Alpine Ventures

Outdoor adventures in Colorado and beyond

Garnet Canyon (WY) Skiing – June 2008

with 2 comments

Back in the spring of 2008, I was living in Jackson Hole and still reliving in my head the record winter that saw 600 inches of snow fall in the Tetons before the lifts closed on April 6.  After spending a few weeks back in South Carolina, I returned to Jackson later that spring and, admittedly, still wanted to ski.  Although I had never skied the backcountry before, I took the first important step and purchased an avalanche beacon and shovel.

Then, Michael Adams, a good friend of mine who was also my manager at the time, and has served as a mountaineering and backcountry mentor, suggested we attempt a ski descent of the Middle Teton, which at 12,804 feet, is the fourth highest summit in the Teton Range.  This would be a huge undertaking, but of course I couldn’t turn down this offer.  Fortunately, Michael had an older set of Blizzard skis, 186 cm in length, with a set of Fritschi Diamir Freeride bindings for me to borrow.

Day One (June 6, 2008)

We left Jackson in the predawn hours of June 6 to make our attempt, hoping to summit before a strong spring storm moved in.  This was the first backcountry skiing experience I would ever take part in, and with several miles of dry-ground hiking before reaching the snow, the weight of both skis and boots on my back was quite a shock!

Lupine Meadows Trailhead with a heavy-ass backpack
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Michael ready to roll
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As we made our way up the steep Garnet Canyon Trail, it appeared that clouds preceding the incoming storm had already moved in, but nevertheless, first light over the Jackson Hole valley floor was still a beautiful sight.

Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Range to the east
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After about four miles of steep hiking, we started to get some of our first views of the high Teton peaks.

Nez Perce Peak
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As we began to ascend into the canyon, we started to hit intermittent snowfields.  Soon thereafter, we were finally able to throw our skins on, just as the daunting face of the Middle Teton came into view.

Michael carefully making his way across a snowfield
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The Middle Teton greets us as we throw our skins on
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“So this is how backcountry skiing works” (I was still fairly new to the whole concept back in 2008)photo courtesy of Michael
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As we began skinning up the canyon towards our goal, weather quickly began to move in.  Snow, wind, and low visibility made for some nasty conditions as we gained elevation, but at the same time it was pretty awesome just to be up there.  There were several other skiers in front of us, so we were able to follow their tracks, helping us deal with the lower visibility at least.

Another group of skiers making their way to the Middle-South Teton saddle in worsening conditions
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Alan skinning up toward the saddle (photos courtesy of Michael)
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Once we made it to the 11,450 foot saddle we had a decision to make.  I wanted the summit so bad (i.e. summit fever was occurring, which showed my relative inexperience at the time), but the weather was downright nasty and would only get worse the higher up we went on that exposed peak, so luckily Michael was smart and experienced enough to make what should have been a no-brainer decision to turn around.  I was bummed at first, but after a few minutes admitted that he was right.  The route from the saddle to the summit would be steeper and more exposed, and ascending in near-whiteout conditions would have been dangerous.

So therefore, it was time to make some turns.  We still had a good 2,000 feet of vertical to ski after all!

Michael chillin’ at our turn-around spot just below the saddle
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Ready to ski down Garnet Canyon
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For the first few turns, my new and unfamiliar ski setup took some getting used to, since the skis were 10 cm longer than what I’m used to, and the conditions at the start were rather icy.  After a few turns, I got into a groove, though, and we had a fun descent as the visibility improved a little bit.  It was nothing like I had ever experienced before, as skiing variable spring conditions in the Teton backcountry was nothing like skiing powder in Casper Bowl.  Still, it was an awesome descent, and we did hit some powder thanks to the fresh snow that was falling.

Alan on the descent (photo credit: Michael)
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Looking back up at our tracks
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Heavy snow shower on the hike down
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The hike out was brutal, since we had to walk four miles down the steep slope with all of our heavy gear on our backs.  Thoroughly exhausted, we hit up one of my favorite spots, the Snake River Brewery, after we got back and vowed to make a second attempt at the Middle Teton the following weekend.

