Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Skiing in Grand Teton National Park - Glacier Route

Last year we had wanted to visit Grand Teton National Park over Memorial Day weekend.  Our rough plans had been to hike, climb and ski the Grand, however did not really know what that meant.... Were there technical sections?  How steep were the climbs, skis?  What was the best access?  Did climbing parties camp in an alpine basin, or make a one-day push from the car?  In many ways, we were fortunate that the weather forecast was not favorable that weekend. Rain, snow, fog would make for difficult conditions in an already foreign environment.
We trekked off to Rocky Mountain and instead had smoke haze from a New Mexico fire and crazy winds.  However, we managed to hike Long Peak, then ski the Tyndall Glacier.  This trip proved extremely beneficial as we got some more expedition-style planning, skiing and route finding experience. We had also come to Rocky earlier that spring to ski couloirs and such.... What a great training playground within a few hours from home.

This year, however, after more research, training, confidence building, and route planning, we decided to give it a go.

We both got Friday off work, so left Summit County Thursday night heading north.  Driving through North Park (Walden) and into the Wyoming prairies and hills was pretty.  Snow capped mountains innocently loomed in the distance.  The Zirkels and Raggeds are beautiful ranges, but very remote and hard to access.   Living in Summit County affords more opportunities to get out and practice being exposed, committed and even a little scared.

That night we stopped in Saratoga and went to the free mineral hot springs, 'The Hobo Pool.'  Never had we been to an area where to water was SO hot(especially for being free!). Makes you sweat just sitting on the pool side. Afterward we drove up the road and set up camp at a lake for a few hours of sleep between diesel engines and motorhome generators.

Friday we awoke early to drive the six hours to Jackson.  We elected to go through Rock Springs so we could hit the valley from the south and pick up some things before heading to the Park.  Once we passed though Bondurant and headed down a gorge alongside the fast flowing Hoback River, I felt like we were in true Wyoming mountain country.

I will never forget my first gasp upon seeing the Tetons!  'WOW,' was all could say when we came to the highway junction with South Jackson.  So dramatic, dominating and defining. We walked around town for a bit, our anticipation growing.


Up the road we went with the Tetons on our left, the National Elk Wildlife Refuge and a steller bike path to our right.   Ansel Adams did a great job capturing some of the beauty of this mountain range, but in seeing it in person had no rival.


At the Moose Vistor Center we obtained our backcountry camping permit, bear canister and some general guidelines.  We were told to expect other climbing parties in the area that weekend.

Lupine Meadows was where we exploded the car and attempted to stuff all we would need for three days and the climb, ski into our packs.  Man, they were a little heavy!

Up the trail we hiked.  Every now and again we got glimpses of the Tetons,  Disappointment Peak, Teewinot Mountain, and other sub-peaks.   Winding in front of the big peaks, we then cut into Garnet Canyon.
Kate on the trail with the Nez Perce in view
We hit snow as the air temperature and sun were dropping fast. Two skiers were hiking down, having climbed the Grand that day via the Owen-Spaulding route from the TH. They looked tired and relieved to be done and back on the dirt.  Us, on the other hand, could not wait to take some weight off our packs and put skis, boot and skins to use.
Looking East to the Grand's shadow cast across the valley. An amazing sight. Down lower is the Meadows CG, and above, the Moraine CG- our long awaited destination for the night.
It took us longer than anticipated to reach camp. The last pitch was WAY longer than it looked, which became a theme for the weekend. Everything in the Tetons is bigger and further than it appears from a distant perspective.

We did not get to sleep till around 11pm. The snow was firm and icy, requiring ski crampons.  There was another group camped in the Moraine, so we dumped our stuff close by and crashed out. Setting our alarms for the next day, four hours from then, was a tough task.... Getting up was a little harder.

We awoke at 2:30am, surprisingly refreshed.   Without much knowledge, or area scouting we set off in the dark, following the footprints in the snow.  Tim had done research on previous ascents and found many people had gained the high saddle and traverse over to Teepee via the Wall St Traverse to get into the Stettner Couloir.  As the first group out for the morning, we started climbing up a steep section thinking it might connect over to the East face.  Fortunately we saw two others coming our way.   While we were deliberating, the full moon set and the new sun rose and showered the peaks below (Middle Teton) in morning alpenglow.  



