Marquee image: Sam Pope
Swirling gray clouds obscure the peaks as we slide our skis across the frozen surface of Phelps Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Buried beneath several feet of snow and ice, Phelps is one of six morainal lakes that sit at the base of the Tetons, a small range with big vertical along the western edge of Wyoming. Halfway across Phelps, snow blows horizontally into my left ear, and we all instinctively reach for our hoods without breaking stride. Though the weather is ominous, our spirits are high, and we keep a steady, rhythmic pace to reach the mountains hidden above the clouds.
In the summer, it takes 45 minutes to hike around the lake on a dirt trail. On the first Wednesday in March, we skin across the ice in 20. Such shortcuts during winter are one reason why this mountain range—a quintessential symbol of American wilderness—has just in the last 20 years become known as a "skier's range." Though climbers unlocked its mysteries in the late 1800s and continue to flock here by the thousands in the summer, skiers have learned a secret: When fresh snow covers rock and ice, you don't walk—you fly.
Our goal is a 2,400-vertical-foot couloir that falls through a granite tube on the north face of 11,241-foot Prospectors Mountain. The zone holds two popular ski tours: the Apocalypse and Son of Apocalypse. Because it's our group's first time skiing together, we're going to ski the Son. Though this line would be the run of a lifetime for most skiers, it's considered moderate in relation to the Apocalypse, which, first skied in 1994, usually starts with two 60-meter rappels through a narrow rock chimney.
The snow is weightless and flies in our faces in great plumes of smoke. This is not ski mountaineering—this is powder skiing that changes your life.
It was only in the last decade that such big lines have risen from obscurity. As backcountry skiing exploded in popularity and resorts grew prohibitively expensive, Grand Teton National Park became a powder sanctuary. Its high peaks—dominated by the 13,776-foot Grand Teton—inspire the use of ropes and climbing equipment, but on most days all you need is a healthy set of lungs and solid avalanche awareness.
My ski partners are well acquainted with all the range has to offer. And despite the fresh snow obliterating any sign of a skin track through the thick forest at the base of Prospectors, the path is second nature for Adam Fabrikant, 29, and Dan Corn, 32. As young guides with Exum, the 90-year-old climbing and skiing outfitter based in Jackson, they are in the park every day. Neither skis Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and both represent a new generation of skiers who have made the Tetons their playground. Drawn to the wilderness where they weigh their skills against boundaries set by Mother Nature, they believe Grand Teton National Park offers something they can't find anywhere else. Providing up to 7,000-vertical-foot descents, deep canyons with intricate lines, exposed couloirs, steep powder glades, vast glacial slopes, and hidden valleys, the range holds a lifetime of backcountry skiing.
But it also has a way of drawing you in emotionally, enveloping your goals, testing your fears, and blowing your mind with stunning scenery. As it has for Fabrikant, who, despite being a recent devotee, has built a reputation for his daily missions into the Tetons. And he's done it in the way of the old school.
Fabrikant and his girlfriend live in a yurt where, as a student of previous skiing generations, he keeps a well-known Alex Lowe quote posted above the kitchen counter. Skins dry over a woodstove and climbing ropes dangle from hooks. A small table holds a stack of guidebooks and maps, a station he calls "the command center." He eschews social media, preferring instead to share his experiences face-to-face as a guide and ski partner. At a time when Instagram drives chatter about who did what and when, Fabrikant could not care less. He knows that having an online presence would help him get more financial support—or at least discounted boots and bindings—but, at least right now, all he wants to do is ski.
"I have no balance," Fabrikant says as we skin across Phelps. "I can't seem to take a day off. But it's something I'm working on, and the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem."
The weekend before, Fabrikant, who stands five-feet-eight and weighs 140 pounds, hauled a gear sled six times over four days as a porter for an Exum camp across Jackson Lake, a distance of three miles one direction. He has brown hair and wispy stubble and just yesterday—his day off from guiding—skinned 12 miles round trip to climb and ski the Northwest Couloir of Teewinot, a savagely steep peak with difficult midwinter access.
On the way up Prospectors, the skin track steepens through glades of old-growth Englemann spruce and Douglas fir. Snow falls from the sky in pulses. One minute we're covered in fat chicken feathers, the next it's blown clean by the wind. I'm struggling to keep up, but Fabrikant and Corn laugh and chat the entire time.
