Updated: Jun 30, 2018
I’ve always tried to stretch the winter as far as it will go, and in the Tetons that can be into August and if you’re crazy enough, all summer. At some point I always pack it in, but since I have been skiing with Owen Leeper, that seems to go further into the summer and into ridiculousness each year.
When Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, known affectionately to us as The Village, closes the first week of April, winter is far from over, with that last weeks of lift service skiing usually providing opportunities to ride some of the biggest sidecountry lines we do all year. Once it’s done, there is Teton Pass and Teton Park as the obvious places to get off the valley floor and into good snow, but the many mountain ranges that surround Jackson and stretch out into Wyoming in every direction provide many more places to sled-ski and tour. Generally snowmobile skiing in the Tetons, Greys River and Absaroka Range is what we do while we wait for the roads in Teton Park to open, relishing the three mile approach through the fields, or long bike ride with ski gear on the road, as pretty and cool as it is to ride the middle of the highway. I like to hike Glory Bowl on Teton Pass on days when I’m working, but Owen’s not into that.
This year I suppose our spring missions started just before the resort closed, when I asked if we could do something mellow to start, and Owen suggested the Apocalypse Couloir in Death Canyon, where the Moose Wilson road had opened, aided by warm temperatures and rain down low
throughout the winter.
When I say mellow, Owen knows I mean the ascent, and the climb this year, while it’s only about 3,500 feet with a mile or so of road at the start that still had snow on it, was terrible! The snow caked to our skins like I have never experienced, forcing us to lift another 10 or 20 pounds of snow each step, pointlessly kicking tress to clear it, only to have it retake in a couple more steps. Persevering to the top, we had only about a 40-meter rappel into the first part of the chute and were able to ski a large section of what we had rappelled years before, all the way through the middle section that had involved another harry rappel and down climb.
Skiing the endless 3000 foot couloir, through the insanely picturesque ice bulge without it being scary made me forget all about our heinous ascent and set us off to a great start in our spring adventures.
Every year we try to go to Alaska in the spring which takes us away from Jackson for a large portion of April. It's not to hard to leave, even if Jackson is in a good corn cycle, but still we always hope its not over by the time we get back. This year we went separately, as Owen got invited to go film with Icelantic and obviously they had no need, or room for a snowboarder on their shoot. Randomly we both wound up flying out of Utah and both wound up heading back through Salt Lake City at the same time.
With the lifts running at Snowbird, I met Owen for a day of awesome lift access spring skiing and as usual at the top of the tram he points off into the distance at a sliver of a couloir several drainages over known as the Hypodermic Needle. We decide that the next day we’ll go and ski what looks like just a big, steep, straight couloir. Shortly after we run into our good buddy Tim Durtchi, who decides to join us on the needle and would wind up being a big part of the rest of our spring adventures.
At dinner that night with a few a Durtchi’s friends from Salt Lake, I callously remark to Digi Dave the head of marketing at the Bird, when he asks if we will bring ropes, that “Why would we need ropes, its just got a bit of a choke and doesn’t look that steep." Dave responds by pulling up a blog post of some guys who had skied it just a few days before and had remarked that it was 45 degrees plus, and yet again I scoffed at the statement. Turns out those guys were right and they did use ropes to get down over the crux, leaving a nice sling and brand new carabiner that I would have enjoyed using, had we had a rope.
The needle was our first true spring mission, starting not too early, but requiring sketchy river crossings over log bridges, relentless bushwhacking, a sweltering skin up into the alpine and for me a terrible sunburn on my arms, that I had forgotten to put sunscreen on, and were charred so badly by the time we got to the top it was painful to touch them. I do love hanging out at the top during the spring though, enjoying the sun and the views, and of course the way down, which is what we had slogged about 6 hours for, so far.
Skiing into the crux, which was for sure more than 45 degrees, got my heart going and watching Durtchi first get stuck on the rocks trying to get through, then do a huge Scott Schmidt jump turn from dry rock into the steep rocky patch of snow just below, got it racing even more. By the time Owen and I both made it through no more gracefully than Tim, were laughing and ready for some fun steep turns. The Hypodermic Needle, it turns out, is a huge run and as it widens the boys air cliffs and spin off windlips, charging in the still, steep, rocky terrain.
At the bottom looking at the way back and the 1000 plus feet of sweltering skinning back to the drainage we had come up, we decide to head straight down to the road and hitch back to the car, even though the drainage below looked impossibly steep and an even more bushwacky than our way up. By the time were back on the road it’s been 10 hours, Owen and Durtchi are both bloodied from falling down the hill and I’ve snapped one of my poles doing the same. After hitching to the truck we enjoyed a weekly Tuesday spring BBQ at the Bird known as Tear it up Tuesday, they even have a sign, where locals potluck and drink at the base of the resort. Exhausted and thrashed from the day I reveled in our day during my long drive back to Jackson.
