Just the name makes you want to go ski the Apocalypse Couloir, but there are many more reasons to want to ride this classic line in Teton Park, that is if your into rappelling and skiing big couloirs next to crazy ice falls; you know if that kind of thing appeals to you.
After two rounds at this classic, I can honestly say that I have never had two runs down the same line that have differed so much. The first line I have ever ridden with multiple rappels, my first mission down this giant couloir was challenging, fun and scary as hell, while the second started with the gnarliest most unpleasant slog ever, to one rappel and an easy, insanely esthetic, perfect run.
It seems as if the best adventures are the ones rife with adversity. As Yvon Chouinard said “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” I like to add “Until then its just a trip.” We’ll my first Apocalypse mission was a trip for some in the group and a great adventure for me.
Some years back my ski partner Owen Leeper was dating a rando racer named Meredith, and Meredith was best buddies with local ski legend Wild Bill, who might have been in his 60’s, but he, Meredith and Owen were all much more fit than me, or than most people who aren’t freaks. On the way up I did my best to keep up, but even giving it all I had would have me lagging far behind the others.
Having chosen a cloudy, cold day so we would not be rushed, we decided to ski a smaller couloir called The V in the upper bowl before we dropped north into Death Canyon and The Apocalypse. A quick transition to crampons and were up the V as far as it went. I’m was so excited at that point that my complete exhaustion from the long skin up did little to slow me down, shredding turns down the couloir in my baseball cap, having forgotten my helmet.
By the time we transitioned, skinned around the bowl to The Apocalypse and set the rope, my exhaustion was far in the back of my mind as we prepared to stack of rappels into a small cave that we would start our ski from. Four people is not ideal for a big ski mission that involves a lot of rappelling, but knowing it would be slow going we had planed a cloudy day to keep the sun from cooking things, and while it was warming we were only worried about the second rappel and the chance of ice, or sloughs coming off the ice fall that makes this run such an esthetic ski.
I had never done multiple rappels with my board on my back and going over the edge down to the second anchor and hanging out there got my heart going right away. With four of us and just one rope, there was little room at each station, but bit by bit we made our way down, and when it was my turn I wrapped over the edge of the small cave and swung into it with a huge smile on my face.
The first turns out of the cave are wide open and not that steep, and the snow was good and soft, allowing us to start making big turns down to the narrow part of the couloir that gets progressively steeper until it rolls over into the last rappel through the ice bulge. Owen skied down to the rappel first, then Meredith and then it was my turn, as I went from giggling full throttle turns to slow nervous jump turns approaching the anchor. For me, as soon as I get to an anchor I’m clipping in, and pulling up to Meredith and Owen in the narrow probably around 50degree couloir I got hooked into the wall as son as I could.
Anchored and feeling safe by the time Wild Bill pulled up, Mer and I tried to make room and offer to get Bill anchored to the wall so he doesn’t have to worry about slipping in the crazy steep chute while we spend 30 minutes or more getting the rope out and the three of us through the crux. Bill being tougher and more confident shrugged us off and casually hung out, while Owen got the rope set and wrapped over the edge to see what the runnel though the Ice Bulge looked like.
I feel like I’m always on the side of bringing a longer rope than suggested, feeling like your not likely to have problems with your rope being too long, but Owen usually carries the rope and likes to go as light as possible, which something contributes to trips becoming adventures. As Owen got to the edge, it became adventure time, he shouted to us that the rope does not go far enough, but the runnel looked OK to down-climb and the three of us should put our crampons back on just in case, something that might just have saved my life, or at the very least a certain trip to the hospital.
Owen and Meredith make their way through the wrap and down-climb without incident, but by this time, the clouds had started to clear and the late April temperatures had started to cook the ice and snow above us causing small chunks and sloughs start to come off the mountain. Bill of course tells me I better hurry, as I wrap over the ledge and down the runnel to the end of the rope. With my axe out I begin to climb down the runnel that was just as wide as me, but had decent steps in the snow that has stuck to the ice, while beside me the blue bulge of ice that blankest the skiers right wall glared at me ominously. Two thirds of the way down focused on the sketchy steps below that I would have rather been rappelling, I cast my gaze upwards, continuously looking out for what might be coming down. As I take a few more steps looking down to place my feet, Owen shouted “Slough! Slough! Get out of the way!!!”. It all happens in mere moments, but as I have learned, experience and survival instinct are powerful tools when things go wrong, and without a thought I did the only thing I could, slamming my axe and kicking my shitty non ice climbing crampons into the blue ice beside the runnel, screaming while the large slough that would have certainly taken me out ran for what seemed to be fore ever, but was probably only five or ten seconds.
