Memorial Day Weekend in the Tetons

by George Dirth June 25, 2013

 Apologies in advance for the length of this trip report. This was one of those trips that was so spectacular that it's hard to capture in words and the harder I try the longer this gets. I promise it's worth the read, or at least worth flipping through the pictures... This is the combination of a three part trip report originally posted on my personal blog Grand Lines you can find the originals here: Day One - Approach, Day Two - Grand Teton, Day Three - Middle Teton. Enjoy!

Day One - Approach

If you asked most people to describe their version of “paradise” more often than not you’d get a description of a nice sandy beach on a tropical island. Ask them what they’d do there, and you’d hear about a lot of different ways to do nothing. My version of paradise is about as far from that as you can get, and this past Memorial Day weekend, we found it.

Teton-Pano

For almost a year now we’d been hatching plans to make an attempt at a ski descent of the Ford/Stettner Route on the Grand Teton. Somewhere along the lines we decided that if we were going to go all the way up there we might as well add the East Face/Glacier Route on the Middle Teton to that plan as well… Because, honestly, the skiing looks much better.

-- Fast forward to Friday afternoon at the Lupine Meadows trailhead in Grand Teton National Park. --

After picking up a few items in town, getting permits, and handling a couple last minute work emergencies we arrived at the trailhead ready to begin packing our bags at the crack of 5 pm. The mood at the trailhead was decidedly summery, trees and flowers in bloom, temps in the 70s, and perfect blue skies. As we unpacked the car most people would have started to question our sanity. We crammed ~60 pounds of winter gear into each of our packs, eager to escape to the wintery paradise above.

The trek from the trailhead up to the meadows in the floor of Garnet Canyon is about 5 miles and 3000 vert. Our plan was to head up to the meadows and then push another mile and 1500 more vert up to “The Moraine” and setup camp. From there it would be ~1500 vert up the Middle Teton and ~2500 feet up to the top of the Grand. Putting us in a prime location to get after both of our objectives over the next two days. Things, however, never quite unfold like you expect. After a relatively late start and already having decided to take it super easy to attempt to not wear ourselves out on day one, we found ourselves arriving at the meadows around 9 pm.

Teton Sunset Shadows

Fortunately and unfortunately we found the perfect campsite waiting for us there. Most of the meadow was still under about 5-8 feet of snow and we knew we would definitely be looking at snow camping if we went any higher. But, right smack in the middle of the meadow there are a few huge boulders, the snow had melted out about 10 feet in diameter around these rocks creating the perfect campsite for us. We could pitch our tent on dry ground, under the rock, completely protected from the wind by the snowbank, with enough room to cook, hang out, and dry our gear without having to worry about snow. To boot there was a bear box (read: marmot box) melted out nearby, and 10 feet from our tent was a little stream of pristine snowmelt that we could drink directly from. Needless to say … we didn’t see any reason to continue upwards.

We set our alarm for 1:30 AM (three hours later) and promptly passed out.

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Day Two - Grand Teton

Who knows if it was a “good idea” or “bad idea” to camp where we did. It certainly made the camping much more pleasant, but we paid for it the next morning (and the morning after). We started booting up the headwall towards the moraine by about 4:00 AM (after snoozing our alarm for a couple hours). The snow was nice and firm and we made pretty decent time heading up directly towards the bottom of the Teepee Glacier. As we worked our way the 3000 feet up the Teepee from the meadows and headed towards the Glencoe Col the colors sharpened from the subtle peaceful hues of early morning in paradise to the bright shades of blue and white that characterize the alpine in my mind.

Below the Teepee Glacier Teton Sunrise Middle Teton

Booting up the Teepee Glacier Ben on the Teepee Glacier Booting up the Teepee Glacier

In hindsight, the two hours of alarm clock snoozing, and extra hour and a half of extra hiking up from the meadows had already done us in. But at this point, we didn’t know that. We crested Glencoe Col around 7:30, traversed over towards the bottom of the Stettner Couloir, and threw on our crampons and harnesses. By 8:30 we were headed up the beginning of the technical stretch of the route. According to the plan we would head a few hundred vertical feet up the Stettner Couloir. Then we’d cut left into the Chevy Couloir where the real ice climbing would begin. We’d climb a few pitches of mixed ice before the Chevy spat us out into the Ford Couloir where a 1000 foot snow climb would bring us the rest of the way to the summit.

The red line indicates the standard route up the Ford Stettner on the Grand Teton

In reality we would climb two pitches up the Stettner under siege from falling ice that was ever increasing in size, decide it wasn’t in the cards today, and bail. The week prior the Tetons had received a blanket of nice wet spring snow that stuck to everything. Over the previous 5 days it had melted and refrozen several times, but had never gotten warm enough to fully shed it’s blanket. On this day, the combination of rapidly warming temperatures and gusty winds were doing everything in their power to rid the mountain of this snow and ice. When we first got into the Stettner we were seeing pea to marble sized pieces of ice come raining through whenever there was a gust of wind, fairly harmless, and moderately annoying. The ice balls would ricochet through the tight couloir in every direction, giving you no way to defend yourself from the onslaught. As we got to the top of the first pitch the ice balls were consistently between the size of a marble and a golf ball, painful, not too dangerous, but increasingly annoying. As Ben was ascending the second pitch our ratio of “ducking for cover” to “actual climbing” approached 10 to 1. With Ben at the top of the second pitch ready to belay me up the ice chunks were approaching the size of baseballs. Very painful and having the potential to be very dangerous. Finally, after about 20 minutes of climbing and an hour of hiding from the ice we decided that this situation wasn’t going to get better and we bailed.

