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An Epic Suffer-Fest in the Tetons

Photography courtesy Elijah Weber

Skiing on Mt Moran in GTNP

Skiing on Mt Moran in GTNP

The mountains do not treat the proud and stubborn kindly. Sometimes that lesson can be reinforced with death, or serious injury. Most of the time, however, it is simply reinforced by pain and suffering. Spoiler alert, this is an account of one of those suffer-fests where no bodily harm occurred, but pain, misery and defeat were abundantly present.

Earlier this spring I met up with a new climbing/skiing partner, Lee Jennings, and we had a very successful day on the Middle Teton. We skinned in from the Taggart Lake parking area, climbed and summited the Middle via the Southwest Couloir. We then skied the SW and the Cave Couloirs on our way back down to the vehicles. This was a big day for me and stretched my limits of endurance. At the end of the day, we started talking about what we would like to do next. We both were quite intrigued with a spring attempt on Mount Moran.

Grandiose Plans and Schemes

There were some key components of the plan that needed to come together in order for us to pull it off successfully. The first requirement, for me, was to insure that we had multiple partners. Knowing that we had some bush whacking to do, and the remoteness of this climb had convinced me to only attempt it if we had 3-5 partners. Originally, the plan was a Friday/Saturday climb, with Sunday to return. As we got closer, people couldn’t get Friday off, and so we settled on Saturday/Sunday. The “trek” around Leigh Lake is long and arduous at best and a miserable deal-breaker at worst. We had planned on using canoes to cruise across the lake. Finally, the gate at Taggart parking area needed to be open prior to our 2:00 AM arrival.
I ran this plan by one of the Exum guides that I have been with multiple times, and he suggested that we might think of Mount Saint John or Rock Chuck Peak instead. I was pretty set on Moran, and it seemed like the rest of our team was too. As we scouted things out on Saturday afternoon, we all notice how nice Buck Mountain was looking. We decided that if the gate to Jenny/String Lake area was still closed, we would head for Buck Mountain.
What we should have determined was that if ANY one of key components was not available, then we would ditch it and head for Buck. Had we done that, we wouldn’t even have attempted Moran because of two key strikes; namely the fact that we couldn’t canoe the lake, and we had to do this in one big continuous trek, car-to-car.

Let the “Suffer-fest” Commence (Part 1)

At 12:30 AM Sunday morning the alarm on my smart phone went off in our motel room in the Flat Creek Inn, just north of Jackson. This was after a short, sometimes noisy rest of four hours. We shoved down some carbs and protein, got ready and were packed and out the door just after 1:00 AM for a pre-planned rendezvous with Lee and Nico at the Taggart Lake Parking.
Every one arrived within a few minutes of the plan, the gate was open and off we headed for the String Lake parking area. We were on the trail, (booting and skinning) just after 2:30AM. At the bridge where Leigh feeds into String Lake, we went across and headed for the southwest corner of the lake. We were planning on getting into the Skillet at the notch just below the Falling Ice Glacier. After a few wrong turns initially, because I was misreading the GPS, we got lined out and made a fairly straight course to our target. Fortunately I had loaded a couple of key waypoints into the GPS unit ahead of time, and so that saved us a tremendous amount of wandering around.
I had selected this route because it cut a full mile off of the traditional approach around the east side of Leigh Lake. The problem with this approach is that the terrain is steeper and has a lot more obstacles. (Although I’m not convinced that on the day we did this it was “sixes”). Anyway, it was slow going and four hours after heading out, negotiating two large stream crossings and tons of bush whacking, we were finally on firm snow headed up the gully towards the Falling Ice Glacier. The gully was steep enough and the snow was firm enough that skinning was dicey. The upper end of the gully was climbing with crampons on.

Troy contemplates the beauty of the surroundings and the misery of the ascent.

Troy contemplates the beauty of the surroundings and the misery of the ascent.

Cody is about out of gas at this point.

Cody is about out of gas at this point.

I was just not “feeling it” on this day and was dragging behind, way behind. I thought some of the team could have made the summit that day, but I knew that I wouldn’t. As I had studied this route out earlier, I was certain that we could get over into the Skillet itself by dropping about 3-500 vertical from the notch and then hold a high line to the left, between cliff bands. By the time I got up there to where the group was they had determined to drop straight down into the big canyon below the Skillet. The plan was then to assess conditions and see who was “feeling it” for a summit attempt. I was too physically and mentally drained at the time, and I failed to communicate that there was indeed a shorter way into the Skillet.

Troy, Lee and Nico top out on the "notch" below the West Horn.

Troy, Lee and Nico top out on the “notch” below the West Horn.