Once the slough had abated and I was somehow still clinging to the ice bulge, I slowly made my way back to the snow and joined everyone to put on our gear and start skiing again. The rest of the couloir was steep and still technical riding, but after the near miss of getting taken down by the errant slough it seemed easy.
Once at the bottom we transitioned back to our skins to make our way to Phelps lake, where we’d walk the dirt trail around the two and a half miles to our bikes. With the adrenaline no longer coursing through my veins and my brain no longer pumping dopamine into my body, the exhaustion I was feeling now at hour twelve of trying to keep up with the three freakishly fit people, my legs which had probably had enough long before we started the first rappel finally gave out. Falling to the ground one leg cramping worse than I have ever had, even to this day, causing me to fall to the snow while the 60-year-old Wild Bill laughed casually cruising by. You know a friend is a good friend when they laugh instead of worrying, knowing your really ok instead of actually in danger.
Once the cramp had subsided after about five minutes of twitching, screaming and rubbing my leg, I managed to catch up to my friends who had eventually stopped at one of the many creek crossings to wait for me. But they were not about to wait long and as I arrived, one at a time, skis, skins and all they waded through the creek that was about shin deep. Aghast that this was the plan, instead of finding a log to cross like we had on the way there and voicing my opinion I was told that I was free to look for a log, but they had no intention, so like them with my split board and skins on my feet I waded into the creek. Maybe next time I will take off my skis, as it’s a little tough to move your feet through moving water with all that surface area.
After a few ski on, skin on crossings we made it to the dirt, where I took off my wet pants and put back on my waterlogged boots for the last few miles of hiking and bike riding. With one more exciting moment walking a little close to a bear that was sitting up looking at us, not all that far off the trail, we made it back to the car and I got to claim victory of what was probably my most adventurous day of skiing I had ever had. Like Yvon says it’s not a an adventure until something goes wrong, well for me unlike my friends, who were wholly unfazed by everything except the moment of almost seeing me get ripped off the mountain and the bear, which made us all nervous, it was a great adventure and one surly we will all remember.
As this winter came to an end this season and Owen and I decided to start venturing into the park, the Apocalypse seemed like an obvious choice, it’s close, with a short approach and all the best aspects of a big line in the park. From rappelling to steep jump turning, to wide open high speed couloir skiing, it truly is the best; and after the intensity of the last time I was excited to give it a go when the ice bulge was supposedly a ski through. Always skeptical of rumor and innuendo “I heard it goes through…” type sayings, I prepared myself the rowdiness of our last adventure and this time made sure not to forget my helmet.
Much earlier in the season the snow went all the way down and across the valley and our troubles would start almost immediately, arriving at the lake to almost gale force winds.
We skinned slowly across the lake that did provide some cool pictures of the snow blowing across the ice and Owen being obscured by the snow blowing in between us. As we started our skin up what was supposed to be the easy approach, the new snow, cold from the night but warming rapidly in the spring sun clumped to our skis like I have never seen before, each step collecting a two foot length under the ski that would get several inches wider than the ski and be four to six inches thick. At first it was comical as we tried our best to stay in the shade, stopping at each tree we crossed to kick off as much of the snow as we could, frustrated and unconcerned about compressing an edge.
As we struggled to move up the mountain, I continually caught up to Owen, who was either waiting to discuss if we should turn around, or in the process of pulling his skins off to scrape them on his edges, hoping that starting with clean ski would help; it most certainly did not, but it did give me some joy seeing him start fresh, get a few clean steps in the shade telling me “see its working”, then take a few in the sun and be as clumped up as I was. This misery went on for hours, but for some reason as always we just kept going. I guess that’s how it goes when no one wants to be the one to give in; no matter how many times you actually say lets turnaround, you never do when its just unpleasant and not actually dangerous.
