When Doug Coombs first eyed the Otterbody Route off the Grand Teton in the mid-90s, Jackson Hole climber and skier Steve Shea told him this: “In the perfect year, at the perfect time, during the perfect hour, skiing the Otterbody is possible.”
Last week, Kim Havell, Pete Gaston, and Brian Warren caught the Otterbody in just those conditions. Seventeen years after Coombs and Mark Newcomb’s first descent, in 1996, Havell became the first woman to ski the Otterbody Route, a feat worth recognizing for the line’s sheer exposure and full commitment. (The first female descent of the Grand was by Kristen Ulmer in 1997, down the Ford-Stettner route.)
Havell, who was born in Iran and has lived in Telluride for 16 years before moving to Jackson Hole last year, is the only woman to ski all the direct couloirs of the Little Wasatch Ridge in the San Juan Mountains. And in her first year in the Tetons, she’s steadily checking off a hefty list of descents across the range.
“I think Kim is really representative that women are really eager to tackle the biggest, steepest lines,” says Newcomb. The Otterbody “takes more thought and more care and more research.”
The Otterbody Route, which links up a series of snowfields with several rappels, has been on Havell’s mind since before she moved to Jackson. It’s considered one of the most aesthetic routes down the Grand, and as Havell says, “You get the most turns.” The mostly east-facing route offers around 2,500 vertical feet of skiing and rappelling from the summit of the Grand Teton (13,775 feet) to the Teepe Glacier.
“I really wanted to ski this route,” says Havell. “It stares at you every time you go up the canyon. It’s this real beautiful thing.”
The day went as smooth as she could ask for. Havell, Gaston, and Warren were climbing the technical pitches up the Grand by 4 a.m. and made it to the summit three hours later. Timing is everything on this route, with a small window for good conditions, and the group started skiing around 7 a.m. The first turns were a little too firm for comfort, so the trio waited another 20 minutes on a precarious and exposed slope for the snow to ripen to corn. After that, the skiing was edgeable and stable, Havell says. The rappels were fast, although things started warming up quick by the end. The group had to rappel over some moving water and rebuild some of the anchors where pitons and stoppers had popped out.
“That was that,” says Havell. “Really fun is the only way I can describe it.”
Havell gives the credit to the route’s pioneers—Coombs and Newcomb—but she hopes her first female descent will encourage more women to explore this sphere of ski mountaineering.
“The guys that initially did this route were the ones that took on all the risk,” says Havell. “From there, there’s information shared.”
Coombs pieced the route together first and brought Newcomb in on his vision. They took an entire season to study the route, and finally skied it in June 1996.
“Doug saw it as a line that was atypical,” says Newcomb, because it’s not a traditional couloir like other routes down the Grand. “It’s linking up some bigger snowfields.”
Nearly two decades since this first descent, Newcomb says other firsts are still out there in the Tetons. They’re just a little harder to find, and require some creativity.
“They are in the nooks and crannies,” he says. “Or some of them would be in places so remote they are hard to access in a day.”