Santa was good to me. For all the missteps I’ve had in Alaska with the rainy summer and dry winter, last week’s trip to the Tetons made the world right. Once again, emotions got the better of me staring out the window of the United flight as I descended into the valley on Christmas morning. Perfect blue bird skies and nearly two feet of fresh snow greeted me when I debarked. I pinched myself.
Dina’s car was already at the airport and I made a quick getaway to town to my first transition of the week. Luckily, being Christmas morning, the roads were vacant. I was swerving all over rubber necking the usual lines on Wimpy’s, 25 Short and Mavericks. I couldn’t believe I was going to be sampling it all an hour later.
After dumping the contents of my bags on the floor and frantically getting my kit together, I was speeding north to the Bradley-Taggart trailhead. After 3 weeks of frigid temps in Alaska, I was shocked by the height and warmth of the sun as I set off on the skin track toward 25 Short. Had to pinch myself again.
I was surprised by the lack of skiers going my way. I guess it was Christmas, afterall. But, hey, it’s blue bird and untracked. Don’t people have priorities? Uh, maybe that’s why I was alone. Fair enough. I’m still going skiing.
The altitude was kicking my ass, of course. It’s a sad reality of living at sea level. Tends to dampen my ambitions the first few days up high. And this day was no different. I was planning my favorite powder whoring tour up 25 Short, one run down, back up, down Ueller’s, up the north side of Maverick and out to the car. This usually gets me about 7,000 feet of joy. But as the skin track pointed up, I knew that the combination of no sleep and rarified air would have me cutting 2K off that goal.
I saw not a soul as I crested the summit. The air was still. Fresh tracks down Ueller’s indicated others reaped the rewards of the day. I turned and headed down the main face of 25 Short through the perfect green light glades. I was giggling the whole way down.
I hit the traditional lap point about 1,800 feet down and put the hides back on. I was dragging a bit but with no one around I took my time. Back on top, I saw another party on the small summit next to Turkey Chute as they prepared to center punch the slide path. I headed to the left down my favorite set of glades and tree shots. I veered north near the bottom, having already decided that Maverick was not in the cards. The out track was easy to find and I was back at the car in time to make my Christmas dinner party invite.
I got up the next day feeling tired. I was in no hurry, opting for my PSB ritual and chance meeting with friends there. After socializing, guilt got the better of me and I rallied to the base of Old Pass Road for my usual warm up tour to the Pass.
I usually see friends as I crest the top and, sure enough, there was Mark Newcomb amongst the cars. We caught up a bit and then the chill pushed me onward. A quick shot down my favorite distraction through Powder Reserve brought me to more socializing at the base of Edelweiss. Three laps later with meet and greets on each lap, the fading light chased me back down to the car. Another 4 hours in the bag.
The falling snow of the previous day had me setting my sights on Taylor with Dina now that she was back in town. A lazy start ensured that the skin track was in. More familiar faces and catching up in Coal Creek punctuated the start. I was still in no hurry and we stayed together on the climb. We ripped skins in a white out at the summit.
I core shot a ski on the rocky ridge before dropping into the feather pile on the South gut. Amazing is the only word for it. We stopped a thousand feet short of the bottom and topped out again for another round of pure joy powder skiing. No need to pinch myself. The cold powder face shots reminded me it was real.
Next up was a return to a fun line I hadn’t skied in years after getting the Spoon Couloir in perfect deep conditions with Romeo on one of our first outings together. Dina and I approached via Garnet Canyon, linking up with the summer trail on the long traverse and then B-lining upward. I put in a switch-backing skin track up the east flank all the way to Surprise Lake. I didn’t remember how utterly perfect that 25 to 30 degree slope was in stable conditions. We anticipated the run down before we even saw the Spoon.
It snowed on and off most of the way up. While talking with friends in the parking lot I voiced my doubts about hitting the line in crappy visibility. Mitch trumped my sentiment with an optimistic prediction that it would clear when we needed it to. Like a damn guru, he was right and the clouds broke as the line came into view. Dina admitted later that she had her doubts but they fell away as I pushed the booter into the throat of the couloir.
