A Grand Adventure: Skiing and Climbing the Grand Teton

On June 16, 1971, Bill Briggs stood alone atop Wyoming’s 13,770-foot Grand Teton, one of the most iconic peaks in North America. He surveyed his surroundings, saw a storm gathering in the distance, and quickly clicked into his 210-centimeter fiberglass K2 skis. Then, he skied off the summit and into history.

Four hours later, when he arrived at the bottom of the mountain, he had become the first person to ski the Grand Teton and one of the fathers of American ski mountaineering, which combines climbing up and skiing down technical lines using alpine climbing gear and techniques.

“Skiing the Grand is a grand adventure,” Briggs told me in 2011, almost 40 years to the day after his historic descent. “It’s an outstanding experience from the point of view of personal reward. You’ve really done something. You’ve pushed your own envelope way open.”

I couldn’t shake those words, or that mountain. I was a lifelong skier and an aspiring ski mountaineer. And, three years after that conversation with Briggs, just after midnight on Memorial Day, I found myself leaving the Lupine Meadows parking lot, skis and boots strapped to my 40-pound pack, heading toward the summit of the Grand with Dan Starr, a guide from Exum Mountain Guides. A 7,000-vertical-foot ascent, 18 miles round trip, and, little did I know at the time, the adventure of a lifetime lay in the darkness before me.

Today, the Grand is one of the United States’ premiere ski- mountaineering objectives and now has about five ski routes off the summit. “Skiing the Grand Teton is still considered one of the ultimate test pieces in ski mountaineering in the lower 48,” says photographer Jimmy Chin, a pro climber and skier, who has skied the Grand more than 15 times. “Bill Brigg’s descent of the Grand was a groundbreaking ski-mountaineering event in the U.S. No one, or very few people, had really taken all the technical aspects of alpine climbing and applied it to skiing yet. I think it opened people’s eyes to what was possible for generations to come.”

Skiing the Grand demands a well-rounded mountaineering and skiing skill set, not to mention serious commitment and fitness. You must ascend 7,000 vertical feet from the valley floor to the summit, often in one push, carrying a heavy load at altitude. The most popular route, via the Stettner, Chevy, and Ford couloirs, requires basic ice climbing skills and familiarity with rope management, knots, belay techniques, and rock, snow, and ice protection. You must be comfortable climbing steep snow with crampons, and with anchor construction and/or management, multi-pitch rappelling, and exposure. The skiing is steep, committed, and exposed. “The Grand is a descent that doesn’t take kindly to mistakes. The steepness doesn’t allow one to fall and recover,” says professional ski mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill, who has tagged first ski descents in Mongolia, Russia, and India. “It’s the real deal and you should be an expert ascender and descender.” To top it all off, the Grand is stunningly beautiful, which only adds to its appeal.

I didn’t have all of these skills when I first set my sights on the Grand in 2011, shortly after that call with Briggs. I was an expert skier, had taken an AIARE level one avalanche course, and had some backcountry skiing experience, but my ski-mountaineering skills were limited. I had some work to do if I was going to climb and ski the Grand.

The first step in my journey was climbing the Grand, which I did in the summer of 2011 with Exum, one of the oldest guiding outfits in the U.S. This helped me get a sense of what to expect mentally and physically, and stoked my desire to ski down the mountain. I chose to work with Exum not only because they’re one of the most respected guiding operations in the States, but I liked their guiding philosophy, which promotes teaching clients lifelong mountain skills, not just getting them up and down summits. And, Exum guides Doug Coombs, who passed away in 2006, and Mark Newcomb were the first people to ski guide the Grand ten years ago. Plus, through a unique series of camps, the company offers a path that develops backcountry skiers into ski mountaineers ready to take on the Grand.

