Canoeing and Skiing the Tetons

Canoeing a glacial lake to begin our climb of Mt. Moran was just part of this amazing journey.

Being new to technical mountaineering, I decided to make my first project a glacier climb and ski descent in the beautiful Teton range. My subject was 12,600′ Mt. Moran, one of the biggest and isolated peaks in the range. The idea was hatched in late June. Bags were packed, bindings were adjusted, and crampons and ice axes rented at the last minute.

My ski partner Matt Gibbs helped organize the crew, with experienced mountaineers Lin Heffner and Halsey Hewson accompanying us. Our goal was to canoe, hike, and climb to the top of the Skillet Glacier, with a promised 5,700′ ski down. The plan included a two-day approach, with the first day dedicated to canoeing three miles to the base of the mountain, then bushwhacking to the the snowfield at 7,800′.

How much gear did we bring? The answer is always too much!

First thoughts: “Damn, this is a big mountain.” Sure, I’ve ski toured Teton Pass, climbed some 10,000′ peaks here in the states, and a volcano or two in Japan. However, I’m definitely not prepared for how difficult a trip to the Skillet will be.

Approaching the base of Moran, we hauled in skis, boots, packs, tents, sleeping bags, and food. Packing was a challenge, and the tight brush snagged our skis and grabbed at every strap and buckle on our packs. I soon learned there’d been no maintained trail here for 20 years.

Upon reflection, this was among the most horrible bushwhacks of my outdoor career. The terrain was extremely steep with fallen trees everywhere. The route included multiple difficult creek crossings. The last quarter mile approach consisted of a talus field with boulders the size of picnic tables.

The twisted metal we found was a signpost warning of hardships on the glacier. 

Reaching the glacier, we found a piece of aircraft wreckage at the toe. Presumably, it was from a downed DC-3 that hit the mountain in 1950, killing all aboard. The moving ice had finally spit it out 67 years later. What a humbling discovery that foreshadowed the difficulty of this climb.

Here’s a view of our “camp” at the toe of the glacier with Jackson Lake in the background.

Our small posse tried to go to bed by 8 p.m. However, the combination of a large freeze-dried meal and summer light kept me up late into the evening. Picking my way above camp, I sprawled out on a rock and watched the sunset over Jackson Lake. It’s crucial to get proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep before a big climb like this. Despite my attempt at relaxation, I was not doing the best job preparing my body.

Waking up before dawn was necessary, and we had hoped for a 3:30 a.m. start. The idea was to get on the Skillet “handle” or main couloir by mid morning and avoid any wet avalanches or rock fall generated by warming temps. The reality found us starting our climb just after 4 a.m.

The beginning of the glacier climb was a slushy slope made easy by using crampons and ski poles.

The initial section took about two hours, and brought us up about 2,500 vertical feet. Here, the glacier became much steeper and we sighted our first small ice features. The going got much slower here and our group was forced to start using ice axes for safety. I had packed a gallon of water for the climb and had gone through half already.

That’s when twinging leg cramps started to happen to me. Halsey, our group’s most experienced climber, gave me some electrolyte tabs which helped my muscles gain some advantage. I was shocked that despite drinking so much water, I was cramping. I believe a lack of salt and general dehydration the day before may have been the problem.

The crux of the Skillet came next. This 500′ foot section of deep crevasses was imposing and included several huge cracks big enough to swallow a person.

We picked the climber’s left route, which was definitely a ‘no fall’ zone. Traversing the 50-degree slope, I realized that a fall here would result in a slide of hundreds of feet down toward the crevasses. My first experience climbing this type of snow was unforgettable. Going up would prove much easier than going down.

Entering the handle of the skillet was the next logical step. Here, we chose to avoid a large “runnel” or ditch that split the couloir from top to bottom. Rocks and slush constantly flushed down the runnel throughout the day. It was a natural terrain trap that sucked in debris and spit it back out. This was not a place you wanted to spend any time.

As the going became steeper, I started losing more energy and confidence. Unfortunately, I ran out of steam and started to suffer from more cramps about 500 vertical feet from the summit. The morning was quickly fading, and I wanted the freshest legs possible to begin my ski descent from where I had climbed.

My partner Matt Gibbs continued to just below the summit, and made turns from near the top. This pic shows how huge the terrain is. I’m cranking my neck and looking almost straight up to take the picture.

I spent about 20 tension-filled minutes digging a snow platform on the 50 degree snow. The idea was to transition from crampons to skis without losing any gear to the couloir. Unfortunately, I sheared one of the rear pins from my tech bindings at the worst possible time. This necessitated a switch back to crampons and an agonizing climb down.

What caused the breakage? Was it nervous paranoia? A bad binding adjustment? Hard to say, but I was immediately feeling the consequences of my equipment failure.

This photo of Jackson Lake was taken from the snow shelf I carved in the 50 degree couloir prior to equipment failure. 

Near the middle of the glacier, I was able to use a rubber ski strap to fix my bindings, then started to descend carefully on my broken equipment. However, I immediately took a wrong turn and skied into another steep colouir that terminated in a 150′ waterfall. That’s when I realized that I needed to take off my skis and throw them over a smaller cliff nearby and downclimb in my ski boots. Not fun.

In the end, I made it back to our base camp, drank two gallons of glacier water from a creek, then bushwacked back to the lake, canoed out, and headed to Dornan’s pizza joint with my buddies.

Writer and skier Chris Davenport lists the objective among his 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. I’d generally agree with him.