozen some-odd people I’ve seen on the Grand in winter, these were the first without skis – savages!

Tyler from New Hampshire climbing out of the Chevy Couloir
Tyler and the Middle Teton

With the worst of climbing in the rearview, I started up towards the summit with lighthearted confidence. Instead of climbing the Ford Couloir as I had twice before, I opted for the “Workman-Starr Sneaker” a short gash of snow that takes the first weakness on the east side of the Ford Couloir, allowing access to the Grand’s Southeast Ridge and Face. An article in POWDER magazine was written about the little known “Workman-Starr” and it’s potential to alleviate congestion related problems on the Grand’s South Face – titled “Is There A Better Way to Ski the Grand Teton” – a worthy read for all Grand Teton ski mountaineers. The variation led through a firm and inhospitable, but easily climbed chute and landed me on the ridge in no time. The snow on the ridge-top was boot-depth and supportable, likely providing quicker summit passage than the steeper Ford Couloir. Beneath a brilliant bluebird sky I reached the 13,775 foot summit of the Grand Teton at 8:30AM.

Looking down the Workman-Starr Sneak into the Ford Couloir. Steep steep!
The Southeast Ridge and Face of the Grand Teton, with a generous boot-pack provided by a lone pre-dawn soloist.
First winter solo Grand Teton summit stoke!

Skiing – Airy on the East Face

“Get ready for honest 50 degree turns while hanging your ass out over the world”, the POWDER article reads, while describing the skiing on the Grand Teton’s East Face/Workman-Starr route. Unfortunately for me that meant 50 degree side slipping, at least on the steepest upper headwall. The snow leading to the East Face was a mixed bag, a few decent turns with debris underneath to keep one honest. As soon as the upper cliff-band guarding the East Face relented, I dipped onto the airiest snowfield of my life, finding the sheer fifty-plus degree slope in bulletproof conditions. With a heavy pack and damp legs I side slipped for some fifty feet, before beginning to hack turns through a more manageable breakable crust, slightly lower angle, but not by much. Would I have prefferred to ski the East Face in stellar corn? Certainly. But with a party of three above and another threesome climbing below, I wanted to avoid the classic Chevy Couloir traffic jam, or at least be ahead of it. Despite the dodgy crust, skiing the East Face of the Grand Teton was a mighty big tick on my endless Teton ski-mountaineering list. Just as expected, I made but one turn in the sneak, and only one more in the lower Ford. The shaded and very steep slope was icy, filled with firm debris and too much for my 900 gram carbon rando-skis, and 1,000 gram ski-mo boots, to handle. Oh can’t I wait for Marker to fulfill my binding warranty. On a mission like this, my Natural 101’s would’ve come in handy.

Rappelling through the lower Chevy, into the Stettner Couloir.

Retreat, Reflection and Gear Check

Five 50M double rope rappels brought me to the bottom of the Stettner Couloir around eleven. All anchors were in good shape, though some were still quite high on the wall due to low snow, namely those in the upper Chevy. The skiing from Teepee Glacier to Bradley Lake was a mixed bag trending towards good, mostly heavy corn intermixed with old avalanche debris. I reached the car just before the 12 hour mark, one of my loose goals for the day, shaving four hours off Eric Boomer and I’s January time, and six off my first 2020 ski descent.

Ultimately, my first solo climb and ski descent of the Grand Teton went very well. The climbing, which I projected as the crux of the day, was routine, smooth and flawless. Aside from the final 500 feet, I was excited by my fitness level. Had time been my sole goal, I could have shaved 2-3 hours off the round trip clock, doing away with many long breaks. After a long season dedicated to high-country skiing, it feels great to enter peak ski-mountaineering season in the best shape of my life. As for the skiing, well, this was my second survival-style descent on a consequential face this season. After waking up at 12:30 and investing 12 hours of time into climbing and skiing a mountain in “supposed to be good” conditions, breakable crust and prolonged side-slipping is a tough pill to swallow. Some turns felt a little “looser” than I would’ve liked, and without my trusty whippet – which I accidentally left at home – the East Face felt pretty intimidating. That said, in the words of Teton ski-guide and mountaineer Dan Corn, it’s important to be grateful for every second we spend in the alpine, “even if that means side slipping 2,000 feet of breakable crust”. Furthermore, in the words of another Teton titan Adam Fabrikant, who was on the Grand the same day as I, skied the same route and called the snow “challenging but fun”, “getting down safe is all that matters”. The greater my frequency of Teton high-country visits, the more I understand this wisdom. The more one climbs, the greater their likelihood of encountering less than ideal conditions, and the more emphasis that needs to be placed on acceptance, tactics for safe descent and a humble ego that knows when to fold the cards. By these metrics, my first winter solo of the Grand Teton was a raging success. Until the next go, hopefully sooner than later, I bow my head to the mighty Grand Teton for allowing safe passage.

Gear Check

For my solo climb and descent of the Grand Teton on March 30th, 2022, I brought two 50M ropes. This length served me well with little wasted line. I can’t imagine getting by with less rope, unless one was willing to down climb between stations. I carried one 22cm ice screw I did not use, and climbed with steel vertical-point crampons, though most other climbers use lighter mountaineering spikes. I used two technical ice tools. A helmet should be considered mandatory due to the high likelihood of falling rock, snow and ice in the Chevy and Stettner Couloirs. Ski crampons, as always, help ad infinitum on spring ski missions.

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DISCLAIMER
Mountains are dangerous. Skiing them is more dangerous. Can’t we just admire those beautiful peaks from the parking lot? With binoculars and a lime Lacroix? Hmm… Nevertheless, mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to the titled date. 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!

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