It was no slam dunk. We both verbalized our fear of the wind loaded entrance looming above. I’d danced with that beast the last time I was there. I remembered the steps.
The snow in the gut was perfect. I hugged the left wall and locked into a metronome-like pace kicking steps. As we neared the top I switched to the rocky right side and snuck out into the rocks and over the lip and into the sun. I wished I had a rope to just go cut that starting zone and see what was up. But instead I did short, calculated jump turns down the edge until things felt better further down. I didn’t open it up until well past half way, instead opting for pictures and encouraging Dina while she develops her steep skiing chops.
The run from the lake to the bottom was as good as we hoped. The long shadows in the valley below from the fading sun made the setting even more stunning. We hit the car just as darkness descended, about six and half hours after leaving.
West/East Hourglass Couloir
My final day of skiing for this trip involved introducing a new friend to the pleasures of the range in winter. Matt is no stranger to the Tetons. He’s run all the trails and stood on most summits while training in the summer. But he’s new to ski mountaineering, instead spending his time at the Village honing his downhill skills. With his skiing ability and aerobic pedigree, I knew he would be a good partner for a long day in the Park.
After considering various options, we decided on the West and, possibly, the East Hourglass Couloirs on Nez Pierce. The West was my first objective back in 2005 and seems to be where many neophyte Teton ski mountaineers get their first taste. Seemed fitting to break Matt in on the same run.
The track up Garnet was beat in. There was still plenty of soft snow on the lower slopes to look forward to coming out but higher up in the Ice Box the wind clearly had its way with the snow pack. No powder skiing on the steeps this day. By the time we transitioned to crampons on the lower slopes below the couloir proper, we’d passed one group of three and were closing in on a pair. First come first served.
The duo opted to boot up the East as I started up the West. I thought the other three would take advantage of our stairway and follow us up. They didn’t. It was too bad, too, because Matt broke out his IPhone and played some Eddie Vedder in memory of Steve. Hard Sun broke the still air as we readied ourselves for the scratchy heads-up skiing ahead. Indeed, Steve and I had storm skied this line long ago in waist deep fluff wondering if we would survive. This day would bring us boiler plate and no-fall riding.
Matt’s confidence built with each turn. He has the skills and seemed to really enjoy bringing them to bare on critical terrain. The 40 degree headwall felt serious with a missed turn sure to yield a slide for life into the rocks far below.
Back at the junction with the East I stopped to spy the booter ascending out of sight. Matt skied up and I grinned. “Ready for another?” I asked. He hesitated only for a second then said, “Sure”. Up we went.
I was wary of the others coming down. There was more snow on this side. Two years ago I’d sent the contents of the East in one giant wind slab avalanche after ski cutting it on rappel during a top down descent. We made it to a safe alcove as the two started down. The conditions were a little punchy but not heinous. The pair skied by and we quickly dispatched with the final 200 feet.
The narrow start below the chock stone provided some exciting jump turns before easing off into stable crusty turns. More wind board and breakable crust greeted us on the apron and we finally got some powder above Bradley Lake. I got one final social gathering as we donned skins on Bradley before getting back to the car after 6 hours.
Hard to believe it was so good. I got a text from a friend in AK who told me I should just stay put since it was 45 degrees and raining in Anchorage. The Northern Rockies are clearly the place to be right now. Glad I got a taste. Damn job screwing things up again. I trust winter will return to the Chugach and all will be right once again. Until then I might be working on my frequent flier status down to Jackson every month.
I skied my Dynafit Manaslu 178cm on every trip. I know they’re great in powder and worked well breaking trail in deep snow but they were also good on the firm steeps. No hesitations. They’re mounted with Plum Race 165s and I drove them with my well-worn Dynafit TLT 5 without a tongue and powerstrap.
Got to trial a new favorite jacket of mine, the CAMP ED Protection jacket. It's similar to many of the uber popular light puffy jackets out there but this one has a more impervious shell, a better fitting and featured hood and some extra length in the torso which keeps things toasty down low.
I carried everything in my trusted CAMP X3 Light pack. Super light and big enough to carry everything.