Apocalypse Couloir Ski Descent
January 8, 2023:
- Ski ascent / descent of Apocalypse Couloir, a 2,300' vertical line off Prospectors Mountain in Grand Teton.
- 3,500' skin up the northeast ridge of Prospectors, then two 60-meter rappels.
- Low-density powder with enough coverage to side-slip the choke.
I ran into Zack at State of the Snowpack, a bi-monthly event hosted by the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center. The prior summer, Zack and I took a WFR and climbed Upper Exum (trip report). But we hadn't toured together.
We discussed the Sliver or Apocalypse in Grand Teton as potential weekend tours. Zack had one other buddy, Tom, who wanted to hit the Park. That Friday, Zack told me they opted for Apocalypse.
I wasn't planning to ski Apocalypse that winter, deterred by recent fatalities. Apocalypse Couloir is a steep, north-to-east-facing couloir off the northeast ridge of Prospectors Mountain. The ascent requires either a bootpack up the couloir or a rappel from Prospectors' north ridge. The crux is an rock / icefall choke near the bottom, after the couloir forks right from north to east.
I had enough rope skills from the prior summer (my first summer climbing) to be comfortable with rappels. But the snowpack needed to be safe. Early season was unusually snowy. We were skiing powder off Teton Pass in the beginning of November. I also joined Jackson Hole's adaptive ski school part-time this year and we had multiple powder days during December training.
Zack had a few friends who skied Apocalypse earlier that week. They reported no signs of instability aside from some modest sluffing, deep / low-density snow and enough coverage to side-slip the crux (versus another rappel).
Conditions wouldn't get much better, so I decided to join.
We planned to meet at Albertsons at 6:15am and reach the trailhead by 7am. Sunday's forcast was partly cloudy in the teens-20Fs with snow in the evening. Avalanche risk was expected to be low to moderate.
In addition to my ski touring set-up, I'd need my climbing kit. We planned on the skin approach and didn't expect hard snow, so we skipped crampons / axes.
We divvied up a couple 60-meter ropes and ice screws – to build a V-thread in case we needed to rappel the lower choke.
My personal gear:
- Ski touring: Black Diamond skis with tech bindings; hybrid touring boots; Ortovox airbag pack with probe / beacon / shovel; repair kit; helmet; ski straps
- Rappel kit: summer harness (skimo harnesses have less padding due to ski pants); ATC; auto-locking carabiner for my belay device; prusik (third hand); daisy chain (personal anchor or PA); two smaller carabiners
- First aid / survival: first aid kit; tourniquet; hand warmers; fire starters; lighter; headlamp; extra batteries; Gorilla Tape; space blanket; etc.
- Food: GUs; Clif bloks; bars; etc.
- Nalgene with water and electrolyte powder
- Radios (borrowed an extra Rocky Talkie from Tom)
Saturday night, I organized my gear. My 26L Ortovox was too small for my climbing kit, so I'd skin wearing my harness. I'm overdue for a bigger pack.
A False Start
I woke at 6am and headed to Albertsons. We loaded Zack's truck and headed to D.O.G. for road burritos. (Benefits of a non-alpine start.)
We drove north toward Moose Junction, then turned into the Park. We pulled into Moose-Wilson Road only to find the gate down. A maintenance employee arrived to open the gate for himself and told us the road would be closed for a few hours. (Widening efforts underway with plows.)
We debated changing plans. We could fall back to the Sliver, accessed from Taggart Lake trailhead off the Park Road. But at that point, we had our hearts set on Apocalypse. A 9-10am start should still be enough margin before 5pm sunset. We drove back to town for coffee, since nothing was open in the Park.
After an hour at a local coffee shop, Picnic, we drove north again. A line of cars had formed in front of the gate. We took our place and hoped maintenance crews would clear the road soon. At 9:30am, we got our wish.
We drove to the end of the plowed road. A portion of Moose-Wilson is closed for on-snow travel, accessed from north (via Moose) and south (via Wilson) by nordic skiers. We parked and geared up.
At 10am, we started skinning, three hours behind schedule. We followed the closed portion of Moose-Wilson Road south, turning right (west) near the summer trail to Phelps Lake. We followed a skin track until pines opened to Phelps Lake – Death Canyon in the distance. It was 11am.
There were old tracks across the Lake to the southwest bank. We noticed surface hoar. Zack quizzed us on the snowpack, having just completed his AIARE Pro 1. "Why doesn't sorfact hoar develop when it's overcast?" he asked.
After a water break, we found a skin track ascending from the southwest bank and started climbing. We switchbacked through the trees, making our way toward the northeast ridgeline of Prospectors.
We found warming on southeast-facing slopes, an inch of wet snow shearing off at the surface. Our route was north/east-facing, so we weren't concerned. The only risk factor we discussed was an east-facing snowfield above the fork in Apocalypse. If it became unstable from too much sun, it could sluff us through the choke.
The rappel point for Apocalypse is just above 10k'. By the time we switchbacked past 9k', it was lightly snowing.
