Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Skiing The Grand Teton - A Longtime Desire Realized

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Grand Teton Ski Mountaineering from Joel Bettner on Vimeo.


When I had just finished high school my dad and I went on a large road trip that included backpacking in Yellowstone and adventuring in Grand
Teton National Park.  It was one of the best bonding experiences I've ever had with my dad.  It was also the first time either of us saw the grandeur of the Tetons in person.  Their presence has loomed large in my mind ever since.

The picture below is from that trip.  From the moment I laid eyes on Mount Moran and The Grand Teton I knew I wanted, some day, to ski them.  Shortly after this picture was taken I told my dad that I wanted to ski these two incredible peaks.  He was a bit bewildered by my desire and we moved on to other topics of conversation.

A high school Joel dreaming about some day skiing the two large mountains on the left and right in this picture.
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Last year I skied Mount Moran (see the report here) and was going to ski The Grand Teton shortly afterwards with my friend Josh.  However, Josh suffered a bad injury at the end of the year and was not able to ski.  This year things worked out for both of us.  I can now say that I've climbed and skied Mount Moran and The Grand Teton.  It has taken me a while to get the timing, logistics and skill sets necessary, but I'm thrilled to be able to check this life goal off my list.  To say that The Grand Teton is a mountain that has meaning for me would be an understatement.

Climbing and Skiing The Grand Teton

May 1:
Josh was visiting in Colorado from his home in Revelstoke, BC.  We had been keeping our eyes on the weather, and the forecast was continually improving for the Tetons.  We decided to pull the trigger and make the drive to Jackson so we could attempt a ski descent of The Grand Teton.  The morning of May 1st I dropped my daughter off at a generous friend's house and we began our journey north.

Marilyn playing with her friends while daddy drives to Jackson.
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When Josh and I arrived in Jackson we went to the grocery store and then immediately to the Taggert Lake TH in Grand Teton National Park.  We organized our gear, ate some food, and looked at our objective before trying to sleep in the bed of my truck.  I slept for at most 2 hours, while Josh unfortunately didn't get any sleep at all.

Scouting the objective just before trying to sleep.
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May 2:
Our summit bid started at an ungodly dark hour, but we made quick and steady progress.  Near the top of Garnet Canyon we ran into a party of 4 leaving their camp.  They were also on their way up The Grand.  They had fresher legs than Josh and I (and more sleep) and they ended up a little bit ahead of us on the way out of Garnet Canyon and up the Teepee glacier.  We had the benefit of being able to use their boot pack, so we were not too far behind them by the time we reached Teepee Col at sunrise.

Josh enjoying another "alpine start" to the day.
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Catching up to the other party just below Teepee Col as the sun rose.  We were thankful for their boot pack.
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At Teepee Col Josh and I were able to get our first look at the line we were hopeful to ski - The Otter Body.  Unfortunately, it looked to be in very poor condition.  The "tail" of the Otter Body - where one traverses and skis down to anchors for a series of rappels - was ice and rock with scattered snow.  It would have been quite difficult and dangerous.  We had also heard reports that the East Face (which we couldn't see from our vantage) above the Otter Body was covered with avy debris and runnels.  From the evidence we saw on the Teepee glacier of avalanches from above we were pretty sure that the East Face would be in poor shape to ski.  Josh and I decided that we were likely going to ski our ascent route - the Ford-Stettner - instead of the Otter Body.  The Ford-Stettner route is hardly a "consolation prize" though.  It is a steep route with a healthy dose of ski-mountaineering.

A look at the exit of The Otter Body.  It is hard to tell in this picture, but much of what looks like snow was actually ice mixed in the rock.
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It was a beautiful morning to watch the sun crest the horizon from Teepee Col.
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From Teepee Col we made our way to Glencoe Col and the start of more difficult climbing up the Stettner Couloir.  At the bottom of the Stettner Couloir we had already climbed ~6,000' vert and only had ~1,500' vert to go.  This was encouraging.  But, because we ran into conditions that weren't as benign as they sometimes are, our pace slowed significantly.  Josh took the lead, climbing and setting up protection in front of the party of 4 that we were with.