Ben Traversing from the Glencoe Col George Climbing the First Pitch in the Stettner Couloir The First Pitch in the Stettner Couloir

The Second Pitch in the Stettner Couloir George Rappeling in the Stettner Couloir Lower Stettner Couloir

To add insult to injury, as we were setting up the rappel I was able to successfully get an ice tool (with camera attached for “safe keeping”) tangled in the rope, pull out of the snow, and tumble 750 vert down to the bottom of the Stettner Couloir, somehow miraculously stopping about 50 feet above a 1500 foot cliff. After begrudgingly down climbing to retrieve it and then ascending back up to where we had gained the Stettner, we were on our way down.

The first pitch of skiing down to the Glencoe Col had softened up perfectly, which is fortunate, because with 1500 feet of exposure it isn’t somewhere you want to feel unsure skiing.

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From the col we had a pretty much direct 3000 foot descent back towards our camp in the meadows. The snow varied from perfect corn, to week old wet slide debris on the upper Teepee, and back to perfect corn below. We ripped some high speed turns through paradise and in 15 minutes found ourselves back at camp.

Ben on the Upper Teepee Ben on the Upper Teepee

Ben Looking Down the Upper Teepee George Heading Towards Camp Ben Laying it out on the way Back to Camp

We quickly made ourselves a generous helping of mac and cheese, only to realize we lacked anything resembling utensils…

Climbing Nuts Work Just as Well as Spoons... Fortunately climbing nuts can double as spoons when you’re hungry and out of options. Wiped out from a long morning we laid down around 2 to take a “quick nap” and then maybe go for a short tour later in the afternoon. We woke up at 7 pm… No less tired after 5 hours of sleep we quickly organized our stuff, ate another quick meal and passed back out by 9 pm. Ready to get after the Middle Teton in the morning.


Day Three: Middle Teton

Day three started slowly, are you seeing a trend here yet? We had a much less technical day on tap and the overcast gloom kept us in our tent until 8 am. Turns out, this would have been the perfect day to attempt the Ford/Stettner. The heat and wind from the previous day had sent down the majority of the loose snow and ice. That, coupled with a cooler day and an overcast morning kept things locked up long enough for people to get up and back down safely. Four other parties had come to the same conclusion and later in the day from our vantage on the Middle Teton we could see them descend one by one. Nevertheless we were still very stoked about getting on the Middle Teton.

As we got our gear in order we decided to take a much more direct line up from the meadows towards the moraine than we had the previous day. In the dark the morning before we had more or less followed the summer route, because that is what I was familiar with. But, with snow covering the entire headwall, we could shave a half mile off the approach by taking a direct line.

Booting up the Glacier on the Middle Teton Booting up the East Face Gaining the Saddle on the Middle Teton

We booked it up to the base of the Glacier Route on the middle just as the sun started to peek through the clouds. Booting up runnels in the glacier gave us great footing for the first thousand vertical feet before the route takes a hard right turn and you gain the East Face of the Middle Teton. From a pure skiing standpoint this line is one of the true gems of Garnet Canyon, a much better ski than the Ford/Stettner in all but the very best conditions. From this corner the pitch steepened into the upper 50 and lower 60 degree range, pretty steep by any standard. One thing that amazes me about the Tetons as compared to the mountains in Colorado is how well the snow sticks to everything. Lines that would never be possible in the Colorado snowpack are commonplace in the Tetons, and this was one of them.

Looking up and around the corner to the East Face Looking back down the East Face at Ben East Face on the Middle Teton

An hour or so later we gained the saddle and decided that given the exposure and time of day this would be our destination. Once in the saddle we had our best view yet of the Ford Stettner, and a head on shot of the four parties descending the line we had bailed off the day before. Watching them was a bittersweet experience. We were stoked that those guys were getting on that classic of a line, and we were very stoked about the line we were about to ski, but initially the Grand had been the goal, and while the Middle may be the better ski, something about getting turned back on the Grand twice in the past year left me wondering “what if” we had approached this weekend in the opposite order. We hung out and snapped some pictures of the people on the descent from this spectacular vantage, knowing the recipients would be really stoked to have a few shots from an angle that shows the true scale of the line they were on.

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But the clouds were returning, and it was time to ski. Ben dropped first and what seemed like a few jump turns later he was rounding the corner onto the glacier.

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I dropped next, the conditions were rapidly re-hardening as the clouds took over the sky, but that didn’t stop me from getting my fair share of soft spring turns, and blasting myself in the face with refreezing crust hard enough to make my eyes water.

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Joining Ben on the glacier, we both agreed that was one of the coolest lines we’d ever gotten on. From there we worked our way skiers right to avoid the runnels on the main face of the glacier and bombed another 1000 feet down to the moraine.

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Mission very much accomplished.

We cruised over to our new found friends’ tent a few hundred feet below to show them the shots of them we’d gotten on their descent of the Grand. Turns out, from several reports, the skiing had actually been very mixed on the Ford/Stettner and Ford had never really softened up enough to get out of survival skiing mode and really enjoy it. But, we’ll be back next season, with some lessons learned, perspective gained, and hopefully luck and conditions more on our side.




George Dirth
George Dirth

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