This past weekend Carl Osterberg, Ryan Corley and I made an unintentional descent of a rarely skied line on the north side of Peak 11,840 while looking for the renowned Tallboy Couloir. The Tallboy’s Evil Twin, also known as the Just Enough Couloir, begins at the saddle separating Teewinot Mountain and Peak 11,840, dropping over 4,000 feet to Cascade Canyon with healthy mix of tight and technical jump turns, steep skiing above exposure, route finding and a midway rappel. Lucky for us, we had the trusty “just in case” rope to bail us out.
The day began at 6:00AM with bicycles, lots of coffee and four man crew headed to Garnet Canyon. Our plan was to peddle 3.5 miles to Lupine Meadows, stash bikes and attempt a traverse from Garnet to Cascade Canyon by way of the Dike Snowfield and an elusive line I’ve been chasing for years, the Tallboy Couloir. With very high winds and little sun forecasted, traveling above 12,000 feet and skiing anything other than north faces seemed nonsensical. New snow over the past week flaunted potential powder on wind sheltered slopes, and I was thirsty for soft jump turns after weeks of bulletproof crusty, or sketchy wind slabified, ski mountaineering.
After accidentally skinning too high above the Garnet summer trail, the first audible of our day was to ski the Delta Lake Chutes instead of the Dike Snowfield. Considering how sluggish I felt, I had no problem with the 1,500 vertical foot, and several mile shaving shortcut. I somehow ended up riding chairlifts at Grand Targhee the day before, and my three year, near-exclusively backcountry legs were feeling heavy. I may be able to ski the Grand Teton and feel chipper the next morning, but something about 40,000 feet of choppy spring slush makes me feel like… well, doing anything other than a massive ski tour the next day.
From Delta Lake we broke trail up the north side of Teton Glacier, switched to crampons and booted the remaining 1,400 feet up the southwest aspect of Teewinot Mountain, connecting gullies, snowfields and finishing by climbing what I’ve heard called the Southwest Couloir (despite it’s SSE aspect?), topping out on the saddle separating Teewinot and Peak 11,840 to the west. By now our party was reduced to three, Ian put off by the firmness of the snow and retreating to Lupine Meadows early. Both he and Ryan – associates of Carl’s – I had never skied with before, so I deeply appreciated Ian’s ability to recognize his limits and resist getting swayed by the ever persuasive herd mentality. Furthermore, the generous insistence that we continue on despite his retreat was double cool – a real friend right there!
We topped out the saddle around noon after a brilliant face climb of hard-freeze front-pointing above massive exposure. Though bulletproof ice today, the Southwest would be an excellent spring corn run – I’ll be back. Greeted by a scoured scree field and high winds atop Peak 11,840′, we wasted no time down-climbing into the cirque. From a shelf above the couloir we determined the line “goes” – at least as far as we could see – and was “almost certainly” the Tallboy. We continued down-climbing to a thin strip of steep snow around 11,500 feet that marked the beginning of our unintentionally rowdy descent.
The upper couloir was thin and wind affected, providing 45-50 degree jump turns above no-fall exposure. Though no powder was found, chalky snow was edge-able and consistent. I was very happy, for really there is little I love more than than tight and technical skiing in wild, wild places. After 800-900 feet of hop-turns, the bottleneck opened to a large glaciated apron with mostly buffed powder on a modest 40 degree slope – another 1000 feet of excellent skiing. With his heavier boots and mean ski style, our new friend Ryan stole the show, unleashing remarkably high speed turns with calming control. To say I was impressed, especially given his self proclaimed lack of technical ski experience, would be an understatement.
Around 10,000 feet we regrouped and spotted a suspicious rollover. I was the only one who had skied in this cirque before, and I knew the runout to the Tallboy – since I scouted the beast after skiing the Diagonal Couloir last March – shouldn’t have any cruxes. As the team member with the most experience I stuck my neck out for reconnaissance, jump turning to the edge of the sightline with care. Sure enough, an impassible band of granite, at least 50 feet tall, was blocking our way. We were stuck, and officially absolutely not in the Tallboy Couloir. An old boot-pack leading from the cliff’s edge to the top of our line suggested one party suffered the same fate as us not too long ago.
