Take Two: Grand Teton's Ford Stettner (Winter) Ski Descent

Take Two: Grand Teton's Ford Stettner (Winter) Ski Descent
Bootpacking Ford Couloir, approaching the summit | P.C. @connorburkesmith

January 3, 2024:

  • Our second Ford Stettner ski descent and first in winter, during the "least snowy period" in the Tetons since the 1990s. (Our first descent in May 2023.)
  • Roughly 13 miles and 7k' over 15.5 hours: ~3:30am to ~7pm.
  • Pitched out one section of the Chevy due to sluffing from a group above us; at least three other groups on the Grand – one climbing Exum Ridge – plus a few more in Garnet Canyon that bailed or pivoted.
  • Slowed by a low snowpack beneath the Meadows (sparks flying off our skis) and lack of conditioning: my / Connor's first real tour of the season and I'd just spent two months at sea level, no skiing.
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Background

One of my personal obsessions from fall 2021 to winter 2023 was skiing Grand Teton. When I first learned the line was skiable, it was a pipedream. Virtually no experience in the backcountry, skiing variable snowpack / no-fall zones, with rope systems / ice climbing, etc. etc.

In May 2023, after two winters and a summer of prep, I tackled the line with a crew of four. (Full trip report here.) We skied in typical spring conditions: corn, mashed potatoes, log / stream hopping and afternoon thunderstorms.

Now familiar with the route and less daunted, we wanted to ski it in winter conditions. Connor, Sebastian and I (three fifths of the May 2023 crew) floated a Grand lap in the group text (along with jaunts about Trifecta). Sebastian's older brother Xavier was stuck in Bend, so we set up a new chat to spare him. Sebastian recently moved from Bend to Salt Lake, enabling spontaneous Teton trips.

I spent most of November and December in Florida and LA, planning an LA move toward the end of January. Small-town, mountain town life has ups and downs, and I felt the city draw for at least a couple years. Move in motion, I figured we had ~three weeks for one "last hurrah" Teton mission. (Spoiler: I was in less of a rush than I thought.)

A snow drought in December made for the "least snowy period" in the Tetons since the '90s. I flew from Orlando (visiting family) to Jackson just after Christmas to teach my adaptive ski school lessons. I signed up for holiday rush in winter 2024, down from part-time in winter 2023 (more about adaptive skiing here). After lessons, I took two tram laps and scored two core shots on brand new Super Black Ops. Coverage was the worst I'd seen since moving to town in 2020.

Upside: a stable snowpack for January. We spotted a few reports of other groups skiing the Grand as early as late December. I asked our local forecaster for beta, only warning being a spotty exit beneath Garnet Canyon.

A storm cycle was (finally) building at the end of the week. With over a month of high-pressure, everyone expected a sketchy snowpack for months. New snow would bury inches of facets and surface hoar, leading to a scary persistent weak layer (PWL).

Appreciating it'd be the last window for a spicy objective, especially for me, we said "f*** it" and blocked some personal days. The forecast predicted calm, clear nights from New Year's Eve through the 2nd. Sebastian suggested the 2nd. Connor and I opted for one sober night's sleep after NYE and we settled on the 3rd.

A friend connected us with his buddy who skied the Grand twice in the past week. The snow was stable, ice bulges formed and temperatures surprisingly comfortable thanks to overnight inversions.

The most experienced ice climber, Sebastian, would lead the Chevy, belayed on two half ropes. Connor and I would follow, simul-climbing on a half rope each.

Gear

We made the "go" decision on the 30th, right before my last adaptive lesson with a Christmas-week client. I shopped new touring boots that week, testing Peak Carbon's and Scarpa F1 LT's (lightweights) at Teton Mountaineering, then the Zero G Pro Tours (heavier, but better downhill) at Teton Village Sports.

I couldn't spend another big tour in my hybrid resort boots (Nordica Striders). They managed first ascents up Moran, Williamson and the Grand, but strangled my feet and strained hip flexors. Plus after two months at sea level without touring or resort skiing, I wanted an edge to keep up.

The Peak Carbon's fit best, so on NYE I paid full price at Teton Mountaineering. I had a Tecnica pro deal through ski school, but three-week shipping was a deal breaker. Connor joined a test run up Snow King. I was pleasantly surprised by the downhill performance, expecting a much flimsier ride.

A Tale of Sparks and Sluff

Elk Slalom

After Teton Village fireworks on the way to a NYE party, Connor and I looked out on a calm, clear night from Bar Y. We should probably be on the Grand right then. Hopefully conditions would hold for two more nights.

Late New Year's Day, Sebastian rolled into the Tetons, straight to Taggart Lake trailhead for a nap before an alpine start on the Sliver. While he scouted, Connor had a photoshoot and I watched nerf gun influencers on YouTube with my adaptive "Rough Rider" (5-7 y.o.) client.

