Category Archives: Wyoming

The Zebra, Moran, East Horn (15h45)

Scrambly bits of Zebra


The Zebra has been somewhat of a white whale to me ever since Bill and Peggy brought it to my attention five or so years ago. It is a minor and obscure peak northwest of Mount Moran, first climbed by Leigh Ortenburger in 1970 and seldom climbed since, supposedly 5.4 by its only known route. I had twice tried to reach it from Leigh Canyon via the Thor-Moran ridge. Peggy and I turned back the first time after she dislocated her shoulder, and I gave up the second time after my will was drained by the arduous approach around Leigh Lake, along Leigh Canyon, and up to the ridge. This time I tried a different approach, around Moran and up the West Triple Glacier, and a different partner, my Sierra friend Robert. Though it was definitely better than the Leigh Canyon approach, it was still a brutal day, with a challenging return over Mount Moran and down the Skillet Glacier. Climbing the East Horn as a bonus peak added about an hour, making for an almost sixteen-hour day, the longest I have done in months.

Zebra from Moran’s NE shoulder

We left the Ranch a bit before 4:00 AM, and were on the String Lake trail by 4:15, putting in a few minutes of headlamp time before the near-solstice dawn. Both mosquitoes and campers were still asleep as we made our way along Leigh Lake and down the stream to Bearpaw Bay, though we woke the humans catching up on events since we had last hiked together. From the bay, we continued along the Skillet Glacier use trail for awhile, then took off north where it heads west along the glacier’s outflow. I had done the Triple Glacier route before, and remembered finding an excellent game trail that saved me much suffering, but I was not so lucky this time. The woods between Moran and Jackson Lake are choked with deadfall, brush, and bogs, making for savage bushwhacking by Teton standards, and Robert and I got a healthy dose. We found the game trail for awhile, then lost it again, finally ending up on the subtle ridge leading to the 10,000-foot shoulder on Mount Moran’s northeast ridge. After traveling much of our horizontal distance, we gained the majority of our elevation on the steep but more open ridge. Somewhere around 9000 feet the mosquitoes relented and the snow began. I had visited this area in 2015 to climb Moran via the Triple Glacier, which should have made the approach familiar and quick, but I am slower now, and did not remember it well enough to help us much.

West Triple Glacier and Zebra

Moran’s Triple Glacier route climbs the eastern glacier, then continues on snowfields above. As we were headed for the western one, we were soon on new ground. I initially hoped to traverse low on the eastern glacier, then continue across the other two to climb the western one, but after crossing the first glacier’s toe, we found ourselves cliffed out far above the second. We descended the ridge separating the eastern and central glaciers toward Moran Canyon, then dropped through steep woods and class 3-4 terrain to the latter’s terminal moraine. From there, we climbed the moraine’s crest to where it joins that of the western glacier, then made a sketchy third class dirt descent to the western Triple Glacier.

Lower glacier

I had been out of water for half an hour, so while Robert put on his crampons (a much more involved process than me putting on mine), I crossed to a cascade on the other side to grab a couple liters of the last water we would likely find for awhile. Once Robert joined me, we began a steady ascent up moderate snow toward the upper-right corner of the glacier, just below the saddle on the spur ridge between the Zebra and the main Thor-Moran ridge. The angle was moderate most of the way, and the snow was firm enough for our steps rarely to collapse.

Glacier headwall

The upper glacier is split by a rock band on the right, and an ice bulge on the left. I considered going to the far left of the bulge, but decided that a snow ramp through the rock would be more direct and not too steep. I had been able to French-step the rest of the route, but had to “front-point” on my front-point-less crampons through the gap, and on much of the snow above, which remained steep. It was too steep for self-arrest to be realistic, but not steep enough for climbing to feel insecure. Robert did well on this part, following my boot-pack without hesitation and even stopping to take some photos. Coming from the increasingly dry Sierra, he was unnerved by the Tetons’ steep snow two years ago, but has since become much more confident.

Start of the Zebra

Reaching the top of the snow, I climbed a short gully of mud and rotten rock to reach the saddle, where I hid away from the breeze to put away my crampons. Robert shortly joined me, and we decided to stash our axes and spikes at the notch before scrambling to the summit. We started left of the crest, climbing a class 2-3 talus chute with good holds on the left, then crossed to the right to continue on broad ledges. The Zebra’s rock slopes down to the east (right), and is mostly sheer on the west (left), so climbing right of the crest can be either fast or tenuous, while the route along the crest is slower but more secure.

I traversed low, bad idea

Traversing right, we soon regretted leaving our axes behind, as we were forced to cross a short slush-field with a bad runout. Grabbing a sharp rock, I kicked deep steps and hacked in a handhold, which I left behind for Robert’s use. Beyond, we climbed a moderate but wet and mossy corner to return to the ridge. I checked out the crest, which looked like a cheval country, then opted instead for an exposed and outward-sloping moss traverse below a snowfield. Robert, sensibly enough, did not like the look of this and, being a Real Climber, took the ridge, meeting up on the other side of my green folly.

