The Tallboy Couloir is an underground classic in the Teton steep skiing scene. 4,000 feet of fall-line vertical relief, uber-exposed entrance, 1,000 feet of sustained 50 degree skiing in a commanding, narrow and consequential upper couloir, all in the shadows of two of the Teton’s finest peaks, Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain – need I say more? On our third try Carl Osterberg and I struck gold, with perfect, dare I say all-time, conditions.
Two weeks ago, Carl, Ryan Corley and I made an attempt at the Tallboy Couloir but accidentally skied into the “Evil Twin”, needing a rope to escape. I wouldn’t call that mission a failure, but rather an unexpected success. The skiing was great, and we had the opportunity to tick a far rarer line than expected. That said, I wanted to ski the Tallboy, and we didn’t ski the Tallboy. With Ryan in California for the remainder of spring, Carl and I reunited for a redemption mission, hoping to course correct and strike gold in powder conditions.
We started on bikes at 6:00AM, switched to skis at Lupine Meadows and made good time into Glacial Gulch by way of the Garnet Canyon summer trail, reaching the top of Teton Glacier by 9:30. A solid melt-freeze crust allowed very efficient travel. Cloudy skies lingered all day, preventing any and all warming concern. Instead of booting Teewinot’s Southwest Couloir to the top of Peak 11,840 – the mistake we made two weeks prior – we climbed the broad southeast facing ramp to the col separating the East Prong and 11,840. By the top of the col we were breaking trail through knee deep snow, absent of slabs or wind effect. Despite light flurries I reckon we could have lit a candle on the saddle – a still morning, about as beautiful as they come.
Per the article title, we needed three strikes to find the Tallboy, and both dos and tres happened today. Our greatest error was not bringing a picture of the line, as topographic maps in this kind of jagged, tight, convoluted terrain are of limited use. Following our best instinct I dropped into a large bowl that seemed to funnel into a possible couloir, jump turning cautiously towards the edge of the sightline. As I reached the rollover and the snow became slabbier, I skeptically craned my neck out over several hundred feet of cliffs and shuddered. I was most certainly not in the Tallboy – I had just skied to the edge of the universe. Stranded on the dead man’s face to the west, I reported back to Carl several hundred feet above, switched to boots, unsheathed my axe and booted back to the summit ridge-line securely. Woah.
To the east of the dead man’s face, a highly corniced entry to a possible Tallboy was our last option. I scrambled up and over the knife edge ridge, and climbed atop a small boulder to gain a bird’s eye view. Sure enough, this was the Tallboy. Why didn’t we scout this line before dropping into the face? Well for one, the cornices were foreboding. Second, a GPS triangulation of our current location with my past tracks in the Diagonal Couloir, which funnels into the lower Tallboy, had me convinced the face would rollover into our prized possession. Once again, a picture is worth 1000 words, and had we one, we never would have made the misjudgment. Lesson learned – curtly.
After finally locking into the Tallboy, we needed a plan to dispatch possible slabs in the upper couloir, standing at 50-55 degrees and loaded with at least one foot of snow. While Carl scrambled over the ridge I slugged two pitons into a crumbly boulder beneath a wind sheltered alcove, supplemented by a questionable nut, establishing an anchor worthy of ski belay. This season I’ve been traveling with the “just in case rope” and fixed gear quite a bit, and have been rewarded time over time. Had we not the rope, I’m not sure I would have had the gusto to risk my neck for such an exposed, steep and freshly loaded descent. I ski cut the upper funnel and made the first half dozen jump turns into the gut while Carl belayed directly from the anchor above. After deeming the snow stable I fired some pictures, unclipped from the rando-line and buckled down for some seriously heart pumping turns. (As of February 2023 the cord and nut have been removed, but the pins remain)
The upper funnel of the Tallboy hovers around 48 degrees, rolling over to a sustained 50-55 degree crux with intense exposure to narrow walls and rock below. The “no fall zone” designation is used too liberally in the ski mountaineering world, but the Tallboy absolutely earns it’s “ski or yikes” badge. As a man who values his life I’ve been known to sideslip such terrain, but the supportive powder provided the perfect interface for confident jump turns through the whole enchilada. Jump, twist, stick. Jump, twist, stick. Jump, twist, stick. The movement was rhythmic but intense, controlled but wild. After the choke a mere 1,000 feet of deep powder couloir skiing remained, far wider, less consequential and ready for the turns of my season. I’m not sure I’ve ever skied so aggressively in 50 degree terrain, and was happy to rip the full Tallboy in a single push, not that there are many safe zones anyways.
Carl followed suit, side slipping the upper funnel through the crux before gaining some poise and turning up the dial. He claimed poor style, though I rebutted that in a zone as remote and rugged as the Owen/Teewinot Cirque, the only thing stylistically poor is falling. The number one goal of mountaineering, skis or otherwise, is returning alive (and preferably uninjured) – everything else is optional. Below the choke, Carl used that splitboard to log face-shot after steep face-shot while waving his axe around like budding Nick Russel – a great show to watch. Had the light been a little less flat, we mighta scored a cover shot on POWDER magazine.
After 1000 feet the upper Tallboy merges into the massive glaciated belly underpinning the entire cirque, where we started in slough chasing deep powder, finished in surprisingly great corn and skied just about every condition possible in-between. Flat light, bulletproof crust, wind buff, damp pow and frozen debris were the exception, but all reared their ugly heads. Having skied in this zone three times now, I finally seem to have the exit dialed. As you can see from the photo below, the adventure never fully ends until the banks of Cascade Creek. Then at said creek, assuming you just skied the Tallboy Couloir in all-time conditions, you break out the homemade zucchini-coconut muffins, fill your water bottle with crystal clear alpine creek water and plunk your butt in a snowbank for a few minutes of reverence.
The egress out Cascade Canyon, as always, was a pinch slow – though the rain crust hadn’t tipped isothermal quite yet. I actually skied some surprisingly stellar corn off Inspiration Point, and enjoyed bluebird views of Storm Point, Symmetry Spire and Mount Saint John while doing so. We were lucky enough to skate across Jenny Lake, though I fear this could be my last lake crossing of winter 2022. Hollow echoes and the occasional open watering hole spells trouble after a few more days of warm weather. We hit the car at 5:00PM – 10.5 hours round-trip – some fourteen snow miles, and seven bike miles – not too shabby. I must say, I’m a sucker for these multi-sport spring days.
Summary & Gear Shakedown
The Tallboy Couloir is the real deal, a 4,000 foot ski mountaineering descent not to be taken lightly. If anything, I think we slightly underestimated just how serious the Tallboy was. Compared to the Evil Twin, which definitely registered as exposed and steep in my book, the Tallboy upped the ante. To fall above the choke would be… well… inexcusable. If visiting the Tallboy in anything other than bombproof conditions, I would heavily consider a thin rope for ski belay. The north facing upper funnel is a prime candidate for deadly wind slabbage, and rocky flanks in the runout below are likely to pulverize any falling debris, human or otherwise. That said, in confident conditions the Tallboy is a truly classic Teton couloir ski descent, aesthetic, engaging and sustained, all in an immaculate setting. An ice axe and crampons should be considered mandatory, as well as a nifty high-quality picture (such as one found on this blog 😎). It goes without saying that skiing onto the dead man’s face is not recommended 😉
I hope you enjoyed this article. As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise. Need some new sticks capable of climbing and skiing anything your wild wicked mind can imagine? Head on over to icelanticskis.com and check out the Natural 101, my tried and true ski mountaineering katana.
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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!