Unfinished Business: Mt. Moran's Skillet Ski Descent

Unfinished Business: Mt. Moran's Skillet Ski Descent
Skillet from Moran's tree-line | P.C. @connorburkesmith

March 9, 2024:

  • Ski ascent / descent of Mt. Moran's Skillet from Colter Bay, unfinished business from an attempt with the same crew in 2022 that failed in the "Handle."
  • Three days after a storm cycle, and a day after two other groups descended in stable conditions and part of our group skied in Garnet Canyon.
  • 20 miles and ~6k' vertical over ~11 hours: 3am to 2pm.
Check out the full Instagram story.

Background

In April 2022, four new friends and I attempted to ski the Skillet in a day from Colter Bay. The route was way out of our comfort zone. It my first season skiing in the backcountry and the rest of the group was pretty green. Over 20 miles and 6k' vertical, a steep choke at the top of the "Handle," variable snow and isolated from roads by six miles of a frozen Jackson Lake.

We turned around just 1k' from the summit. One step forward, two steps back in deep snow on the final bootpack, lacking ascent plates. Then a storm rolled in. 18+ hours on the move. It hurt to walk for a week. (More on attempt #1 here.)

Over the next two seasons we leveled up our touring, mountaineering and endurance. Portions of the group tackled the Picnic (3 of 5), CMC Face (4 of 5 and our first successful Moran summit), Ford-Stettner (2 of 5) and Pingora's East Face (2 of 5), among other objectives.

We planned on Skillet redemption in winter 2022-23. Then in late March, I sprained my MCL, barely leaving enough time for a couple early May objectives: the Grand and Williamson in the Sierras.

In winter 2023-24, I planned a late January move to LA, scratching an itch to return to a city. Up to mid-January, the Tetons experienced their "least snowy period" in over 20 years. The drought left a thick layer of facets and surface hoar, a nasty persistent weak layer (PWL) in the making. (We snuck in one more Ford Stettner lap just before the drought ended in early January.)

I delayed my LA to February, then early March. Aside from some short Teton Pass laps, we mostly skied the resort (Jackson Hole), when not hosting elk nights (IG stories; stay tuned for a recipes recap). The PWL kept us conservative in the backcountry, even as it shifted to a deep PWL in late February.

After elk night #5, Sebastian texted us about a Tetons trip. He and some friends planned to tick off Apocalypse and Moran after the next storm cycle. The twins were also en route with Climber Kyle. I leaned toward skipping that week's tours. On the 7th, Sebastian skied Apocalypse and Connor (separately) skied Mayan Apocalypse. We were nervous about the recent snowfall, but conditions in both couloirs seemed stable. (I skied Apocalypse the prior January.)

On the 8th, Sebastian and his crew planned to ski the Skillet, camping on the far side of Jackson Lake the night of the 7th. Their original plan was to tackle Moran's Sickle Couloir on the 9th, but (we'd later learn) Sebastian suffered some frostbite on his toes ascending the Skillet in subzero temperatures.

At ~5pm Friday afternoon (the 8th), Connor called from downstairs. Double trouble (aka Kelsey & Brigette) arrived, fresh off a morning Cave Couloir tour with Kyle. I still planned to take it easy Saturday. I snuck downstairs to surprise them. Within 15 minutes, I was joining them on the Skillet.

Midnight wake-up now in the cards, I scrambled to pull together gear and stock up on snacks / other now standard provisions. (E.g., cold brew, Gatorade and snacks for the car to avoid passing out on the return drive.)

Snow warming was back at the top of the hazards list with a March sun higher in the sky, so we planned a 2am start from Colter Bay.

Gear

After our past few mountaineering-oriented tours, our packs felt light. No ropes, harnesses, tools, crampons, etc.? So pleasant.

The twins also packed ascent plates (e.g., Verts or Billy Goats), increasing surface area to avoid post-holing on deep bootpacks. Unable to find extra plates in Jackson, we hoped the groups ahead would set a bootpack by the time we arrived. We could always rotate plates worst case.

The Skillet

No Rest for the Weary

At 8pm, Highpoint Cider's very own Alex Perez called, jokingly asking if we wanted to hit the Cowboy. (He was delivering ciders, and Connor / I were on the path to Cowboy frequent flyer cards that winter.) I said we were skiing the Skillet in the morning. Without even being invited, he sighed, paused, and sighed again.

Perez: "Ugh, I really shouldn't. I've barely slept past few nights." Sigh. "How long is it again?"
Me: "Well the lake's 12 miles and then 6k vertical."
Perez: Sigh. "Ugh." Sigh. "Fine, fine, I'll come."

