Skiing the Southwest Couloir on the Middle Teton

The alarm goes off at 4:00AM and I immediately am awake. On almost any other day of the year this would not be the case, especially given that I had just rolled into bed at 11:15PM after a 6 hour drive. I’m now entering “stage 1” of a typical big peak climb & ski – the pure excitement stage where it is just like Christmas morning as a young child.
Today the objective is the Southwest Couloir from the summit of the Middle Teton. I’m meeting up with a new climbing/skiing partner, Lee Jennings, and I am pretty stoked to be heading out this morning. We meet in Wilson and Lee drives to the Taggart Lake Parking area. The weather has cooperated and a clear night has setup the snow, even at the valley floor. There is a group of 4 in front of us and a group of 2 behind us. More on that later.

In the first hour, we have hit the base of the first real climbing on the skin track. We are headed up from Bradley Lake. I pause to take a quick snapshot of a beautiful sunrise over the somewhat frozen lake, with Mt Leidy on the horizon.

A view of the sunrise over Bradley Lake.  Mt. Leidy can be seen in the background.

A view of the sunrise over Bradley Lake. Mt. Leidy can be seen in the background.

Now we enter stage 2 – the excitement has started to ebb and the difficulty of what we are doing starts to try to take over the mind. This is the transition stage. I’ve been up into Garnett Canyon several times now and this section from Bradley up to the Platforms is tougher than it looks. Lots of short little steep sections and big boulders put a premium on negotiating a route/skin track that is efficient, but direct as possible. I have my ski crampons with me, but Lee doesn’t, so I decide not to put mine on. The key in these conditions, (with an overnight freeze) is to stay on the untracked snow. If it has tracks on it, then it is slick. But the untracked stuff is actually quite grippy. You can easily skin this entire section, if you are patient and good at picking a line. We do opt for one short section of boot-pack to avoid going around a particularly steep section on today’s climb.

After a short break for hydration and fuel at the Platforms, we are on the way up to the Meadows and the South Fork of the canyon.

Lee is ready to head out after one of our quick breaks.

Lee is ready to head out after one of our quick breaks.

I had to get in one selfie before we got to the tough areas.

I had to get in one selfie before we got to the tough areas.

For me, this is where stage 3 sets in. The “why do I continually punish myself like this” stage. In here, the immensity of the canyon and the surrounding peaks begins to really set in. Up ahead, the group of 4 can be seen inching their way up the headwall above the Meadows. It looks like maybe they are aiming for the glacier route on the Middle, or possibly the Grand. We comment that if it is the Grand, then they are waaaaay behind schedule. The steep section above the Meadows, going up into the south fork of the canyon presents me with one of my only “situations” on this trip. As we transition from the flat, warm snow to the steeper cold snow on this north facing slope, our skins start to collect the snow on them. I’m dealing with it pretty decently and decide to press on. Lee just transitions and bootpacks this short section. I should have, I was higher up and figured I could make the next little flat area with ease. This proved to be a mistake. I got out on a steep section that looked like it had the loose windblown snow on it that we had been dealing with, but instead it was firm and my skins would not hold because of the snow that had built up on the skins. This gave me a quick lesson in self-arrest with the whippet. The exposure was limited, but I could have went for a little slide. Apart from wasting some time while I had to get the skis off and on my pack on steep, firm snow, this incident didn’t cause any further problems.
Now as we top out on the transition into the upper levels of the south fork of the canyon, we are faced with endless boulder fields and the unrelenting wind that scours this section of the canyon. The wind adds to the misery factor and causes my mind to question why I am here. It is at this point where we also find out where the two guys behind us are headed. They catch up to us here and we discuss plans. They are heading up into the Ellingwood Couloir, and the Southwest Couloir where we are heading is their “plan B”.

Let the bootpack begin! As we near the saddle, there is one last boulder field to fight our way through. However, the big steep snow field at the base of the SW Couloir looks like a good short cut today, instead of going all the way to the saddle and hanging a sharp right-hander. It is firm and easy traveling, so we head up. As soon as it starts to steepen, we transition to full on alpine climbing gear, with crampons, ice axes and climbing helmets. As we top out on this snow field, we hit the transition to stage 4. We can see the couloir and we know that the summit lies at the head of it. This is “the end is in sight, just gotta dig in and gut it out” stage. My progress seems painfully slow here and I’m reminded of footage of climbers on Everestt as they get on the upper parts of the mountain. The couloir is steep and firm, which makes climbing “easy” and less risky than if we were in wet or loose snow. In reality, we have timed this perfectly and have hit it on a day when the couloir is filled in nicely. The further up we go, it becomes obvious that we are going to be able to ski the entire length of this route!

