The winter of 2021/22 was far and above my best yet. I skied more steep lines in the Tetons, with a wider array of partners, than I have in the past three seasons combined. I learned some things, saw some things, took photos of some things, and here in lies a collection of my favorite tidbits.
The 2022 winter was irregular, as it seems most things in the world are nowadays. We got a solid dump of snow in October, went dry until late December, recovered with a whopping white smothering over two-some weeks that basically supplied our entire snowpack for the next two months (along with an extreme avalanche cycle), then cycled back to starvation – and not just starvation, but literal drought. After the first week of January the Tetons delved into perpetual high pressure, allowing for spring-style ski mountaineering only days into the new year. I wasn’t too disappointed. Anyone who knows me knows I care little for skiing bottomless 30 degree powder. My heart lives in the alpine, and while I’ll never complain about any form of skiing, face-shots, bulletproof crust or otherwise, I’m happiest in high, steep and exposed places with skis on my back and ice axes on my pack, so when the opportunity to start skiing the likes of Teewinot Mountain, Veiled Peak and the Grand Teton materialized so soon into the new year, I was about as thrilled as it comes.
Lesson #1 – Always be ready, for you never know when opportunity is going to strike – and nothing hurts more than being a painfully out of shape ski mountaineer. I’ve been there, but fortunately I was on the fit side of the coin this year – early season training pays dividends. Make that stair stepper your friend.
After a few January thrillers the high pressure stoke waned. Unlike spring, when warm daytime temperatures can create endless days of safe corn skiing, mid-winter dry spells see snow surfaces to heinous crust in an a matter of weeks. I passed the time ice climbing, taking three trips to Hyalite Canyon and enjoying some of the local flows in Teton Canyon. I also locked in my first dance with COVID-19, forfeiting a week of my life to Tylenol and the couch. Eventually, facing a forced weekend of quarantine and utterly void of inspiration, I decided to open “Teton Rock Climbs” and find an alpine rock route suited to winter climbing. The North Ridge of the Middle Teton jumped off the page. With a mid-route traverse (via the black chimney) to the Northwest Ice Couloir I could avoid the 5.6 crux pitch and drop the overall route grade to IV, 5.5, AI2 – I was in, and on Feburary 6th 2022 I completed my longest and most sustained alpine solo to date, with the added bonus of my second East Face ski descent, a true Teton classic. Feeling comfortable on such a massive route, traveling solo over sustained icy rock slabs with thousands of feet of continuous exposure, climbing with ice tools and crampons, was a new notch on my alpinism belt – a unique fusion of ice climbing, mixed climbing, dry tooling, alpine climbing and ski mountaineering like I’ve never experienced before – a benchmark day in my young mountaineering career.
Lesson #2: When ski conditions turn sour, the willingness to think outside the box can be the difference between spending weeks on the couch and creating opportunities for memorable alpine experiences.
After almost two months of high pressure, something weird shifted in the Teton ski scene. Even when the snow returned, the crowds never quite rebounded. March was characterized by the return of winter, and with a disparity of motivated partners I spent many weeks polishing my solo ski-mountaineering skillset. Consistent incremental snowfall provided opportunities to seek steep descents in abnormally deep yet “safe” conditions. Skiing the Ellingwood Couloir, a line I’ve hunted for years and one of the steepest in the entire range, in knee deep powder was an experience I will never forget. I also tagged personal first descents in/on the Red Sentinel Couloir, Peak 10,333, Symmetry Spire’s Symmetry Couloir, Eagles Rest Peak and Prospector Mountain’s Banana Couloir, all in dreamy fluff. I was stoked, and even more excited when high pressure round two came knocking at the end of the month. After a full winter of ice climbing, mixed climbing and persistent technical ski mountaineering, coupled with some alpine soloing and one lap on the big stone, I was ready to attempt a goal I’d only ever dreamed about – a winter solo of the Grand Teton.
Lesson #3: Goal setting plants the seed for realizing new goals. Every winter I set aside a list of intentions – peaks to climb, routes to ski. This year I accomplished less than half of my written ambitions, but the pursuit of these goals allowed new waves of motivation to wash over me. At that point, my only job is to listen, and abide.
The Grand Teton solo went amazing – quite literally everything I could have asked for. Climbing technical water ice partnerless by headlamp at 12,000 feet with infinite exposure, watching the sunrise from 13,300 feet on the Southeast Ridge, skiing a personal new route down the holy-moly airy East Face, rigging five rappels and reaching the van before the 12 hour bell brought me a feeling of happiness money could never buy. Positive energy and overwhelming confidence from the Big G carried me through April, which once again saw a commanding resurgence of lady winter. Just like March, the snowpack managed to stay “right side up” through seemingly endless storms. Yet unlike March, all the friends emerged from their anti-ski caves. April was the month of shared experiences, where I learned just how integral my amazing partners are to creating lasting memories and a sustainable season. With Carl Osterburg I skied the Tallboy and the Tallboy’s Evil Twin, two infinitely aesthetic and demanding lines on the north side of the Teewinot-Owen Cirque. With my lovely girlfriend, who enjoyed her first winter of backcountry skiing, I skied Chute The Moon – her first couloir, in knee deep powder to boot! Loads of other partners including Reed Finlay, Brian Ladd, John Walker and Connor James accompanied me on missions all across the range, from Chuter Buck to the V Couloir, and many lines in-between, all made unique by their individual contributions of unique energy. The solo missions of February and March were incredible, but the tandem days will always be the ones I remember most.
Lesson #4: I thrive off a balance between solo and partner days. Too many of either and I am liable for burnout. A steady diet of both and I am satiated.
After Connor and I’s day in the V, skiing through a pouring rain storm and biking miles back to the car in several inches of mud, it became increasingly hard to motivate. My body hit a point of exhaustion that was difficult to overcome. Knee soreness kept me on the ropes, and sunny days beckoned t-shirt cragging. On the 18th of May Connor and I once again teamed up, this time for an all-time corn ripper down the East Face of Teewinot Mountain. This was my second descent of the spring Teton classic, and my first in stellar conditions. That said, when the snow-line recedes to 10,000 feet and several hours of trudging through muddy forest in ski boots is required to “earn your turns”, my ski season usually comes to a close. Only time will tell if more turns are earned this winter, but for now I’d say it’s a safer bet to close the winter 2022 book on a positive and healthy note. As for the last lesson learned, how about this:
Lesson #5: You don’t know until you go. This season I chose “go” far more than “no”, and saw tremendous results. “Just go skiing” was my motto of 2020. Nowadays I do a little more than just ski – so let’s settle on “just go” – I like it.
A special thank you to all the amazing partners I had the pleasure of sharing turns with this season. Without you, well, ski season would be a lot less fun. A second special thank you to Icelantic Skis for providing my wooden planks upon which I explore these mountains with 😎
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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but we are only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.