Beyond, we traversed right again, then climbed easy ledge-y terrain to the crux, a right-facing dihedral leading to the final false summit. While vertical, this short pitch had enough positive holds to keep it low fifth class. From the top, a bit more scrambling and a final short face section led to the small two-humped summit. We found no register or cairn, only a weathered piece of purple cord where someone had needlessly rappeled on their return. I found a seat out of the wind amidst the loose jumbled rocks next to the summit, while Robert took out his fancy camera to capture some enviable shots and a panorama.

Rotten Thumb from Zebra

Having made the effort to reach this remote place, we had thought of climbing nearby Rotten Thumb, but the traverse looked impassable, with a vertical notch followed by a tower sheer on three sides and slightly overhanging to the east. The obvious route to Rotten Thumb leaves the west Triple Glacier below the rock band and climbs moderate snow to its northeast ridge. Since this would require 1000 vertical feet or so of backtracking, and the peak is aptly named (a rounded rotten blob), we decided to save it for sometime in the distant future. We reversed our route, finding the slush-traverse warmer and sketchier than before, then recovered our gear and headed toward the Thor-Moran ridge.

Moran from the Zebra

While the Zebra’s rock is generally decent, the rock between it and the main east-west ridge is often rotten, and this section involved some cautious and time-consuming climbing back and forth across the crest. This section had drained my last motivation on a previous Zebra attempt from Leigh Canyon, but I found it easier to bear when it was mandatory. Robert had not climbed Thor, and it was only a short distance away, but we figured it would take one or two more hours to make the side-trip, and we still had quite a bit of climbing between us and home.

The section between the Zebra saddle and the main Thor-Moran ridge is frequently loose and/or outward-sloping, making it unpleasant and slow. I remembered turning around on this section on my previous attempt to reach the Zebra via Leigh Canyon, too discouraged after bushwhacking around Leigh Lake and slogging up the south side of the ridge near Thor. We found some low fifth class terrain in this section, but it could probably be avoided with better route-finding.

Thor with Hidden Couloir

The main ridge is still loose in places, but much better climbing than the spur. I have traversed all or part of it several times, and am always impressed by the exposure and a bit surprised at the occasional difficulty. There are sections of very steep climbing on blocky, debris-strewn rock, and a traverse to the north after a chossy white gap with big air down to the East Triple Glacier. Robert was dragging a bit at this point, but had enough climbing skill and scrambling experience to overcome his fatigue. I have done various things to surmount Moran’s final granite cap, many of them unpleasant, but this time I had good luck heading directly up and right from the final notch. We stopped to refill water at one of several snowmelt rivulets, then continued to the summit plateau. Moran is a souped-up version of Longs Peak in Colorado, with no easy way to a large and nearly flat summit.

Robert spent some time taking photos from the top, then we proceeded down the Skillet. The top had gone into the shade, so we put on crampons and downclimbed the first few hundred feet facing in. Below that, we were able to take off our spikes and plunge-step or boot-ski. The snow was frustratingly sun-cupped, but lacked the deep center runnel I had found in previous years. I am normally intent to get to the bottom as quickly as possible (generally 30-35 minutes for a 5000-foot snow descent), but this time we pulled off to the right below Moran’s saddle with the East Horn.

Starting down Skilliet

There is supposedly a 5.1 Chouinard route up the Horn from this side, but what we found felt harder, perhaps because it was wet and we were tired. Robert had had enough, so I continued alone, wandering up outward-sloping ledges to reach the ridge slightly beyond the saddle. There are two headwalls between the saddle and summit, neither of which looks easy to take head-on. I went around the first to the left (north), then tried the same on the second, only to be turned back by ice and wet slabs. Instead, I made my way down and around to the right, climbing past some shrubs and up one side of a slight gully to return to the ridge perhaps a hundred yards from the summit. The route felt at least as hard as the Zebra’s supposed 5.4 — I’ll never be a good judge of climbing grades.

East Horn ridge

Mindful of the lengthening shadows and Robert’s increasing boredom, I semi-hurried back to where he was waiting, then we returned to the glacier for what I hoped would be a quick descent. Normally the lower Skillet is fun and fast, with decent boot-skiing to the “pan,” perhaps a bit of postholing, then excellent snow extending down the outlet stream to the gravel- and aspen-flats below. However this year is the driest I have ever seen the Tetons in June, and the stream was only intermittently bridged by snow. We carefully slid the solid-looking parts, picking our way down the loose garbage in between, taking far longer than I had hoped.

I have done the trail from the Skillet to Bearpaw Bay enough times that I should be able to get it right, but I usually manage to screw up at least a bit, as the use trail fades or gets lost in the area’s many game trails. Fortunately Robert had recorded a track and had a bit of battery left, so we were able to re-find the trail lower down and avoid some tedious bushwhacking. The mosquitoes around Bearpaw and Leigh Lakes were the worst I have ever experienced in the Tetons, and they were fast enough to keep up at a walk. Along with the tedium of Leigh Lake’s endless east shore, the bugs finally drove me to jog, and Robert perked up enough to join me, so we hobbled into the String Lake lot well before dark, taking a respectable but not mind-blowing 15h45 to slay my white whale of a striped horse of a mixed metaphor of the northern Tetons.