The Downhill Delivers Some Stoke

After looking at the snow and conditions below me, the energy and anticipation started to lift my spirits and my physical pain seemed to vanish. The prospect of several hundred vertical of beautiful, sweet corn easily lured me away from the traverse into the Skillet and the continued pain of the additional 2,500 vertical required in order to hit the summit.

 

Troy heads down from the notch at the base of the West Horn.

Troy heads down from the notch at the base of the West Horn.

Troy gets some corn under blue skies and a sliver of a moon.

Troy gets some corn under blue skies and a sliver of a moon.

 

As soon as I was clicked in and pushing off, the pain was gone and I was in my zone. Although still a bit firm on the shady aspects, and almost too soft where the direct sunlight had been, the snow was great and it was like carving GS turns on some of the steeper groomers at JH. We descended 1,500 vertical on this run and then regrouped.

Cody Feuz decending off Mount Moran in the Grand Teton National Park

Getting in the zone.

Cody Feuz decending off Mount Moran in the Grand Teton National Park

Getting turns just below the notch.

Cody Feuz descending off Mount Moran in the Grand Teton National Park

Carving some corn.

Although the snow was softening at this elevation, we agreed that it was still stable, and would only get better as we went higher. With the adrenaline rush of the downhill still coursing through my veins, I was now on-board with continuing the ascent, even though there was no real chance of hitting the summit. (It was now 4,000 feet above us). Shortly after getting the skins back on, the adrenaline wore off, reality set in, (again), and I was “calling it”. I was in a very safe zone, and was totally comfortable with waiting it out and letting anyone else keep going. Troy and Eli opted to stay with me, but Lee and Nico decided to give it a shot. At that point we were only a couple hundred vertical above our low point. We found a nice sunny rock to set on and eat some well-deserved lunch. The other two probably only made it another 500 feet higher before they also decided to call it off.
After the break, we headed back down the mountain in soft, but still fun conditions. With every 100 feet of elevation loss, the snow was getting softer and stickier. For some of the group, the suffer fest was already beginning again, but for me, if I’m on snow and skiing downhill, I’m still having fun. Even the last few hundred vertical as we approached Trapper Lake were fun in one of those challenging sort of ways – dodging boulders, bare spots, jumping over logs and dodging through the brush was both entertaining and challenging.

Let the “Suffer-fest” Commence (Part 2)

As we hit the streambed feeding into Trapper Lake, we were now done with the “fun”. We still had about 5 miles to go and we were faced with snow, mud, dirt and stream crossings. Between Trapper and Bear Paw Lakes, it was a little bit of “every man for himself”, just fighting the elements and figuring out whether to hike, skin, or post-hole. After hitting Bear Paw, we hit a fairly long stretch of dependable snow that allowed us to put the skins back on until we hit the east side of Leigh Lake. At that point, we were on the “trail” for the rest of the way to the parking lot. It alternated between stretches of snow/post-holing, dirt/plodding and mud/sloshing. This last part of the trek was 3 miles, and what seemed like endless hours of misery and torment. It actually was more like 2 hours of hell that seemed like endless torment.
As we got back to civilization and the comforts of sandals and tennis shoes, the smiles gradually returned. The only other humility/embarrassment that I had to endure was that we bumped into Aaron, (the Exum guide mentioned at the beginning of this tale of woe), as we were getting our gear ready for the trip home and I had to sheepishly admit to another failed attempt on my nemesis, Mt. Moran. He didn’t really say “I told you so” in that many words, but it didn’t take him too many more than that in his response.
The final chapter to this suffer fest was the ride back to Boise for Eli, Troy and me. We were able to do it in shifts, but by the time we all got back home we had been awake for 23+ hours.

Epilogue

As I finish up this little “trip report”, it is two weeks since the suffering was happening. The pain and misery is a distant memory and my vows to myself of not doing this anymore have been rescinded. I think Lee is off on his adventures in Alaska, Nico has probably vowed to never get tangled up with this wacky crew, Troy is on a cool bike packing trek, and I’m not sure what adventure Eli is on. Troy, Eli and I are talking about something in the Lost River Range this next weekend, provided I can get the required approvals.

Looking for

Approaching the speed bump.

Having a little fun on Mt Moran

Well, that was fun

What are my takeaways from all of this? What did I learn? The list is long and includes things like humility, planning and being realistic in assessing the adventure. But it also includes things like knowing that it isn’t always about the “goal”, but the journey. It is about putting a team together and developing friendships through adversity, (even if self-inflicted). And as for me, I will put myself through 23 hours of misery for 3,500 vertical feet of skiing and that brings a smile to my face and a twinkle in my eye!

Cody is all grins now.

Cody is all grins now.

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