When skiing in big, technical and complex zones like the Owen-Teewinot Cirque, I almost always carry a thin 30M rope, harness and enough material to build an anchor. Nine times out of ten the insurance gear won’t leave my pack, but today it saved our tofu. From a massive boulder marking the cliff’s edge, an anemic, precarious but secure snow ramp lead down and east along the granite shelf, which I traversed cautiously to the edge of an exposed chimney. A faded sling tied to a single half slotted nut suggested once again we were not alone in our oversights. After prolonged searching I found a network of thin cracks sufficient enough to build an anchor. I slugged in two solid pitons, slotted two small nuts and equalized the lot as best as possible. A packing miscommunication between Carl and I left us with a less than ideal amount of anchoring cord, but combined with a small stash of emergency webbing I always keep on hand, we made some mighty fine lemonade. I threw the 30M rope east into an awkward chimney and reached the snow-line with inches to spare. The ski mountaineering gods had our backs today.
After Carl and Ryan rappelled safely into the lower couloir, another 3,000 feet of generally high quality skiing was enjoyed to the canyon bottom. Some sections were sportier than others – cough, cough… satsrugi – but boot deep powder was found as well. From my last foray into this zone, I knew the best way to avoid another massive swath of cliffs and icefalls (approximate elevation 8,600 feet) is to traverse hard skier’s left (west) through rocky but non-technical, lightly gladed terrain. In this way we reached Cascade Canyon without removing the rope for round two, and enjoyed clouded views of a mission well handled from the peaceful banks of Cascade Creek. Five miles of creek crossings, isothermal skinning and half melted lake skating brought us to Lupine Meadows around 4:30PM, and another 3.5 miles of blissful bike riding saw our crew to the Bradley-Taggart lot by 5:00PM. Not quite the adventure we expected, but a grand adventure nevertheless!
PSA – Inspect Your Anchors! – And A Quick Summary
Our experience in the Tallboy’s Evil Twin highlighted one especially important part of mountaineering I would like to reinforce. ALWAYS INSPECT ANCHORS BEFORE USE! While the anchor I built was structurally sound enough to lower our team, half-inch webbing is only rated to 4KN, so when knotted (which can reduce cord strength by up to 25%) and after a season or two of cold weather, it’s safety could come in to question. In an ideal world all fixed anchors would be built with perfect lasting construction, but even the finest of piton placements wiggle free after years of melt-freeze cycles, and cord deteriorates with weathering. Earlier this year I found a dislodged piton and tattered cord equalized to a single remaining nut while rappelling onto the East Face of the Middle Teton, and though I didn’t have time to fix the anchor, I cut the cord to remove the chance of a following party making a fatal mistake. In the case of our anchor, a following party would almost certainly find all the gear in perfect condition (though they should still inspect it), but the webbing would need to (or at least should) be replaced. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the active party, not the one that came before, to take responsibility for their own safety. When I find an anchor I intend to use in the backcountry, my safety checklist goes as follows:
- Does the fixed gear look good, and are there still at least three pieces of gear in the rock? Rusty pitons are a sign of aging. If the pin wiggles when pulled on, it may be able to be hammered back in and secured with a few gentle taps. When in doubt, replace any fixed gear or add an extra fourth… or fifth… or sixth piece tied to the master point.
- Does the anchoring cord connecting the gear look good? Relatively new? Super faded colors and fraying are signs of aging and a clue that the cord may be due for replacement.
- Is the anchor well built? Make sure the anchor is equalized in the direction of pull, the correct knots were used, the anchor was built in secure rock, etc. Find problems? Fix them!
- BONUS POINTS: If a dangerous and irreparable anchor (like the single nut anchor we found on the Tallboy’s Evil Twin, or a loose slung block) is encountered, destroy as much of it as possible by cutting the cord and or removing the fixed gear.
All in all, The Tallboy’s Evil Twin is an exciting line offering consistent steep and technical skiing in a dramatic skiing. Carl and I both agree that with proper beta this line could be a bonafide Teton classic. If I have time this winter, I hope to return to The Evil Twin and replace the cord on our anchor to make it more “permanent”, though in early or late season it may not be able to be reached anyways. Carl spotted remnants of an anchor high above ours, east of the snowfield, but I’m not sure how one would get there. Ultimately, the Owen-Teewinot Cirque is a rugged, complex and unforgiving zone that deserves the utmost of respect. Oh boy do I love skiing in the Tetons.
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 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!