April 14, 2012

Skiing Middle Teton & Nez Perce April 2012

Winter's Last Grasping Moon- A Dorais
Like all journeys the past can often be the driver of many futuristic goals and experiences. I was only 13 when I first gazed at the mighty Teton Range. Feeling overwhelmed but drawn to them like all visiting ships are pulled to the Death Star, I knew someday I would climb them all. In 1990, some years later, Rick Sunderlage and I ventured as part of our high school graduation to climb the Grand Teton. Back then there was very limited beta on a climb much less anyone we knew who had attempted such a feat. We checked into the old Jenny Lake Ranger station location and headed for what we thought to be the Grand Teton. No ropes, no crampons, no tools at all other than our cool North Face jackets and some boot gators. We arrived at what we now call the meadows, set up camp and headed for the Grand Teton that same day. Unbeknownst to us, the Grand lay on the right side of the canyon, we headed for the left side and after hours of agony we saw some crusty old mountaineers glissading down the shoulder of Cloudveil Dome. They never waved just methodically glided down the early summer snow. We arrived at the ridge between the Middle Teton and the South, too tired to go any further. That night we slept well at the Meadows and descended the next morning. While out on the highway we noticed something. The mountain we were on had a large black line going up the face. "Wait a second, that isn't the Grand, that appears to be the Middle!!"

Since that day I have spent many days climbing these mountains, with several different important partners. Some of which don't climb any more, others have moved away but just as the mountains remain firmly in place so do my memories of each and every summit. My quest for travels among the great Tetons continues, although my experiences are changing. Not until a few years ago while ski touring did the thought of skiing the Teton range enter my mind and being blessed to have some really strong, fast and humble tough friends with years of mountaineering experience, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

The Middle Teton has always captured my imagination. It's aesthetic lines, towering gneiss faces, hanging snow fields and sheer steepness have filled my mind many an hour. I knew this was the first to be skied in my chapters of future Teton adventures. A simple text on April 3rd to Jared Inouye, Andy Dorais and Jason Dorais culminated the months of watching the snow pack and weather to come together into the perfect opportunistic window. On Monday April 9, 2012, Andy and I loaded the CRV at 630 PM and arrived at the Jackson Hole Motel 6 around 11 PM. I couldn't sleep at all. Snoring Andy raised the roof and my nerves were failing me as I knew what lay ahead. The Tetons are big and unrelenting. Each trip I crawl away humbled as they dish our their superiority each and every time.

Sherpa Andy Base Ellingwood
Courtesy A Dorais
The start of the Ellingwood- Courtesy A Dorais
Front Pointing Up Ellingwood- Courtesy A Dorais
At 4 AM we left the Taggart trail head on our skis and skins. After passing the lakes with a full moon shining down like the great eye of Sauron, the massive dark shadows of the Tetons soared above us. We climbed hard freeze thaw snow with our ski crampons and after an hour or so were entered the meadows with the Middle Teton welcoming in words of silence and warning as the dawn struggled to break behind us. No one was around. The mountains felt primitive, lonely and larger with winter still in full swing. We reached the Ellingwood Couloir, which is around 1,800 vertical feet on the south side of the Middle which climbs around 50 degrees to the top dividing the Dike Pinnacle (east block of the mountain) from the main east face summit pyramid of the Middle Teton. While mounting our crampons, Andy made comments in his head like "dude, do you think your crampons could be any older, besides I doubt they'll even work on those boots you meat head." I wrestled with my old strap on Charlet Mosers. They finally worked and up we climbed the Ellingwood with the South Teton, Cloudveill and Ice Cream Cone being bathed by a dying moon. As the couloir steepend we began front pointing using double whippets and moved quickly up this seemingly steep hard as a rock slippery slide. We originally intended to ski this line after summiting the Middle via the east face, however it was looking bleak to attempt this couloir in such conditions. We arrived at one of the greatest spots in the Tetons, the Dike Pinnacle which screams exposure and grandeur in true form.

