Grand Teton, Wyoming is an obsession with some skiers


Riley Soderquist tumbled down Andean volcanoes in South America, traveled to the Alaska Range, and made a first descent of the rugged north face of Capitol Peak in the Elk Mountains of Colorado. But year after year, a jewel of ski mountaineering escapes him: Grand Teton.

In one of his three attempts between 2018 and 2021, strong winds blew so hard that Soderquist turned around. On another trip to nearby Jackson, Wyo, the conditions were so bad he didn’t even try.

But his goal of skiing on the Grand remains in sight.

“It sounds like something I’ve trained my whole life for,” Soderquist said. “I’m kind of looking for that latest iconic piece.”

In North America, Denali, Alaska is often at the top of the bucket list for serious ski mountaineers. The towering faces of the British Columbia Coast Ranges also attract attention.

At 13,775 feet, Grand Teton is not the tallest mountain in the state of Wyoming. It offers less downhill skiing than other mountains in the same range. Snow can be difficult to find in good conditions. Going down can be downright scary.

But in the lower 48 states, the jagged peak of northwestern Wyoming is a unique proving ground for some of the country’s most ambitious backcountry skiers.

“He combines the most skill from anywhere in the Americas,” said Peter Stone, who skied Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s tallest mountain, at 19. “I think a lot of people see it as, like, that thing that you have to do before you can do the intense type of steep downhill skiing, like the French style or go do the first runs in the Karakoram”, Stone said, referring to the Central Asian mountain range.

Part of the appeal is the aesthetics. Strong vertical relief means that the summit of the Grand rises about 7,000 feet above the surrounding valley; under the afternoon sun, the peak may appear silhouetted against the sky. Another part of the appeal is simply the challenge.

“It’s something that represents an entry into the next level of ski mountaineering,” said Aaron Diamond, guide at Exum Mountain Guides, who has completed about 10 runs, mostly on his splitboard.

While many highly skilled skiers and runners may theoretically be able to descend a 50-degree chute, the Grand makes an additional claim: exposed terrain. You also need to be extremely fit. Preparing for the 12- to 16-hour, 14-mile trip typically involves a one-year commitment to training and waiting for the right conditions, which often fall from March through May.

Montana State University student Owen Silitch, 24, reckoned he had climbed the Great Eight times before landing a ski descent in March 2021.

During this trip, the snow was packed. His skis were shaking with every turn. During the entire trip, he worried about the possibility of falling pieces of snow or ice.

“There was a lot of experience leading up to this day,” he said. He didn’t rule out going back down, but said he would likely try other lines in the future that don’t require a “no-fall mentality.”

He now joins a club of a few hundred or perhaps more mountaineers, many of whom made their summit debuts.

Bill Briggs, who is credited with helping establish stiff ski mountaineering in the United States, made the first known descent of the east face-corridor Stettner on June 16, 1971. Further descents by a more popular combination of the Ford, Chevy and Stettner corridors were made later by Steve Shea, Jeff Rhoads and Brad Peck before the end of the decade.

For a long time, however, skiing at the Grand was scarce, especially in winter. “It was considered suicide because of the avalanche danger,” said Thomas Turiano, author of “Teton Skiing: A History and Guide”.

As understanding of avalanche risk in winter improved and skiers increased their stake, several difficult descents were made throughout the 1990s, most notably on the Enclosure Couloir (1994), the Couloir Black Ice (1994), the Hossack-MacGowen Corridor (1996) and the Otter Body Road (1997).

Another breakthrough came when venerable skier Doug Coombs completed the first guided descent of the Ford-Stettner Corridor with Mark Newcomb. Doug Workman, a guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, has followed suit and has now guided over a dozen skiers.

“People realized that if it was guided then maybe I could do it myself, and the combination of that with just the explosion in sport and equipment, which has basically happened since 2010, “said Turiano. “It really took off. “

Brenton Reagan, senior guide and marketing director at Jackson’s Exum Mountain Guides, estimated that the Grand is now skied between 20 and 200 times per season.

“There aren’t many people in the world who can ski the Grand Teton, but when the snow is steady and the weather is fine, it’s surprising how many people live in this town or come to town for it. do, “Reagan said. , 47, who has made about three descents from the summit.

Typically, Exum takes 10 to 15 guided trips each season for $ 3,175 per person. Most of them navigate the risks alone.

On the ascent, the classic Ford-Stettner route is a very exposed ice and snow climb, with satellite ridges, steps and arrows leading to the summit. The descent is virtually drop-free terrain involving four 60-meter abseils over ice terrain and a crossing of a short suspension snowfield. A slide can mean tomahawking over several 500-foot cliffs.

Other dangers are quite simply the way of nature. Strong winds can create giant patches of lightly packed snow, increasing the risk of avalanches. Climbers or skiers may hit a weak spot, causing a slip.

“Snow, wind and weather are kind of the architects of it all,” said Diamond, the mountain guide. “Then there is the falling rocks. “

On July 11, 1982, Dan McKay fell while climbing the Otter Body route with the intention of skiing down. No one else is known to have died while attempting to ski downhill.

But with Jackson as the mecca for some of the country’s best skiers, many say the culture and surrounding area undoubtedly favors the risk.

“There’s no beating around the bush, it’s a really dangerous business,” said Silitch, the student. “With the climbing you will probably be very injured, but there is no risk of you completely detaching from the mountain. But when you ski, all that connects you to the mountain is your two edges.

So why do it?

For many, the technical challenges of the Grand remain, as does the personal quest.

“For a lot of people going up, I think it’s less of an entry level than a lifelong achievement,” Diamond said. “Skiing on a mountain like this is a really ambitious goal. “

Stone, who has skied in Orizaba in Mexico, said he hopes to make future trips to Alaska, the Himalayas and the French Alps. But he said the Grand was “a really special mountain” and that skiing was one of his greatest accomplishments.

“It’s one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever had to be able to travel on the Grand Teton in the winter,” he said. “I would like to be able to ski at any time. “


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