Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cathedral ski traverse in the Tetons

Skiing off the summit of the Grand Teton.  Photo: Mark Hammond
On April 27, 2013 I skied Teewinot, Mount Owen, and the Grand Teton in a push from the Taggart lake trailhead.  It was a great day in the mountains.  With an adequate weather forecast and excellent beta from Nate Brown and the Dorais brothers, I made the long drive and caught a few hours of sleep before rolling out of bed at 12:30 am.  A full moon cast the range in an eerie glow as I approached Bradley lakes and started up the normal skin track to Garnet and beyond.  I was fortunate to stumble on exit tracks from Glacier gulch, and followed them to Delta lake, where I re-filled water.  From the lake, I pushed up to the terminal moraine of the Teton glacier, and was pleased to easily find the large access ramp that grants easy access to the Southwest face of Teewinot.  I slowly skinned and booted the face to the point of highest snow, roughly 12,175 feet.  I did not summit Teewinot.  It was still dark, but with a brilliant moon, I skied the face sans headlamp, sideslipping carefully through endless hard ice and debris.  I had hoped that this face would be moderate enough to casually ski with icy conditions, but it ended up being slow and a little scary.

Moonset over the Red Sentinel.  I do not have any pictures
from Teewinot because I skied it in the dark.
From the base of Teewinot, I continued up to the base of the Koven couloir, stashing water and the extra tool.  I donned spikes at first light.  The couloir looked horrendous, but I headed up anyway, irrationally hoping for some warming before I had to ski the thing.  Travel conditions were punchy and slow, and it took a while to pop out at the col and into the first rays of morning light.  I drafted in an old boot and skin track to the base of the East ridge.  The old tracks traversed south around the ridge, presumably to the upper Koven route to the summit but I had no intentions of summiting.  Instead, I skinned another hundred feet or so to northeast, topping out on a wind feature at 12,550 feet and took a minute to enjoy life on the craggy, exposed slopes of Mount Owen.  About 20 powder turns brought me to the upper chimney, which I easily sideslipped.  A few more turns brought me to the top of the Koven couloir, which was still bullet proof ice.  Not wanting to sit and wait for the snow to soften, I transitioned back to spikes and downclimbed the upper Koven couloir before making a long, hard skier's right traverse above the lower Koven couloir and around the head of the Teton glacier.
The Koven Couloir at first light, not looking very user friendly.
At my high point on Mount Owen, ready to ski.
Powder high on Mount Owen, also showing my high point.
Sideslipping a chimney high on Mount Owen.
Downclimbing the upper Koven couloir.
At the base of the Teton glacier lateral moraine, I took a quick break to refuel and apply sunscreen.  It was 9:15, and the day was warming rapidly.  With a bunch of elevation already under my belt, I was moving slowly, but started the slow grind up the Dike couloir.  From the top of the couloir, I traversed the Tepee glacier, and took the normal route for the Grand to Glencoe col.  Donning spikes yet again, I started up a cold and blustery Stettner couloir.  Looking up the Chevy, I was pleased to see the ice bulges looking quite manageable, even with only one real ice tool.  As I ascended the Chevy, I started running into the cluster that must be the Grand Teton on a sunny day in May.  In a 10 minute span, I climbed up through a rap party of four, another rad rap party of two from Colorado, passed a party of two, and closed the gap on Mark Hammond and Jason True from the Wasatch.  I was tired and moving quite slowly, but still made the summit in under an hour from entering the Chevy.  I chatted with Mark and Jason on the summit for a few minutes before making a fatigued descent of the Ford.  What a run - the Grand is so amazing, and skiing on the moon never gets old.  I carefully downclimbed the Chevy and Stettner couloirs without incident, and ducked out at the base.  A small but scary wet slide came screaming through the Stettner as I was transitionig to skis, indicating that it might be past time to start heading home.  I had hoped to continue to Middle and beyond, and stubbornly made the traverse along the Black dike to the Lower Saddle.  An accomplished ski mountaineer, who I admire, once described his approach to ski mountaineering as simply putting one foot in front of the other until it became time to pull the plug.  It sounds simple, but this approach has worked well for me, inspiring me to push through doubt, physical low points, and psychological low points until the breaking point is reached, usually due to avalanche danger, poor weather or apathy.  Fatigued, intimidated, and worried about wet slides, it was the breaking point for me on that day, and I pulled the plug at the base of the North ridge of the Middle Teton.

At the end of the traverse to Lower saddle.
At the Lower saddle, where I bailed.

After a few powder turns on the lower Glacier route, the rest of the skiing to the Meadows was an exercise in over-baked corn management.  With hours of daylight remaining, I relaxed on the ski out, stopping to chat with the rad party of Coloradans camped at the Platforms (thanks for the water), and generally enjoying the beautiful, warm afternoon.  I skipped over intermittent snow into the parking lot around 4:30, absolutely exhausted.  But happy, having been treated to a triple serving of technical and engaging Teton skiing.  The rest of the weekend was spent sleeping, with a little driving home and eating thrown in for good measure.

Total elevation gain (based on Google Earth):  11,800 feet
Trip length: 15.5 hours
Accomplices: None
Put in:  Taggart lake parking
Take out: Same
Ski equipment:  Dynafit Broad peak skis, TLT speed race bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, One whippet and one race pole.  OR Ferossi pants, Camp Nanotech crampons,  One Petzl Aztarex axe, and one CAMP Corsa axe.  Helmet. 
Ski equipment left in the car which caused extreme regret and misery:  Ski crampons
Sustinance:  Leftover Teton Thai for breakfast.  1 growler full of water with Perpetum, refilled once .  One turkey wrap.  Two chocolate bars, two Probars, and about  1,000 calories of Gu.
Trailbreaking effort:  Moderate
Avalanche conditions:  Low end of Moderate with a few lingering slabs and wet slide danger in the afternoon.
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9.8
Stoke factor (1-10): 9
Memories to suppress:  I got beat down by elevation, which is always frustrating.  Not completing the traverse.


  1. That is one of the more inspiring feats I've read about in a while. Nice job.

    "putting one foot in front of the other until it became time to pull the plug"

    I like that- who said it?

  2. That was Chris Davenport, actually from an old trip report from the Grand, I think.

  3. Hey, B. Greetings from AK. Solid effort in the mountains I miss. The Koven is scary. Check out Romeo's vid of our adventure there. Still would like a rematch. I think it's only reasonable to ski in the winter with softer snow. Must have been sobering down climbing the thing. Creative access to the GT. Funny you saying you were tired and slow and still cruising by everyone. Typical you. Nice work.