At 5pm, Sebastian dropped by with beta. The Sliver skied well, but the exit was "heinous." We organized gear and picked up supplies / missing gear from Teton Mountaineering and Alberston's. By 8pm, we took sleep gummies and set alarms for 1:30am. Last May, alarms woke us at 9:30pm, wet slide risk the top hazard. With a stable snowpack, we just hoped to beat sunset this time.

After coffee, oatmeal and bananas, we loaded into my truck at 2:30am. Driving through the Square, we passed the last Cowboy / Rose patrons, a bit jealous as always they'd be tucked into bed soon. A layer of fog hung on the Valley.

Cruising past the Elk Refuge, maybe 10 minutes out of town, a herd surprised us with a midnight roadblock. I hit the brakes and swerved to dodge a cow jogging toward the truck. I checked my speed to 25mph, weaving through a few more herds before reaching the Gros Ventre bridge.

At 3:15am, we pulled into the Taggart Lake trailhead, finding seven cars and two skiers hitting the trail. I walked up, mentioned Ford Stettner and asked their plan.

"Same and probably everyone else," they said.

Since the ascent and descent follow (mostly) the same path, congestion introduces risk in the Stettner, Chevy and Ford, above all sluff from descending groups. The duo's "mitigation plan" was to catch up with and overtake the others.

Jan 2nd would've been our best night. Everyone saw the same beta / forecast and opted for a full night's sleep after NYE. But with a stable snowpack, we weren't too concerned about slides, expecting light sluff at worst, and stuck to the plan.

Taggart Lake trailhead | P.C. @connorburkesmith

Traffic on the Trail

It was cold at the trailhead: near 0F, maybe subzero. By 3:30am, we hit the trail, 30-40lb packs digging into our shoulder blades. We started in puffers and heavy gloves, knowing we'd shed layers soon.

I played music from my phone, 2Pac at Sebastian's request, to spice up the skin. We cruised up the skin track, finding firm sun crusts and a liberal dose of logs / rocks. Sparks flew off my ski as an edge clipped a rock.

It was my first time approaching Garnet from Taggart. With the Park Road open last May, we started at the Lucas Fabian Homestead. For any summer objectives, we start at Lupine Meadows. A wrong turn led to a few hundred feet of backtracking. Otherwise, we reached Bradley Lake in good time, just after 4:20am. The final descent onto Bradley requires some awkward skin skiing, not my favorite. Partially covered logs and trees added to the fun.

Bradley Lake | P.C. @connorburkesmith

On Bradley, we spotted a group nearing Garnet Canyon. Our ascent began. 30 minutes later, we spotted a group crossing Bradley Lake below.

By 6am, we reached Garnet Canyon, approaching a group in the Meadows. They planned to ski the Grand. In light of the congestion, they leaned toward a South Teton pivot. (Middle probably wasn't in yet.) On the Moraine, two more groups ascended, one approaching Teepe, the other ~30 minutes behind them.

Already, the approach was smoother than last May, which featured 10+ transitions over melted sections of the summer trail into Garnet Canyon.

A mix of ski crampons and bootpacking tag-teamed the Moraine. Temps increased as we climbed, the hoped-for inversion working its magic. A set of headlamps below headed for South Teton; another towards us.

At 7am, first light reached the horizon to our west. Red and orange clouds linked a yellow belt over the Gros Ventre to the stary skies still overhead. We passed another group on the Moraine that contemplated bailing.

By 8am, we reached the base of Teepe Glacier, taking a food / water break. Sun bathed the surrounding cliffs in a bright orange glow.

As we hiked up Teepe, the earlier set of headlamps caught up. A group of two skinned to the base, then followed our bootpack. A few times, my boots punched through the low-snowpack, hitting boulders below.

The group kept gaining ground, so at 10am, we paused at the standard cache next to Teepe Pillar and they passed. We pulled out ice tools / crampons / harnesses and gave them a 10-minute head start.

Cold Hands and Sluff

We traversed from Teepe to Glencoe, then into Stettner Couloir, moving slow to minimize still time, waiting on the duo ahead. Unless they soloed the Chevy, we'd have to wait as they pitched out the crux ice bulge.

We solo-climbed a couple small ice bulges in Stettner, coverage low compared to typical conditions. My hands kept going numb, even in the waterproof work gloves. (Probably a size too small.)

At the base of the Chevy, we waited ~30 minutes, flaking half ropes and preparing for Sebastian's lead. At 11am, Sebastian climbed on two half ropes, belayed by my ATC. All of a sudden, sluff rained over the crux bulge. Sebastian sheltered to climber's right and placed a screw. Likely a group descending the Ford above.

