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By Adam Wirth
Forty years ago my grandparents followed their dream and made the decision to build a family cabin 5 miles from the South entrance to Grand Teton National Park. They were torn between the wild areas around Buffalo, Wyoming, and the majestic Tetons, but the view of the Grand Teton. My grandfather was a Wyoming native who never shied away from getting us into cold, crazy, and probably dangerous adventures—we had to be outdoors.
I remember walking into Dornans (a resort) as a small boy and seeing Bill Briggs sitting at the bar. My grandfather told me that he was the first guy to ski the Grand Teton back in 1971. At the time I had a hard time even imagining climbing “The Grand” much less skiing it. Briggs called it a true adventure. Standing at 13,770 feet above sea level, the Grand Teton towers over its neighbors Mount Owen (12,928 feet) and the Middle Teton (12,804 feet). It is a peak that has framed car commercials and wedding photos. Sylvester Stallone even tried to pawn it off as being a mountain in Russia in Rocky IV. It doesn’t matter if you just stepped off a tour bus or are Reinhold Messner, this mountain grabs your attention.
I was surrounded by genuine bad asses in the valley where my grandparents’ house sits. Guys like Glenn Exum, John and David Peterson, Yvon Chouinard, and Bill Givens all lived within my range of exploring as a young boy, and I grew up absorbing their stories of adventure. My friends wanted to be firemen or policemen when they grew up, but I had something different in mind.
As the snow conditions stabilized earlier this spring, I began talking with my close friend, Aaron Pruzan, about making a serious attempt to ski The Grand. Aaron and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We met in the world of Jackson kayaking when I was about 13 years old. Aaron is one of the most accomplished class V kayakers in the U.S., and he has a number of first descents in his boat around the world. He is also one hell of a good skier, and my most frequent and trusted backcountry ski partner.
We chatted about making an attempt at The Grand for years, but we both knew we needed more training and knowledge before trying it. Hiking and cross country skiing with grandpa and father as a kid, getting acquainted with skiing steep terrain at the Village with my mother, ski touring with my wife, climbing at the Exum Ice Park, expanding my knowledge with the coursework I have done with Exum, and even the years of mountain bike racing would play a huge part in this day. I knew it would take a collective effort of physical and mental ability to safely pull this off.
When going into the mountains I am constantly reminded of my friend Zahan “Z” Billimoria’s words and I am trying to instill this into my own children: “The mountains are a magical and special place; they can give you so much but they can also take so much away. In the end this is very dangerous and the mountains don’t care who you are or that you are some kind of an expert. The way to have a long career as a mountain man is to build in margins.” Billimoria is a senior Exum guide and is one of the leading ski mountaineers in the world. He is a teacher, an incredible communicator, a great father and simply put, a good dude.
The two weeks leading up to our planned mission were filled with meticulously tracking the weather, the snow pack, reading topographic maps, and quizzing my local contacts about conditions high in the mountains. Since doing my advanced avalanche coursework with Zahan, I have been tracking the Teton weather and snowpack throughout the season, but I was especially on point given the objective at hand. Having a spreadsheet with graphical weather and snowpack analysis gives you huge insight into what conditions you will find, and if it is safe to go.
Skiing this mountain must first start with a stable snowpack, and with the warmer-than-usual season we have had, the base snowpack was isothermal and stable. Weeks of daytime high pressure, huge solar impact, and warm temps had transformed the snow by gradually melting a little bit each day and allowing water to percolate down through the snowpack. Cold clear nights gave the snowpack a chance to send its long wave radiation back into the atmosphere while locking it back up with a hard refreeze. The trouble is that skiing terrain like this is so weather dependent—there’s no powering through bad or inclement weather.
Aaron and I decided that Saturday looked to be a good day to attempt the summit, and Tanner Flanagan, one of Aaron’s friends, joined us as a third partner. Tanner had skied The Grand earlier this year. He is also very mellow and makes excellent decisions, so Aaron and I felt like Tanner was the perfect addition.
The three of us left the Bradley/Taggart lake parking lot at 2 a.m. with headlamps blazing. The weather looked to be perfect, and we hoped it would hold. We made good progress up Garnet Canyon, taking time to make sure we constantly ate and drank. There is something magical about a true alpine start; we had a moonless night, and my mental map of the beautiful canyon guided us.
