Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Grand Teton: Ski Descent, Solo

      Most people I've skiied or climbed with in the past years have somehow encountered my obsession with skiing the grand. I've worked hard to coerce partners, and even when I managed to convince someone I failed to make a descent for a number of reasons. Usually we've underestimated a big day on a complex mountain with unpredictable conditions. In spring, stability goes up and the travel gets easier. This May I decided to go it alone.

The view to Nez Perce, with the weather allready developing at 7:30am.
The day was off to a bad start.  With thunderstorms in the forecast, I decided to start at 3am.  I left Lupine Meadows with a pair of running-shoes on. Once these were soaked I eventually got out some dry socks and put the boots on.  The muddy trail gave way to an open slope of frozen spring snow, and as I skinned up the slope by headlamp I missed the cutoff into Garnet Canyon.  I didn't quite make it to treeline, but the transition to whitebark pine trees clued me into my mistake: I was way too high. I pulled my skins off and did some crusty, scraping, knee jarring pre-dawn turns, eventually finding some footprints in the snow that led me into Garnet.  All told I probably wasted about an hour and 600-800 vert. A warm-up lap, idiot style. This mistake made me a bit frustrated, and for the rest of the day my pace was a little bit too hard.
The start of the ice.

The upper east face, with cloud moving in
   On the upper east face, I had a special moment.
The storms seemed imminent. For a few minutes the wind died and the clouds parted. I dropped in to perfect, mellow turns on a spreading ridge.  In every direction the slope dropped off blind.  It was like skiing on top of a breaking wave.  In terms of position, it's the best skiing I've ever done.
In the Ford, I found snow that was still frozen, and not really corned out and soft like the upper face.  The upper east face gets early morning sun, but the Ford receives sun later, maybe at 9.  Today the clouds had been in the way for much of that time. The ease of the upper face gave way to steeps: I would do one or two tight, controlled jump turns, hyperventilate for a few seconds, and then do it again.  It became slightly less fun as I got deeper into the gut of the Ford.
   I had climbed at too hard a pace earlier, and either due to that or the rolling fog, I was feeling dizzy. In climbing there is no cheating, only lying.  Full Disclosure: I didn't do a true ski descent(nor has anyone, as far as I know), because I did some rappels. But I decreased the purity of style further by down climbing the last part of the lower Ford to get to the first rap.  The snow wasn't soft or responsive, and I didn't feel psyched about making full consequence turns on crust. (the Ford is a hanging couloir, ie. death is assured if you fall and can't arrest).

The end of the snow rib on the upper face.  The ford couloir drops off to the right. North face of the Middle Teton in background.

The lower Ford.

I stashed the 60m of 5.5mm cord at the bottom of the Ford-couloir.
I brought: a harness, rap-device, cord, three nuts, one ice screw, a coathanger-abalkov threader, two tools, crampons.
I've climbed 5 different routes to the summit of the Grand now, and while this is certainly the easiest, it is one of the best days that I've ever had in the mountains.

On the last raps, the snow started coming down briefly.
The clouds rolled through chaotically during my descent, but the big storm held back until about 1pm.  By the time I ran out of snow and hit the trail, it was raining.  I backpacked my skis and hiked through mud. Back at the trailhead, the storm was at full tilt: I threw my skis in the car and jumped in to avoid the pounding rain.
I drove back to my parents house in Lander, where I slept hard.  I drove back to Colorado Springs Monday morning, missing my Partial Differential Equations class.

Back on the Teepee Glacier with the Kitty-cat skis.

The grand from the South Teton, 2012.  We were stormed out of the stettner.  The day before, talking to people on their way down,  we heard stories of powder on the upper east face.
After two other attempts over 4 years, I finally skied the grand. For a real ski-mountaineer, this isn't a difficult objective. For me, combining skiing and climbing techniques and getting the conditions right has been humbling, and I learned a lot in the process.

I hope this isn't the last time I ski the grand. I still hear legends of mid winter rime formations on the summit, and even murmurs of rare powder conditions on the upper east face.  In the future, I would like ski it with friends.  It has nothing to do with the sketch--I felt safe throughout my day.
Instead it's because I want to share a day like this with others.

Self-buttshot, North ridge of the Middle Teton, on a simul-solo with Erik. With featured but solid rock, the Tetons welcome steep scrambling.