Back in Jackson, the Road to the park still hadn’t opened, so we spent our next few days in the mountains sled skiing in the Greys River Range outside of Thayne and on Teton Pass, enjoying the relatively easy access the sleds provide over the many hour approaches in the park. Still with the snow melting fast and little time get into some of the big lines, Owen decides we should make an attempt at the Southeast couloir on the South Teton, a line that stares down on the valley, visible clearly form the road that just begs to be skied.
I’m late as always in the morning and as always struggle, not to keep up, but to not bee too, too far behind Owen who is a freak and really fast. The first day of touring in my hard boot setup, something I’m still getting used to, I complain about my feet hurting, but with the slope warming rapidly and Owen always impatient waiting on me, there’s no time to rest. By the time were headed up the last pitch I just can’t skin any more, my foot hurts so much that I can barely stand on it, shouting to Owen who is way ahead that I might not only have to bail from summiting and dropping the couloir on the other side, ruining his day, but he might have to help me get down somehow, as I shake in pain and wonder if I’ll ever be able to get my foot back in my boot. I whimper in agony on the hillside for probably more than an hour, while Owen summits and does whatever it is he does up there, all alone while he’s waiting for me. All the while massive wet slides of new snow rip down of the Middle Teton, making our descent, even if I can reach the top, seem like it might not be a good idea.
Feeling I had come too far not to make it, I got my foot that was no longer throbbing in pain back in my boot and instead of skinning, put my crampons on and booted the rest of the face. The last hundred meters, or so, were awesomely steep climbing bringing a smile to my face, knowing I would at least reach the top. When I did reach the summit of the South Teton about 3 hours later than we had hoped, we decide that since we had planned to push the few inches of new snow down the couloir for safety and ski the bed surface, it was probably as safe as it ever was going to be that day and we decide to give it a go.
The run was a mix of fun turns and exhausting, gnarly jump turns beside the huge runnel that got several feet deeper as we skied. The ski out after the couloir was awesome corn snow for what seemed like miles and was amazingly not too sticky at 3pm. Back at the bottom we enjoyed beers in the parking lot and I thanked my friend for being patient with me, delighted in not only bagging a new summit and a line we had looked at for years, but having made it after I though all hope was lost.
Our next adventure would be a big one, but mostly because of the logistic of organizing a party in the mountains on Teton Pass, where we rallied about 20 or so of our friends for our annual Cinco De Mayo sled-ski bash. This one was the biggest we had had in years, having had to take a couple of years off, not able to access the alpine in May. With a blender for margaritas, pumping stereo and assorted tacos from carnitas, to chicken and shrimp, we had an epic day of skiing and hillclimbing, ending with 15 of us having a beer on the top of Glory Bowl as the sun set.
The next week or so was spent screwing around here and there, waiting out the bad weather and figuring out what else to do. When the weather got good again mid May, Owen got to ski two of the bigger lines in the park with his brother in law and even more of a freak at climbing, Mark Smiley. Mark had just finished a 40 day, foot crossing of the Alps with Owens sister Jannell, who also has the Leeper freak endurance jeans. I’m not invited when they ski in the park because like most people who might be fast in the mountains, I’m not nearly fast, or strong enough to hang with them.
So while Owen skied the Spooky Face, something I’ll have to force him to do again with me, when I get solid enough at mixed climbing to not die on the ascent, I made my way solo up into the Lake of the Craigs drainage to ski a face called Jaws and one of the last lines Owen and I had kinda skied last year, a couloir of St John that, mid July, was little more than a patch of snow in the rocks.
A few days later Owen and Mark ski the Bubble Fun couloir of the North side of Buck Mountain, a steep 50 degree chute with a huge rappel out the bottom that I don’t think they would describe as bubbly. By this time Durtchi had wound up in Jackson and we took the day, using some of the last snow on the entrance to our sled zone on the pass, to have what turned out to be a great day of sled skiing in fast smooth corn.
Together again, the thee of us continue to look up to the mountains trying to figure out what we can do. When the tram at the Village opens again for sightseeing that’s always a fun day, bringing us back to our happy place where easy bootpacking gives way to big fun lines we know well. I'll say it, I’m just not a fan of skinning, so touring back to the tram after skiing the alpine in the spring is a last resort. Stopping on the highway at the entrance to the resort Owen and I scoped out how to link the few patch of snow that remained to get as low as we could go and we parked a car in the neighborhood to shorten the hike out on the road.