"We're not looking for risks, we're looking for rewards… The appreciation of life that comes from putting yourself in a risky situation, but with the tools and rationale and the desire to live and love life. I think we live much richer, fuller lives because of it." —Alex Lowe
Finally, after four and a half hours, we gain the top of a long windy ridge, just below 10,000 feet. Clouds envelope us, hiding the surrounding peaks. I'm surprised to find two skiers already there, gearing up to rappel into the Apocalypse. Our route goes the other direction. The first few hundred feet drop through steep hallways of tall whitebark pines. The snow is weightless and flies in our faces in great plumes of smoke. This is not ski mountaineering—this is powder skiing that changes your life.
Soon, the tall trees disappear and we're hemmed in on either side by ancient rocks splashed with neon-green lichen. Once inside the main couloir, we can see almost the entire way to the bottom of Death Canyon, 2,000 feet below. In early season, the Son has an ice bulge about halfway down the couloir that requires some rope work, but today it's an easy ski through, and we find perfect powder in a wild, untouched setting—a tiny slice of one of the most important mountain ranges in North America.
Often compared to the swiss alps, the Tetons are so small—just 40 miles long by seven miles wide—they would be lost in the actual Swiss Alps. Yet they mystify and inspire even the most ardent backcountry skiers. For those who've been cast under their spell—by the way they go straight up, by the way they cut sunlight into golden shards, by the nearly 40 feet of snow that falls on them every winter—the Tetons defy explanation. Though many have tried.
"Quite the grandest and most spectacular mountains I have ever seen…a picture of ever-changing beauty which is to me beyond compare," stated the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., after seeing the Tetons for the first time, in 1926.
Three years after that visit, in 1929, the high peaks and six lakes at the base of the range were protected as the world's 17th national park. But Rockefeller and others—notably Horace Albright, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park—believed the park's size was insufficient. So Rockefeller, using a fake real estate firm, surreptitiously purchased 35,000 acres from more than 320 landowners in Jackson Hole, at a total cost of $1.4 million. He later donated the land to the National Park Service that helped lead to the expansion of Grand Teton National Park in 1950—one of the most remarkable conservation achievements of the 20th century, and ensured that the majority of the Tetons would forever be free of intrusive development.
The mountains are further cut off in the winter. Between October 31 and May 1, the Park Service restricts vehicle access on primary roadways—leaving only two trailheads, Taggart-Bradley Lake and Death Canyon. For decades, these limits plus fear of the unknown—terrain, routes, and the snowpack—kept the park vacant until late spring and summer. Despite Bill Briggs' historic first ski descent of the Grand, on June 15, 1971, few skiers ventured into the park during the winter. "Even by the mid '80s, there was hardly anyone skiing in the park," says author and historian Tom Turiano, whose 1995 book, "Teton Skiing: A History and Guide to the Teton Range," remains the authority on early skiing in the range. "It had to do with our lack of knowledge of snow. If you didn't know, you didn't go, and we didn't really know, so we didn't go."
That changed in the 1990s with the emergence of what Turiano calls the "super athletes." Mark Newcomb, Stephen Koch, Hans Johnstone, Doug Coombs, Alex Lowe, and Andrew McLean, among others, began pioneering new routes off the high peaks. The rush really started about a decade ago, though, as touring gear improved and the internet made it easier to find information about routes. Lead Exum guide Brenton Reagan says the growth in ski guiding business over that time period has been "staggering," and that clientele has doubled in just the last five years.
Twenty-five Short (which takes its name from being 25 feet short of 10,000 feet high) has become a de facto go-to for backcountry skiers wanting to explore the park. On some days, if the snow is stable and the sun shining, gullies leading back to Taggart-Bradley can resemble a bump run. Turiano says he remembers a time when he had to break trail for each tour. Now he avoids the park simply because he prefers to break trail.
It's hard to imagine that the Tetons—once so remote and mysterious—are now in danger of losing the solitude that originally drew people there in the first place. To escape the onslaught, many skiers are again pushing boundaries, whether obscure, unnamed routes or missions to "the north," the rugged section of mountains on the western shore of Jackson Lake.
Fabrikant, who lets conditions dictate where he will ski, believes the demanding nature of the Tetons make them self-limiting. He spent four years working at Alta Lodge in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon, and says the Tetons won't ever be as crowded as the Wasatch. But he also knows it's best to get an early start.
There's not a breath of wind as I step into my bindings, skis perched at the edge of a 40-degree couloir in the central Tetons. We hit the skin track at 7 a.m. During the five-hour approach we saw three separate groups racing each other up a different run. But here, not a single track sits before us, and the view is insane. Directly in front, Teewinot cuts a jagged line across a deep blue sky.
