A Work Week in the Tetons
Photos by Beau Fredlund
My friend died while skiing the mountain that I recommended.
After a week of hard skiing in the Tetons, I was prepared to drive back to Salt Lake and sleep for days. But when my college friend Melissa Gill invited me to her birthday party on my last night in town, I decided it would be easy to postpone the four-hour drive for one last evening with friends. Homemade food made a week of boiled meals cooked in my Subaru trunk look as meager and pathetic as they were, and even better company reminded me that relationships beyond mountain partners are staggeringly powerful. I hydrated and told short tales of the week’s climbs and ski descents of Mount Moran, the Grand Teton, and Teewinot Mountain. I walked barefoot, loving the release from ski boots, through freshly cut grass on a chilly Jackson evening, More notably, though, I listened to the chatter of friendship and looked at the lasting smiles of spring. Melissa’s longtime boyfriend, Joe Lohr, told one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard, about an incident with a naked guy in the confines of the Salt Lake climbing gym at which he worked. The group decided to go skiing on Teton Pass the next morning—an offer I declined for exactly 15 seconds before realizing that a short bootpack with friends is always a good idea, even after five days of really hard exertion.
A week earlier, Kt Miller and Beau Fredlund had invited me to third-wheel my way through the Tetons with them, the powder couple. My acceptance granted me a workweek full of climbing and skiing with two of the finest, young, underground ski mountaineers hailing from Montana. Kt, of Bozeman, has played legion to my bad ideas before, and has the specific fitness, educated skillset, and mindful artistry that few photographers possess in the backcountry. Beau may reside in a small cabin at the end of Cooke City’s dead-end winter road, but he truly lives outside of its walls, accessing 100% of his skiing with his own feet and seemingly never bored of his expansive backyard. Together, they spent nearly the entire 2013-14 winter (and fall, spring, and summer) skiing couloirs within 50 miles of home. And they have a wholesome desire, willingness, and capability to authentically capture the experience of climbing and skiing the lines that we seek. With Beau’s summer residence in East Rosebud, they find steep snow year-round. Doing so in the Tetons, in May, wouldn’t be an issue. Their Subaru pulled up, alongside mine, in a dark meadow at the end of a road on the east side of the Teton Valley. We slept in our trunks.
5:30AM came too soon, and we painfully crawled from our sleeping bag slumber under the red LEDs of our headlamps and drove to the Taggart Lake parking lot. The sun soon rose, and we assembled our day’s kits, which were, due to the seasonal road closure still in effect, different than that of a standard day of ski touring.
Beau’s bike didn’t have many gears and his seat was about 10” lower than the ideal height. Kt’s looked like it should have been battling for a yellow jersey in a Tour de France peloton. Mine is made for long distances and hauling gear but hadn’t been touched in over a year. We tried to assemble our ski gear, bicycles, and selves while the sun began heating the snow. Are you wearing boots or shoes? Do you have a pump? My tails are getting caught in my spokes. Wait, who cares, isn’t eight miles easy?
Eight miles was easy. We chatted as we rode down the right lane, or directly on top of the double yellow lines, or down the left lane. In 2013, Grand Teton National Park was the eighth most-visited National Park in the United States, with 2,688,794 visits. The majority of those visitors, though, apparently don’t try to access it without a road open to vehicles. In fact, it appeared that there were exactly three of us trying to do so on that April 29, 2014 morning. We cruised at leisure, neither a tailwind helping nor headwind hindering our progress, with skis chaotically attached and tall snowbanks peering down upon the snow-free road, offering an idyllic, private, bike path through what is commonly a road filled with parked cars and passengers craning to see herds of buffalo. Featuring flat roads and comfortable temperatures, it was the most relaxing approach I’ve taken to a day of skiing.
Off our bikes, we quickly skinned around String Lake and then Leigh Lake, staying off the ice after hearing of friend Mark Smiley’s foot breaking through only days prior. Into Leigh Canyon we traveled, increasingly large mountains obscuring our view of the progressively darker sky as we finally gained elevation, already five hours into our morning.
Beau has more experience skiing in the Park than either Kt or I, and thus the missions were chosen by the Billings-born Montanan and only confirmed by us. We took turns breaking trail, moving higher into Leigh Canyon and toward the south side of Mount Moran. For as long as it had taken to reach Moran from our campsite across the valley, the apron creating the bottom of the Southwest Couloir filled our field of vision quickly. It was a quarter-mile wide, filled with steep steps of varying snow conditions, and climbed until it was entirely out of sight. We did the same.
Under the sun, we took a short break after climbing 3,000 feet. Our feet came out of liners as socks dried and layers were shed. A half hour later, the dark northern clouds shifted slightly south over the summit of Moran as the couloir turned eastward and steepened, closing in above us and veiling our route. Snowflakes started to fall only moments before the whiteout began, monstrous rock walls concealing us from anything but the couloir above and below us. The snow was already deep, with each step exhausting the leader as he wallowed in perfect knee-deep powder. Then thigh-deep powder. Waist-deep powder. The deepest powder of the season.