Although breathtaking, we knew we were taking too much time route finding and second guessing.... The two guys, who were from Colorado, informed us we were on the Owen-Spaulding route- which is not ski friendly.  They agreed that the traverse looked too dicey.   Reluctantly but realistically, we decied to head down and go poke around on the Middle Teton. Save the Grand, and the right route, for tomorrow.



Similar to our forced luck the previous year, not attempting the Grand that day was a good call. Instead we got to practice booting, climbing and skiing a steep and technical mountain that was not as involved, yet darn steep.

Feeling rushed to beat the sun before it softened up the snow, we did not make a legit plan for the Middle. Rather Kate blazed ahead, trying to find a good firm line up a runnel. Eventually we made it to the saddle- tired and a little irritated at each other for not having discussed the options.  Moving too fast can be detrimental as one neglects to eat, drink, rest or communicate. A good lesson learned.   On the positive, the saddle afforded an unobstructed view at the Ford-Stettner Route, from top to bottom pretty much.  A very worthwhile 'recon' as Tim calls it.
Taken in the parking lot, this was our view also our view from the Middle.
Skiing down the Middle was like a roll-a-coaster drop, with no up.  There was such a pitch that my throat was tight and my determination/instinct set.   'Amazing,' I thought to myself, people like Chris Davenport make decent turns down this 55 degree pitch. All I could do was cut back and forth on the firm snow. Tim went around the roll over and into the area of the runnel. Not the best line, but not as steep. 

Getting back to camp, I asked Tim- "Do you want breakfast or lunch.' My though was that we had been out way past our initial time-line and the apple and energy goo far burned off.  Amazingly, it was only 9am!  What a morning it had already been.  Time to start refueling and rehydrating- as I like to say, prepping for the next day by recovering ASAP. We also took a lie-down (rest) in the tent, however it was hard to sleep as it was heating up like a steam room.

Around noon we decided to go on an easy ski tour to check out the other drainage basin.  Skiing down the saturated snow was fun and a stark contrast to the night before's and morning's icy death marches.

Following another group of tracks we skinned past some small moraines and glacier headwalls, easily gaining elevation and marveling at the scenery.  It was nice to take everything it without being clawed into the slope with an ice axe, crampon or ski edge.


We skinned past Cloudveil and Nez Perce peaks, checking out steeper couloirs, jagged peaks and fun, challenging ski lines.
Not as imposing, but gorgeous and remarkable terrain.
At the saddle below South Teton we decided to turn back- we still had a climb back to camp and preparations to make for the next 'Summit' day.  That day we had been on each of the saddles of the Grand, Middle, and South- not quite the Grand Traverse but a worthwhile and pleasant journey.

South Teton
Tim enjoying some easy and fun skiing from the South down the to the Meadows CG
We got water at the Meadows area and chatted with our new friends who had been in the Stettner coulior that day.  They said they had found it super wet and sketchy, with ice and snow falling down.  Being the first group to enter the couloir since fresh snow, there was apparently a lot of debris. Again, we were glad we had not been in there that day. That said, they hadn't gotten there till 10:30am, which is no wonder safety was a concern when the sun is blasting in and heating everything up.   The day had been a hot one- the sun had been out in full force and the snow turned to corn, then mush pretty quick. 

Back at camp we made a gourmet dinner and then went for a quick stroll up the boulder field.  The intent was to scope out the trail that lead toward the Teepee Glacier- then the Ford-Stettner route.   As it is a popular route in the summer, there were faint cairns leading toward the general direction.  Bummer we missed them, but we had not thought to look up there for a route, especially when we got to camp and left in the dark.
Our camp for three nights below the upper saddle (ahead) and the guide camp (to the right out of view)
Tim and I got back to camp well before dark this night.  Packs were ready, water boiled and plans set to wake up early enough (but not 2:30) the next morning to give the Grand a shot. My thought was, let's see how far we get before I get freaked out.... I had never done a multi-pitch snow/ice climb, or had a skied off a  peak with rappels.