Since the last time I'd skied with Fabrikant, six feet of snow has fallen. Like an addict, his balance has swerved wildly toward the mountains. In just a few weeks, he has skied the Apocalypse with his girlfriend, Son of Apocalypse with clients, two lines on Mount Owen in the same day, an aborted attempt on the Grandstand, Cloudveil Dome, a first descent of the south face of Mount Moran with Corn and Johnstone, a doomed traverse of Yellowstone, the Sliver, Wimpy's, 25 Short, Mount Wister, Buck Mountain, Shadow Peak the following day, then something he calls the Mayan Apocalypse in Death Canyon. His belt is cinched as far as it can go around his waist, his face is turning purple from too much sun, and he's having issues with one of his shoulders, but he's unwilling to take the time to go see a doctor until the snow melts.
As much as his own motivation propels him up the mountains, he credits his older ski partners for helping him learn along the way. He was raised in Westchester, New York, and graduated from Colorado University in Boulder in 2010. In 2012, he got a job with the Alaska Mountaineering School, guiding on Denali. There, he met Corn and Greg Collins, another zealously committed alpinist who has pioneered numerous routes in the Tetons. After Fabrikant moved to Jackson in 2014, Corn, who also lives in a yurt, helped him gain a foothold, then Collins introduced him to Johnstone, and suddenly Fabrikant was getting advice from the masters.
After talking me through the couloir, Fabrikant drops in for five cautious turns then stops in a safe zone near some rocks on the left. He waves and I lean forward into a left-footer and find no wind crust, no harsh bed surface, just smooth powder. Three turns fading left, I look over my shoulder to let the slough run. Then I make three turns drifting right before making two dozen pow turns all the way to the sun-splashed bottom of the canyon, 1,000 feet below.
Fabrikant follows, waist bent with arms spread wide, and makes one turn for every two of mine. High fives and laughter abound as the rest of our crew joins us, and we point our skis down valley for the long traverse back to the car and beers at Taggart-Bradley, but not before stopping at a hole in a lake to fill our water bottles. Unfiltered, of course.
Some of the best, nontechnical touring in Grand Teton National Park lies along the forested sub-peaks that form the front of the range. Most offer 4,000 vertical feet of sublime powder skiing that take you all the way back to the car. Avalanches are a serious concern, and every winter sliding snow causes deaths in the Tetons.
For skiers like Johnstone, Collins, and Fabrikant, if you're going to make the effort, you might as well go see some rock, which is where I find myself in their company a week later. Johnstone, whom Fabrikant calls the "Air Jordan of what I do," is busy climbing a near-vertical rock garden somewhere in Garnet Canyon the morning we ski together. A few inches of dry snow cover sharp chunks of granite, which protrude like rotten molars. We have crampons on our boots, ice axes in hand, skis and poles latched to our packs. One of the most experienced alpinists in the history of the Tetons, Johnstone, 55, is recovering from a cold but makes the climb look easy.
Every few minutes, wet slides cascade off cliffs. The thunder reverberates off the canyon walls, reminding us that no matter how safe we think we are, hidden away like tiny spiders in a dark hole, we're certainly amongst it. "Yeah, boys," Collins says after a particularly loud avalanche erupts in the basin, "we got some audibles."
Throughout the morning, Collins, who is 54, freely discussed matters he deemed of utmost importance. What concerns him most in the park is sustaining a "freedom of the hills" ethic. "The park is pretty chill," he told me later, "but it used to be the chillest." He believes the range is big enough to handle today’s skiers—and he loves seeing young people get after it—but he fears that the ski-and-let-ski mentality will slowly erode, as it has in busy places like the Wasatch. He and others also worry that the park will further limit skier access to protect bighorn sheep. It's a classic case of the Park Service's dual mandate: to protect natural resources and "provide for the enjoyment…by such means as will leave them unimpaired for future generations." Recently, the park blamed backcountry skiers for negatively impacting sheep. At the same time, the park seems unwilling or unable to curtail activities by the rapidly expanding Jackson Hole Airport and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, both of which constitute a massive influx of human impact on the park's boundary.
Collins, who grew up rock climbing on the Potomac River, Maryland, worked as a NOLS instructor for 23 years in Lander, Wyoming. Meanwhile, he'd drive the two hours to Jackson Hole and conduct absurd climbs, such as completing the first winter ascent of the Cathedral Group, which links Teewinot, Mount Owen, and the Grand in one fell swoop. In 2013, he and Brendan O'Neill were the first to ski the North Face of the Grand, one of the most committed descents in the range's history. "When you can blend skiing and climbing with midwinter skiing," he says of the Tetons, "it's perfection."