The sluff-alanche combined low density snow and chunks of sun crust, nothing existential, but uncomfortable and sketchy solo. By 11:30am, Sebastian reached the mid-Chevy anchor and transitioned to lead belay. He called over the Rocky Talkies and Connor / I simul-climbed. I gave Connor a 20-foot head start, so he wouldn't hit me on a fall.

Connor recovered from a lingering cold, coughs sounding like black lunge. Meanwhile my hands were on-and-off numb, par for a winter ascent.

The ice was brittle and mostly sustained to the crux bulge. Making up for lost time, I climbed fast, almost slipping on a small overhang but catching myself. The three of us clipped into the post-crux anchor as another party of two (from the trailhead) rappelled down to us. Two Exum guides, we learned, making great time.

They used a single escape rope and asked us to untie it from the anchor once off-rappel. (Avoiding a retrieval knot or shorter rappels.) The guides said only small bulges lied ahead, so we stashed ropes to solo. I released their knot and we climbed the final half of the Chevy. As we reached the base of the Ford, we spotted a group climbing Exum Ridge – epic in the winter – with skis on their backs.

One group ahead, we planned to bootpack Workman-Starr, a chute to looker's right near the base of Ford Couloir that pairs with an East Face traverse. The now (somewhat) standard bootpack protects ascending skiers from descending skiers' sluff in Ford Couloir. (Good article here on Grand congestion.)

At 12:30pm, we ditched ropes in the standard cache a ~hundred feet up the Ford and took a water / food break.

By 12:45pm, we booted up Workman-Starr, then the East Face, the two groups ahead setting a good bootpack. Our pace slowed.

We ditched skis in the notch just beneath the summit, then scrambled the final pitch, summiting at 1:45pm.

We posed for a few pictures and downclimbed to our packs / skis. Food / water and a ski transition (plus makeshift whippets), then descent at 2:20pm. Light clouds crept in from the west, the leading edge of a low-pressure system.

Sun Crusts and Slow Rappels

The snow was variable, but softened in the afternoon sun. More comfortable with the exposure than in May, I linked up more turns. Descending first, I uncovered some surprise rocks, especially near the choke, and side-slipped. Chunks of sun crust bounced down the Ford as we skied.

By 2:35pm, Connor and I reached the cache and set up rappels. Sebastian pieced together his last few turns on the Ford. We rappelled from the cache anchor, versus the lower (and more efficient) anchor to skier's left in the Ford.

With two 60-meter ropes, we descended to the bottom of the Stettner in five rappels. The lower Ford anchor shortens that to four rappels without downclimbing; three with some mild downclimbing in the Stettner.

As we cleared Chevy, clouds built up overhead, our hands going numb again at anchors. By 4:50pm, we butterfly coiled / stashed the ropes on our packs and transitioned to ski the traverse to Teepe Pillar, then the Glacier.

Heinous Exit

Fatigue kicked in, due to a lack of training and sea level. I wished we could teleport to the trailhead. We skied sun crusts and windboard into Garnet Canyon, fast and firm. We exited Garnet Canyon at dusk, maybe 5:20pm, then the exit began.

My soft ski legs failed me and the new touring boots crushed my arches. Boulders and logs, plus a narrow skate track bordered by inches of facets and / or sun crusts caught my skis. I faceplanted after tips clipped a rock. I had to huck a small boulder after veering too high on one traverse.

We finally reached Bradley Lake and transitioned for the final ~15min skin. My legs shook on short descents with free heels. I ditched skins and locked my heels before Connor / Sebastian, lacking downhill confidence.

When we reached the skate track below Bradley, we dodged night rocks. Sebastian's skis sparked. I hockey stopped and snow plowed to check speed. Taking one wrong turn, I passed the horse pastures, adding unnecessary side-steps to reach the trailhead.

Just after 7pm, I reached the trailhead, Connor and Sebastian laying next to the truck waiting. All told, the exit took about 2x typical time. (I'd learn from subsequent tours in Garnet.) I drove the zombies back to town and stumbled into the Cowboy for a cider / burgers. Luckily, no elk roadblocks this time.

Finally checking messages, I noticed a ski lesson no my calendar the next morning, my fault for not blocking. A half day with the same "Rough Rider" from a couple days earlier. At 9am the next morning, after a cider-aided, 10-hour coma, I popped a few ibuprofen and squashed swollen feet into my resort boots. The ski lifts hurt the most, resort skis weighting boots into my arches.

On the exit, I wondered why we ski mountaineered. The suffering makes me hate the sport. Long-term memory problems maybe? Even on the 8am commute to JHMR, I felt a post-adventure high gazing at the Grand.