Tetons and such

Ranch life


Though I haven’t written in awhile, I have not been idle. As usual, I spent the first part of June in the Tetons, painting cabins for a week (brown this year) and improving my fitness while living at the base of the mountains. After so many visits, I do not have many objectives left in the range, but I did finally tag Prospectors Mountain via an interesting traverse from Open Canyon (class 2-3) to Rimrock Lake above Death Canyon (tricky, vegetated class 3-4). I also made a failed attempt to reach the Zebra, an obscure and remote peak northwest of Mount Moran (go get it, Peggy!). Since then, I have managed a few moderate outings in the eastern Cascades, accumulating Bulger Points. My season will begin in earnest in a couple of weeks — stay tuned! In the mean time, here are a few photos.

Spoon!

Amphitheater


After Drift, I rallied up to the Tetons hoping to do a lap or two on Buck Mountain’s east face, a broad, fun, moderate ski I had done last June. Pulling in after dark, I found that not only was the Moose-Wilson road closed just north of the Death Canyon trailhead, but the road to said trailhead was blocked as well. I suppose I could have walked the road or driven around to another trailhead, but I was feeling lazy and a bit under the weather, so I just slept there, then bummed around Jackson for the day. I have only seen the town during its hellishly crowded tourist season, and found it pleasantly quiet in the narrow window between when Jackson Hole Ski Area closes and Yellowstone opens. Grand Teton is similarly quiet and pleasant — I seem to have finally figured out how to spend the month of May.

Booting up from the trail

Anyways, I drove up to the Lupine Meadows trailhead to camp, figuring I would ski either South Teton or Teewinot the next day. Some guys I met there suggested accessing Garnet Canyon via the winter route between Braggart and Tadley Lakes, but I stuck to the devil I knew. I also stayed up way too late watching Westworld, so in the end I had a late breakfast and headed for the Spoon Couloir on Disappointment Peak instead.

Guys descending the Spoon

There was intermittent snow on the trail right from the trailhead, but not enough to ski, so I hiked to the Burt Wagon Gulch junction in trail runners, then continued up the lower shortcut a ways before hopping onto the snow in the couloir to its left. I tried skinning at first, but it was too steep, so I put my skis back on my pack and slowly booted up the thing, roasting in a t-shirt in the morning sun. I found myself “racing” two men with snowshoes who were headed in the same direction, and chose the ridge to the right for some reason.

View up the Spoon

My aim was a little off, but close enough, and I soon passed Surprise Lake on the right and Amphitheater on the left, not daring to skin straight across. I saw two men making a very slow descent of the Spoon, and picked up their skin track and bootpack as I neared the base of the couloir. There was a bunch of avalanche debris at the bottom, and a nice runnel in the center, but it didn’t seem to be actively sloughing. The bootpack had been partially covered by slush, probably unleashed when the men skied down, but I still found useful stairs most of the way up. I was still dripping sweat in a t-shirt.

Snake River from above the Spoon

It was late enough in the day that I was concerned about snow conditions, so I skipped the summit and transitioned to downhill mode in a lower-angle spot left of the couloir. I saw no sign of the snowshoers, who had been headed for the standard ledges route left of the Spoon when last I saw them. That looked like a bad idea to me, with multiple small recent wet slides, but who am I to judge?

What are you doing?

Transition complete, I cautiously dropped into the Spoon. There was still quite a bit of slush hanging around the upper couloir, so I had to ski defensively, making a couple turns, traversing to one side, then waiting for the slush to stop moving. The surface had been better scoured lower down, so I was able to ski more continuously, but I still made frequent stops to rest my thighs, since the sticky slush made for exhausting skiing.

The open woods and chute below Surprise Lake were decent, and would have been a lot of fun with better snow. This early in the season, continuous snow extends to within 50 yards of the lowest Garnet Canyon switchback, so I only had to walk from just above the junction. After a warm night, the snow on the trail had been just barely supportive in the morning. On the way back, it was less so, and I had to step carefully to avoid postholing. I returned to the trailhead to see 5-6 cars’ worth of skiers hanging out, who I passed in silence to prepare a pot of glop. And to chase a marmot out from under my car — I have no idea what he was up to, but I’m sure it was no good.

Jackson, Gros

Gros from head of Granite Creek


Real Life has been a real headache lately, interfering with peak-bagging plans, but I have managed to get out a bit, experiencing northwest Wyoming during the snow-free late summer for the first time. I normally use the Gros Ventres as a late spring warm-up, as they are both lower and gentler than the neighboring Tetons and Winds. I had tried to tag Gros Peak this spring, only to be turned back by uncooperative snow, bogs, and general misery. With most of the snow gone and the wildflowers out it proved much easier, with the route past Goodwin Lakes involving about 11 miles of mostly gentle terrain each way.