This was the most unrelenting skin ever, carrying all those extra pounds of snow on the bottom of our skis, each step a reminder of our collective drive, or perhaps stubbornness. By the time we reached the top and knew that the north side would hold good snow and with my ability to repress traumatic ski memories, the excitement of getting on rope and then skiing through the ice had me forget about our horrible ordeal of a skin.
This time the rappel was covered in snow, making it easy and slightly safer, with the possibility of kicking off a rock onto Owen below less likely. In the morning I had been sent into the gear room above Owens Garage, where a pegboard on the wall looks more like the wall behind the counter at Teton Mountaineering, our local climbing store, than someone’s gear room,
laden with every type of mountaineering and climbing gear you could imagine. This is were we usually gear up, borrowing what we need from Owen’s sister and brother in law, two crazy mountaineers and climbers who have just about everything you need. At first when I return from the gear room, confused with two ropes that are not right, Owen chastises me for not knowing what I’m doing, then we go back and dig through the ropes that are left which are not all that well marked only to find that I’m not that incompetent, there was not two ropes of the right size. With Owen’s insistence that we should not carry thick ropes because he doesn’t like the weight and I’m slow enough as it is; I’m actually pretty fast but he’s got those freak genetics and about six inches on me, we decide to take two different length ropes that should be plenty long.
With all the snow this year you could almost ski it from the top, so we knew it would be no problem stopping mid way to slide the rope around and manage it with different lengths, should it not reach a spot we could ski from, something you can’t tell form the top. This is the case, as I waited for Owen and watched the rope move slowly through the bineer at the anchor, as he adjusted it. Once it’s slack I hop on and make my way down, by the time it needs to be adjusted I’m close to the bottom but as always the rope does not go all the way to a comfortable spot to put my board on. Equalizing the rope perfectly to get as much out of it as I can, I make my way to past the rocks to the snow, but still in a kind of sketchy spot that will requiring some down-climbing until the chute will be barely wide enough for my board. I pull the rope and carefully climb down 10 feet and strap in. For me there is always a huge moment of relief and stoke once my board is on my feet, being much more comfortable on it than my feet and also knowing I’m going to do what I love the most now.
It’s tight at the top and always fun to watch Owen jump around in these places that are more suited to my short snowboard than his long skis, enjoying the places where my snowboard is actually a better tool, instead of just more fun. As always it’s no problem for Mr. Leeper, who makes it out of the tight spot on his big skis with ease and pulls out where the cave that is now buried would be. Following, I rip the couloir in good snow and then we get to ride the big open space above the ice bulge. The run feels endless as we ride down to the ice bulge.
Arriving at the ice, I feel like the run should be over, but it is just getting started.
The ice bulge is thick and as it catches the light, it reflects a deep blue color that you can’t help but stop, check out and take a bunch of photos of. Unlike the last time we rode this run, it goes all the way through and while the top and the crux that carries through the ice are certainly steep and narrow, after the first run with all it’s trials and tribulations this run seems to be easy, each turn growing my smile until its ear to ear. At the end I’m even brave enough to air off the ice for a shot, that while I didn’t stomp it, landing in some crust instead of the good soft snow we had been skiing, I was lucky enough not to start tumbling down the rest of the run, which is still very steep and continues for a while.
After Owen has a good laugh, we ride the rest of the run and out to the lake, which at that point had melted enough that at the edges, the top layer looked questionable to cross. Not wanting to go around after a long day, Owen ventured out and decided it would not be a good idea, the ice was thick below what looked like an inch or two on top, with 6 to 10 inches of slush and water in between it and the few feet of ice covering the lake. Being stubborn and lazy, I decide that I’m lighter and it will be possible for me if I’m slow and careful. About 10 feet out and my foot breaks through, trying to keep dry I shift my weight onto my back foot hoping to retreat but with its structure broken, the ice that had supported my weight until now could hold me no longer and I of course in my usual comical panic break through to the slush and water one step after another until I’m back on shore, the whole time Owen is, always enjoying my constant ridiculousness in the mountains.
The Apocalypse is truly one of my favorite runs anywhere, containing everything you’d want in a fun mountaineering line, even an easy approach, when there isn’t ten pounds of snow caked to your skins, a memory I had repressed. When people would ask how our adventure had been, I’d go on and on about the fun, saying how great the whole thing was and Owen would break in and ask if I had remembered the skin, but for me that all fades into distant memory when I think of the incredible riding we had had in The Apocalypse this year.