The sun began to peak out when we hit about 11,000 feet, and it fully popped as we reached the top of the Teepee Glacier. From this point you’re directly below The Grand, and its towering height makes you feel very small.
From the top of the Teepee Glacier and the Glencoe Col, we had just less than 1,700 feet to the summit, but the two sections of ice in the Stettner and Chevy couloirs and the push up the Ford Couloir and onto the East Face made for a slow go. The ice and snow was perfect to climb; it was firm, and it perfectly grabbed our crampons and ice axes with each step. After about 200 feet, the Chevy Couloir splits off to the left. It was our first crux move, and Aaron led this pitch while I belayed. It’s a short section that’s pretty exposed, so we took our time and Aaron made sure the line was secure before belaying Tanner and me.
Once across, we took a breather to refuel and discussed the plan. The sun has the largest and most important impact on the snow surface, and it was a love/hate relationship throughout the day. At one moment we were freezing our asses off in the shade, and all we wanted was the sun. Then, just an hour later, we were roasting and would pay a million bucks to get some shade. At this moment the sun was in Death Star mode, and it felt like an oven between the huge rock buttresses.
The sun softens the snow and makes it fun to ski, but too much solar warming can be dangerous. Imagine taking a stick of butter and placing it on a metal cooking sheet tipped at a 45-degree angle. If you do it on a cloudy 15-degree day, that butter just sticks. If you do it on a sunny 40-degree day, the butter gradually creeps. But if you crank up the temp to 80 degrees and add the sun, that butter is slicker than a pocket full of pudding.
So we stopped to talk about bailing on our mission. The last thing we needed was a wet slide avalanche or rock fall from above us. As we talked about turning around, a band of clouds moved over us, and a light northeast breeze picked up. It was one of those gifts the mountain gives you, and it is incredible to witness how subtle these things can be. You have to be hyper-observant, and within minutes we saw how these clouds and wind cooled the snowpack.
So we kept climbing, and gained the summit about 1:30 p.m. The summit of The Grand is just one of those magical places. High fives and photos were in order, but it was time to start the descent. We were only halfway done for the day, and we had 1,700 feet of extremely technical terrain to negotiate before getting back to the Teepee Glacier and then 7,200 feet back to the valley.
We skied in pitches, grabbing small alcoves of safety as we one-by-one made our way down the East Face and into the Ford Couloir. The skiing on the East Face is not that steep and similar to a double blue run at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. What really ratchets you up is the exposure and how it just rolls off the face of the earth.
After a few hundred feet of skiing on the East Face you drop into the Ford Couloir, and, if for some reason this mountain didn’t already have your attention, this is where you become hyper focused at the task at hand. It is very steep (consistently 45 to 50 degrees), and every turn counts.
We made our way down to the first rappel anchor, and we got ourselves ready for what would be four very long and slow rappels through the Chevy and Stettner ice sections. We really took our time, backed up anchors, and built in those margins Zahan talks about.
I was really surprised how long it was taking with three people, and Aaron could tell I was getting impatient. He stopped me and said, “You are doing great. We are doing great. We have plenty of daylight left. Stay focused. We are almost there, and being smooth and methodical will be safe and fast enough.” It was the calm-down moment that I needed. It had been a long day, and I wanted to be done with gripping tasks. But the mountain doesn’t care if you are late, or if it is taking longer than you expected. The cause and effect is hugely amplified up here, and being smooth and methodical was the best way to proceed.
When we got through the bottom of the Stettner Couloir and to the top of the Teepee Glacier, I finally had cell reception and called to let my family know we were down safe. By that time we were pushing the time window of when they would start worrying. We still had 5,000 feet of skiing before getting to the car, but the ropes were put away, and we were out of the big danger zones. At this point the sun was behind the mountains, and the snow began to refreeze making for a smooth, fast ski out. We made great turns back to the car and could finally rejoice and high five.
It had been a huge day and I was knackered something proper. I learned a lot, but most importantly I learned how much respect we must give the mountains. It is a place to enjoy, but it isn’t a game, and you must respect that you are only guest amongst the peaks.
[Photos from top: Aaron Pruzan (4), Adam Wirth]