After Johnstone sets the anchor for belay, Collins makes quick work of it. During my climb, I perform a very George Costanza-esque starfish on a spicy traverse over frightening exposure, but soon enough we're all on the small platform overlooking our descent. After skinning and climbing for more than six hours, it's a huge comfort to finally click into the familiarity of my skis. It's late, 5 p.m. Collins doesn't say a word before drawing first tracks into the shady 45-degree couloir. His skiing is strong and smooth. He weaves in and out of rocky islands, surfing across the powder, eventually coming to a stop at a safe zone. The rest of us follow one at a time. The skiing is sublime, easy despite its steepness.
From here, a hanging snowfield breaks sharply left into a narrow couloir. Halfway down, a choke stone blocks the route. Setting up another anchor, we belay on our skis over the 10-foot drop, then continue skiing all the way to the valley floor.
Johnston, Collins, and Fabrikant are methodical and deliberate as they descend. Hoping to savor the experience, I look up and survey the view. I'd been focused so intently on what was right in front of me that I'd almost forgotten the bigger picture. Towering directly overhead is the Grand Teton. The evening light glistens across its south face, washing everything gold. A small wisp of clouds hangs across its lower flank, like a cotton belt. Small avalanches rumble down into the canyon bottom, but it is otherwise silent. I fell in love with these mountains when I was a kid, but in many ways, I'm seeing them for the first time.
It's the first week of May and we're crossing another lake. This time we're in a canoe. Ski equipment and camping gear fill the bottom of the boat as we paddle north across Leigh Lake at sunset. Both sky and water are as pink as cotton candy. Mount Moran, a giant hulk of a mountain that rises 6,000 vertical feet from shore, casts a perfect reflection on the lake's glassy surface. Our ski objective, Falling Ice Glacier, stares down at us from a south-facing line marked by a giant metamorphic intrusion of black diabase rock, also known as a dike.
In the last three weeks, Fabrikant had gone to Alaska and passed his AMGA ski mountaineering exam, making him a certified ski guide. His beard is now full, and the small break from the Tetons did little to slow him down. Just a few days ago, he and Collins climbed and skied the Enclosure off the Northwest Face of the Grand. The route is so steep it's known primarily as an ice climb. When I ask him for a list of everything he's skied this season, it makes him uncomfortable. When I pry, he reveals that he has skied every major peak in the Tetons, often multiple times across varying routes, from Prospectors in the south to Peak 10,333 in the north.
"The only reason I get so weird about all this stuff is I am self-conscious," he tells me later, "it's why I normally just keep to myself with skiing. With all my big runs, only a few were solo accomplishments. For the most part, these adventures were fueled by great partners and friends."
I fell in love with these mountains when I was a kid, but in many ways, I'm seeing them for the first time.
After rigging camp, we set our alarms for 3 a.m. and fall asleep to the sound of the lake gently lapping the shore. A quick meal of instant coffee and oatmeal gets us started, and we throw our skis and boots on our packs for a 5,000-vertical-foot climb under the soft glow of our headlamps. Fifty feet from camp I spot a fresh pile of bear scat, but the violent thrashing of our skis through thick willows ensures that every wild animal within 10 miles has scattered.
We reach snow about 1,000 feet up and trade hiking shoes for ski boots with crampons. Unlike the narrow, mostly hidden lines of the southern Tetons, there's no mistaking Falling Ice Glacier. Two monoliths of stone—the East and West Horn—frame the glacier like the pointy ears on a dog. Like its counterpart, the famous Skillet Glacier on Moran's east face, the Falling Ice stands up to say, "Here I am, come and get me." Four hours later, we reach the top of the glacier, which starts at the head of a large cirque. Above, we can see the CMC Route—a steep wall of deadly exposure first skied by Johnstone, Coombs, Bill Dwyer, and Kent McBride in 2002. I don't know if it's been skied since, and I don't really care. But it's fun to look up at the line and imagine how those four men figured it out.
It's just past 8 o'clock in the morning, and the snow is still too firm to ski. So we find a nice spot in the sun and lie down on our packs for a snooze.
Suddenly, we are stirred by the unmistakable sound of a yodel. The last people we saw were two old fishermen camped out on the distant shore of Leigh Lake, and the only tracks we've come across belong to the four-legged variety. But craning our necks, we see someone standing on top of the dike at the summit of Moran. The yodel comes again, the sound fluttering back and forth like a songbird among the giant canyon walls. It's a skier who'd just climbed up the Skillet. But he's gone as quickly as he arrived, leaving us once again to the quiet of the mountains.
This story originally published in the September 2016 issue of POWDER (45.1). Subscribe to the magazine here.