Going Down Big

First descent of the Grand Teton's Hossack-MacGowen couloir

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the October 1996 issue (Volume 25, Issue 2).

Editor’s Note: It is an area that sees more serious ski-mountaineering action than most, but some of the first descents in the Tetons still stand above the rest. One of these occurred far in advance of the traditional ski mountaineering season of late-spring. On February 16, Jackson Hole patrolman Mark Newcomb, along with fellow Exum Mountain Guide Hans Johnstone, made the first descent of the Hossack-MacGowen couloir on the northeast aspect of the Grand Teton. At just over 2,000 vertical feet and an average pitch of 52 degrees, the Hossack-MacGowen is beyond serious. Tack on another 800 feet from the summit of the Grand to the top of the couloir, a super-exposed pitch where the valley lies almost 7,000 feet below, plus the couloir over the Teton Glacier, and you’ve got one of the most impressive feats of skill and steel nerves seen for a while on this side of Atlantic. According to Newcomb, “The Hossack-MacGowen offers a striking, relatively clean line off the Grand with a better ratio of turns to rappels or downclimbs than any other route, with the possible exception of the Otter Body.” Here’s his account of the route:

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By Mark Newcomb

The Hossack-MacGowen couloir doesn’t directly cleave the North Face of the Grand Teton, it just sort of whacks off its eastern corner. Some primordial incongruity allowed for a cleft in the north wall, and in the winter it fills with snow, forming two fingers of white amidst a black ramp. One reaches down off the East Ridge like a finger of God, one stretches up from Teton Glacier like the finger of Adam. Slabs steeper than your average steeple roof arc the gap. Nobody knows why snow even sticks on them.

At 3 a.m. Hans and I started pushing glowing tungsten across a meadow and through glades to Burnt Wagon Gulch. At the top, our noses were pretty much right in the Teton Fault and the ascent really began. Dawn caught us not entirely free of exhaustion at the lip of Teton Glacier. Perhaps knowing we were in need of inspiration, it put on a show, lighting the surrounding peaks with a neon glow that would’ve made any Vegas casino owner green with envy.

In the sun with 7,000 feet of vertical below, it was like skiing on the edge of heaven. Before long we hung left and plunged into the shady recess of the Hossack-MacGowen, where the skiing got more serious. The consolidated powder had a chalkiness that made for great turning along the margin of a 1,500-foot cliff, but the pucker factor went off the scale at the terminus of the upper couloir.

From there we slogged up the couloir. Hans led till he was pooped, then I led till I was pooped. At the traverse from one finger to the other we tip-toed up ramps of snow stuck like lumps of frosting to the side of the mountain, scrambling across a short section of chipped and battered rock that lacked a fracture in which we could place protection—a considerable climbing faux pas had one of us fallen. The upward trudge continued for another 1,500 vertical. We ended on the peak’s south flank, having breached the East Ridge via the couloir and traversed the East Face. The summit was 50 feet above and in no mood to be skied: Wind has scoured its blocky granite free of snow. The ascent had taken 11 hours, but the view into eastern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming was hard to beat.

For the descent, the East Face snowfield, at 40-45 degrees, was kind of a warm-up. In the sun with 7,000 feet of vertical below, it was like skiing on the edge of heaven. Before long we hung left and plunged into the shady recess of the Hossack-MacGowen, where the skiing got more serious. The consolidated powder had a chalkiness that made for great turning along the margin of a 1,500-foot cliff, but the pucker factor went off the scale at the terminus of the upper couloir. We made a hard right onto the slabs, just a couple turns above where the couloir ended and the void began. It’s a bad place to fall without a parachute.

Traversing to a dead end, the snow became vertical rock for three short sections that we readily dispatched via rope, a snow bollard, and a piton or two. The lower finger was steeper and narrower yet, but a final 20-foot bulge of ice gave us the last excuse to get out the rope and rappel. Then the couloir became considerably more pedestrian, the last obstacle being a drop-and-plop exercise over the bergschrund at the bottom of the couloir and down the snow cone to the glacier.

Running on adrenaline fumes at that point, I can’t say I was overwhelmed. Hans and I just looked at each other and commented it felt good to get it over with. An hour later we were back at the car, figuring we owed ourselves a beer.

Postscript: Mark Newcomb was a busy lad this past season. In June, he and skier/climber Doug Coombs also made a first descent of the Otter Body route on the Grand.