The hike up the shoulder of Cody Peak is all rock at this time of year and one of my favorite scrambles. When we pull up to Once is Enough, its all rock on the edge as well, with a huge cornice that is separated from the wall and the only a small patch of snow going in that is also quite rocky. Trying to get a cool shot, I climb down into the crack and while I’m getting my camera ready I hear a jump turn followed by a bunch of noise. Before I can shout I’m not ready, the noise turns into a crash and Owen who’s heels had released out of his dynafits is tumbling down rocks, not towards the entrance. Stopping just before a large cliff, to our, and more so his own relief, he hiked back to the snow and shook off the closest call he had had all season. The snow in Once was not great, but the run down 4 Pines was awesome corn and riding over dirt trees and rocks, which those guys do through pretty crazy terrain, trying to link the patches of snow, we get to the bottom of rock springs bowl, jump the river and have an easy hike out to the car.
Not really enamored with what we found at the resort we decided to head to Togwottee for our next mission, to this great spot that has couloirs galore, with some that meet at the summit, allowing you to climb and ski over the top and then back again. Less than an hour after we agreed to head out there the next morning, I got a call and had to cancel to go and shoot some cattle branding for a project I had been working on, and with Durtchi having plans he couldn’t get out of, I tried to talk Owen and our friend Amon Barker to wait a day so we could go along.
With bad weather forecast the following few days Amon and Owen went without us and got to ski three of the big chutes, including the Y looking one that we had eyeing for a couple years. Bummed that we missed out, the next day Durtchi and I mad our way out there and through clouds, sun, rain and more sun, we got to ski four of the chutes, including the up and over that Amon and Owen had skied the day before, using their boot packs to make it easier. I even got to the top of another chute on my sled, following a track Amon had put in, thinking I had blown it not making the turn at the top and getting stuck, only to find out that Amon had also though it would be flat on top and got stuck as well when he saw that it was oblivion off the other side.
At this point it was no longer getting cold at night, making it harder to find adventures that don’t involve leaving the evening before, but Owen is full of great and dumb ideas, and some that could be both, depending on how they turn out. So the next day, we headed back up the tram and again into No Name Bowl with a couple other friends to the lake that was, thanks to the warm temperatures, primed for a pond skim. At the top of Twice is Nice, thinking we had all had our fill of Once and it was enough, I looked down to see a guy come screaming out of it and for a second thought, wow there is someone else up here with us. But Owen hadn’t had enough and wanted redemption after his near miss wandering over there alone and dropping in while I was, for once, waiting for him.
I’ve never done a real pond skim before and had planned on going in the drink, stripping down to my board shorts that I like to wear under my ski pants every day in the winter. Owen and Durtchi went first and even though Durtchi almost wheelied out, I decided that when in Rome… pond skim, I guess?
It turns out it’s not so hard and myself, our buddy Brandon and Durtchi’s friend Tammy joined Owen and Tim in doing a bunch of skims over the frigid water that is lit up by the deep blue of the ice below. It’s rare that you see such big smiles when people are going across the flats, but when its on water it brings a shit eatin’ grin to all our faces.
Now at the end of May with the temperatures sill keeping it from freezing up high, we were really reaching for new things to do, so this time Owen suggests that we just bag an easy peak in the park to keep ourselves going. Rock Chuck at the northern end of the Tetons is at the base of String Lake and rises up basically out of the parking lot. Starting at five AM from the lot with a thick layer of clouds down low, we get to witness a truly epic sunrise. At the top a few hours later, we enjoy the view of the valley that is still awesomely entrenched in clouds and goof around pushing the snow off the shoulders of peak, watching it gather into slowly moving but huge and explosive wet slides.
The snow in the couloir is zipper crust, which as a snowboarder I love and as skiers Owen and Time hate. The run out to Delta lake, where the snow ends a few thousand feet below, is a mix of fun corn, super sticky isothermic snow and horrible sun cups and runnels.
At the end of May with rain in the valley it seems like hope of skiing more great stuff is fading, but the weather changes all the time and any day it could start getting cold overnight. For now we’ll plan our next trip to Beartooth Pass and hope we can get another line or two in the park before the approaches get so far and snow gets so bad that we do finally get #overit.
South on 5/1
Cinco De Mayo 5/5
Jaws Lake of the Craigs 5/14
Village Opens 5/19 Once to 4 pines
Pond Skim & Twice 5/22
Rock Chuck 5/26
The Moose Wilson Road to the death Canyon trailhead closes November 1st until it melts enough, which is usually around the end of April or mid May.
Teton Park Road is closed November 1st through April 30th, and if they catch you tearing up the dirt trying to get into the alpine on your snowmobile your going to get in trouble.