Rock Hard Ellingwood
Topping out at the Dike Pinnacle- Courtesy A Dorais
Up East Face Middle Teton- Courtesy A Dorais
We then moved quickly straight up the east face, un-roped as the snow really began to soften and we wanted to get up and down it as rapidly as possible. After some front pointing over rock bulges and working up the 50 plus degree slope we reached the notch just below the summit. Just a few moments later at 8:50 AM we summited the Middle Teton and gazed at the towers that surrounded us. Humbled by the beauty and captivated by the crystal clear sky with the Grand Teton within touching distance, we tried to not be lulled into comfort as we knew we had to get off the east face now. We shook hands and smiled for the camera, and then rapidly descended to the notch with the skis on our backs as we down climbed the exposed steep rock that guards the summit with a hand rope we had slung.  You can see a video and picture of our descent route on Steve Romeo's Teton AT site http://www.tetonat.com/?p=503. After reaching the notch we mounted the skis and made our first ski cut. It was super steep as my right elbow touched the snow as I moved out to Andy just south of me. I reached him, smiled and started to link steep, scary but soft turns all the way down the summit's east face. Gravity can be a friend or foe and each turn reminded me of the reality that one bad move meant a slide for life to the bottom of the moraine if I were unable to self arrest. Andy skied like a machine, beautifully linking turns to me as we were just above the Dike with the Middle Teton Glacier route to our skiers left and the Ellingwood to the right. We reached the Dike Pinnacle stoked over the sweet, steep skiing we had just experienced. I was nervous and frankly concerned about dipping into the Ellingwood's icy chute. Andy gave it two different tries with a 30 minute window between the two tries in desperate hopes we could ski this sick line. It was just too rock hard and we both knew the consequence of a failing to get edge purchase. He being a great friend understood my concern and like true mountaineering trust agreed to ski the steep Middle Teton Glacier that awaited. I will always be grateful for his understanding. Besides it was Teton powder on that side of the mountain not bullet proof snow.
Summit Middle Teton

Descending Summit Middle Teton- Courtesy A Dorais

Skiing East Face- Courtesy A Dorais
We dropped into the glacier head wall which is super steep and then all the way down the incredible snow field. Conditions couldn't have been better, with stability in the snow pack showing us mercy, allowing us to smile all the way down as we linked one turn after another. We then skied around the Middle on creamy corn to the meadows once again. Andy had hopes of doing 3 different lines on the Middle with the main goal of skiing from the summit which we had done. Knowing the south couloirs of the Middle were likely still hard as portions of them lie in shade, we decided to venture into the world of Nez Perce and ski the East Hourglass Couloir which is also north facing.

Sherpa for the first turns East Face
Lower Glacier Route- Courtesy A Dorais
Apron of the Hourglass Couloirs- Courtesy A Dorais
East Hourglass
Butt Shot & Fixed Rope- Courtesy A Dorais
First Turn Time- Courtesy A Dorais
Andy nailing it
Linking em'- Courtesy A Dorais
Neither of us had skied it so we gave it a whirl. Andy feeling strong set the skinner effortlessly all the way to the toe of the line and began booting up this line which seemed to be getting steeper and darker by the foot. We swapped leads as we were surrounded by very steep walls on both sides of the vein of snow. Reaching a fixed rope line, we used it as a hand line and worked up and over the bulge of rock. I yelled down to Andy "it is totally ski able above us!" We cautiously booted to the top of the line where we peered down the other side which is the Sliver Couloir of Nez Perce. I didn't want to look behind me as I knew how steep, narrow and scary the East Hourglass was but I couldn't wait to ski the 8 inches of soft powder. Clipping into the skis on the 55 degree slope was invigorating as the snow fell below to the rock bulge about 300 feet below us. "Okay, first turn, deep breath, make it count and don't freakin blow it here Ambrose" is all I could say to myself as I made my first turn and then another as the skis made wonderful purchase all the way down to the bulge. The couloir is about 10 feet wide is all with walls that seem to touch heaven on both side. The fixed rope is upon you before you know it. Andy nailed each turn with a smile that seemed to touch both ears. Before we knew it, we had skied the whole line and were breathing hard from excitement as the snow was incredible on this north west facing aspect. "Well goodness, the West Hourglass is just right there, we wouldn't want it to feel unnoticed." So like two elementary kids headed for recess, we cruised up the west swiftly and in short order we topped out, with Cloudveil Dome starring right at us within spitting distance. The sheer beauty and exposure was mind blowing with the Middle Teton just over there and the Grand supporting it from behind. The skiing off the West Hourglass was magnificent, although not nearly as steep as East and much wider. Reaching the meadows we gathered our remnants of gear and flew down the mushy snow to the frozen lakes below.
Cloudveil from top West Hourglass

Andy Sherpa Rejoicing in the Tetons
West Hourglass- Courtesy A Dorais
Mighty Middle Teton
Andy Sherpa Almost Home
Andy, is an amazing character. Likely the most energetic person I know, well his brother Jason shares the same genes and is very similar. Andy was all smiles. He has a boundless desire to touch the mountains, become part of them in his own way and see what life enhancing experiences he might glean from them. Today at 2:50 PM at the car, the mountains were now a distant part of the scene just west of us, reminding us that the invigoration felt by our souls and the sheer exhaustion felt by our bodies were the gracious gifts they had provided us. 10,000 vertical of climbing and skiing had left us ravenous for a burger and an icy Coke and most importantly to see our lovely families. I always greatly miss them on journeys like these. We were home by 8:30 PM Tuesday the 10th.