The poor guy had to finish deliveries, drive over Teton Pass (RIP as of June 2024), pack his touring gear and drive back for a hour / two of sleep.

"Glide skins" were last on my to-do list. Moran requires a uniquely long, flat approach: 6 miles across frozen Jackson Lake. Normal skins are designed for steep ascents, too much friction on sustained flats. Better alternatives include: (1) touring set-up without skins (aka Nordic), (2) actual cross-country skis with alpine skis dragged in tow (true Nordic) and (3) glide skins.

On our first Skillet attempt in 2022, we started with Nordic, option #1 (AT without skins), then added skins facing a strong headwind.

Kyle mentioned glide skins, my first time hearing about option #3. Basically, cut old skins down to 120cm x 20mm and fold the fronts over a loop of cordelette to hang on the ski tips. Connor posted an IG story asking if anyone had old, extra skins to donate to the cause. He found one pair in Jackson and one in Teton Valley. Perez could pick up the latter for us to split on his Driggs pit stop. Before Perez jumped aboard, I planned to drag out my classic XC skis.

While Perez circled the Tetons, I settled into bed with a sleep gummy. Now 9pm, I set an alarm for 12:30am. A few hours later, and after a couple snoozes, I stumbled out of bed and started a pot of coffee. I found Perez on the sofa and figured he needed an extra 30 minutes. Our crew almost always ran a bit late anyway.

At 1:15am, I set a cup of coffee next to Perez and nudged him. Eyes red, he struggled to his feet. By 1:45am, we hit the road in three cars, Perez driving separately to prevent a few cases of ciders from freezing. Despite temperatures hitting the 50Fs during the day, overnights temps dropped below zero and we still had five hours before sunrise.

Connor cut my and Perez's glide skins as we drove, using a lighter to fuse the cordelette. By 2:35am, we reached Colter Bay, taking advantage of the only heated bathrooms in the north of the Park during the winter.

Perez's car thermometer read -3F, and with a four hours before sunrise, temps would likely keep dropping. It was a calm, clear night, we we expected temperatures to climb once we ascended (aka inversion). But, 6 flat miles of Jackson Lake stood between us and any such relief.

By 3am, we cruised across the Lake in puffers and heavy gloves. Before long, deep fog engulfed the group, frost crystalizing on our packs, clothing and hair. Moran's black silhouette came in and out of view with breaks in the fog.

Clarifying, Perez asked me how far across the Lake.

Me: "6 miles each way like I told you."
Perez: "I thought you meant 12 miles total... who answers like that?"

We separated by a ~quarter mile, alternating leads. I started at the front, then fell behind to troubleshoot glide skins (lost a cordelette). I decided Nordic (option #1) was easier than a fix. I also ditched my puffer and gloves. Brigette and Kelsey passed, eyebrows and hair covered in frost.

By 4:45am, we reached the bank beneath Moran in Bearpaw Bay. We transitioned to normal skins for the ascent, passing some tents on the shore. Not yet in the loop on his frostbite, we thought they might belong to Sebastian & co.

For Once, Nothing Went Wrong

Our hands went numb on the transition beneath Moran. Still at lake-level, we needed to keep moving. We followed a skin track through the trees, reaching the bowl beneath the Skillet by 5:45am. So far, the whole approach felt so much easier than our first attempt in 2022. A testament to all the endurance and mountaineering training since.

We spotted a set of headlights approaching the "Pan," the start of the official Skillet. We skinned over some avalanche debris fields, small point releases, likely from early afternoon sun over the last couple days. We aimed for an 11am descent at the latest. With warm daytime temperatures, we expected sun crusts, but generally found powder around the skin track.

A rising sun slowly lit the horizon to our east. By 6:30am, a bright orange belt formed over the Gros Ventre, fading into the dark blue overhead.

The cliffs above glowed as the sun worked down the mountain. Within 15 minutes, the sun reached Jackson Lake below, slowly burning off the morning fog that gave us frosted tips a few hours earlier.

We reached the bottom of the "Pan" at 9.5k', half the day's vertical behind us. I ditched my fleece as we took a snack break. We welcomed warm sunshine after a cold morning. We skinned past the other group, digging a snow pit at the far side of the "Pan."

By 8:15am, we reached the top of the "Pan" and noticed some light wind loading. Based on Sebastian's GPX, we expected to skin to the final ~300', a welcome change from attempt #1 when we bootpacked the final 2,000' (bailing after 1,000' feet due to postholing).

