The Margin: Is There a Better Way to Ski the Grand Teton?

As skiers crowd this iconic peak, some are looking to a new route

 

Editor’s Note: David Gonzales is a writer, photographer, and skier based in Jackson, Wyoming. This is the second installment in his column series, The Margin, exploring the personalities and pursuit of ski mountaineering. Read the first column here. Marquee photo: David Gonzales gets a nice view of Sasha, Hans, and Nancy Johnstone as they punch up the firm snow in the Grand Teton’s lower Stettner Couloir. PHOTO: David Gonzales

Recently, on a blustery Thursday morning, I found 20 backcountry skiers and split-boarders lined up to descend Turkey Chute in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Broad and scenic, the chute is the bunny-slope of Teton couloirs, so you expect to share it when conditions are good, but it’s still a four-mile, 3,000-vertical-foot trudge from the trailhead. To find such a sizeable glut of shredestrians double-checking their GoPros and airbags at Turkey Chute’s brink made it clear: The Tetons are officially wadded.

As they may remind you, skiers in the Front Range, Wasatch, and the shrubby hillocks of New England have been dealing with crowded backcountry conditions since at least 15,000 B.C. Skiers arrived in the Tetons at the turn of the 20th century, but backcountry interlopers only began arriving in droves in 1998, the year after I moved to Jackson. Almost two decades later, thanks to the Tetons’ renowned terrain, reliable snowpack, and relentless hashtagging, the Teets are #jhteeming.

Even the range’s ultimate ski tick, the Grand Teton, is a hoedown these days. I was party to the party myself last May, the busiest month for GT descents, when I accompanied Hans Johnstone, his wife, Nancy, son, Sasha, and Teton über-alpinist Greg Collins up and down the Ford-Stettner, the Grand’s most popular route. We were first up the route that day, having camped nearby, but were soon tailed by six other skiers in three parties. When we departed the summit to ski the southeast face, all 11 of us, a banker’s dozen, were on the slope together.

It’s remarkable no skier or snowboarder has lost his or her last edge, been flossed off by another person, or been brained by a rock or ice chunk dislodged from above. But it will probably happen, and when it does, it’ll suck worse if it’s crowded.

As my group negotiated the exposed Ford Couloir, a soloist with the flowing locks of a Nazarene followed us, bobbled a turn, lost his edges, and started hip-sliding toward Sasha and Greg, who were paused together in the Ford’s icy craw. I’m still amazed and impressed the hippie missile was able to reset his edges and halt his slide a few feet above my two friends. Even more gratified was Sasha’s father, watching from a few yards away. As the always understated Hans said later, “It coulda been bowling for dollars in there.”

Incredibly, nobody has died skiing or snowboarding the Grand Teton. (The one semi-exception would be ‘Downhill’ Dan McKay, whose friends couldn’t dissuade him from an ill-advised July 1982 solo mission, which ended with a fatal tumble down the towering east face, skis on his back.) It’s remarkable no skier or snowboarder has lost his or her last edge, been flossed off by another person, or been brained by a rock or ice chunk dislodged from above. But it will probably happen, and when it does, it’ll suck worse if it’s crowded.

Most folks follow the same GT ski route: Trudge up Teepe Glacier, crampon up the Stettner Couloir, take a left at the Chevy—a scenic trough with a few manly ice bulges—then stomp wearily up the Ford Couloir, which eventually leads, after many deep breaths and more than a few hashtags, to the upper southeast face and summit. Most folks ski down the same way, via the southeast face to the rollover into the Ford, where they gut-check the ol’ nut sack before cutting careful turns above giant cliffs to the throat of the Chevy. Here they’ll spend the next hour or three rappelling, and hoping nothing goes wrong, even though everyone above and below are faffing about in the same 1,500-foot-long, convoluted elevator shaft of melting snow and crumbly ice. It seems like there should be a better way for people to ski the Grand, without so obviously endangering each other.

Encountering Everest-shredding, GT-hot-lapping heartthrob Jimmy Chin on one of the local skintracks, I brought up the crowding issue with him. “What do the Frenchies do about crowds in Cham?” I asked.

“What do you mean, what do they do?” Chin replied, meaning, duh, they don’t do anything, they die.

“And that’s how it should be on the Grand?” I asked.

