Friday, April 13, 2012

Tuesday in the Tetons: Glacier Route, East/West Hourglass

Sunrise over Garnet's South Fork
Last week, I received a text message from another candidate for "most consistently happy man alive," Chad Ambrose.  It read, "Early next week's weather looks pretty nice in the Tetons..."  That sparked a flurry of replies from both me and Jason trying to convince Chad to go on our respective days off.  The forecast called for better weather on Tuesday so Jason got the boot.

The plan was to drive up after work on Monday, try to catch some sleep at the trailhead, and then ski the Ellingwood Couloir on the Middle Teton.  Always trying to imagine the perfect day, I suggested we link that up with the Chounaird and SW Couloirs and then the Glacier Route for a type of "quadfecta" or Middle Teton Project for lack of better name.  However, both of us decided on the way up that if we could just ski the Ellingwood from the summit then the day was ours.  The rest would be gravy.  Steep white gravy.

I've been battling a cold for two and a half months (ever since Lars started daycare), so I opted to pay the $45 for a room at Motel 6.  This allowed three and a half hours of dark, dreamless sleep, effectively recharging my battery.  Poor Chad, twitching with nervous energy and unable to escape my snoring, passed those three hours with his thoughts and bright eyes.

By 4 am, we were skinning from the Taggert TH, following frozen tracks by a mix of moon beam and headlamp.  Using ski crampons, we easily ascended the steep lower reaches of Garnet and another hour later, the dawning day revealed the great basin that forms the South Fork of Garnet Canyon.

I was surprised at how accessible the Ellingwood is while we readied our crampons.  Initally, I was worried we'd be too late to safely ski these steep lines on such a warm day.  Now, using French technique to ascend, I was curious if we were too early.

Chad frenching his way up the lower Ellingwood

Firm conditions in the lower Ellingwood

Front pointing up the rock hard Ellingwood

The firm conditions made for fast travel and we quickly found ourselves at the notch, looking toward the summit block.  Here, Chad courageously and wisely declared that the Ellingwood was too bullet to ski within his margin of safety.  I brushed him off and said it would be fine corn by the time we tagged the summit.
The setting moon between the Ice Cream Cone and South Teton

Chad booting with the Mark of Zoro visible on Cloudveil Dome

Topping out the Ellingwood

We worked our way up the East Face, passing a few rock bands along the way.  Each one reinforced my suspicion that I haven't climbed enough in the past couple years and feel awkward on rock, particularly with ski boots, crampons, and skis on my back.  Time to get back to the vertical I guess.  Climbing rock really does lesson the relative verticality of ski lines as one becomes accustomed to the steepness of rock routes.

Awkward rock scramble

Chad Ambrose punching it for the summit
We topped out a little before 9 AM and took in spectacular views of the surrounding peaks.  The air was warm and calm and if it weren't for a nagging sense of urgency to get down and off the East Face, we would have lounged around for a while.  Looking to the north, it was obvious the Grand had been skied multiple times in the last day or two.  Irrationally or not, this gave me a bit more confidence to lay tracks down the steep snow fields from just below the summit of the Middle.

Chad Ambrose, happy man, father of 4, and bad ass

Middle Teton Bench Mark with Nez Perce and the East Hourglass in the background

The GFT!

From the summit of the MT looking west
With the still air and rising sun, it was time to go.  On the ascent, the snow was punchy in places but the overall energy felt low.  We trusted the stability for the moment but wet slides seemed imminent with day time heating.  I made an initial pathetic ski cut before pulling into an island of safety.  Waving Chad through, I expected him to tuck into the next safe zone.  Seconds later, he was halfway down the upper East Face, navigating a small cliff band above the notch.  When my turn came, I couldn't believe our position and the soft conditions.  I had hope that my promise of corn in the Ellingwood would be fulfilled.
Steep upper aspects of the East Face of the Middle Teton

Skiing down to the Dike Pinnacle.  Glacier route is to the left, Ellingwood to the right.
Once regrouped at the notch, I dropped into the Ellingwood to "prove" it was soft.  My first couple turns were met with that horrific sound of metal on hardpack and I sheepishly looked up at Chad who was wagging his head.  Damn.  I booted back out and we decided to eat a snack and wait half an hour for it to soften.  On my next entrance, the first turn was buttery smooth, the second a bit grating, and the third bone jarring.  It still wasn't even close to ready.

