On June 8th, 2022, Carl Osterburg and I skied the Grand Teton via the traditional “Ford-Stettner Couloir” route. This was Carl’s first and my fourth Grand Teton ski descent, a mission propelled by one sole purpose, enjoying a final day in the mountains with my best Teton friend before he packs up and moves to Minnesota. Can you think of a better sendoff? I can’t, because there isn’t one.
As of mid-May my ski season was over – or so I thought – until Carl Osterburg guilt tripped me into one final two-plank hoorah. Carl, a long time staple of Ten Thousand Too Far, but far more importantly my best friend of the last three years, has decided to uproot Idaho stakes and move to the thickly forested hills of icy, muddy and mosquito infested Minnesota. Were it not for such special circumstances I almost certainly would have rejected his plea for a mid-June Grand Teton ski descent. I mean come on – we’ve had a long winter here in the Tetons, my knee has been wobbly for months and seventy degree sunny days don’t exactly scream out for skis. That said, Carl had never skied the Big Stone, and gripes about alpine starts aside, I really couldn’t imagine a better way to see my main squeeze adventure buddy off to his new flatland existence than holding his rope on the most meaningful alpine ascent of his life. In the sole name of friendship I found myself with skis, boots and twenty pounds of climbing gear on my back, tennis shoes on my feet and a headlamp on my head – 2:00AM on an ideally crisp 34 degree June 8th morning in Grand Teton National Park’s Lupine Meadows parking lot – ready to hunt some steep turns at 13,775 feet for my third time in 2022.
I slept in the van the night before, mostly to get an extra hour of shuteye instead of driving over from Idaho sometime dangerously close to midnight, but my plan got foiled by jittery sleeplessness. The last time I remember seeing on my cellphone was 11:53, and my sharp alarm jolted me awake at 1:00, yet in typical Grand Teton fashion adrenaline accounted for the missing six hours and fifty-three minutes of rest as I fired a large saucepan of instant coffee and slipped into my ski clothes one last time, like an NFL player getting ready for the final game of his long career. Breakfast was a humble bowl of homemade muesli topped with a grapefruit and banana, doused in soy-milk, enjoyed to the soft sounds of Million Miles and Of Monsters and Men. Ten minutes later, cortisol jolted at the hands of sharp coffee and simple carbohydrates the vibe switched to old-school abrasive Brooklyn hip-hop, and by the time Carl rolled into the lot at 1:45AM I was reeling like a spring chicken ready for takeoff. One of my greatest gifts in ski mountaineering is the ability to consume mass quantities of food at any hour of the day. It’s supremely advantageous not to be the “I can’t eat first thing in the morning” guy when you are gearing up to burn 4,000 calories before dawn. Another valuable attribute is the true desire and fire to be there. Skiing the Grand Teton, or any of the amazing peaks and lines these infinitely inspiring mountains conceal, is a sacred experience that trumps all yearning for material comfort, eight hours of rest, and distaste for 1:00AM alarms, pre-dawn nausea, force feeding and irregular bowels – at least for me. I love a good Sunday brunch as much as the next guy, but push comes to shove I’ll always be first in line for the Grand Teton National Park sufferfest, no matter the season, tall coffee in hand. Today Carl showed up with the same bravado, and together we marched up the bone dry summer trail with serious pace and unifying intention.
To The Top
We made great splits through 2,500 feet of dry switchbacks, finding the consistent snow-line around 9,500 feet, just short of the pre-meadows boulder field. We ditched all unnecessary gear here, including tennis shoes, skins and ski crampons. Our skis remained on our backs as we took straight to booting up Spaulding and Teepee Glaciers. Crampons were vital for travel in the blisteringly firm North Fork. A deep freeze and forecasted sun increased my excitement for possible high-quality skiing, and helped to keep the mood high as we slogged to the 12,100 foot and reliably soul crushing Teepee Col. I’ve always maintained that reaching the top of Teepee Glacier is the most difficult part of skiing the Grand Teton. The first lull in adrenaline, waves of fatigue and pangs of hunger always hit me while I am climbing this seemingly never-ending and deviously steep headwall, 5,000 vertical feet above the car and usually still pre-dawn. Grunt, puff and stumble to the top of Teepee Glacier and you’ve won over half the battle.
At the base of the Stettner Couloir, the commencement point of the technical climbing, Carl reluctantly admitted to serious fatigue. I would still argue Carl is far more aerobically fit than I, but a full winter of Nordic skiing is a far cry from a 7,000 vertical foot and time-sensitive alpine route with skis, ice axes and plenty of other metal objects that make shoulders ache at the anguishing hands of gravity. Knowing Carl well I basically dismissed his exhaustion, for I knew he would reach deep into his bag of grit so long as I continued to push. Undertrained for flatlander activities but well suited to suffering at high elevations, I was feeling chipper and excited to rope up for one of my all-time favorite winter climbing routes, and sprayed Carl with loving optimism as we unsheathed the rope and paired down our already scanty rack with a mere 1,600 feet to go.