After climbing the Grand in 2011, I turned my focus to my skiing. In order to ski the Grand, you must be able to ski and maintain control in any kind of terrain, in all conditions—bulletproof ice, breakable crust, corn—in alpine touring gear. So, I returned to Jackson Hole in February 2012 to participate in one of Exum’s Backcountry Ski Weeks, a five-day ski camp that introduces skiers to Jackson’s amazing backcountry terrain and teaches introductory avalanche education and ski mountaineering techniques. I also worked with Jessica Baker, a North American Freeskiing champ and Exum guide. Baker and I spent several days working on steep skiing, before turning our attention to other skills I might need descending the Grand, such as rappelling with and without skis on, transitioning into skis on steep slopes, and skiing on belay, which means skiing with a rope attached to your harness that a partner manages from an anchored position, a technique used when a fall might mean death.

In May 2012, I visited Jackson again. This time Baker and I were going to try for the Grand. We spent a couple of days training in Grand Teton National Park and hit the Ellingwood Couloir, a 1,700-vertical foot, 50-degree chute on the Middle Teton, a line that would be similar to what we would find on the Grand. On the descent, I bobbled and nearly fell. Luckily, I was skiing on belay and Baker caught me. Ultimately, Exum decided I wasn’t ready for the Grand, and I went home empty handed and humbled.

I wasn’t going to let my dream of skiing the Grand go. So, I took every chance I could to develop my ski mountaineering skills. I worked with guides, logged miles in the backcountry, and spent a winter in La Grave, a resort in the French Alps, where some of the runs off the lift require rope work. However, the biggest breakthrough happened when I enrolled in Exum’s Live to Ski Camp in May.

The Live to Ski Camp is the best high-level ski mountaineering camp in the U.S. Launched in memory of Steve Romeo, an avid Jackson Hole-based ski mountaineer who perished in an avalanche in 2012, the four-day camp is designed to help seasoned backcountry skiers develop into proficient ski mountaineers, equipping them with the skills they might need to tackle big lines, like what you might find on the Grand or Denali. “The Live to Ski program meshes skiing with alpinism to open the doors for unlimited big-mountain potential,” says Zahan Billimoria, one of the camp’s lead guides.

Entry into the camp requires applicants to submit a ski resume outlining highlights of their backcountry experience. Applicants must be comfortable skiing 40-plus degree slopes, skinning 5,000-vertical-feet (or more) in a day, and using an ice axe and crampons. The course combines intensive classroom sessions with practical experience in the backcountry. We logged 5,000 to 10,000-vertical-foot days in Grand Teton National Park, skied classic Teton lines like the Sliver, and the East and West Hourglass couloirs, and practiced rappelling into lines, skiing high-angle terrain, and building and using belay systems and anchors. This kind of learning can take years to develop, but Exum has balled it up into one intensive camp, which allowed me to take many steps at once.

When the camp ended, I felt like I was really ready to ski the Grand, and Exum’s president Nat Patridge agreed. Starr, who has ski guided the Grand, as well as in Morocco and Antarctica, had been an instructor in the camp and we’d established a baseline of trust and communication, which is critical in a guide-client relationship and between ski partners. He was an obvious choice to guide me on the Grand. So a few days after the camp, we met up at a coffee shop in Jackson to go over the plan. The snowpack, conditions, and weather looked good. We decided to set out at midnight on Memorial Day and to do the trip in one push, instead of spending the night somewhere along the way. It would be a slog, Starr warned. “Be prepared to put your head down and suffer.”

Starr and I hiked, skinned and cramponed through the night, before reaching Glencoe Col a bit after dawn. That’s the last spot where you can really take a break and relax before heading into the technical Stettner-Chevy-Ford section, a chimney like series of couloirs featuring four to six climbing pitches and several ice bulges that require ice climbing techniques. This is probably the most dangerous part of the climb because you’re basically sitting in a funnel with no escape route and subject to any rock, ice, or avalanches fall that might come down. After about three hours, we reached the last belay station at the top of the Ford. From there, it was about a 1,000-foot bootpack to the top.

