The Zorro Snowfield is a mythical ski mountaineering descent on the northeast aspect of Spalding Peak, a winding, unintuitive journey down 1,300 feet of steep off-camber ramps underpinned by a monstrous (nearly quarter mile wide) cliff. Sadly, our conditions didn’t align for the most stylish descent, but descend we did.
I was excited to get back into the park with Vinny. It had been six days since we skied the Northeast Snowfields on Mount Owen and my ski mountaineering itch was booming. Our plan was to aim a little lower, linking the Zorro Snowfield on Spalding Peak and the Chouinard Couloir on the Middle Teton – corn around the sundial. With partly cloudy skies and light winds we pretended it was January and left the car at 4:50AM – which in hindsight was a touch cavalier. Following new approach beta we made our way directly up Burnt Wagon Gulch from the Glacier View Turnout, hammering up the drainage on mostly snow, hiking the summer trail on mostly dirt and finally reaching pure snow terrain just shy of the boulder field. To this point the snow was bullet hard and we were feeling very confident in conditions, the sun was just rising – another beautiful spring day in Grand Teton National Park.
As we made our way into the South Fork the snow steadily became less consolidated. Ambient temperatures in the canyon were far warmer than the valley floor. We sweated like dogs as we gained the elevation band linking the bases of Spalding Peak and the Chouinard Couloir, about 11,000 feet. We talked briefly about nixing the Zorro and getting an early jump on the shaded and SSE facing Chouinard, but increasing cloud cover and a light breeze urged us to hold course. Hedging our bets on wind-preserved corn we forked left and began climbing the North Snowfield of Spalding Peak around 8:45AM.
With absolutely no internet or print information on ski descents of the Zorro, we discussed three approaches to the challenge. The preferable was to climb head-on, utilizing a thin snow-ramp looker’s left to reach the main snowfield, but the remaining snow after last month’s mega thaw was uninspiring at best, and likely poorly adhered to the granite slabs beneath. Option two was to climb the East Ridge of Cloudveil Dome, a mostly fourth class ramble with one distinct crux of 5.1+ slab, but climbing friction in ski boots is dicy business, and we left the lead rack at home. Option three, our choice, was to climb the non-technical North Snowfield of Spalding Peak and ski in from the top. Personally I almost always prefer to climb my descent route, to assess snow and route conditions before skiing, but today top-down appeared most practical. We reached the east summit of Spalding at 9:30AM.
Wispy clouds, cool temps and a light breeze kept the mood mellow, and we leisurely prepared for descent citing “no real rush” for slope warming. We dropped in at 9:50AM and enjoyed 200 feet of highly exposed and generally quality jump turns to our first obstacle of the day. What we originally predicted to be a brief fourth class down-climb through a rocky choke turned out to be an isothermal groove requiring a 200 foot rappel and some additional easy scrambling. Taken aback by the wet, unconsolidated, knee-deep mush during the rappel we proceeded onto the face cautiously, hoping that the snow would firm back up once we reached a deeper snowpack. Sadly, our first turns on the wildly exposed Zorro Snowfield presented the harsh truth that for whatever reason, the high alpine did not receive the same freeze as 10,000 feet and below. The snow was sloppy, about 6-8 inches of damp, semi-supportable snow on a weak crust – the corn smoothie you would expect on an east Teton aspect during an unfiltered late-spring day come 2:00PM. Had there been a practical retreat we would have re-ascended, however, we felt the predictable hazard of wet slough was easy enough to manage, and the fastest way off the warming face was down. Cautious turns and several ski cuts saw us across the Zorro, where we washed off the top few inches and enjoyed surprisingly pleasant slow-going jump turns on the 40-45 degree hanging snowfield. The lower half of the “Z” was perhaps the crux, as the snow between the two cliff bands was more reactive and the exposure increasingly eminent. Nonetheless, the wet loose hazard felt manageable and we were able to link conservative turns to the shaded confines of Cloudveil’s North Face, joined by the soundtrack of wet avalanches ripping through the gun barrel of the Ellingwood Couloir – we wouldn’t be skiing the Chouinard today.
As the one who spent his whole season scouting this line, I volunteered my neck for the journey to the edge. Cautiously descending to the toe of the terminal cliff, as far skier’s right as humanely possible, I determined the exit snow ramp too isothermal for ski-through and rigged a rappel anchor. With two 60M ropes we reached the snowline within literal inches of our stopper knots, taking care to direct the rope through a black chimney which provided the shortest linear path to snow. On the way down the rope got snagged on a rusty half driven ring piton requiring reascent, we rappelled through two mini waterfalls that filled our boots with standing water, and, while pulling ropes, Vinny nearly disappeared into a bergshrund. If this whole fandango sounds like a bit of a junk show, that’s because it was – but the skiing was oddly fun, and our tribulations were largely functions of discomfort rather than safety.
All in all the Zorro Snowfield was an inspiring, quirky and fun ski mountaineering adventure. I am proud of Vinny and I’s ability to problem solve, communicate effectively and manage multiple fall-lines amidst a shaky snowpack. While our descent seemed reasonably safe, it fell short of my style benchmarks – you know, sloppy slushy jump turns, slow skiing, rope tangles and snags, etc`. I look forward to returning to the Zorro, most likely next season, when the face can hopefully be gained and climbed directly in better snow conditions, and skied without a rappel. Though Spalding East appears the geological apex of the Zorro, a better descent might be from the west ridge of Cloudveil Dome, avoiding the initial rappel and offering more total skiing. Gripes aside, the Zorro was a meaningful tick to my curious eye – a face I’d wanted to paint turns on since I first laid on it nearly a decade ago, offering far better skiing than one would imagine.
Ten Thousand Too Far is generously supported by Icelantic Skis from Golden Colorado, Barrels & Bins Natural Market in Driggs Idaho, Range Meal Bars from Bozeman Montana and Black Diamond Equipment. Give these guys some business – who doesn’t need great skis, gear and wholesome food?
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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 I am 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.
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