Mount Moran Jackson

The Margin: The Perfect Power of No Choice

Decisions, speed, and averting disaster on Wyoming’s Mount Moran

Above photo shot by Mark Fisher

Editor’s Note: David Gonzales is a writer, photographer, and skier based in Jackson, Wyoming. This is his first in a series of columns exploring the personalities and pursuit of ski mountaineering. Follow him through @treefighter.

“The essence of the descent is the first turn off the notch!”

This is a favorite line from Tom Turiano’s classic and coveted guidebook “Teton Skiing,” published in 1995. When I arrived in Jackson Hole in 1998, the book was already the local bible, and will be until Turiano publishes an update in a few years. My new roommate, Cory Buenning, also a Teton greenhorn, and I pored over this book so often that while trudging up our first objectives in Grand Teton National Park, we’d freely quote it to each other: “Buck Mountain – the monarch of the region…Although Barry Corbet skied confidently with his leather boots unbuckled, this route should not be taken lightly!” Like a couple of dorks, we’d both memorized the whole damn thing.

So when Cory and I decided to go for the Skillet Glacier of Mount Moran, in the second June of our mutual tutelage, of course the aforementioned favorite line rung in our ears: The essence of the descent is the first turn. As it turns out, Turiano’s ‘essence’ was different from mine. Not to detract from the first turn, but the first turn is actually optional. Farther down the Skillet, my options narrowed, a lot.

Though there are more fearsome lines in Grand Teton National Park, the Skillet Glacier is arguably the finest of all: a massive pan of snow with a steep handle above, offering 6,000 feet of continuous vertical.

Though there are more fearsome lines in Grand Teton National Park, the Skillet Glacier is arguably the finest of all: a massive pan of snow with a steep handle above, offering 6,000 feet of continuous vertical. The very top section of the Skillet is like a thin piece of white ribbon—or a tiny upraised pinky—from which the whole affair hangs. Viewing the peak from across Jackson Lake, you barely notice this mini-finger atop the Skillet unless you’re a skier. The finger is the business.

At its crest is the aforementioned notch, a short amble from the summit. From this notch, with your ski tips over the edge of the run, you look straight down the equivalent of four stacked World Trade Centers of snow to Jackson Lake, its distant sheen seemingly of another realm, not of the sky you now inhabit. It must be one of the most amazing places on Earth for a skier to stand.

So there I was, June 17, 1999, in my second Jackson Hole summer, but still a backcountry newbie. On skinny red K2 telemark skis. And late. Idiotically late. When Cory and I had roused from camp at the glacier’s base at 3 a.m., there were mosquitos buzzing around our heads. Bad sign. Way too warm. But we’d already made too much effort not to go.

The Skillet
Mount Moran and the Skillet Glacier as seen from across Jackson Lake. PHOTO: David Gonzales

Enhancing the warm temps was the insomnia of that jerkwad June sun, up at 5:30 and pouring heat straight into the finger. Cory and I stomped up the line at a 99-percent heart-attack pace. He didn’t turn back so I didn’t turn back. Summiting at 7 a.m., we were late.

Then came that first turn. Cory went first, on his snowboard. It’s a true 50 degrees there, not the bullshit mental 50 degrees that is actually 45 degrees. He dropped a long way down the snow, which spat and hissed as he landed and slid. My turn.

There’s that moment, right? You’re at the top, you’ve clicked in. Your heart is high in your chest. The air is cold in your throat. You reach down and jab the snow with your poles, to feel it, to set yourself on the earth. And then you think, ‘Well, fuck it. Here I go.’

I dropped, landed, and stayed on my feet, loving my skis, the reliability of my Terminators, the muscle memories in my legs. I was OK. This is sick! Cory kept going. I made more turns. A hundred feet lower, the snow was softer, sucking at my skis. The turns got weird. There came a tremendous roar. I spun my head uphill to the source. Nothing. More roar. Coming from where? Snow poured over the north wall of the couloir. The northeast ridge had slid, most of it out of it sight. The mountain was moving. My heart was racing. Get out of here. Cory was gone, down the finger, down the handle. His single board was better in this slop. I was alone.