Tetons from below lake

Curtis Canyon is the closest legal camping to Jackson, so the popular Goodwin Lakes trailhead was much more convenient than the Little Granite trailhead I had used in the spring. I followed the popular trail to the lake, then briefly lost it as it circled around the far end, instead following an indistinct boot-path and some open terrain along the base of Jackson’s east ridge.

Flowers need mowing

I rejoined the trail near the head of the drainage, then took a side-trip to Jackson’s summit. I had already been there in June a few years ago, but figured I might as well make a minor detour for the morning view of the Tetons. I followed the trail back south, then took off cross-country along the ridge to rejoin the Goodwin Lakes trail as it contours around the head of Flat Creek to meet the Cache-Granite trail. These trails see relatively little use, and are therefore partly overgrown with wildflowers, but they are still easy to follow, and the trail junction signs are all intact.

Looking north from Gros

I jogged a bit, but mostly just walked fast on the rolling traverse around to the head of Granite Creek, from which the remainder of the route to Gros is visible to the south. The trail drops down to well-hidden Turquoise Lake, but I left it to head cross-country on a bench leading to Gros’s northeast ridge. I passed east of a large, unnamed, turquoise-colored lake, then found a few cairns as I made my way up the class 2-3 ridge to the northern false summit, passing a tarn nestled a bit above 10,600′.

I found a bit of a use trail along the final summit ridge, and a cairn and benchmark on the summit, but no register. The weather was behaving itself, with the monsoon storms slower to build over the Gros Ventres than their higher neighbors, so I took my time on the summit before retracing my steps, taking advantage of some lingering snowfields to avoid the loose scree. I had the trail to myself up to the turnoff for Jackson Peak, then met a steady stream of hikers heading up as I made my way down past the lake to the car.

Moran (Skillet Glacier ski)

Base of the snow


Mount Moran rises 6000′ directly from Jackson Lake, and the Skillet Glacier and its snowfield cover most of the slope, offering up to 5000′ of continuous snow well into June. Unlike on my previous outing, snow conditions were wretched — loose and slushy up high, dirty and sun-cupped down low — but it is an iconic line, and I was glad to tick it off the list. The whole thing took 10 hours car-to-car, including 3-4 hours trail hiking, 3.5 hours boot-packing, 25 minutes skiing, and some time fighting brush with skis on my back.

Climb from the pan

I woke at the stupid hour of 3:15, made myself a hot Cup of Sadness, and drank it on the drive up to String Lake. I started hiking by headlamp at 4:00, stashing the light at 5:00 near the north end of Leigh Lake. The commute to Bearpaw Bay normally takes me about an hour, but the skis on my back limited me to a fast walk. I had no trouble following the use trail to where it crosses the Skillet’s outlet stream, but foolishly decided to ascend the south side instead of crossing. After most of a frustrating hour of deadfall, pines, brush, and aspens, I finally emerged at the foot of the snow.

Airborne avalanche

I tried skinning a bit, but soon lost traction on the hard, sun-cupped snow, and put my skis on my pack to boot the rest of the way. Someone had installed a boot-pack in the prior few days, saving me a bit of energy, but the Skillet is still an interminable climb. It was also intolerably hot. The Skillet is not just east-facing, but also sheltered from wind by ridges on both sides, so I was dripping sweat in a t-shirt nearly the whole way up. The snow also softened alarmingly fast, and I was treated to regular wet sloughs coming down the skillet handle’s central runnel, and even small projectile avalanches off the ridge to the north.

Time to drop in

Much wallowing later, I emerged on the summit ridge, where I dropped my pack to tag the summit, then put on my skis for the descent. The first few hundred yards are steep and narrow, but the slope quickly opens up. However, every turn kicked off a small wet slide, so I had to make a few turns, then traverse to one side to allow them to pass. I stayed left to the base of the handle, sending my sloughs into the convenient runnel, then crossed it to get around the bergschrund on steeper snow on the far right.

From the pan onward, I was out of sloughing territory, but skiing over sun-cups and around small rocks was still tiring, and my legs were shot from the hike up, so I still had to stop frequently. After taking off my skis, I easily found the faint trail on the valley’s north side, and only lost it a couple of times on the descent to the creek. From there, it was just a hot, thirsty walk to the car. Passing the tourists along Leigh Lake with their boats and swimsuits, I felt out of place and a bit foolish with skis on my back.

Buck (East Face, 2900′ ski)

East face from below lake


Clear skies finally returned to the Tetons, bringing with them cold nights, pleasant days, and a fleeting opportunity to ski the fast-melting snow on what turned out to be my best Teton ski day. I had climbed Buck Mountain too many times by various routes, but never descended it on skis. Its broad, moderate east face seemed more my level than the upper Middle Teton Glacier, so I set my alarm for 4:15 to beat the morning sun. Gus, one of the interns, lacked skis but had the day off, so he joined me for the climb.

