Wister, Veiled, the Wall

Wister and Veiled from Avalanche Divide

Avalanche Canyon is the next canyon south of Garnet in the Tetons, and one of a handful without an official trail. As it does not provide access to any of the popular peaks or routes, it sees very little traffic, though it contains a faint trail that has seen some past log-cutting. Though it has a reputation for bushwhacking, swamp-slogging, and talus-hopping, it is fairly tame if one can stay on the path, and a good place to avoid the crowds. As I have few objectives left undone in the Tetons, I tend to spend more time sharing my knowledge of the range with Work Week newcomers. Michelle seemed curious and capable, so I thought she might appreciate Avalanche.

We started from the Ranch at a comfortable 6:30 or so, taking the official trail around Taggart Lake before turning off at the “stay on trail” sign. Crossing the mixed woods and meadows away from the lake, we came up on a moose who was also using the trail, and was in no hurry to get anywhere or to move over into the brush. I enjoy the abundance of large mammals in the northern Rockies, and in the more crowded parts, they tend to concentrate in the corners without trails. We also saw a black bear grazing on some greenery, and a skittish elk.

Wister from Taminah

Though there is a trail most of the way to Taminah Lake, it is easy to lose in numerous places, mainly where it crosses the boulder-fields and slide debris on the north side of the canyon. In general, while the terrain tends to pull one uphill, and there are plenty of cairns to encourage this, the trail stays close to the creek, and is worth taking the time to find if one loses it. Having taken another group up this part of the canyon a few days earlier, and made my share of mistakes, I did a better job, and we reached snow above the fork in reasonable time. Here the trail switchbacks up some scree and talus right of Shoshoko Falls, then presumably traverses over to Taminah Lake, though I have never seen this part without snow. Taminah was entirely melted out, and we picked our way around the north shore on a mixture of scree and slide snow.

South Teton ridge and large cornice

My original plan had been to continue to the head of the canyon at Avalanche Divide, then either climb up and over the South Teton, or descend to the trail in the south fork of Cascade Canyon. However, once past the lake, Michelle expressed an interest in climbing Mount Wister. I had not planned for it, but had done it in 2011 with Ian, and remembered it as a fun moderate climb, ascending a snowfield to a saddle east of the summit before continuing along a broad ridge with some scrambling. Her idea sounded more fun to me, so I immediately agreed. We kicked steps up toward a bowl formed by what looked like an old lateral moraine, then put on crampons for the steeper climb to the saddle. The snow got a bit steep near the top, but Michelle handled it admirably, and we arrived at the ridge without incident.

Ridge scrambling

Looking south, I could see Buck’s twin north couloirs across the south fork of Avalanche Canyon. The right one was a fun moderate ice climb when I did it in 2013 and again some years later with Scott, both times in mid-June, but it looked too thin now, the bottom melted down to rock. Whatever the winter snow total, the Tetons are definitely drier than normal up high. From the saddle to the summit, the ridge was clear of snow, and the rock was solid. I started off taking the easiest line, but Michelle seemed to be enjoying the scrambling, so I found a more direct and steeper path on the upper section rather than taking the cairned chute to the right. The climbing was enjoyable class 3-4, mostly meandering face with a short knife-edge traverse.

Veiled from Wister

The summit had a clear view from upper Death to Avalanche Canyons. The Idaho side, including Alaska Basin, was still holding plenty of snow, but I was surprised to see that Snowdrift Lake was already half melted out. There were stormclouds building to the west, but they did not look serious. I had no particular plan in mind, but I was curious about the traverse over to Veiled, which I had meant to do when I climbed Wister the first time. We had made decent time, and Michelle seemed capable, so it seemed like a good opportunity to check it out. Wister’s west ridge was definitely harder than the east, with slightly worse rock, some devious route-finding, and mandatory-seeming low fifth class scrambling. We found some old tat, so this route does get done occasionally. The general idea is to stay close to the crest, trending north lower down and crossing back south through a notch to avoid cliffs just before the saddle.

Some flowers

The Wister-Veiled saddle seems popular with bighorns: while we did not see any, there were plenty of droppings, and some reasonably fresh tracks crossing a snow-filled gully on the Veiled side. Veiled was mostly unremarkable talus on the north side, with some fun scrambling up the north ridge to the summit. With the long June days, it seemed reasonable to continue to the Wall; more importantly, it would be a new peak for me. After a brief down-scramble, we found easy tundra on the transition from the eastern granite Tetons to the western limestone ones. Though Veiled and the Wall are neighbors, there is a surprising amount of annoying terrain between them. The western limestone uplift is slanted at a precarious angle on the west, broken and chossy along the ridge, and vertical to the east. The best path seems to stay close to the ridge, traversing around some undulations on slabs.

Chimney to the Wall

From the saddle at its south end, the Wall looked impregnable, with steep, rotten limestone cliffs guarding its summit plateau. I was temped to take the easy snow-slope down to Snowdrift Lake, but decided to head south a bit in search of a break. Only a couple hundred yards from the saddle, an improbable chimney led through the cliffs. I sketchily stone-tooled and kicked steps up the snow below it in my trail runners, then paused at the bottom while Michelle had slightly more trouble. Not wanting to bombard her with rocks, I stemmed up the slot while she sorted things out, then waited at the top, enjoying the afternoon light on the surrounding peaks. From the top of the chimney, it was an easy hike to the highpoint, which had a cairn and marker.

Ice pattern detail

Continuing west, we dropped down some scree and snow, then traversed around a small subpeak to a saddle partway to the Teton Crest Trail, then dropped north and back east around the “Toilet Bowl” to gain Avalanche Divide. Someone had left a bighorn skull nearby, which I felt deserved to sit atop the sign. The snow was badly sun-cupped down past still-covered Kit Lake, making it impossible to glissade. Half-frozen Snowdrift Lake had apparently refrozen in a strong wind, and had eddies of ice fins in a fragile crust on the part that looked melted from above. I have never seen this curious feature before, and took some time to photograph it before continuing down. Fortunately the drop to Taminah Lake was smooth enough to glissade, though boot-skiing required some balance and care.

We stayed on snow for a bit below Taminah, then traversed along the north side through some thrash-y brush to pick up the trail again. From there it was a long and mostly painless walk to the Ranch. The Avalanche Canyon trail remained easy to lose, but with two people searching, it was relatively straightforward to stay on track. We got back around dusk, for my only full-value Teton day this year. For someone drawn by adventure and tolerant of some bushwhacking and a few ticks, this is an enjoyable tour of the Tetons’ varied geology, mostly far from the crowds, with some engaging scrambling.

2 responses to “Wister, Veiled, the Wall

  1. Joe says:

    Wow Sean! You did my favorite Ranch hike. …. That is Avalanche canyon. I never added Wister to the itinerary, but the solitude and wildlife never fail to cause me to pinch myself as I consider its proximity to the road and the crowds while being so completely unspoiled.

    I missed seeing you and everyone this year, but will make up for it!

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Just trying to fill in for you (and Kate) by introducing people to the pleasures of Avalanche Canyon. The ticks were a turnoff — they were bad this year — but otherwise it did not disappoint. Your company was definitely missed at the Ranch this year.

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