The Southwest Couloir ends with another turn to the north, then a steep pitch of rock to the summit. It was absolutely dumping snow, putting us in the comfortable/uncomfortable situation of exerting hard energy in hard shell jackets. Our bootpack was nearly covered. We were nine hours, 17 miles, and 6,500 vertical feet into our day. At the bottom of the run there wasn’t a warm lodge or a heated snowcat or even a car, but three bikes likely disguised by the abundant snowfall, which we would only ride to icy cars that would serve as the night’s beds.
It was some of the deepest steep skiing of my life. I had never worked so hard for a jump turn, the weight of multiple feet of freshly fallen snow stacking on the topsheets of my 95mm-waisted skis. Considering my affinity toward marginal snow conditions, powder was nothing more than a pleasant surprise—a really pleasant surprise that made me hysterical at the bottom of each pitch, fits of laughter erupting from the absurdity of skiing such a dramatic route in such optimal snow. And as each section disappeared behind us, the couloir would dogleg and reveal another pristine slope, marred only slightly by our fading bootpack.
The clouds parted for the sunset as we skirted our way around Leigh Lake and alongside String Lake. If we’d been five minutes later, our headlamps would have needed to guide us to our bicycles. Instead, we sat in the middle of the dry, deserted road as we took off our boots in the last specks of daylight. Choosing to leave our headlamps turned off, we road our bikes back to our vehicle by nothing more than the snowbanks’ reflections of the moonlight as it dimly lit the road.
The road to our cars was almost entirely coastable. Slightly downhill, dark, and desolate, it wound its way past offices, campgrounds, and trailheads of one of the country’s busiest national parks. That night, though, the park shared itself with no one but us. Somewhere around mile 30 and hour 13, I wiped away a few tears with a drenched glove. The National Park that has offered me so many good adventures had just fully outdone itself.
Back at the parking lot, the number of parked cars had inflated with skiers catching a few hours of sleep before early starts. Kt’s car battery was dead. This is the exact instance when one sees the true colors of his ski partners. We all laughed, pushing the car through the parking lot and trying to jump it into second gear. Our bikes were already loaded and our legs were tired. A Tacoma popped its shell and out hopped a groggy climber resting for an early morning tour. As he opened his hood to jump her Subaru, Kt’s horn lent a rude awakening to the back of his head. Soon, we were curled up in our sleeping bags across the valley.
We were totally those guys. The small city park in central Jackson is so peaceful. Our tidal wave of wet gear flooded the manicured grounds as we organized, dried, and prepared for another early morning. Dirk Collins and Brittany Mumma, of local production house One Eyed Bird, were not fazed as they walked through the park. Being in Jackson, perhaps this scene wasn’t as abstract as I’d expected.
And then, at 11:30PM, we started skinning. Again. From Antelope Flats, around Taggart Lake and the west side of Bradley Lake, into Garnet Canyon, past the Meadows. My cold breath was abrasive in my throat, and my base layers became saturated with sweat only a couple of hours from the car. The trail reeked of familiarity, my having previously trudged up it under heavy climbing racks, ran up it with nothing but a waterbottle, and walked up it with skis on my back. This was my first time skinning it, and the directness was relaxing. We booted up various steep sections beyond the Meadows, accessing the lower morain that always feels to me like the longer and most unforgivingly steep part of the approach. We bootpacked up day-old wet avalanche debris, now frozen solid into an abyss of ice boulders. Footsteps would yield upward progress until one of them broke beneath your feet, sending it to a dead stop on the ice boulder below it, or careering downward past Kt or Beau. In the snowless seasons, this face is steep but crisscrossed with a switchbacking trail. On May first, it’s just steep front pointing. I started to become tired. The faint trail from a previous day’s team of climbers stopped where they had abruptly turned around.
If Beau hadn’t been familiar with it, we would have missed the turn up the Teepee Glacier. Combined with my fluency of the regular route, the veil of darkness and snow disoriented me. Onto the glacier we sidestepped, bootpacking toward Teepee Col and the day’s first light. Teepee Pillar ignited, catalyzing our day’s required momentum.
The Stettner Couloir drops steeply from above Teepee Col. Kt was cold and unenergized. Some hot water from the stove boosted her morale and had her leading into the first technical crux of the day as Beau and I cached gear to be retrieved upon our return. Only one ice bulge required technical moves in the Stettner, which is otherwise a drool-worthy and skiable couloir. We booted up it quickly. The day’s first joke was told; previously, they’d been under the forgetful shroud of darkness.