After ten hours, we made it to the summit. The Idaho prairie stretched out to the west. The Gros Ventre Mountains dotted the skyline to the east. Jenny Lake shimmered below us. My body felt great and that view is breathtaking, but there wasn’t too much time to relish the summit as we were only half way home. We stashed our crampons in our packs, stowed our ice axes within reach, and pulled out whippets (ski poles with a small ice axe on top). I stepped into my skis and looked down at the Ford, a 50-degree couloir that ends in cliffs, where a tumble might mean death. But I didn’t feel fear; I felt freedom in the total focus on the task at hand. I followed Starr out onto the East Face, and swung my first turn. The snow was creamy. The sky was deep blue. I laced cautious turns down the Grand with what seemed like the whole of Wyoming spread out before me.

One thousand feet later, we reached the first of six 200-foot rappels. That’s where the real skiing on the Grand ends, which was a surprise to me. I’d always assumed that skiing was the biggest part of climbing and skiing the Grand, but it’s not. “In many ways the skills required to meet this objective place an emphasis on modern alpine mountain craft that goes far beyond skiing ability on steep terrain,” Starr says. There are so many skills involved in a project like this and I could have never, at this stage, done it without a guide or a very experienced partner. We switched out skis, donned crampons, and hustled down the Chevy and Stettner, reaching Glencoe Col again at about 1pm.

After a 17-hour round trip and about 4,000 feet of skiing, we made it back to the trailhead, where we ran into O’Neill and Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski down all Seven Summits. They were heading out to climb and ski the Grand, Middle, and South Teton—in a day. These two women, who have been an inspiration to me over the years, have led the charge for women in ski mountaineering. My feat seemed tiny compared to what they have accomplished and were about to do. But seeing them seemed like a little nudge from the universe, urging me to keep dreaming big and getting after it. They headed into the hills and we headed to the Moose Trading Post just down the road, where we fueled up on Gatorades and sat outside on a bench, gazing up at the Grand. Three years in the making, the dream was finally realized, the envelope pushed wide open.

Then, I heard the high, lonesome sound of a fiddle coming from the bar next door. I poked my head into Dornan’s, where Bill Briggs hosts a weekly bluegrass hootenanny. There he was, next to the stage, getting ready to introduce the following act. I walked over to him and re-introduced myself. I told him I had just skied the Grand and that he’d inspired me to do it. He smiled wide and hugged me. Then he took me by the shoulders and asked, “Well, how was it?”

I looked at him, all of the emotion and fatigue finally settling in.

“It was a Grand adventure.”

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– Dial in your alpine touring gear. The terrain you feel comfortable skiing in your AT gear might be very different than what you feel comfortable skiing in your regular kit.

– Efficiency. Time is your enemy in the mountains. Being fast and efficient, particularly with transitions, tying knots, and rope management will go a long way toward success.

– Take an ice climbing and rock climbing class, as well as a ski-mountaineering course. I underestimated how important the rock and ice climbing skills are in skiing the Grand and it slowed us down. Be really comfortable with a figure 8 follow through, overhand on a bight, clove hitch, and a hands free/Bachman’s hitch. Know how to rappel, rig a rappel extension, get in and out of anchors, and manage a rope.

– Hire a guide. The Grand is a very technical objective and even experienced ski mountaineers should consider hiring a guide. Doing so will increase your chances for success. In some ways, the most difficult part of skiing the Grand is deciding when to go and assessing the conditions. That’s where a local guide offers a lot of value. Build a relationship with your guide. Communication, trust, and teamwork are key to the client-guide relationship.

– Fitness is key. You must be comfortable hiking, skinning, and cramponing with a heavy load at altitude on steep snow for 7,000 feet and then have enough gas in your tank for the descent, which will require just as much energy as the ascent. Be able to maintain a 1,000-vertical-feet per hour or more skinning pace for ten hours in a row.

– Training. Obviously, it’s best to get in as much backcountry skiing (and skinning) as possible. Aim to hike or skin 6,000 to 10,000 vertical feet a week. Trail running up long hills and cycling for hours at a time are also great ways to prepare.

– Build a strong rapport with your partner or guide. Ski with them often and dial in the dynamic before you attempt something big.

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