Heading into the backcountry to ski spring/summer conditions, with a brand new partner, in a mountain range you’ve never entered is a generally a bad idea. Climbing and skiing partnerships are earned not forced. Hadley and I haven’t known each other long. We’re both Marmot athletes, but last weekend’s adventure in Teton National Park was our first. We’ve been training together at Mountain Athlete, which has given us the opportunity to see each other’s physical and mental strengths. Our assignment from Coach Shaul was one of teambuilding, mountain awareness, and orientation. He sent us into Teton National Park to ski West Hourglass one day, camp at the Platforms, and ski the Middle Teton the next.
We started our day at 5:15 am. Weighed down with camping gear, food, and ski equipment, we slogged our 60 lb packs up to the Platforms. After a near-fall into the creek (I don’t suggest sitting down on a rock to rebalance with a massive pack on, especially when your ski tails get stuck on the other side of the rock. Standing up looked something like a sandbag get-up). After unloading our camping gear, food, and repacking our ski equipment, we set off for the West Hourglass Couloir.
West Hourglass, rose just to our left, narrowing before the top doglegged out of view. The climb was easy and straightforward, with just crampons, an ice axe and whippit. The snow was soft, but still easy to climb. As we rounded the corner of the dogleg and spied the top, we realized that the last 100 yards to the saddle had melted out. We did attempt to scramble to the top, but after the scree field started to slide, and we bailed immediately. Safety first! The descent was perfect spring corn, on a sustained 45 degree pitch. The sun was beating down on the Meadows, and we made our way back to camp for lunch, and a little bit of reading and relaxation next to the creek. Fun skiing followed by a cool creek, sunbathing, and summer camping? I could get used to this.
The next morning we awoke early again and were hiking by 5:30. We anticipated it taking us at least 4 hours (if we were booking it) to the top of the Middle Teton Glacier, and with yesterday’s temperatures we assumed we would need to be skiing down no later than 12.
We were moving at a solid pace. At 9:20, we were at the bottom of the last pitch, parallel to the two crevasses, splintering out from the Northeastern cliffs. I turned to Hadley “At least this wind will buy us time by keeping the snow cool,” I said before falling back into a steady rhythm of pick, step, pick, step, pick, step. I spoke too soon. The gusty wind had been threatening to knock us of our feet all day, but as we entered the shadows on the looker’s left side of the couloir, the wind disappeared. A rustling, wind-chime like tinkle collided with the breeze and I looked to my right. A small wet slide about 5 feet wide and an inch and a half deep was slowly moving down the glacier. It didn’t gain momentum or pick up much snow as it slid towards the crevasses, but it still made my stomach clench. The run, though steep, appears straightforward, until the crevasses. They turn this basic pitch into a gamble; a gamble that made me think twice about a couple inches of wet sluff.
I turned around and asked Hadley what she thought.
“We’re only going to the saddle right?” She clarified.
“Right. Let’s get above that next rock outcropping and assess from there. I think it is flat enough that we could put our skis on safely if we need to bail. How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Well, you know me, I’ve always got something in reserve, so I could push it.”
And push it we did. I tripled my pace, felt my heart race and turned my feet and arms over, propelling myself through the shadows. As we neared the rock, we were momentarily forced into the sun-softened snow. I slowed, breathed, and focused, making sure that each point made firm contact before placing my next. The snow was loose, and difficult to gain purchase. I dug my ice axe in harder with every step. We gained elevation over the rock and realized our mistake. The pitch was even steeper above than below, and the snow was rotten and sluffing easily, gaining momentum as it released from each of my steps and passed Hadley.
“Pip, I’m not sure how I feel about this,” Hadley shouted up at me. I was thinking the same thing. I wasn’t sure if I felt safer in crampons or on skis. But I did know that I wanted to be off of this pitch.
“ I’m not sure what is safer, attempting to put our skis on here, or hustling to the top and having a safe platform to change modes quickly,” I replied. We were so close, maybe 5 minutes from the Summit.
“What if we just downclimb?” Hadley suggested. I took two seconds and thought hard. Do I really want to ski down this once I get to the top? Can I avoid my own sluff, can I avoid putting both myself and Hadley in danger of falling into the crevasses if one of us makes a mistake? We started our descent. Slowly, again ensuring that we had three points connected at all times, that our pieces had purchase, and that the rapidly dissolving snowpack supported our feet.
It took us twice as long to downclimb what we had ascended, but the adrenaline left me drained, starving, and grateful.
“I think it’s a good thing to have to turn around sometimes,” Hadley stated, “it keeps you humble. It reminds you that you can say no when you have to.”