I would have bootpacked right past the Chevy Couloir, too, without Beau’s understated familiarity. The Stettner continues in the direction of the summit, and would be perfectly reasonable to continue climbing for the uninitiated. But the Chevy erratically branches climber’s left from the Stettner Couloir, just a steep swatch of ice leading into oblivion and not in the direction of the summit. As always, though, Beau Knows. The most experienced ice climber of us all, Kt—a self-proclaimed five-foot-one-half-inch, then-23-year-old Bozemanite—took the sharp end and headed into terrain unfamiliar to her. Her confidence wavered, running out the pitch’s three distinct ice bulges and eventually reaching trustworthy anchors on one of the couloir’s steep rock walls. Beau and I followed in tandem, climbing close together on a tight top rope belay. Now an unroped threesome, we climbed the following easier pitches of ice as they pitched back. If we slowed down, we knew we’d be too late to finish our climb and have to turn around for safety. We moved quickly.
The Ford Couloir is more of a vast snowfield than a couloir. The previous two days of snow had set up a safe but deep snowpack, rendering our bootpacking slow and wallowy. We decided to skin, but the steep face is at the higher limits of skinability and progress was slowly achieved. The final switchbacks were ultra-slow, and by the time our self-congratulatory summit celebration ended after 8,264 feet of climbing, fellow SLC residents Jim Harris, Ben Peters, and Tony Pavlantos were making their final moves to the 13,776-foot summit.
“That’s a proud skintrack, Brody,” Jim said to me. Admittedly, I blushed beneath my facemask.
The Ford Couloir’s monstrous snowpack was beginning to heat as we settled into a rhythm of quickly leap-frogging down the powder and toward the lefthand turn into the Chevy Couloir. The entire 50-yard-wide hanging snowfield funneled into a 30-inch choke near the top third of the Chevy. But as we reached the entrance to it, the other crew was skiing off the summit. We had no option but to wait; their warm, wet slough would be a disaster as we rappelled the Chevy’s ice pitches. For 30 minutes, we waited above the first set of anchors and watched our friends descend. As a group of six, we moved as efficiently as possible through the following multiple rappels.
If there had been three of us, as expected, we would have moved quickly enough. With a large group of six, we were too slow.
In a narrow vertical slot halfway down the Chevy, that 30-inch choke enveloped me. Simultaneously, a natural slough released from above. Jim, the last person to rappel, screamed at me from his anchor. I braced myself with my lightweight figure-eight belay device as the first of the falling snow hit my helmet and shoulders. It strengthened, and pushed me slightly down the rope. I opened my eyes and did my best to tie off my figure-eight into a rescue mode, but the snow pushed down harder on my shoulders. I wasn’t using a prussik back-up. I tucked my chin to my chest, knowing that my helmet-mounted GoPro would be capturing something. Whether that something would later be laughed about over dinner or cried about over my tombstone, I did not know.
It pushed down on me so hard. It wanted to rip me off the wall, slide me to the end of the rope, and send me to the bottom of the mountain. I hung on.
The next two rappels were barely less eventful. I volunteered to go last clean both of them, and each offered its share of a shedding snowfield from above during what consistently seemed like the worst time: when the rope was fully weighted, the snow was funneled onto me, and the consequences were high. Why was I continuously the unlucky one?
The second-to-last person to rappel was moving uncomfortably slow. I was stuck, directly in the barrel of the gun, with no way to exit until it was my turn. The sloughs from above had, fortunately, been manageable. Who knows how big the last one would be.
On the final rappel I asked Kt, the only person waiting and keeping an eye on me at the base of the Stettner Couloir, to glance above and yell if anything started to rip toward me. Looking over my downhill shoulder as I rappelled, nearing the end of the rope, she yelled. Without even looking up, I pendulumed into the couloir wall and rapped right off the end of the rope, securing myself with nothing more than a hand on a rock hold. The couloir shed in front of us, ripping unconsolidated, wet snow that likely came from the Ford Couloir and the face to its south.
Even with a large team working together, it took too long to get out off of the Grand Teton in time to complete the day’s trifecta mission that I’d sought, which would have taken us up and down the two mountains to its south, as well. I was disappointed, but happy to have not been pushed off the end of my ropes.
The exit out of Garnet Canyon felt like our skis had hooks and the snow had loops—Velcro sticking us to the sloppy slush. Not only was it dangerous for wet slides and ligaments, it was slow and arduous for a return. Hours later, we emerged from Garnet Canyon and re-skirted Taggart and Bradley Lakes, reaching the parking lot under a hot afternoon sun. We took over the parking lot, exploding backpacks of wet gear in an attempt to dry it for another day of skiing.
That night, we paid our $18 to sleep in The Hostel in Jackson Village. We took the next day off. We rested and we ate a lot of food. Coffee shops. Energy. Fuel. Rest. Smiles.