This winter season I’ve tried a few different climbing methods on the Grand Teton. Today we opted to simul-climb on a doubled over 50 meter half rope, clipping protection with both strands as a twin rope system. I led with an anemic rack of four ice screws, eight medium-small chocks (<BD #10), two cams (BD #0.75 and #1), one pink tri-cam and a plethora of slings (at least seven) for clipping fixed gear along the way. This trim smattering proved exactly what the doctor ordered, allowing us to climb the Stettner and Chevy Couloirs in two long blocks, belaying intermediately below the Chevy. The ice was primarily rotten (duh, it’s June) so rock gear provided the bulk of our protection. Having soloed the route sans rope, and benefitting from a competent ice climber on the other end of the line, I led quickly with long runouts between gear. Thankfully our rack ran dry exactly as the technical climbing eased off, and so we unroped for the final uppermost punch to Petzoldt Col and the base of the Ford Couloir.
We stashed our ropes, gear and everything but the barest essentials and began up the final 900 feet of the Grand Teton with light packs and great energy. The snow remained firm as we forked east for the Workman-Starr Sneak, a short chute leading from the Ford Couloir to the Southeast Ridge, a variation prized by locals for its’ absence of overhead danger.
(For more information on the Workman-Starr Sneak and it’s ability to reduce congestion related danger on the Grand Teton, click here)
Following the broad 40 degree ridge we reached the summit at 10:15 beneath dazzling blue skies. Carl’s excitement was overflowing, and I was immensely proud of his ability to consistently overcome strapping fatigue. There’s just no way around it, the Grand Teton is a special kind of beast.
There’s something so uniquely magical about the summit of the Grand Teton. Maybe it’s the 800 feet of vertical relief above Mount Owen, the second highest peak in the range. Perhaps it’s the views that stretch as far as the eyes can see in every direction. Of course, the engaging climbing and level of commitment necessary to stand atop the mountain adds to the allure. I also stare at the beauty every single day as I go about my “real world” life, reveling as the jagged peak commands the skyline in a way no other mountain, at least in my eyes, has ever done before. The dictionary definition for grand is “magnificent and imposing in appearance, size, or style” – and I’d say that description fits seamlessly. Half my Grand Teton summits have been solitary, and while solo days certainly play a crucial role in my alpine life, sharing the rewards of such a mystical peak with a friend, especially for their first time, is an experience that resonates in a special sort of lasting frequency. To see Carl’s eyes light up at the realization of a goal he’d been building towards for three years reminded me of the first time I skied the Big Stone – the exuberance, the disbelief, the stoke – alright, time to click into some skis.
The skiing was about as good as it comes for such an exposed face, mostly reliable sun-softened corn with the rogue patch of ice or breakable crust to keep us honest. Of my four Grand Teton ski descents this was far and beyond the best conditions, and the first time I’ve been able to ski from the true summit, an experience reserved for the lucky few who happen upon the peak when it isn’t completely wind scoured. There’s hardly anything in life I enjoy more than exposed fifty degree jump turns in soft snow, especially when the entire Teton Range is sprawled out beneath my skis like blades of grass. Carl stuck to a more conservative style, ice axe in hand and committed to his trusty toe edge, while I tested my luck on the steeper western banks of the Ford, scoring unbelievable hop turns that felt effortless and ethereal. One by one we leapfrogged to Petzoldt Col without incident, popped off our skis and collected our gear for a rope assisted descent of the Chevy and Stettner Couloirs.
Escaping from the Grand Teton was tedious business as usual. We bypassed the first rappel by down climbing to the precipice of the technical ice in the Chevy, then proceeded with four, double rope, 50M rappels to the base of the Stettner. Unfortunately the entire south face of the Grand Teton decided to release it’s shield of spring ice that’d accumulated over the past week of cold moisture, pelting us with a relentless spray of golfball sized ice pellets that felt like being trapped in a paintball arena void of ammo. Falling shrapnel is supremely characteristic of this route, and every fixed rappel anchor is thoughtfully placed in respect to overhead projectiles. Our game was simple: rappel as fast as possible, clip into the next anchor and hide. Since only surface level ice was detaching and the day was no warmer than thirty degrees we felt reasonably certain no rockfall would occur, but we didn’t wait around to find out either. By 1:30PM we were coiling ropes at the base of the Stettner – mission accomplished.
After another 2,500 feet of quality corn skiing from the top of Teepee Glacier to the Meadows, we switched back to tennis shoes and pounded back to the parking lot, rounding out our day at the 14 hour mark, short meadows siesta included. Skiing the Grand Teton will always be memorable, but this was perhaps my finest. “Thanks for taking me up there and showing me the route you’ve perfected so many times” Carl said – or something close to those words – as we cracked seltzers in the parking lot and reminisced on a picture perfect day from car to car. Man – I’m really going to miss this guy. For the past three years he’s been my go-to ski mountaineering partner, always game for the adventurous, the heinous and the questionably dangerous, somehow holding a good attitude nearly every step of the way, even if my “plans” take us into “slightly” steeper terrain than originally expected. Carl claims he’ll be returning each spring for his ski mountaineering fix, and you bet your tofu I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next time we share a skin track together. As for now, I think my skis are on the shelf – but I guess that’s what I said last article?
Looking for more Grand Teton info? Check out these four articles.
First Grand Teton Ski Descent, Ford-Stettner, May 2020
Grand Teton Ski Descent, Ford-Stettner, January 2022
Grand Teton Solo Ski Descent, East Face/Workman-Starr, March 2022
A Closer Look – Reducing Congestion on the Grand Teton’s Most Popular Ski Route, April 2022
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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.