At 9am, Perez decided to bail. Lacking lightweight alpine gear, his hybrid boots and 120mm powder skis slipped on the steep kick turns, plus three nights of poor sleep caught up to him. Even with 105mm's, I slipped on some of the steeper kick turns. Conditions felt stable, so we were comfortable with a solo descent and stayed on the same station just in case.

As we climbed, the sun baked us in the infamous "Skillet." I ditched my base layer, dropping to just a sun hoody. I loaded up on sunscreen. By 10am, I caught Brigette and Kelsey at the base of the bootpack, each strapping on ascent plates. Connor and Kyle already started booting, no issues without ascent plates.

From the base of Moran, Perez relayed some beta from his descent. Variable down to the base of the Handle, best in the shade beneath north-facing cliffs, then perfect powder down to the tree line.

By 10:30am, we cleared the top of the Handle, following a final rocky scramble on looker's right. Exposed to west winds at the top, temperatures plummeted and I scrambled for my base layer, fleece and puffer.

Connor, Kyle and I climbed the final 200' to the summit, leaving skis with the twins in the notch above the Skillet. The temperature kept my hands in my gloves, so I only captured a quick video pan. Moran has a massive summit, easily a football field. Our last Moran ascent (CMC Face in 2022) approached from the southeast; the Skillet tops out just north of summit proper.

We briefly enjoyed Moran's sweeping views of the Cathedral Group to the south, the lakes to the east, Idaho to the west and finally the remote northern range, sheltered from crowds by Jackson Lake. Wind steady, we hustled back to the notch and transitioned to ski.

Me and Kyle on the summit | P.C. @connorburkesmith

Photo Shoot

At 11am, we dropped into the choke, one-by-one. Initial turns were variable, but softened by the morning sun and fun skiing. I anchored the group, catching up a few hundred feet below the notch.

Some snow released from cliffs guarding the Skillet, so we opted for a party ski down to the "Pan." (Not a huge concern, but no point hanging around.) We skied a mix of windboard and sun crusts, all edge-able if a bit variable.

At the top of the Pan, the two split-boarders caught us on descent, opting to ski a chute to looker's right below the Skillet. They leapfrogged ahead.

By 11:40am, we regrouped for photo-shoot shenanigans at the bottom of the Pan, Connor and Brigette justifying the weight of their DSLRs. Slopes from the Pan to the bowl were spared from sun and wind affect, either from inversions or the slight aspect-shift to NE, and held perfect ankle-deep powder.

Connor and Brigette staged some side hits, jumps and artsy angles. Kyle and I modeled. I side-stepped 50' up a ridge for one of Connor's shots.

By noon, we skied a series of skate tracks through the trees, soon reaching the expanses of Jackson Lake. Connor, Brigette and I exited 200' north of Kelsey and Kyle, closer to the tents. We pulled out glide skins for the return. I attempted a zip-tie repair in lieu of the missing cordelette.

Goldfish (Not the Snack)

By 12:15pm, we started the six-mile return skin. Each step more painful than the last. I've yet to find an easy solution for slow-onset trench foot (not actually, but on that path). Each time my feet spend more than eight hours in ski boots, they exit pruney and blistered. (More on immersion foot syndromes.) The only fail-safe is drying and sock swaps, not exactly easy in winter conditions.

As easier precautions, I now apply anti-perspirant and wait until the last minute (usually trailhead) to put on my ski socks.

My glide skins kept falling off the tips, at least once a half mile. Even with painful steps and annoying pauses, we made good time, reaching Colter Bay by ~2pm. We passed hikers and fisherman near shore. Moran shrunk to a distant peak.

I awkwardly duck-walked up the bank, glide skins offering no traction on the 15/20-degree slope. We finished in 11 hours, a far cry from the 18-hour failure two years earlier. With more hustle and fewer breaks, it could've been 8/9 hours.

I winced as I pulled off my ski boots, then gently slipped into fresh socks (a must) and wolfed down some water, cold brew and extra car snacks. GoldFish was playing at Teton Village, and with an earlier than expected finish, Connor and I figured we could still make the show.

Quick showers at home, then straight to the Village. First stop: a couple pepperoni slices and ciders at the Moose. Then, the Tram by 4:45pm for the show.

Gluttons for punishment, we didn't let the night end there, topping up with red bulls for a Jackson bar crawl: Bin22, the Wort and Cowboy, meeting up with a few other friends. By 9pm, we finally caved, realizing our eyes were crossing as we looked in the bathroom mirror.

Redemption? For Moran at least.