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Winter’s Resilience

Have skis will travel, part two: The Tetons

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a series written by Griffin Post, following his quest to chase winter's last storms. Follow Post's journey on Instagram: #HaveSkisWillTravel.

As skiers we're lucky for a lot of reasons. Powder. Friends. Going up mountains for no other reason than to slide down them. But perhaps our greatest, unsung endowment is our ability to forget the bad times and only remember the good times. Without effort, we can recount the best moments from seasons past as if they happened yesterday and then struggle to remember even the most mundane details from days that fell short of our expectations. Our brains seem to be pre-programmed to endure the challenges of the mountains, with the good memories automatically sifted to the top and the bad ones filtered to the recesses of our minds.

Driving into the Tetons after a two week beat-down involving both the Cascades and Sawtooths, I can hardly remember a 14-hour day on Dragon's Tail Peak in the North Cascades or a three-day stint in the Sawtooths in which the range's trophy lines were painfully close, but out of reach, due to an uncharacteristically unstable spring snowpack. All that I can think about is how good it's going to be here.

With me are Todd Ligare and the Chickering-Ayers brothers. Lars and Silas have a self-reliance forged by growing up in the woods of Vermont and a no-nonsense work ethic to boot. If skiers were analyzed as thoroughly as baseball players, there'd undoubtedly be trash-talking-to-skiing ratio and the Chickering-Ayers would be the benchmark for this stat. A regular partner in crime, Ligare has relentless ambition that, at times, exceeds his skill set as an adventurer. But when it comes to most adventures, I'll take ambition over talent.

Although the Tetons have had an above average winter, the backcountry has been plagued with an unusually reactive snowpack. Persistent weak layers seemed to linger far into the season, despite the range receiving between twenty and thirty inches of snow-water equivalent during February. While a March high pressure brought more widespread stability, recent storms had deposited a couple feet of snow, giving us reason for concern. Heading in, it was uncertain if our ambition would be rewarded with late season powder, or if clear skies and rising temperatures would keep us on our toes all week.

We got our answer pretty quickly. The new snow had bonded well with the previous week's high pressure, and the snow had fallen with maritime consistency. Breaking trail on the way up to a couloir on Mount Wister's north face, it felt more like January than late April. Normally protected by a large chalkstone, this season's snowfall had provided just enough coverage to gingerly skirt around the otherwise closeout line. Above the blockage laid another several hundred feet of steep, mid-winter powder reserved for skiers only when things fill in just right.

The Chickering-Ayers brothers drop first, with snappy turns perfected in the steeps of Mad River Glen. Ligare, a former US Ski Team member, follows suit with slalom racing turns adapted for couloir skiing. Unconfined by the couloir's walls after the chalkstone, we enjoy wide-open, January-quality powder all the way to the canyon bottom, laughing at our good fortune.

Only one way to go, and that's up the Newc Couloir. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Only one way to go, and that’s up the Newc Couloir. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Most approaches in the Tetons aren't particularly long, making day trips completely reasonable. However, beyond cutting down approach and driving times, camping provides one undeniable benefit: going to sleep in the mountains and waking up in them. It's the difference between being a visitor and a resident, albeit temporarily.

Waking up the next day to clear skies and cold temps, with no car keys to grab or lunches to forget in the fridge, we quickly put on ski boots and head south toward Buck Mountain's north facing Newc Couloir. Joined by photographer and well-seasoned mountain man Chris Figenshau, we climb to the base of the steep, narrow couloir that runs the majority of the roughly 2,000-foot face.

The wind is howling and we momentarily reconsider heading up, given the showers of spindrift that are pouring down the couloir, but the struggle becomes more and more justifiable with each step. Completely protected from the sun, the couloir's snow is light and dry. Looking down from the top it's easy to see why the Newc is one of the park's prouder couloirs.

Leap-frogging each other all the way down, each turn delivers an exponential return to the energy it took to get up. At times, there's so much sluff moving with us it's difficult to tell where the loose snow ends and the base begins. Despite the snow being baked on virtually every aspect around us, winter still seems to be holding on in the Newc.

With our couloir thirst quenched, we move on our final day to a proper peak. Mount Wister's east face, while not the most well known line in the Tetons, has all the elements of a classic ski descent: steep, exposed, and a summit that riders can click in on top of. Plus, the final climbing moves on the way up the 11,490-foot peak are puckering enough to get one's blood pumping before transitioning at the top.

For the first time all trip we're feeling pressure from the day's heat as we swap crampons for skis. As much as we want to savor the moment, we rush down the peak's east face as safely and quickly as we can. As the line's aspect shifts from east to northeast, the snow transitions from corn back to powder, spring back to winter.

Heading down the final pitches back to camp, the Mayday sun is taking its toll on snow that's otherwise resisted the heat. It's all we can do to stay upright on snow that feels like Velcro. All around us massive wet slides are releasing, booming and echoing like thunder throughout the canyons. It's as if the mountains are politely asking us to leave.

Before we know it, camp's broken down and we've made our way through several miles of slush back to the car. From the parking lot, looking back up at the peaks, it's easy to see why memories from good days like these are so easily conjured, and why memories from uninspiring days are so easily forgotten. And it's probably why, regardless of how long one's been in the mountains, it's nearly impossible to get to the parking lot and not look back up at the peaks and dream about the next adventure.

Have Skis Will Travel, Part One: Bella Coola