Balsamroot field

We got started from the Death Canyon trailhead just after 5:00 and, after walking a few minutes past the Stewart Draw “trail,” were soon on the correct path. The trail starts off overgrown, then turns into a bog, then becomes a real trail as it crosses an open meadow of sage and balsam-root. The two “warm-up” creek crossings were larger than I remembered, and with skis on my back, one of them involved wet feet. The main creek crossing would have been Serious Business, but fortunately there was a healthy snow bridge a few hundred yards up.

Slope angle

The snow was no longer continuous from the stream crossing, so I continued hiking in running shoes to the next flat section, a summer bog where Static Peak comes into view. After a bit of skinning, I put the skis back on my pack to boot up the steep, shaded slope, then left them there for the lower-angled walk to Timberline Lake. The snow was still hard in the shaded couloir leading to the face, but softened quickly as I traversed up and left onto the east face proper. Gus turned around here, not comfortable on the steeper snow, while I continued to the summit, following bits of an old boot-pack. The snow was soft enough to plunge nearly boot-deep by the end, but I did not see any slides. The rock band dividing the face was still conveniently covered in snow.

Looking down the ski

After a short break on the windy summit (the clouds were too low for a view of the Grand) I mostly transitioned (I forgot to flip the “walk mode” tabs), then had an excellent ski back to the lake. The face is 38 degrees near the top, but broad and soft enough to make me comfortable linking turns, albeit carefully in the final couloir to the lake. After talking to Gus, I bombed on down toward the bog, getting some serious speed before talking to some hikers and descending more carefully through the rocks lower down. I did another short lap of a few hundred feet while Gus caught up, then switched back to shoes for the hike out. Ironically, the first part of this “hike” involved much boot-skiing with both boots and skis strapped to my back. Though I do not normally condone the use of “cripple poles,” I found them helpful in this strange situation.

Middle Teton (Ellingwood Couloir)

Middle Teton now in sun


After bluebird skies and 80s in the valley for Work Week, the weather turned hostile, with rain in the valley and snow down below 9000′ on the peaks. With Sunday having the least-bad forecast for a few days, I decided to get out and try something in the hills instead of going insane in the Jackson library. I was somewhat at a loss for a suitable outing until Tim suggested the Chouinard Ridge on Middle Teton, a broken, south-facing 5.4 route. I had done nothing on that part of the mountain, so it would be somewhat new, and the rock would be mostly dry if the weather behaved itself.

Entering the couloir

I put crampons and boots in my big pack and left the ranch in running shoes around 5:15, ignoring the clouds. Temperatures remained moderate as I climbed into Garnet Canyon, and I wore just a t-shirt until I stopped in the Meadows to switch to boots next to the army encampment. As I continued up the south fork, a combination of clouds and snow left me seeing very little, and considering other route options. Fortunately the clouds were patchy, so I managed to find my intended route without much difficulty.

Runnels

Seeing that the rocks were covered in icicles and a dusting of fresh snow, I decided that it might be wise to choose another route. The neighboring Ellingwood Couloir seemed perfect: it appeared to have already slid and consolidated, and the cloudcover was keeping the snow well-frozen. I put on my crampons, took out my one ice tool, and got to work.

Dike Pinnacle and Nez Perce

The couloir starts out flat enough to French-step, but soon becomes steep enough to require front-pointing. The old snow had formed multiple runnels, into which the fresh powder had drifted several inches deep. The old surface was mostly névé: perfect for daggering a tool, but requiring several kicks to create a step to rest my burning calves. Partway up, I looked back to see two people descending the south fork, and wondered what they had done to be coming down so early.

Nez Perce, Cloudveil, and Gros Ventres

Though I was fairly certain I was in the correct couloir, it was still a relief to climb around the cornice and find myself looking at the familiar view of Dike Pinnacle and the Middle Teton Glacier. I also found myself between cloud layers, able to see between them and through the saddle between Nez Perce and Cloudveil Dome all the way to Jackson Peak and the Gros Ventres. I could have descended the glacier, but the day was young, and it seemed lame not to summit.

Climb from Dike Pinnacle

The final climb up the east side of Middle Teton can be a bit dicey, with snow falling away from slabs as spring turns to summer. After traversing right on snow under some rocks, I followed a runnel to the notch between the two summits on a messy mixture of snow types. A bit of clumsy mixed climbing got me out of the notch and onto the easy snowfield leading to the summit.

There wasn’t much to see, so I hardly paused before heading down the standard southwest couloir, where I passed 5-6 army guys belaying each other down. Unfortunately it was still cloudy, so the snow had not softened up enough to allow much plunge-stepping or boot-skiing. Back at the Meadows, I switched back into trail runners and talked to Eric, the Army instructor with whom I had climbed the previous summer. Then it was a tedious but sunny walk back to the Ranch, to eat glop on tortillas and catch up on my neglected chores.