As we gained the final ridge – 500' vertical of our drop-in point – we found some wind loading. No cracking, but we hustled up to the top of the ridgeline.
Before long, and guided by CalTopo, we thought we found our rappel point. Some ropes were tied to trees at the top, forming an anchor. A quick FaceTime with one of Tom's friends confirmed it was the right spot.
It was almost 3pm, way later than our initial plan. Sunset was 5pm, so we needed to hustle to clear the couloir before dark. (Though other groups skied Apocalypse at night this season.) We'd have to skate out in the dark.
Ropes and Skis
We ripped skins and strapped skis to our packs. I reorganized my harness – ATC and PA to the front and prusik on leg loop. We uncoiled the ropes, then Tom tossed them over the edge. Tom helped me extend my ATC to reduce the odds of my prusik (third hand) catching in the device.
Zack dropped in first, then me, then Tom.
Some snow sluffed on me and Zack as Tom hustled down – he easily doubled my speed. Zack had stopped at the second anchor. We needed one more rappel to reach "the cave" where groups transition to ski. We pulled the ropes, set up another rappel and dropped one more time.
There was a five-foot overhang just before the caves. I took gentle steps, avoiding a slip on snow / ice. Soon after 4pm, we were all in the cave. We coiled / packed the ropes and clicked into skis (splitboard in Tom's case). At 4:30pm, Tom dropped, then Zack, then me. We had 30min before sunset.
The first north-facing section is steep, but plenty wide for linked turns. The couloir was packed with powder – I was relieved actual conditions matched the reports. We avoided stopping in the middle in case sluff gained momentum. Halfway down the first section, we regrouped in a safe zone.
We skied one-by-one. Apocalypse isn't a great line to party ski. I soaked up the views as I waited for "all-clears" on the radio.
We skied through the upper choke, a narrow stretch before the couloir forks east. There was a double-fall line to the right that slid into a huge wall. I stayed high.
We were surrounded by granite. Ice falls hung from cliffs above. Pockets of powder sluffed from all sides. Death Canyon's a stunning part of the Tetons. 2,000' cliff bands surround hikers on the summer trail. But a lucky few experience this perspective – a tight couloir stranded on one of those 2,000' walls.
After the upper choke, we regrouped before the right fork. Zack scraped over surprise rocks on skier's left. I narrowly avoiding following suit. We skied the first few hundred feet of the east-facing portion of Apocalypse. Like the very top, we found powder and enough room for linked turns.
Then, the crux: a narrow lower choke between rock and icefalls. Often, groups need to rappel through the choke – sometimes with skis on, sometimes off.
Tom led, finding enough coverage to sideslip – no room for hop turns. From other recaps later in the season, the lower choke seemed to fill enough for linked turns. I had my 185cm powder skis, so I'd have the least wiggle room. Tom was on a board and Zack on mid-170s.
When Zack was side slipping, a few roller balls released from the east-facing snowfield above. I called out a warning on the radio. He avoided them.
I got the all-clear, then linked up turns to the start of the choke. I side-slipped through as quickly as I could, but it took at least 5 minutes. My tails and tips scraped against rock / ice a few times. I need shorter couloir skis.
In the choke, I was surrounded by ice falls. Powder sluffed as I slipped. At 5:15pm, I broke through and linked up some turns in the apron to regroup.
We had one more avalanche prone slope beneath the apron, then the bushwhacking and skating would begin. Some clouds had drafted in, so it was hard to see Tom and Zack beneath the apron.
The clouds disappated after a couple hundred feet. I spotted them and we regrouped out of the slide path to strap on headlamps. As we transitioned for night skiing, the clouds parted, revealing Apocalypse above us.
Skating and Moose Jams
Headlamps on, we skied along a creek, then across a snow bridge, wrestling with willows. We found a skate track and zipped through the pine forest.
We aimed for the summer road to the Death Canyon trailhead, on the north side of Phelps Lake. We needed to skin up a short hill on the Lake's northwest corner. At 5:45pm, we transitioned for one more ascent.
We cleared the ridge and I transitioned to downhill to more easily ski / skate. Zack and Tom trucked along in uphill mode, so I fell a few minutes behind.
It was dark and the snowfall intensified. I forgot clear lenses, since we didn't expect to be out so late. I squinted as I skied the roller-coaster skate track. I felt like I was in the Windows 95 starfield screensaver.
Zack and Tom reached the trailhead and checked in over radio. In downhill mode, I caught up within a couple minutes, then took the lead. I'd move faster in downhill mode, skating on the compacted snow.
The exit road was flatter than I hoped, so the skate was slow going. Finally, at 6:45pm, I dropped over a snowback, reaching Zack's truck. Zack and Tom were just a few minutes behind me.
We broke down gear, threw everything in the truck bed and drove north toward Moose Junction. Right on schedule, a cow moose stumbled onto the road, blocking our path. For a couple miles, she trotted down the center. My roommate had grabbed me extra takeout from Calico and it was getting cold.
The moose finally hopped over the snowbank and we cruised back to town. Without incident, we checked off another Teton classic in stellar conditions.