Day 2 (June 13, 2010)

On the afternoon of June 12, heavy, wet snow fell in the town of Jackson while at work.  It had been a long spring of nasty, wet and cold weather, and I was getting sick of it to be perfectly honest.  The good news was that this would be the last day of lousy weather before large-scale high pressure would move in and pretty much mark the beginning of summer weather in Jackson Hole.  The other bit of good news was that Michael and I would be making a second attempt to ski the Middle Teton the following day, and the weather was looking much nicer with sunny conditions and a couple of feet of fresh snow higher up!

We started the familiar routine of waking up predawn and heading to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead to begin hiking in the dark with heavy backpacks full of backcountry skiing gear.  However, as we made our way up the trail, we encountered significant fresh snowfall as low as 8,000 feet (in areas that were dry a week before), and our first views of the high peaks were stunning with blue skies and fresh snowfall.

Nez Perce Peak
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The Middle Teton
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We were able to throw our skins on earlier in the day thanks to the new snow.  We had nice and sunny weather on the way up, but the winds became fierce the higher up we went.

Michael enjoying the sunny weather
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Skinning up Garnet Canyon in a couple of feet of June pow
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Michael
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The wind continued to pick up as we gained elevation, letting us know that the incoming high pressure was still fighting to push the latest big storm system out of the area.  Even so, the scenery was still incredible and the fresh snow inviting.

Spindrift
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Looking back down the valley
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Looking at the South Teton near the saddle
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Closer look at the South Teton
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When we reached the Middle-South Teton saddle, we decided to turn around again.  The new snow was starting to become noticeably wind-loaded, and avalanches were starting to become a concern, and would definitely pose a danger on the steeper slopes above the saddle.  We huddled down against the high winds and took a break for a while, then began our descent with some awesome June powder awaiting us.

Hunkering down behind a boulder to shelter ourselves from the high winds at the saddle
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Michael ready to make some turns
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Alan ready to make some turns (photo credit Michael)
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The descent can only be described as awesome!  A little wind scoured near the saddle, but pretty soon we were making sweet powder turns on what ended up being an impressive amount of vertical for mid June.  Not surprisingly, the snow became heavy farther down as the new snow had begun to heat up, but we were able to make it much farther down than the week before.  We met up with an Exum Mountain Guides group farther down, which consisted of a bunch of teenagers on a multi-day backcountry skiing trip, so we were all passing each other back and forth.

Farther down, we were skiing through slush, mud, and rocks, pretty much as far as we could reasonably descend.  At first, I was concerned about damaging the bases of our skis, especially since I was on Michael’s skis, but he was more concerned about skiing as far down as possible, and one of the Exum guides even said, “core shots are a part of ski mountaineering… nothing a little P-tex can’t fix”, so I was like, “ok, sounds good to me” and kept skiing through the slushy, muddy mess.  It was an experience for sure.

Looking back at our tracks
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Skiing through slush and mud (I know you’re jealous of the sweet ski bib I used to wear back in the day!) – photo credit Michael
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The hike out with all of our heavy gear on our back sucked, as to be expected, but at least we didn’t have to hike quite as far down this time thanks to the new snow.  Afterwards, we stopped at Dornans (one of the best views you could possibly get from a restaurant and bar) for an epic meal of beer and pesto pasta to cap off a memorable day in the mountains.  Some day, Michael and I will return and ski from the summit of the Middle Teton, but a powder day in the Tetons in mid June was certainly good enough for the time being.

The next day, Michael and I took his raft out and brought a six pack of beer to float a section of the Snake River and enjoy the nice weather.  I didn’t want to end this trip report without throwing on a picture of the bald eagle we saw on the river.

Bald eagle
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As I have been getting into backcountry skiing more, I will always look back on these two days as the trips that began it all.  I also hope to return to the Tetons in the coming years for more ski descents.

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Written by Alan

August 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Great story & pix, Alan.
    On your second attempt, you have one shot labeled “Middle Teton from near the sadde” and the next one “Middle Teton” – but it’s the same scene. So, which peak is it? I hope to climb the Middle in a couple of weeks. Thx a lot, Bill
    gnarlybill@hotmail.com

    Bill Oliver

    August 5, 2010 at 9:13 pm

  2. Bill, thanks for pointing out the error. The peak listed in both of the pictures you mentioned is in fact the South Teton. I mistakenly labeled the second photo “Middle Teton”.

    Good luck on the Middle. The Tetons are amazing, and for what it’s worth, I hear the South is worth bagging as well if conditions allow.

    Alan

    August 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm


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