May 3rd, 3:39AM. Jenny Lake Ranger Station. Skinning, again. Jenny Lake took a long time to hike around. We deemed the massive, 12,000-year-old, 1,191-acre frozen lake unsafe to cross, relegating us to its perimeter. With thin ice, broken trees, and steep embankments, navigating the shoreline was slow and arduous. We moved swiftly but carefully, fully aware of our ability to tire ourselves following a few days of exertion. Teewinot Mountain lay far ahead of us and even further above us, and it would be all too easy to tire ourselves this early in the morning while still on flat ground.
Cascade Canyon’s breadth welcomed us as we passed Mount Owen and moved higher and closer to Teewinot. Soon we passed it, its north side slipping away as we paraded toward its lesser-visited western flanks. At first light under strong winds, I stopped to put a hat in my backpack, only to remove it and place it directly on an enormous bear print, frozen in the morning snow from the previous day. Oh yeah, it’s May. In the Tetons. Bears.
Going with our instinct, Beau, Kt, our new friend Murph, and I optimistically climbed toward a slot dropping from the mountain’s northwest aspect. It only became visible when we were inside its base, but the slash in the mountain that we’d hoped would be a skiable couloir was nothing more than a near-vertical frozen waterfall that coalesced with the mountainside.
We skied down the exposed off-fall line ramp that we’d climbed and re-entered the northwest couloir. For hours we climbed, bringing us closer to the summit. From our final perch, the top was within site, perhaps 150 feet above us, but a few pitches of rock to reach. Kt and I scrambled around and toward it, eventually downclimbing alpine terrain into the extremely icy west-southwest couloir, which we sideslipped and jump-turned back to Murph and Beau, who were waiting on a saddle with the uninterrupted view of the menacingly daunting Hossack-McGowan route on the Grand Teton’s north face.
The middle of our descent became grabby corn snow, a fun descent after a morning and afternoon of personal exploration. Our exit out of Cascade Canyon was instructive of the week, superglue sticking skis to the snow and almost throwing each of us over our tips every few turns. Our day on the Grand Teton was already only a memory, but our slog around Jenny Lake offered plenty of time to reflect on it and the rest of the week. Safely in the parking lot, Beau and Kt appreciated a safe return from our weird version of a 40-hour workweek and started their drive back to Montana. We’d done well and were thoroughly satisfied.
Like any good ski town get-together, Melissa’s birthday party wrapped up at a time that would still allow early wake-ups. I slept on a couch and woke up to a living room full of 20-somethings who hadn’t skied in days, if not weeks. Excitement was unmistakable as they pulled on ski socks through smoke billowing from breakfast on the stove. I had just skied 70 miles, climbed 23,800 feet, and uncomfortably sweat for 41 hours in the last few days. Skiing—let alone rushing to get there—was not my priority. But their enthusiasm was exhilarating, and I rallied tired muscles to the car and up the Pass. Soon, I was marching the well-worn bootpack out in front of our group, chatting with Joe about the significant lines he’d climbed and snowboarded with Melissa that winter, largely in our home Wasatch Range. His humility was as admirable as his fitness and outlook, and I soon realized that Joe would become one of my ski partners. We reached the top quickly, having spent the half-hour engrossed in the standard new-friend-ski-talk. As we waited for the others, he silently looked north, into the mountain range that was his new home. Along with Melissa, he’d indefinitely moved to Jackson, Melissa’s hometown, the previous day. They were living in a camper on the back of his truck in her mom’s driveway, having eliminated everything but the essential material items—gear—from their lives. During the party, he’d taken me to the driveway and into the camper for a full tour of his recent project. Solar-powered and simple, the truth of the trailer exposed itself to me when I saw that his and Melissa’s clothes fit into a space most people would deem insufficient for a shoe closet. This young couple had decided to wake up from its dreams and turn them into its reality.
Joe was very curious about my week’s ski lines and wanted to know what I thought he should ski first in the area. It was all so new to him; his calm excitement was obvious and contagious. I had fun reflecting on my week. He was most interested in Teewinot, which I had climbed and skied with Beau and Kt the previous day in an exhausted, satisfied state. Its rarely-visited west side had offered us exactly the experience we sought to end our spring skiing in the Tetons. Its east face, a standard route of ascent and descent, offered Joe not only his first big mission in the Tetons the following day, but the end of his young life.
When Joe’s dad, visiting from Alaska and on rando ski gear borrowed from family friend Mark Smiley, decided to hike back down the bootpack from Mount Glory instead of skiing the horribly firm morning ice that morning, Joe volunteered to join him.
“Joe,” I said, “I’m happy to walk down with your dad. I’m exhausted and I’ve skied all week. You should strap into your snowboard and enjoy Melissa’s birthday run with her.”
Referring to the Tetons and his new home at the base of them, Joe looked at me, smiled, and said, “No worries. I have all spring and summer to ski these mountains. I live here now.”