Here, Chad very honestly and refreshingly stated that he had a duty to self and family and preferred to ski the Glacier Route with its promise of creamy powder.  Feeling a duty to partnership in the mountains and happy to ski powder over stressful boilerplate, we bailed on the Ellingwood and the remainder of the Middle Teton Project.  I have no doubt that we could have waited and scored the Ellingwood in ripe corn but to do so would have been at increased risk of wet slides from above.   We followed a feeling or premonition and have no regrets.

Below is the alternative:

Off the Glacier and looking for more sheltered skiing, we considered our options.  Both Hourglass Couloirs were still shaded and suggested soft conditions.  Lacking steep, stable powder in the Wasatch this year, we decided to go looking for more after thoroughly enjoying the Glacier Route.

Ascent pics of the East Hourglass:
Approach apron to both Hourglass Couloirs with Middle Teton in background. 

Boot track up the East Hourglass Couloir
Chad's butt on display at a short rocky choke, complete with fixed rope.

A look back at the Middle Teton from the top of the Sliver/East Hourglass

Looking down the Sliver

Chad, topping out the East Hourglass.  Skis left just below the last rock choke.
Thoroughly impressed by the ambience, pitch, narrow walls, and darkness of the East Hourglass, we were psyched to leap frog each other down this highly underrated couloir.  From the top, we down climbed the upper 20 feet of rock, skied the steep 50-55 degree hallway to the main rocky choke, down climbed some more, and then laughed our way down the rest.  

Descent pics:
Upper East Hourglass - above the rocky crux

Tight turns in the upper East Hourglass
Nearing the rocky choke

Exiting the East Hourglass
Standing at the confluence of the Hourglass Couloirs, the right thing to do was to then climb and ski the West.  Striving to always choose the right, up we went.

Middle Teton from the top of the West Hourglass.  Ellingwood and East Face visible.

Cloudveil Dome

Cloudveil Dome, a Bell bike helmet, and a bad ass
We lounged around at the top, reflecting on our amazing day.  We hadn't skied what we initially intended but did find around 10,000 feet of beautiful climbing and skiing.  We were loyal to each other and felt we were safe in our travels.  I wish that daylight, food, and time could have been stretched to permit a couple more lines but the clock was ticking.  As is nearly always the case, we both had to be back in SLC within 24 hours of leaving.

Down we went...
Getting started in the West Hourglass
Still finding soft snow around 1PM
Frozen but untrustworthy 
Looking back at the high peaks from the trailhead, I'm sustained for another few weeks.  Hopefully, the next weather window aligns with my next bit of free time.  And, hopefully Chad Ambrose will be back! It's hard to find strong, honest, happy partners that will always try to make the right call.  And by "right", I mean as Bart once said, "The goal is to come home safe, friends, and successful, in that order".   Success can have many definitions in the mountains and completing my prescribed Middle Teton Project is just one form.  I'd say that skiing big lines in stable powder on Chad's first ski trip in the Tetons after a long winter of dangerous conditions would be just that.

The Cathedral Group


  1. Great write up Sherpa! What an incredible day!!

  2. cool! I was the lone bozo splitboarder you passed on your exit. My 11am start didn't really allow me to spend much time up there but what I got of the west hourglass was still really good. Wish I had as much energy as you guys do, you skied more quality lines in that one day than I probably will in the next three seasons.

    1. That's awesome! I was wondering who was heading up there that late. Sorry we didn't stop to chat... Trying to use momentum to get through the slop. Glad you had a good time.

  3. Great write up guys. Nice work Chad! Killer lines. The Glacier line looked very nice. Hoping to get up there soon...... Rich L.

  4. Awesome. Good to see busy life/family guys getting after it.