Lots of Teewinots

2016 version

2016 version

2010 version

2010 version

Teewinot gets a bad rap because its standard route is a good place to get avalanched or fail to self-arrest in the early season, and becomes a crowded scree-chute later on. However, it has the advantages of avoiding Garnet Canyon, allowing a quick bail-out if conditions go bad, and offering 5500′ of vertical with a minimal approach even by Teton standards. As the years go by and I have fewer Teton objectives, I find myself using Teewinot more, both as a climb and as a work-out peak.

My first Teewinot of this year was a quick run up to the Apex, about 2700′ of gain on a steep trail to treeline. I did this to gauge both my fitness and snow conditions in the range. My fitness seemed okay: the climb took about 45 minutes. As I had experienced in the Gros Ventres the day before, the snow line is abnormally high this year: I only hit consistent snow in the last 100′ vertical or so, and the face above seemed to have consolidated.

Approaching past Worshipper and Idol

Approaching past Worshipper and Idol

My second was a bit of exploration and two tick-marks. The Idol and Worshipper are two prominent pillars just south of the standard route. I had passed them too many times to count, but never taken the time to climb them, despite their being only low 5th by various routes. With an easy day planned and a mediocre weather forecast, I decided it was time to check them out.

I made my way to the Apex, much slower now with a pack, then kicked and postholed up through the krummholtz toward the Worshipper. I watched three skiers make perhaps a dozen turns each, then pick their way back through the brush and rocks to their shoes for the long hike back down. It didn’t seem worth the hike to me, but then again, I had just done the same for two pitches of scrambling…

Worshipper from near Idol

Worshipper from near Idol

I started out by trying the Worshipper’s long, east, downhill face, supposedly the easiest route to the summit. While the climbing was not especially hard, the variable-quality rock and outward-sloping ledges were not fun, so I traversed around left into the notch between it and the Idol. This side is shorter, steeper, and harder — 5.4, according to the Ortenburger guide — but also more secure and fun, climbing a near-vertical crack/chimney with a bulge partway and positive holds to be found throughout.

Pulling over the bulge, I was surprised and pleased to see a natural arch directly in front of me, with a small tree in its center. From the top of the chimney, the route goes through the window, then around to the right and back over it to reach the highpoint. Cool! I even found a summit register, a rarity in the Tetons. It only went back a few years, but suggested that perhaps 1-2 parties a year make the climb.

I retraced my steps, passing an old piton-based rap anchor, then traversed and climbed around the north side of the Idol. I made this harder than necessary, crossing some wet, slimy slabs and grinding my way up a chimney rather than going the long way around and traversing in from the northwest. Still, the climbing was still all easier than the Worshipper, with a couple low 5th class moves and some scrambling on the southwest side quickly leading to the top. I appreciated the view quickly, as the weather was getting colder and possibly wetter, then returned to the Ranch to waste the rest of the day.

Moran, etc. from north ridge

Moran, etc. from north ridge

My final Teewinot turned out to be an excellent use of a half-day, timed nearly perfectly to avoid the atypical early-season afternoon thunderstorms. Eric, a squad leader in the 10th Mountain Division, had a couple free days before starting a course, and was itching to climb. After considering more ambitious options on Owen, we gave in to the realities of the forecast and settled on a shorter route on the north side, starting from the col with Crooked Thumb.

With a 4 AM start from the Ranch, we actually had a bit of headlamp time passing through the aspens at Teewinot’s base. Stripping to t-shirts, we made the climb to the Apex in between 1h20 and 1h30, good time with trad gear. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Eric was fast: he does this for a living, usually with a much bigger pack.

The snow in the krummholtz was slushy, but above it was firm enough to boot past the Worshipper and Idol without postholing. Above, we traversed around the right-hand shoulder, suffered across some snow already softened by the northeast-rising sun, then followed a grassy, partly snow-covered ledge on around to the couloir leading to the Crooked Thumb Col. This perch has excellent views of Owen’s northeast face, Cascade Canyon, and the seldom-climbed peaks north of Mount Moran. Unfortunately, it is too close to offer a good overview of Teewinot’s north side.

A few pitches of actual climbing

A few pitches of actual climbing

We puzzled over route descriptions and photos for awhile, then descended back east, roped up, and started simul-ing some random terrain left of the north ridge. When we got tired of this, we headed back right, where Eric built and anchor and started leading up the left side of the ridge. Since he passed a couple of old pitons, we figured we were “on route” for some version of “route.” The climbing was varied, fun, and mostly moderate, with the exception of a wide stem followed by some thin face climbing. I haven’t climbed in boots for awhile, but it felt like 5.8 or hard 5.7.

I led the second pitch, whose crux was an undercling/traverse left around an overhang then easier climbing to a broad ledge. One could probably exit left from here, but I thought it would be fun to continue straight up a chimney/crack. This turned out to be incorrect. After thrashing and scrabbling up some sort of off-width, I was forced by my own rope drag to build a semi-hanging belay out of a #2 cam and two tiny nuts. After an awkward sit-on-my-face gear exchange at the belay, Eric led 20 feet more tricky climbing up out of the chimney, then continued across easier ground to just below the summit.

