The South Teton x 3
I have had the South Teton on my hit list to climb and ski for a few years now, but until recently things had just not worked out. The window isn't that big to catch the right snow conditions, weather and work schedules. My objective was to climb the peak via the NW couloir route and then to ski the SE Face down into Avalanche Canyon. I planned on doing the climb and ski descent with the assistance of Exum Mountain Guides
. This TR is not just about the journey to get to the summit, but also the saga to actually ski it from the summit too.
After getting turned back before even starting for a couple of winters, due to weather and snowpack issues during my windows of opportunity, I decided that I wanted to at least climb the peak and tag the summit in the summer months. I figured this would be good training, get me familiar with the ascent route and help build my confidence. I also decided that I wanted to test myself and see how fast I could do the trip, car to car. The date was set for August 16th, 2014, (2 days after my 56th birthday). This also happened to be the same day as the "Feuz Family Reunion", a reunion that I had not attended in over 20 years. I told my dad that Ann and I would be there, but we might be a little late. I don't remember if I told him that I had to climb a peak first. Anyway, I thought I could get the round trip done in around 5 hours. I was on the trail from the Lupine Meadows trail head at 5:00 AM and set off on a light jog. At 6:20, I hit the Platforms area, which is just over 4 miles in. I was about 15-20 minutes behind my "schedule" at that point. I ended up hitting the summit in 4 hours, which put me way behind my "plan", but actually for me was a pretty fast pace, (7 miles and just under 6K vertical).
One the summit of the South Teton with the Grand Teton as the backdrop.
There were some snow fields above the Meadows as I was heading into the South Fork of Garnet Canyon where I took the time to put on the little mini crampons on my trail running shoes that I was using. On the down-climb, the snow had softened and I didn't need them. My route took me up through the NW couloir, and then after a 20 minute rest, I retraced my steps back to the vehicle. Car to car was 7:10. Not near as fast as I thought I could, but a nice brisk pace. By the time I got back to Wilson to pick up Ann and then back up to the Buffalo Valley for the reunion, we were beyond fashionably late. This didn't go over well with my Dad, but the rest of the family thought it was pretty cool that I had climbed the South, and still made the reunion. I promised to return sooner than 20 years for the next one.
This climb did accomplish the goals of training, route familiarization and confidence building. This video is mainly focused on showing footage of the NW Couloir, the summit ridge and views from the summit:
The 2nd ascent was to be on March 7th, 2015. The weather, the snowpack, my schedule and the guide's schedule all came together for what looked to be a near perfect day to ski the SE Face from the summit. During the winter months the trail head is at the Bradley-Taggart Lake parking lot. We put skins on the skis and skinned up through Garnet Canyon and the South Fork to the saddle. From there, it was a short but steep boot pack up into and through the NW couloir. The snow was soft, but firm and there was no sign of ice, so we didn't need to put our crampons on. During the boot pack, 3 other local ski mountaineers caught up to us and we finished the climb together. Dan Corn, who was my guide knew a couple of the other guys and so we all worked together on the boot pack and we determined that we would ski the route together, so as to not send stuff down on top of each other.
After a short break on the summit, we were ready for the descent on a bluebird day with great conditions and a few inches of soft snow on a very firm base. It was setting up to be the perfect day, but then disaster struck literally on my 5th turn in. The heel piece on my rear binding shattered.
Surveying the damage of the broken heel piece.
My guide, Dan Corn, thought he might have a solution to the problem, but neither one of us thought it would be wise to "try it out" on a descent of the SE Face. Too much exposure, too much risk. The only option was to go back up over the top, down-climb the NW couloir and go back down Garnet Canyon. As it turns out, the solution worked and I was able to ski back to the vehicles. He took a very beefy orange strap and ran it over my boot and then under the remaining piece of the broken heel binding. We had to "lock" the toe piece in because there was still enough play that when I turned, the toe piece kept trying to pre-release. Although this made be go slow and cautious it was far better than the alternative of putting skins back on and free-heeling it back out.
Although I was stoked to have made a successful winter ascent of the peak, I was pretty bummed out that I couldn't ski the SE Face. I knew that I had to keep the South on my list.
On May 1st, Exum Guide Aaron Dahill and I were on the trail for another attempt to climb and ski the South Teton. This time, we started from the Lupine meadows trail head, because the road had opened overnight and we felt it might be the better trail head for beginning the climb, (ie less potential bushwhacking). We essentially had approach shoes on from the trail head to the Platforms, and then skins on until we hit the bootpack up through the NW couloir. One interesting note that we both discussed was how much snow the couloir actually had in it. Most of the time, even in heavy snow years the snow gets blown out of this couloir and one is scrambling on rocks / dirt / snow. On this ascent, the snow was deep and firm enough that one could have probably skied the entire couloir.
After a few minutes to rest, re-hydrate and get some energy consumed on the summit we were ready to snap in and head down.
Just below the summit of the South.
There are three common ski routes from the summit. Our plan A was the SE Face, which merges down into the lower part of the SE Couloir. And our Plan B was to go skiers rigth and drop into the Amora Vida Couloir. We would do this if the snow was too soft on the face. As it turned out, the skiing up high was fantastic and we stayed with the initial plan.
Having some fun on the steep lines of the SE Face.
There is a short crux area on the route that sometimes requires a belay, short down-climb or both. When we hit this crux, we could see that it had been blown out by a good sized avalanche recently, (the prior week had seen very warm temps), and this was a wet slough slide that had run during that time. The crux was now very hard snow and frozen ice on some exposed rocks. I figured I could sidestep/slip it and so Aaron set me up on belay. This worked out fine and allowed me to have skis on for the entire descent. He simply threw the crampons on and down-climbed behind me.
Aaron readies the belay thru the crux.
As we dropped further into Avalanche Canyon, the snow continued to get softer, but we had nice spring skiing all the way down to about where the Turkey Chute merges in from 25 Short. From there down, the snow was pretty poor quality and we had to do some bushwhacking, but we were able to keep our skis on until the Taggart Lake outlet. From that point, it was a "short" hike out to the Bradley-Taggart parking lot, where we got Aaron's girlfriend to shuttle us back up to the Lupine Meadows trail head. (If we'd thought it through earlier that morning, we could have avoided the shuttle by leaving one of our vehicles at the lower trail head, but that level of reasoning wasn't quite there yet at the early 4AM hour). This link will take you to a YouTube video that highlights the ski descent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awEcv-nkP0g
Some of the route is visible on the skyline in this photo.
Planning, persistence and perseverance had finally paid off and I was able to add this classic ski descent to my list of bucket items successfully completed. Many thanks go out to my wife and family who provide support for these types of adventures, and to the Exum guides, (Aaron and Dan), for getting me to the top, and more importantly providing the leadership and expertise to help insure that the ski descent was both fun and safe. The adventure is a big part of the lure, but ultimately we truly do want to be safe and live to climb and ski another day.
As a postscript to this TR I am reminded of the risk and dangers associated with ski mountaineering. The Tetons claimed the lives of two accomplished and experienced individuals this past weekend who were also out on an adventure to have fun. RIP Luke and Stephen.
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