I hurriedly made a turn, landed in slop, and got bucked. My skis squirted me toward a feature that Turiano expertly described but which, in my fright and haste, I had neglected to remember: “A deep avalanche runnel invariably forms in the center of the handle, thus restricting skiers to one side or the other. Crossing or jumping the runnel is more difficult and dangerous than it may seem.”

Snowboarder on Moran
Cory Buenning making the drop 16 years ago. PHOTO: David Gonzales

The runnel reeled me in like a fish. I saw the future and bore down as I slid into its icy belly, digging my edges in, coming to a stop. Right inside the runnel.

My situation was absurd. The edges of my ski tips and tails dug into the curved wall of the runnel, which is most accurately described as a fall-line, arrow-straight, 50-degree, 2,000-foot-long bobsled chute to another world, polished to exacting Olympic-committee standards for international world-record competition. Between the chute’s icy surface and my edges next to my boots, I could see airspace. I will not forget that view.

Blue flames of fear licked at the peripheries of my vision. Say ‘what’ motherfucker! I dare you. Say ‘what’ one more time! I calmed myself. I would have to delicately sidestep forward, across the runnel. I peered at the ice ahead of me. The far wall of the bobsled chute appeared too steep to cross.

Carefully, I turned my head and looked behind me. The wall of the chute over which I’d slid was less steep. I could back up. Or I could have, without these tele skis. Drooping from my foot, the tail of my ski skittered and jounced on the snow behind me unhelpfully as I tried to place it farther back. Stupid tele skis!

I stood on my skis, face sweaty, legs soaked in my pants, trying to both consider and wish away my predicament. Another hidden slide rumbled elsewhere. I was screwed. What would I do? I had to turn around. There was no choice: I had to make a tips and tails, icy kick turn, 5,000 feet in the air. Nail or flail. Turn or burn. Now.

There’s that moment, right? You’re at the top, you’ve clicked in. Your heart is high in your chest. The air is cold in your throat. You reach down and jab the snow with your poles, to feel it, to set yourself on the earth. And then you think, ‘Well, fuck it. Here I go.’

I do lots of kick-turns. All the time. Fast kick turns, slow kick turns, easy kick turns, tricky kick turns, unnecessary kick turns. Love ’em! You know the turn I mean, when you’re pointing your skis left across a slope, but you have to go the other way, so you lift your right ski and turn it, in the air, widely enough that you don’t bump your left leg or ski, and place it in the snow, firmly, grinding the edges of your tips and tails into the surface as much as humanly possible. And then there’s that hilarious moment when you’re standing with your feet pointed 180 degrees away from each other, your yoni exposed to the whims of the universe, while you shift your weight to that newly askew ski, on its not-exactly-bomber pinky side edge. But you believe in it. You stand on it. And then you gingerly lift your left, uphill ski, and it comes around the other ski quickly, and you control its swing and place it in the snow, grinding in its edge next to its partner, facing the right way, the way you came.

And off I went, out of the runnel and down into the vast, dirt-streaked belly of the Skillet. Cory was still small and far below me, sitting in the sunshine, waiting. Long, fast corn turns, the snow singing, the trembles easing in my legs. Nervous, thankful, disbelieving laughs snatched away by the wind as I skied away from disaster.

There are many reasons I love skiing mountains, among them the camaraderie, challenge, accomplishment, views, turns, snow, trees, rocks, wind, storms, silence, and wildness. I’ve dedicated myself to this sport since I came to Jackson Hole, and believe it to be the best part of my outdoor existence. I like the thrills but seek them sparingly, as the thrills have killed friends. I endeavor to be prepared, smart, and cautious, but I know that without this glorious, nerve-wracking day on Mount Moran, I would not understand the strange, perfect power of no choice.