A look down towards the "Glacier Route" on the Middle Teton

A look down towards the “Glacier Route” on the Middle Teton

At last I am on the summit block. It looks a lot different then when I was here in the summer a few years ago. And there is some major exposure, especially down into the abyss that is the NW Couloir. There is also some nasty stuff on the left side of the SW Couloir. Needless to say, we limit our time here. We decide to get a couple of photos, including the mandatory “Splattski”.
Pretty stoked to be on the summit. Highest peak skied to-date.

Pretty stoked to be on the summit. Highest peak skied to-date.

Summit "Splattski" shot.

Summit “Splattski” shot.

This is stage 5, and it is the shortest stage – it always is.
Lee is ready for the descent.  The summit is top right corner of the photo.

Lee is ready for the descent. The summit is top right corner of the photo.

The first decision we make on the summit is to down-climb about 50 feet to a little ramp that removes the worst of the exposure. Could we ski directly from the summit? Yes, there is snow. But there are two choke points, one of which would be certain death if a mistake was made. I’m just not into that level of insanity, and turns out Lee isn’t either! Stage 6 begins in earnest as we transition onto skis and get ready for the descent. One look down confirms what I already know from the climb up. Damn, this is gonna be steep, and tight in places. This is what I call the “Focus stage”.
The view down the SW Couloir from just below the summit where we started the ski descent.

The view down the SW Couloir from just below the summit where we started the ski descent.

I’m relying on training that I received years ago as a youth ski racer to have the line memorized from the climb up. I know there are going to be two crux areas on the descent today. In addition, the snow is very firm in the upper 1/3 of the couloir. I take the lead and we work our way down from the summit. My turns are executed with exactness and I take my time. I find no shame in side slipping through the two tight crux areas. As we move down through the rocks and cliffs, the snow gets progressively softer. At some point I am able to “relax” enough to open up my turns.

A look up at some of the narrow sections of the route.

A look up at some of the narrow sections of the route.

And just like that, we have entered stage 7, the “Fun stage”. The lower 2/3 of the couloir is not quite as steep, it widens out a bit, and today, the snow is perfect corn in this section. My turns open up and other than my quads screaming at me, I’m having a blast. Lee and I have decided that we will stay high up on the snow field that is on the north side of the canyon as we descend. This gives us some great corn snow and moderate steeps with minimal boulders. We make the transition over to the Cave Couloir and look to get an additional 1000 vertical of quality turns. The snow is starting to soften up down here, but I notice that there is good shade in against the cliffs on the skiers right and I head for that line. It pays off and we have firmer snow that allows for nice turns until we exit just above the Meadows.

Let the “suffer-fest” begin. This is stage 8, the “Suffering stage”. By this time, we are both getting physically tired and hungry. Oh, and we have one other issue that we are dealing with; namely, we both underestimated our water consumption and are about out of H20. (If the situation gets dire, the stream is open in places below the Platforms). The skiing is on wet, sticky snow and it is draining to ski because I have to “stay in the back seat” due to the stickiness trying to continually grab my skis. We take a break at the lower end of the Meadows and refuel/hydrate. Then it is back to the suffering. Oh, BTW my feet are starting to kill me. I try to minimize turns the rest of the way out, but I do find that turning in existing tracks is better than setting my own track. There is a way to stay high as we exit the canyon and not have to re-skin to gain the ridge above Bradley Lake. The problem is that the route is a bit tough to find because of rocks and cliffs. Plus it involves a ton of “side-hilling”. So, we just do the path of least resistance and put the skins on one more time. We are now back to civilization and are passing college kids out post-holing on the mushy trail. (This makes me think of the poor suckers who must have done a winter climb of the Grand and the post-holes that they left all the way down the canyon on their way out. My suffering pales in comparison).

Eleven hours and change after we hit the skin track, we “glide” back into the parking lot. This is stage 9, the “Pain and Exhaustion stage”. I’m tired and beat. My feet are killing me, my gear is heavy and I’m just glad to be back to civilization. We have just done a 6000 foot plus climb and ski. We logged 13+ miles and bagged one of the Teton classics. The “pain” is short lived, especially after a success like this one!
Today was a great day in the mountains – friendships were made, we had fun and we came back safe.

I realize how fortunate I am to be able to do these types of adventures, and to a certain degree we were lucky to have had all of the forces line up to allow this particular adventure to happen. The Southwest Couloir isn’t in this kind of shape that often and for both of our schedules to line up as they did was a stroke of good fortune.

The Southwest Couloir in stellar conditions for a winter ski descent.

The Southwest Couloir in stellar conditions for a winter ski descent.

Stage 10; planning the next adventure. This stage starts immediately after we climb in the car and head back towards town. We are both thinking that Mt Moran should be next up!

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Snow report by Mountain Report & Snow Removal Denver

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