I hadn’t been back to ski on the Grand Teton for about ten years in part because I was still quaking in fear from my last descent on it, which took place on the Hossack/MacGowan route with Hans Saari. Perhaps “respect” is a better word than fear in this case, as after nine skiing trips to the Grand, it became apparent that picking a line, setting a date and then traveling from out of state to try it was a dicey strategy. The Grand favors local knowledge over luck and a combination of both is better yet.
The first time I tried to ski the Grand we had bad visibility, got lost and ended up skiing the Molar Tooth as it roughly fit the written description of the Stettner. The second time I had a tent shredded by wind at the upper moraine and retreated. The third time we actually skied the Ford/Stettner, but had a very close call with a wet slide in the Chevy Couloir. The forth time was with Alex Lowe in the Enclosure, which was so icy we skied it on belay. The fifth involved an attempt on Vision Quest from the top which ended at the short rap into the Black Ice Couloir as the Black Ice was dangerously loaded. The sixth was another attempt at Vision Quest from the bottom up which ended at the same short rap as above when the climbing proved to be harder than expected and unprotected. The seventh was an attempt on the Otterbody Couloir from the bottom, which was abandoned after the climbing proved to be too difficult and time consuming to do as a one day ascent/descent. The eighth was an attempt on the Hossack/MacGowan where we were repeatedly hit with new snow sluffs before giving up. On the ninth, we actually skied the Hossack/MacGowan, but the conditions were icy and the slope was covered with treacherous snow blobs the size of golf balls that randomly sheared off when you hit them, not to mention that the piton anchors had melted out by the time we returned to them. After surviving all of that, I started to realize that the Grand shouldn’t be rushed and doing it in good style and with good conditions was essential. I still think Hans Johnstone and Mark Newcomb’s one day, first descent of the Hossack/MacGowan in perfect conditions is one of the crowning achievements in North American ski mountaineering.
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My tenth Grand outing was last weekend, and it had the major twist of adding not just one, but five locals to the team, plus two other fantastic partners. The objective was filming an ascent/descent of the Ford/Stettner line and the footage should be incredible given the perfect weather and resources at hand. I’ve heard rumor of parts of this segment airing in January, but that is about all I know if it.
In the years since I’ve been back to the Grand, a lot has changed. For one, the Ford/Stettner is now routinely skied. While turn-for-turn many people are technically capable of skiing the Grand, I’m more surprised that the exposure and consequences of a fall don’t keep people away. One little avalanche sluff, popping out of a binding, a hooked edge, a slip on a hidden patch of ice, etc., and it will be very long, graphic, fatal death fall. I never really think about this too much, so maybe others don’t as well. But still, I’m surprised at how often it gets skied.
Another thing that has changed, which may partly be responsible for the increased traffic, is the level of connectivity. It use to be that if you stood in exactly one spot at the Lower Saddle and didn’t move, you could barely get cell phone reception. Nowadays you can tweet to your partner (and the rest of the world) that he’s off belay and you are climbing. This level of communication has gone a long ways toward taking the guesswork out of deciding whether or not the Grand is in skiable condition. Like many places, when the booter is in, the word gets out fast.
Something else which has changed, and not really for the better, is that there are tons of rap anchors all up and down the Stettner and Chevy Couloirs. Most of these consist of a rat’s nest of flexing knife-blade pitons or bashed in Stoppers which are all tied together in a macrame cobweb of faded slings, which in lean years like this, may stretch out for 20 feet. I don’t know what the bolting legality or ethics are in the Grand Teton park, but it seems like cleaning up, simplifying and fortifying the anchors would be a worthy community service, especially given the traffic.
What hasn’t changed about skiing the Grand is that it is still a fantastic descent that involves skis, but is not necessarily all about skiing. It’s an iconic spike of a mountain with no obvious descent on it that involves all sorts of climbing, skiing and mountain navigation skills to succeed. It also has a central place in the history of ski mountaineering, which gets added to with every subsequent descent. Like all great lines, after you’ve skied it and someone asks how the skiing was, it almost seems like a trick question… “Well, there were a few good turns and a lot of rappels… but it was a fantastic descent!” Part of the allure of the Grand is just making turns, no matter how many, it such a wildly exposed place like the summit snowfield or the top of the Chevy, which I doubt will ever lose its thrill and appeal.