Booting from Teepee Col to Glencoe Col.
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The Grand casts a large shadow over Idaho.
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The start of the Stettner Couloir.
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Josh leading up the Stettner Couloir.
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The first stretch of ice climbing- lots more to come.
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There were multiple ice bulges in the Stettner.  Where there was snow it was usually just a thin covering over water-ice, or rock.
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At the intersection of the Stettner and the Chevy I was getting the rope stacked and figured I'd shoot this quick selfie with the party of 4 just below.
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At the intersection of the Stettner and Chevy couloirs the party of 4 turned around.  I think this was because; (1) they were worried that their slower pace would not allow them to reach the summit at a reasonable time and (2) some members of their party were uncomfortable with the difficulty of the ice climbing in the Chevy Couloir.  They were a younger group from Utah, but I think this decision shows that they were wise beyond their years.  From here on it was just Josh and me.

Josh leading up the Chevy Couloir.
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There was clearly not enough snow to ski either the Stettner or Chevy couloirs and their ice bulges looked quite a bit more significant than I had seen in many other trip reports.  I was glad to have two legitimate ice-tools.  It made a huge difference for climbing the constant ice all the way up the Chevy Couloir.

Starting up the Chevy.
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Having 3 ice screws was clutch for protecting the climb well on this occasion.  I know from other friends that have climbed the route that if conditions are right it is a pretty reasonable solo climb.  Not this day.  I'm glad we broke out the rope and protected it with the conditions we had.
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Lots of ice, not much snow in the Chevy.
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After we topped-out on the Chevy Couloir it was time to climb the Ford Couloir.  Josh, who had not slept and had just lead the Stettner and Chevy couloirs, asked if I could lead.  I happily obliged.

Breaking trail up the Ford was BRUTAL.  The surface of the snow was still crusty, and riddled with debris and rollerballs from the previous days' warming.  Beneath this crust was softer snow.  With every step I sunk in to my mid-thigh.  It was absolutely exhausting.

Josh coming up the boot pack on the Ford.
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Getting close to the Summit Ridge on the Ford.
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At the top of the Ford Couloir we reached the summit ridge.  The snow was not any better, but at least it wasn't as steep.  From here we got a good look at the East Face, too.  In good conditions it looks like it would be a thrilling ski.  However, what we saw confirmed our decision not to ski the Otter Body route that day.  It was covered in slide debris and funky, punchy, heavy snow.  That face is NOT the sort of place where you want to be worried about keeping your balance in difficult snow or having wet sloughs push you.  The snow in the Ford Couloir, although still nasty, has a different solar aspect and was much less dangerous than the snow on the East Face.

Finally making the summit ridge, and out of the Ford.
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Josh coming out of the Ford.  To the left beyond the edge of this picture is the East Face that was covered in debris and sketchy snow.
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Nearing the end of the summit ridge with the summit in sight.
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We slogged through the difficult snow on the summit ridge and finally summited The Grand Teton.  It was a dream come true to be standing on top of this peak that had loomed in my mind for so long, but I knew we were only halfway through the day.  We took a few quick pictures and transitioned from climbing to skiing.

Finally on the summit!
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Josh making the summit.
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Excited to put The Longships on for the descent.
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Summit marker.
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As true as a summit ski descent can be.
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The snow on the summit ridge and Ford Couloir was really difficult to ski.  Chunky. Mashed. Potatoes.  My legs were pretty tired from the climb but I was able to dig deep and link some turns together.  It was pretty exciting to finally be skiing The Grand Teton.  This is considered by many to be THE ski-mountaineering test piece of the lower 48.  It was also great to have a pair of skis that didn't fold under the pressure of my weight and the difficult snow.  Big thanks to Folsom Custom Skis for their work.  I'm loving these skis!