Other than 20 seconds of graupel, we had enjoyed calm, clear weather for most of the climb, and had talked about traversing on to Mount Owen. However, as often happens on a northeast-facing Tetons route, we topped out to find that the weather situation was not as we hoped. With inclement weather coming from the south and west, we quickly packed up and headed for the summit, where I reenacted the photo I took on my first Teewinot climb in 2010. Descending the east face took longer than anticipated. The snow was thin slush over a harder base layer, soft for kicking steps but hard for boot-skiing, so we stuck to the rock for much of the upper face. Back at the apex, I resigned myself to an hour or so of clomping misery descending the dry trail in full-shank boots. The rain and lightning started maybe a half-hour after we reached the Ranch, and continued for much of the afternoon, but our well-chosen mission was complete.

Grand Teton speed attempt

Andy Anderson’s 2h53 on the Grand is far out of my reach even in perfect conditions, but with decent fitness and a reasonably cold night up high, I figured I might as well give speed-running the Grand a try before I left. The major disadvantage of an early-season attempt is the extra gear required: with crampons, ice axe, and warm clothing, one is forced to carry a backpack. The major advantage is a blazingly-fast, low-impact descent via glissade from the Lower Saddle to the Meadows. In perfect snow conditions, the early season run could potentially be faster, and would favor mountain skill over raw athletic ability. While I found difficult conditions up high and decided to stop short of the summit, I believe that the early approach has potential, though probably not in a year like 2015 with low winter snowpack.

Starting from the Ranch, I took it easy across the flats before ramping up my effort on the climb up Burnt Wagon Gulch, reaching the junction in a leisurely 27:45. Using both shortcuts, I reached the Meadows sign at 1h03, stopping to put on crampons a few hundred yards up the snow. The winter route was thin but doable, and the Lower Saddle headwall lacked the boot-pack normally put in by guided parties; with slightly softer-than-ideal snow conditions, I reached the Lower Saddle around 1h56.

Switching back out of crampons, I talked to a guide and client who had turned around on the Upper Exum because of supposed bad snow conditions and avalanche risk. As is often the case when guides talk to non-guides, he wasn’t being particularly honest: the snow was nice hard-pack with a bit of crunchy fuzz on top, it was cold, and the sun wouldn’t touch the upper route for another couple of hours. I guess I didn’t look like I could handle the truth.

Finding hard, shaded snow above the Black Dike, I went back to crampons, hacking and front-pointing my way up the steeper terrain. While rarely tenuous, this section was often slow going with worn running-shoe crampons, so it was 2h38 by the time I reached the Upper Saddle. I found the belly crawl slightly iced but basically okay, but soon ran into more difficulties. When dry, the rest of the climb is a quick scramble up two short chimney-ish sections and some connecting ledges. What I found instead was partially ice-filled chimneys and steep, hard snow on the ledges. While this would have been manageable with Real Mountaineering equipment (boots, crampons, possibly ice tools), I decided after some flailing that it was more than I wanted to try with running-shoe crampons and a mountaineering axe.

I carefully retreated to the saddle, then headed over to the pleasantly sunny Enclosure to enjoy the view. No longer interested in my overall time, I spent about five minutes eating and looking around before time-trialing the descent. The hard snow between the Upper Saddle and Black Dike once again cost me time, as I had to downclimb facing in rather than plunge-stepping or boot-skiing. But the stretch from Lower Saddle to the Meadows was awesome: with a combination of boot-skiing, glissading, and snow-running, this stretch took something like 10 minutes. The whole descent from the Lower Saddle to the Burnt Wagon Gulch turnoff took only 29:47, despite having to skip the lower shortcut because of nearby hikers.

A half-hearted attempt at speed on the unpleasant BWG trail got me to the Ranch at about 4h40 feeling surprisingly spry. Based on my splits, I think I could come close to 4 hours on an all-out, rested effort in late summer conditions. That’s nowhere near the record, but it’s not bad for an aging dirtbag. I’ll take it.

Avalanche-Cascade Loop, and Veiled

Off to south Cascade

Off to south Cascade


In addition to climbing, the Tetons are made for long loop hikes and runs. With the Crest Trail running behind the major peaks, and the Valley Trail running along the eastern base, it is possible to go up one canyon (with or without trail), follow the Crest Trail to another, descend it, and return to the start along the Valley Trail. Unfortunately, the high-elevation Crest Trail is only a trail in mid- to late-summer, when I am elsewhere. Despite the sometimes-frustrating snow, I have managed to do a couple of these loops this year, and if I were more of a trail runner, I would probably come back for more while they are in season.

While Cascade Canyon features easy access and a crowded trail, Avalanche Canyon is famous for the bog blocking one end and the Wall blocking the other. On the one hand, I had always wanted to visit the Wall, a striking limestone cliff visible from the Jackson Valley, and to tag Veiled Peak, one of my last unclimbed summits between Death and Moran Canyons. On the other, I had tasted the bog once, and was not eager to do so again. Free time and Kate’s perverse fondness for the place finally moved me to return this year.