“It’s self-regulating,” said Jimmy. “If a party of three pitched out of the Ford, everyone will back off a while.”

Fair enough. But I’m still surprised so many people follow fresh tracks up the Stettner. The party that started earlier, and is therefore above, threatens you constantly with potential ice, rock, or human-fall, until you pass them, or they start skiing and then rappelling down. At that point, you’ve become an overhead hazard that didn’t exist when the other group started up. Not to bring the real world into this, but if you followed somebody up the Stettner, then killed them on the way down, I wonder if you’d find yourself in court.

Whatever peaks you ski this spring, be thoughtful about your routes’ hidden hazards and watch out for each other. Or as Collins says, “Keep it tight and advance the flow.”

Hans Johnstone, the first to ski every side of the Grand, thinks the only way to handle the crowds is to take them in stride. “Other skiers are now part of the objective hazard,” he said. “It’s just the way it is. Maybe you shouldn’t be there unless you’re capable of choosing another route when the Ford is gummed up, like the Owen Spalding, Otter Body, or East Face.”

“Well, that’s not really realistic,” said Doug Workman upon hearing Hans’s opinion. “Not everyone is Hans.”

As a Jackson Hole Mountain Guide, Workman has guided more GT ski descents than anyone else, and has long considered the challenges of multiple parties on the Ford-Stettner. Workman and Collins (the man who skis the Grand most often, when he’s not farming in Idaho) both think there’s a doable downhill ski option that avoids traffic in the Ford. (Everything, especially having fun in the woods, eventually requires a permit. While you need a permit to camp overnight in Grand Teton National Park, mandating one to ski the GT seems too conditions-dependent for the park service; requiring a permit for a specific day could be a death sentence. Then again, maybe in 10 years we’ll all be using iPhone 11’s to bid on permits to ski the remaining patches of snow in the Lower 48.)

They suggest linking the Starr-Worky Sneak, a lower entrance into the Ford Couloir from the southeast face, to a snow and rock traverse out of the Ford and onto the Exum Ridge, where a 200-foot rappel and a brief down-scramble bring you to the lengthy, schralpable Wall Street Gully. One more short rappel and you’re back on easy street on the Lower Saddle between the Middle and Grand Teton. This ski route crosses the Ford, east to west, so it’s less dangerous to those in the couloir. Also, it involves fewer rappels—one double-length rap, and a short one, instead of the five double-length raps, equaling 1,000 feet, that most people do while ‘skiing’ the Ford-Stettner.

It’s likely skiers led by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and Exum have followed this route already, because guides have a way of finding the safest way down. This route is not just safer, but also highly aesthetic, as it means a longer ski down the GT’s southeast ridge, and I defy anyone to call the Starr-Worky Sneak unexciting or not scenic. Get ready for honest 50-degree turns while hanging your ass out over the world.

Knowing Workman and Collins skied this line together, I emailed Collins—the ultimate Teton beta-fier if you can interpret his code—for information about the exit over the Exum Ridge into Wall Street. His reply: “From Petzoldt Col, bottom of Ford, climb up 3rd class snow or 4th class rock for 30 vert meters, to Wind Tunnel col, then south 2nd-3rd class rock to exit rap … shade till pm … any anchors on xm at golden stair will not remain, wall street cooler bottom is rap, anchors in left wall.”

In other words, when you get to the gap (Petzoldt Col) below the Ford Couloir, climb west through the Wind Tunnel on the Exum Ridge. “Shade till pm” means you should expect ice and hard snow on the traverse. Bring your own anchor materials (‘biners, slings, cords) for rap anchor atop the Golden Staircase, because anything left on the Exum Ridge will get stripped by chumps thinking it’s booty. After the rap to the Wall Street ledge, and the ski turns down the Wall Street gully, expect to find your last rappel anchors on the left wall above the drop.

Just a suggestion. Every route up and down the Grand is sketch, particularly in snow, when the scimitar-like peak sheds everything not firmly attached. But this high sneak to Wall Street could be an option for skiers worried about getting whacked—or whacking others. Whatever peaks you ski this spring, be thoughtful about your routes’ hidden hazards and watch out for each other. Or as Collins says, “Keep it tight and advance the flow.”

Follow David Gonzales through his handle @treefighter, where he may or may not employ the use of hashtags. Also by Gonzalez, “The Perfect Power of No Choice.”