May 18th, 2022 saw my second summit ski descent of the East Face of Teewinot Mountain. Sustained 45+ degree face skiing above terraced cliffs and a 400 foot wide upper bowl funneling through a ski-width choke characterize this extremely classic Teton ski mountaineering objective. Connor James and I took advantage of the newly cleared Lupine Meadows Road and bagged the beast strike mission style, scoring perfecto corn where it counted, and generally great conditions to the snow-line at 9,500 feet.
This Teton has spring has been abnormal to say the least. The range hasn’t had a proper corn cycle, instead replaced with an unusually wet April that ushered powder filled couloirs reminiscent of December. Then the weather shifted past melt-freeze conditions to hyper warm, causing massive amounts of shedding on the premier ski mountaineering lines. Since Connor James and I skied the V Couloir on Prospectors Mountain two weeks ago (in blower powder I may add), I’ve been enjoying 70 degree valley temperatures and an abundance of rock climbing from Utah to Idaho, all while the snowpack slowly rots away. Deeply satisfied with this year’s effort, I am ready to release my grasp on skiing big lines. However, when a quick one-day window for potential corn materialized with hard-freeze conditions forecasted above 10,500 feet, I was quick to rally the troops (better yet, trooper) for a late season strike mission on a line I’ve wanted to bag in proper style ever since Sam Johnson and I made our first descent in a heinous mid-winter storm, the East Face of 12,330 foot Teewinot Mountain.
Teewinot Mountain – East Face
Connor James has been my mid-week ski mountaineering buddy the latter quarter of this year, and I was ecstatic he was motivated to wake up at 3:00AM for another fringy mission. The road to Lupine Meadows opened just days before, allowing car access to the summer trailhead and literal base of Teewinot Mountain. Skiing Teewee with this kind of automobile assistance feels criminal – dare I say luxurious – compared to the multi-mile flatland haul required for a mid-winter ascent. Just after 5:30AM we hit the summer climber’s trail “Teton style”, ski boots on dry dirt, hiking for 2,500 vertical feet through a landscape that looked far closer to August than May.
By hour two we reached the base of the East Face, benefiting from a very firm crust that promoted efficient skinning. The golden hue of summer sunrise looked handsome on the polarizing upper mountain, and our line looked to be in acceptable shape. One prominent central runnel haunted the crux and lower apron, but at least the entire face still “went” snow to snow. At 7:38AM exactly we stashed skins and everything but the bare essentials, pulled out the spiky implements and began up the face with intent.
Just as spring ski mountaineering goes, snow conditions switched from bullet-firm to alarmingly soft in as soon as the sun cleared the skyline. The rock solid bed surface morphed to cuff-deep corn pudding by the time we reached the crux constriction. As we climbed into the upper face we deliberated about our mutual trepidation for skiing such technical terrain in warm snow. Though I hate to admit it, we started too late. Our final glimmer of hope and ultimate saving grace was a gentle breeze that seemed to swell with every step towards the summit. By 11,500 feet the snow seemed to be perpetually suspended in optimal corn conditions by a consistent 10-15mph whistle, and by 12,000 feet was approaching too firm. As far as I was concerned we only needed ideal conditions through the crux, and I was beyond excited to top out Teewinot after four hours of consistently questioning whether or not we would have to bail.
I was surprised to see the Northeast Snowfields on Mount Owen still looking well intact, as well as the southwesterly lines on Mount Thor and Moran. As his first Teewinot summit, Connor’s stoke was infectious. I always appreciate his grateful and motivated attitude in the mountains, and willingness to push hard when time is of the essence. Being two photographers we took turns snapping shots before scrambling back to our skis and gearing up for a hasty yet promising descent.
From the get go we had the pure pleasure of perfect corn. The East Face holds a consistent pitch above 45 degrees, and embodies the “no fall zone” adage with hundreds of feet of terraced cliffs. As such, I kept my style tasteful but conservative, jump turning with precision trough the first two cliff bands guarding access to the upper bowl. Our generous snow fortunes continued to the crux, where I milked as many turns as possible and relished in the moment of finally skiing superb conditions on one of the Teton’s biggest and baddest faces. The constriction turned out to be exactly ski width, allowing us to stay clipped in through 75 feet of delicate side stepping. Out from the gun barrel, steep but manageable, and actually quite fun, mashed potatoes saw us back to our gear stash below the East Face where we gorged on peanut butter sandwiches and reveled in the 2,000 feet of phenomenal turns we got the delight of enjoying together.
After 1,000 more feet of quality skiing we relented to 2,500-some feet of mud romping through a blooming summer forest, past two gorgeous waterfalls, two teams of park rangers doing early season rescue training and ultimately to our car before the six hour bell. Connor had to jimmy in a jiffy, but I hung back and enjoyed an appreciative landscape photo session with an apricot seltzer and a crisp bartlett pear. Summertime in the Tetons is always a beautiful transition. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a few weeks of warm weather can zap a snowpack. A month ago I was skiing thigh deep powder, and a month from now I will probably be alpine climbing on bone dry granite. The monster in me hopes this won’t be my last ski mountaineering mission of the season, but the realist in me can’t deny that very real possibility. With a weekend of stormy weather ahead I sit in contemplation and wait patiently to see what Mother Nature has in store.
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!