After going zero for four on interesting ski descent attempts in the Wasatch in recent weeks, going somewhere else seemed like a no-brainer. Deciding to head to the Tetons took about .5 seconds. Deciding what to ski took longer; any ski mountaineer who has visited the Teton Range knows that there is a lifetime of interesting, challenging, and engaging ski descents to choose from in this single range.
As it’s late in the season in a lackluster snow year, going up high made the most sense. Topping out at 12,804 feet, the Middle Teton offers altitude. I hoped it also offered decent snow. With light snow having fallen in recent days, clear weather predicted, and cold-ish daytime temps on tap, the weather window looked ideal. For the early approach, add in a full moon – the (visibly) largest of the year – as the icing on the cake. I wore the Outdoor Research Centrifuge jacket as the primary weather fighting layer on the ascent. When it got colder, I pulled on a puffy.
Despite having skied a number of interesting lines on the Middle Teton over the years, I’ve studiously avoided the Southwest Couloir. Since it’s by far the easiest route to the summit, it’s often a mess with booter routes and old ski tracks. That can be a pretty unaesthetic letdown for anyone desiring a fine summit outing. Following recent snowfall, David Yogg and I found it in undisturbed condition.
The process of ‘finding it’ didn’t come without a hiccup or two. Unbeknownst to us, our mutually convenient access drive up the back road into Grand Teton National Park was closed some distance beyond the park entrance. That meant a drive down, around and into town before heading north to the main Park entrance. The additional drive time meant we started walking an hour later than we’d planned.
A personal hiccup arrived in the form of my nauseous stomach. I’d been feeling very queasy since waking, but minutes after loading into David’s rig, I almost asked him to pull over so I could vomit. Instead, I kept still, breathed deeply for a bit, and the sensation subsided slightly. Unfortunately, this situation meant I didn’t eat anything at all for breakfast. In the end, my ski day’s caloric consumption totaled out at a half dozen Gu’s and two packs of Clif Shot Bloks. That would be plenty of nutrition for the day coupled with a morning meal, but I felt slightly energy deficient near the summit, particularly during the descent.
Other than a sour stomach and a closed road however, the day turned out very fine indeed. The unusual amounts of snow low on the valley floor were solid and made for easy walking. The switchbacks were dry, the full moon lent a pretty ambiance, and suddenly we happened upon solid snow and transitioned to skinning. We walked a few rocky patches with skis in hand, but it was surprising to see how low we were able to transition out of shoes. Heading to the Tetons was a good call. Is it ever a bad one?
The Middle quickly came into view, basked in the first hints of sunrise. We made our way across the Platforms and into the Meadows, and noticed a solitary skin track in the untouched snow. Minutes later, a party of four came into view well ahead.
As David and I passed beneath the Ellingwood Couloir, we saw the foursome in the midst of some decision making at the mouth of the coolie. The looker’s right side of the Ellingwood had slid full track. The Chouinard had a sizeable crown cutting across the lower reaches, with plenty of hangfire remaining. The stability of South and Southeast faces suddenly looked a bit questionable.
The foursome came down from their transition perch and we chatted amiably about the conditions. We contemplated skiing as a larger group, but large parties in the mountains are often begging for trouble in one form or another. They headed off to check out the East face of the South Teton, while the Yoggster and I decided that the Southwest Couloir was still worth a try. Slightly different aspects and wind loading patterns make all the difference sometimes.
Four snowpits and several ECT’s later, we had a feel for what was happening with the (new) snow in the SW Couloir. Basically, a bomber foundation overlaid with between 3 and 15 inches of snow. The surface layer slid more easily than I like to see, but showed zero evidence of propagation. David opined that the skiing could be epic. I verbally agreed while silently wondering if ski mountaineers ever say, ‘a rescue from here would be epic.’ But, my mind is funny like that.
Alternately, David mentioned that the snow layers were interesting, to which I also agreed. I know what ‘interesting’ means, or implies. The last time I saw snow this ‘interesting,’ my second ski cut resulted in a slide that swept out the entirety of Nez Perce’s Sliver Couloir, throwing up a massive snow cloud and littering the apron with debris. It’s safe to say my hackles were raised.
We drew onto the summit and I saw what I’ve been missing out on with those previous non-summit ski descents. The position of the Middle Teton is absolutely fantastic. The views are second to only one – the Grand Teton, of course. And, as happens when you’re lucky, the weather remained cooperative. Just the right amount of clouds floated around below to compliment that perfect summit feeling.
Then, it was time for the skiing. The conditions were as the snowpits indicated. Poorly bonded snow that slid off the bed layer easily but wouldn’t sluff. At all. Trying to get the snow to slide throughout the descent, the best either of us managed was to pile up mounds of light snow. Still, there lurked the idea that a pocket could act differently than the whole, and we used islands of safety liberally. It wasn’t the smoothest ski descent ever – plenty of rocks poked through the thin snowpack, hidden by the newest layer of snow. We were forced to downclimb through two chokes, one just two feet wide. There may have been new snow, but there wasn’t an excess of old snow.
But the SW Couloir was, as all classic Teton ski descents are, a thrill per turn. And good for the mind. Getting into the Tetons is always a joy, often as much for non-skiing things as for the skiing itself. I saw more wildlife in my hours spent in Wyoming than I’ve seen in Utah in entire seasons. It was great to visit, if briefly, with friends. The near entire lack of light pollution lets the stars shine so brightly that I was compelled to stop on top of the Salt River Pass on the return drive to SLC. There, I turned off the auto lights and stood outside the vehicle for some time. The enormity of the sky, as well as the mountains, allow one to simply drink in their smallness whilst offering incredible views. And memories..