Getting started.
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Skiing down the upper summit ridge.
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Josh skiing where the summit ridge starts to connect with the Ford.
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Dropping in on the Ford.
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Skiing the Ford.
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I felt pretty small skiing in such a big place.
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We fought the snow down the entire length of the Ford.
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The bottom of the Ford Couloir ends in a massive cliff and requires a left turn to get into the Chevy Couloir.  It can be intimidating to be above this exposure, so keeping your wits about you is important.  We got to the bottom of the Ford Couloir without incident and transitioned to rappelling down the Chevy and Stettner Couloirs as swiftly as we could.  We knew that things above us were starting to warm quickly and we saw evidence of that.  So, we made our way down as efficiently as possible.

Josh rappelling into the Chevy.
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Rapping along the edge of the cliff at the Ford's end to get to the top of the Chevy.
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Josh rappelling into the Chevy.
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Between ice and rock on the upper Chevy.
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Mid-way down the Chevy.
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In hind sight I would have put my crampons on sooner to rappel down the Chevy.  The ice was pretty slick with just my ski boots on.
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Nearing the Stettner towards the bottom of the Chevy.
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Rappelling down the Stettner.
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When we reached Teepee Col things had warmed significantly.  The snow was manky and variable.  However, as we continued down towards Garnet Canyon the consistency of the snow actually improved and we had our best turns of the day.

Skiing down from Teepee Col.
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Hop turns to get out of the mank.
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Josh on a perch at the bottom of the Teepee Glacier.
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The best turns of the day were between Teepee Glacier and Garnet Canyon.
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Crossing old skin and ski tracks as we ski out of Garnet Canyon.
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The slog out from Bradley Lake was long and my legs were cooked.  When I got back to my truck I drank a bunch of fluids and instantly started to feel better.  We celebrated our ski descent of The Grand Teton with a trip to The Gunbarrel restaurant in Jackson.  It was a well earned meal after a big day of ski mountaineering.

Back at the trailhead safe and sound.  Stoked but hungry.
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A well earned meal.
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Denali Relevance:
Climbing and skiing The Grand Teton was clearly great training for Denali.  It required climbing a large amount of vertical and descending it in the same day.  It required the use of technical climbing and rope skills.  It required working as a team with the person that I will be climbing Denali with.  I don't really know if there is a better way to spend a day training than by doing what we did.

Aside from fitness training, the day gave me a chance to test some layering.  The temperatures bounced from warm to cold depending on location and time of day.  I wore my Mission Shell the whole day and layered with my Verglas Down Insulator (both from Helly Hansen).  The insulator provided significant warmth and packed away really small.  Packing small is important when your pack is filled to the brim with rope, food and other gear.  I'll definitely be using this strategy on Denali.

This experience also gave me the opportunity to test out some of the training and performance nutrition that I've been doing with a company called The Feed.  They tailoring a diet of training and performance foods for me to use while I ski mountaineering.  I consumed a lot of calories while climbing The Grand Teton, and I think I've got some good feedback on what worked well and what wasn't ideal.  Proper fueling for training and big days is something I've neglected in the past.  I think getting on a good program with The Feed is really going to help.

After cleaning out my jacket I got a good visual of all the food I consumed on the way up and down The Grand Teton.

The Beta:

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  1. Huge congrats to you and Josh! That's a hell of a day trip and I'm really impressed that you guys were able to get it done despite the sub-par conditions. I'm so stoked to see what you guys can do on Denali!

  2. A few points i'd like to make...
    1. Super stoked and impressed.. massive accomplishment
    2. Maybe the Stettner should be changed to the Bettner (just saying)
    3. Glad to see it ended with the same 'beast feast' we enjoyed in Jackson.... Buffalo Prime Rib, Elk Chop and Venison Sausage if my appetite serves me

    Nice job B - proud of ya - HEAVY

  3. awesome trip report. respect. good luck on denali

  4. Hey Joel! I've been super stoked to read your blog and this report was hugely helpful. I myself am planning on skiing the grand in early May and heading to Denali in June. My question is where is a good place to get beta on this route? Having a hard time finding good maps and descriptions of the Stettner-Ford ascent along with info on skiing the Otter body.. Anything helps! Thanks for the amazing trip reports and for helping guys like me out.