Legendary skier Mike Hattrup’s current job is traveling the American West and creating the next generation of ski equipment. Want to read his dispatches from the road? Join Outside+ and keep your eyes on “Out of Office with Mike Hattrup” for a semi-weekly dose of tales from the road throughout the summer.
When I declined my buddy’s text invite to go mountain biking because I was leaving for “the Grand,” his response caught me off guard. “The Canyon, the Rhond, the Rio?” he asked.
Maybe the Grand Teton isn’t top of mind for everyone, but as a ski mountaineer, it’s been on my bucket list for years. Over the years, however, weather, injuries, or work always managed to derail my plans of skiing it.
This season, I’d been in touch with Jackson, Wyo., local and IFMGA-certified guide Kent McBride for most of April trying to align our hectic schedules with safe conditions and a decent weather window. So when I got the call to join him and a couple of his friends in mid-May, I was stoked.
The weather and conditions weren’t ideal, but the bigger hurdle looked to be Covid, or at least the vaccine. The date Kent planned to climb was immediately after my second Moderna shot, the one that’s likely to come with side effects that would relegate most to the couch with a remote in hand, rather than climbing on snow and rock while gripping an ice ax.
While I felt nothing after my first shot, I was well aware that the second jab might not be so benign.
The CDC website says that if you’re going to feel side effects, they will likely come within 24 to 48 hours. I received my second shot at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, so our planned 1:00 a.m. Friday start was just over the 24-hour mark and the entire climb would be within the potentially dreadful 48-hour window.
Other than a painful shoulder, I felt fine 24 hours after the second dose when I pulled into the dirt parking lot at Lupine Meadows trailhead. Like the hangover that you don’t yet feel because you’re still buzzed, however, I knew that I was still in the danger zone for acquiring symptoms and could be skiing on borrowed time.
I managed to log four hours of sleep in my van before the 12:30 a.m. alarm. While brewing coffee, I noted guardedly that I had no headache, nausea, fever, muscle soreness, or tiredness (ok maybe a little tiredness, but it was 12:30 a.m.).
Kent’s buddies were a father-and-son team. Dave Learned, the dad, is a stock trader in his 50s who splits time between Boston and Killington. He’d trained hard for this and was fit.
Learned’s 30-year-old son, Kevin, a ski guide and climber living in Salt Lake City, briefly held the record for the youngest skier to put tracks on the Grand Teton when he was just 16 while under McBride’s guidance.
McBride and the Learneds arrived at the trailhead at 1:00 a.m. along with Doug Workman, another IFMGA-certified guide and Jackson local who joined at the last minute. Doug and Kent have more than 300 ascents of the Grand between them, and Kevin has climbed the Grand ten times in the summer. Even without vaccine side effects, I was starting to feel like the weak link.
The Teton Range protrudes abruptly from the Snake River plains to 13,776 feet with virtually zero foothills. Thanks to its impressive topography and proximity to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park, the Teton Range has garnered a larger than life reputation. Yet, as majestic as the range is, you can squeeze most of it onto a single 7.5’ USGS map.
The classic Grand ski descent, called the Ford-Stettner route, was first skied by Bill Briggs in 1971. It comes right off the summit and follows a series of couloirs to the Tepee glacier. A foot of new snow—and a firsthand report from an Exum guide who was up there the previous day—placed the status of the conditions for this route in the “questionable” column.
We moved efficiently by headlamp up the trail for a few hours until we hit consistent snow at about 9,000 feet, where we swapped our light hikers for touring boots and skis. After climbing the subsequent 1,000 feet, just above Spalding Falls, we made the decision not to climb the Ford-Stettner. Warm temps and the recent snow high on the mountain meant the danger of avalanches on that particular route wasn’t worth the risk.
We opted for the safer, but more circuitous and difficult Owen-Spalding route. The downside was that we wouldn’t be skiing off the summit.
By the time we’d reached the lower saddle at 11,600 feet, John, who came straight from sea level, had already puked from mild altitude sickness. He doggedly pushed to the upper saddle at 13,200 feet, but headache and nausea forced him to turn around. McBride decided to accompany him back to the trailhead.
This prompted me to check in with myself. I still had no vaccine symptoms, and fingers crossed it would stay that way.
By most standards, the Owen-Spalding rock route is easy. Rated as a 5.4 climbing route, any moderately athletic person can climb it with sticky rubber climbing shoes and dry rock. It gets a bit spicier, however, with ski boots, crampons, and a foot of unconsolidated snow.
Having climbed it multiple times in the summer, Kevin was anxious to lead it in spikes. We moved as a team of three with Workman in the middle often belaying both Kevin and myself.
Climbing rock in crampons is actually easier than just ski boots. A two-millimeter ledge that isn’t big enough to support a ski boot toe lug does provide enough purchase for crampon points. It’s delicate and requires precision, but it’s surprisingly effective. We made good time climbing and were standing on the summit with sunshine, broken clouds, and very little wind. It was a bummer not to have skis, but rewarding to stand on top and enjoy the expansive 360-degree views.
A couple of rappels and some scrambling brought us back to the upper saddle where we’d cached our skis. Our descent route would be the Idaho Express, aptly named because a fall will expeditiously deposit you at the base of the Idaho side of the Tetons.
Snow conditions made the descent much sportier, for lack of a better word. It was “skiable” breakable crust, and the best skiing we’d get. By the time we reached the lower saddle, it was a full-on blizzard. The new inch of fresh, wet snow sucked at our skis like sandpaper. Eventually, we passed through the freezing level, and, by the time we were back in our hiking shoes, we were soaked from the pissing rain.
Back at the car, I was relieved that vaccine symptoms never materialized, and I could finally check the Grand box (kind of). Yes, I’d stood on top, and the winter conditions on the Owen-Spalding route was really cool, but I’m not sure you can say you’ve skied the Grand until you ski off the summit. So the classic Ford-Stettner route is still on my list.
In the words of Arnold, “I’ll be back.”