Splitter fist crack, bro!

Splitter fist crack, bro!

Starting off from the Ranch, we headed toward Braggart and Tadley Lakes, then thrashed around a bit until we found the reasonably well-used (more by wildlife than by humans) Avalanche trail. A recent windstorm had downed a number of trees around the park, adding more obstacles, but not enough to make it significantly worse than it was before. Passing a giant boulder split by a perfect fist crack, we made our way upstream though dense forest, trying to avoid both the bog in the center and the large talus on the north side. The trail mostly follows subtle high ground in the forested canyon bottom, with a few forays into the bog and one onto the boulders. Finally emerging from the dense forest, we crossed a large slide path descending all the way to the creek and reached the fork between north and south canyons.

Taminah Falls and Wister

Taminah Falls and Wister

Taking the north branch, we skirted the impressive Taminah Falls to the north on scree and talus, finding the occasional cairn or bit of trail left by climbers headed to the supposedly good but seldom-climbed arêtes on the north side of the canyon. After pausing at half-melted Taminah Lake, constantly reshaped by fresh rock-slides, we continued to the equally large and mostly frozen Snowdrift Lake, crossing snow just soft enough to kick steps in running shoes, and patches of the underlying heath.

Wall and Snowdrift Lake

Wall and Snowdrift Lake

Kate was apparently happy to just hang out under the looming Wall, so I “sprinted” off to tag Veiled and rejoin her near the pass into Cascade Canyon. My hoped-for sprint was actually a bit of a slog, as the northeast-facing snowfield leading to Veiled’s east ridge had turned to slush under the northern morning sun. After extracting myself from the slush near the ridge, I spent awhile cliffing out on the dry south side before traversing around the north to reach the summit on chossy, wet class 3 rock.

Wall and Snowdrift from Veiled

Wall and Snowdrift from Veiled

Rather than return the way I came, I decided to continue west along the ridge, hoping to traverse the Wall, or at least find better snow. After another cliff-out on the south side, I found a circuitous route down the north ridge, then back through a gap in the east ridge to the scree below. The south-facing slope to the west was mostly snow-free grass, so I was able to jog and make good time, but the southern end of the Wall was guarded by an unpleasant choss-cliff. I could probably have looped around south to gain the top, but I wasn’t sure if I could get off the north end. Rather than boring Kate by potentially spending hours route-finding through rotten rock, I cut directly back across the base of the Wall on decent but softening snow.

"Toilet Bowl" near the Wall

“Toilet Bowl” near the Wall

Later in the season, a trail connects the pass north of the Wall to the south Cascade Canyon trail below, but we were faced instead with miles of varied snow. After a disheartening initial plunge through knee- and thigh-deep sludge, we found good walking and even what looked to me like a perfect boot-skiing hill. Kate was reluctant, but it has been my mission this summer to spread the Gospel of the Boot-Ski in the Tetons, and I managed to convince her to give it a try. The runout was not great, but fortunately nothing bad happened, and I had another convert.

NW ridge of Enclosure from Cascade

NW ridge of Enclosure from Cascade

Quite a bit of sludge-trudge remained, but it was warm and the views of the southwest side of Owen and the Grand were impressive and relatively new to me, so I squelched along happily, looking down just enough to avoid tripping. We stopped for lunch at an apparently-popular rock outcrop with a clear view of the northwest ridge of the Enclosure, the Valhalla Traverse, and Owen’s upper north face. This is another area I would like to explore, though I am not sure when, since most of the climbing would require a partner.

Look, a swamp-donkey!

Look, a swamp-donkey!

From the junction with north Cascade Canyon, we faced an increasingly tourist-choked hike to south Jenny Lake, then a walk along the bike path back to the Ranch. While Cascade is a nice hike, with its impressive views of the steep north faces of Owen and Teewinot, we were both back on familiar ground and somewhat impatient. Thus it seemed like a good idea, when we reached Inspiration Point and saw 50 canvas bags of rocks and no workers, to try to poach the closed trail down its south side. Bad idea: no more than 100 yards down the trail, a worker emerged from hiding, silently making the universal sign for “WTF?!”

After some not-so-convincing feigned ignorance on our part, we meekly retreated to the roundabout trail to the boat dock. As a small consolation, the hiker trail along the lakeshore had finally reopened, sparing us the rolling, boring horse trail higher up. Unfortunately, the trail crew had apparently packed up just minutes after thwarting us above, so we got to meet the same worker again on the way around Jenny Lake. He apparently didn’t hold a grudge, and we even talked a bit while we paused to watch three healthy kits and a vaguely protective mother fox in the boulders near the trail.

I was glad to have company on the final stretch, as the long walk along the flat, paved bike path began to wear on the soles of my feet, which had been softening and marinating in snowmelt all day. The whole thing ended up about 12h30 at a fast walk with some breaks, the most time I have spent on the trail since last season. With jogging and dry trails, it would have been a pleasant and more manageable 7-8 hours.