View the video of the ski descent:
Activity Type: Ski Mountaineering
- Date of trip: August 12, 2011
- Level of Difficulty: D17, (D19 from summit), based on Lou Dawson’s rating system.
- Mountain Range or Region: Tetons
- State: WY
- Country: USA
- Skiers: Cody Feuz, Taylor Feuz
- Total vertical gain: 5,600 ft.
- Total skiing vertical: 2,300 ft.
- Dike Pinnacle Saddle elevation, (objective): 12,300 ft. (Official summit is 12,804 and is skiable)
- Upper couloir vertical: 500 ft. (no fall zone).
- Upper couloir pitch: 51 degrees – estimates based on visual inspection, measurements from GPS data, and measurements from Google earth.
- Equipment Used: Rossignol Scratch BC’s 185cm with G3 Onyx bindings, Dynafit Areo boots, Grivel Air Tech Light, Camp Ice Axe, and Black Diamond pack.
GPS Data: (note, the GPS file has been modified from the original because it contained erroneous points that were generated during stoppage points in the couloir. The GPS unit was putting points in that had me skiing over cliffs).
The Middle Teton Glacier route is a popular ski mountaineering objective that offers challenging terrain up to 50+ degrees. I had set this route as an objective to continue my training for Teton ski descents to be done next winter/spring. It also marked my August ski trip for my on-going quest to ski 12 consecutive calendar months. This would be my third attempt at an objective above 12,000 feet – the first two were unsuccessful attempts of Mt. Moran in the mid-90s, and Teewinot earlier this year. I had determined that the two biggest contributing factors to those unsuccessful attempts were proper fitness and lack of proper equipment. I had remedied this by investing in equipment and by pursuing an aggressive training regime that included hiking and trail running with elevation gains of 1,000+ feet and 6-8 mile distances, street running distances up to 10K, and mountain biking with aggressive uphill climbs of up to 3,000 vertical and 10 – 20 mile distances.
The climb began at 3:15 AM at the Lupine Meadows trailhead in GTNP. We climbed the Garnet Canyon trail to The Meadows, and then followed the normal climbing path on the north side of the canyon up to the base of the glacier. We chose to ascend/descend using the same basic route. This would give us the chance to properly inspect our descent. My climbing/skiing partner was my son, Taylor. At the 12,000 foot level as we were part way up in the couloir that heads to the saddle, Taylor encountered some severe quad cramps, and so we determined that he would dig in there and prepare to get his skis on. I felt great and was determined to reach my objective about 300 feet above. Up until that point, we had basically been in the sunshine and the snow on the glacier was in excellent condition – soft enough to be “gripping”, but not very mushy at all. However, as I began the final ascent, I noted that the cliffs above the couloir had cast shadows on the snow, and it had already started to become firm and icy again. I knew the descent was going to be “technical”.
I hit the Saddle at 10:45 AM and quickly got my ski gear on. The descent was fun, but very technical, due to the icy conditions and the steepness of the terrain.
My helmet cam shows this in the video that I shot of the descent. Later, I realized that if I had continued northwest from the saddle for another few hundred feet, I could have had a descent that was approximately the same pitch, BUT it was in the sunlight and therefore offered much safer snow. Although I made it down, in retrospect I should have kept going up and over to the safer more sunlit route, but I had already closed that option because I didn’t want to be tempted to continue to climb higher than my plan and risk increased exposure. There are many lessons to be learned here, but perhaps the most important is simply the value of experience. If I’m in that place and situation again, I have the benefit now of having been there already. Due to the steepness, the icy conditions, and the fact that there were cliffs and a large bergshrund below me on this upper section, I pretty much concluded that this was indeed one of those “no fall zones”.
Once we exited the couloir and were out on the glacier proper, the skiing was fantastic corn snow, and the steepness was that of a typical ski area black diamond bowl. In other words, just a great time and not much danger! We had 1,800 feet of this down to the 10,000 foot level. One important note on the main glacier is to hold to skier’s right in order to avoid the large bergshrund. Our route took us along the edge of the “Dike” cliff walls to just above The Meadows. We had to down climb through a boulder field to get to The Meadows and the trail back down Garnet canyon. The Hike up was 7 ½ hours, actual time on skis was just about ½ hour, hike out 3 ¾ hours, for a total of 11 ¾ hours.
As stated in the description, I had made a couple of attempts on big mountains prior to this one. In both cases, one of my problems was equipment. Let’s be frank here; Equipment DOES matter! Don’t be fooled like I was into thinking that you can go do these big mountains on regular resort alpine gear.
First of all, let’s talk about the boots. There are two components regarding boots. The first is weight, and the second is flex. In general, alpine boots are too heavy for serious AT use, and even more importantly they lack the proper flexing for long ascents. It may seem like a small thing, but the design of a good AT boot allows one’s leg to flex in such a manner as to let the muscles relax, (even if only for a brief moment) on each step. The rigidness of the normal alpine boot design does not allow this to happen. That was one of the biggest factors in why my legs developed severe cramping in my earlier climbs, (and my son, who had regular alpine boots on this climb also had the same issue). By the way, the boot that I have is one of the heavier ones in Dynafit’s lineup and it isn’t that much less weight than my regular alpine boots. I went with them because of price and availability, with the idea that I could move to a lighter, pricier model later on.
In my opinion, another critical piece of equipment is the set of crampons to be used. My biggest mistake here was that the original crampons that I was using were actually a pair of Grivel’s that is an older model ice crampon. They did not have any anti-balling system and they immediately balled up as soon as the sun hit the snow, (the snow was not even that warm or sticky). This made them very heavy and dangerous to travel in, not to mention the tedious effort of banging the snow out on virtually every step. I was able to solve this by getting a cool ABS retrofit from Grivel via Moosejaw that I installed and my son used. This worked great, and he had no problems with the crampons themselves. However, I went a step further and went to Grivel’s super lightweight aluminum Air Tech Light New-Matic crampon. At barely a pound for the set, these hardly seem like you have them on. One word of caution here; these are not made for serious ice and rocks! They will not hold up to that kind of use.
Skis and bindings are also critical. If you are going to get the proper AT boot, then that points you towards a “Dynafit” type binding system. I went with the G3 for two primary reasons: One, I needed something fairly quickly and because it was off-season I was having a hard time finding the Dynafit bindings, (new or used). Two, the price was very aggressive from backcountry.com. I did a lot of research online prior to buying and although the G3 has its share of detractors, I felt that I would go with it and if it turned out to not be a good deal, then I’d just get the Dynafit’s. The jury is still out, BUT the initial foray was very challenging and they performed exceptionally well. I went with my trusty Rossi Scratch BC’s that I’ve been skiing for 3-4 seasons now. I like them because they are fairly lightweight, and wide enough for powder, but the still provide an excellent edge on crusty/icy snow. This was put to the test on the upper part of the Middle Teton, and they came through with flying colors! I know there are probably as many opinions out there about skis and bindings as there are skiers, but I will say this about skis/bindings in ski-mountaineering situations: You better go with a real AT setup if you are going to do much at all, AND you better make sure the ski REALLY can perform in ANY type of conditions! As an example, I love my Rossi S6’s in powder and soft to slightly “crunchy” conditions, but they do not compare to the Scratch BC’s when it comes to super hard-pack or icy snow.