A few weekends ago, I was looking forward to heading south to do some rock climbing and mountain biking in Utah. Call it a case of spring fever, that time in about early March when you realize that it won’t always be so cold forever—that the earth will soon be coming alive, buzzing with insects and dry climbing routes and single-track possibilities.
And yet, I always feel torn. Because once it spring arrives, then skiing begins to fade. Soon the season dwindles to a precious few turns that eek into a void of 90-degree days and ice cream cones.
But all I wanted was a weekend of warmth, or so I reasoned. Then a text from one of my favorite backcountry ski partners from Utah. “Want to go ski the Grand Teton?” The seven-worded text was a weighty one. Skiing the Grand had been on my to-do list for awhile, but my mind was still in Moab, not the Moraines of the Tetons.
But I wanted this spring break to be epic, so I soon responded in the affirmative. I let the 7.5 hour drive from Longmont to Jackson give me the time I needed to wrap my mind around my now snowy and cold plight.
I knew it would be one long, hard slog. I had climbed the Grand via the lower and upper Exum route a few summers ago. It took my buddy and I 15 hours car to car—and that was hiking and rock climbing. That didn’t include lugging skis, boots, crampons and ice axes.
I had little idea on how to gauge how long it would take Kelly and I to get to the top, but we knew that skiing the right conditions would be absolutely essential. Wet avalanches would be a concern a few hours after the sun came up.
We started at midnight on Sunday morning. The night before the wind had been howling with gusts in the 50s, but by the time we left it was still.
I felt like a Quickie Mart employee working a graveyard, my body felt numb and jet lagged; it never feels natural coaxing your body to perform in the middle of the night.
We started skinning up the Moraine. The next 6 hours were a blur of Powergels and the love-hate relationship of ski crampons—I love how they keep me from slipping but hate how they won’t let you glide! We finally reached a wide-open snowfield filled with frozen roller balls. Those suck to skin up. Another 1,500 hundred vertical and we rounded the corner to where we entered the Stetner Couloir.
At this point, I was feeling rough. We were about halfway into 7,700-foot climb. Caffeine laden gels and granola bars couldn’t convince my body that it wasn’t 5 a.m. And some days I just don’t feel as strong. A few weekends before, I did a skimo race raced in the Crested Butte and did well. But today (or tonight) felt like a vastly different day.
“I can’t find my second gear,” I told Kelly.
We kept pressing on, soon taking out the crampons and ice axes. We were making good progress and roped up in one small technical section that approached WI3 in difficulty. I roped up for this part. From there, I took the lead breaking trail for the first time of the day. I started to finally find my second gear and kept in the lead, booting up the couloir for another 1,000 feet.
Finally, we could see what looked like the final ridge to the summit. I asked Kelly if he wanted to take the lead, but he was starting to feel spent. So I kept at, though I quickly lost steam. Two guys had been intermittently nipping at our heels all night (and day), profiting from our trail breaking. One of them volunteered to break trail for the final section to the summit, which was generous.
After an hour of knee-deep booting, we progressed our way to the top. At times I felt like I was nearing the final ridge on a 20,000 foot peak rather than a 13er. Such is ascending the Grand in winter!
We stood on the summit at about 12:30 p.m. Hardly any wind. Amazingly, the weather window held beautifully. The sky had grown cloudy not longer after the sun came up, which kept the snow from heating up excessively.
This was my second time on top of the Tetons, and wow what an epic view.
The misnomer from here is that descent would be fun skiing. Most of it was a mix of breakable crust, death cookies and no-fall zone skiing. We even threw in a few rappels.
But in the end, the skiing definitely beat walking. And we were rewarded with some near perfect corn skiing for a 2,000-foot section.
We made it back to the car about 6:30 p.m. roughly 16.5 hours after we first started. The last few miles drug very slowly, especially the flat skin on the lake.
Yet, the day was amazing. Skiing the Teton was a vastly different than climbing splitters in Indian Creek, but this was worth the trip. Skiing it was an accomplishment I will remember for a long time.