Friday, April 26, 2013

The Mythical Otter Body

Yesterday on April 25th, Jason, Tom Goth and I were able to summit the Grand Teton and then descend the Otter Body route.  It was a glorious, strange, terrifying, remarkable, tiring, and joyous day.

Photo courtesy of ZB
Jason and I have been trying to find the time to get out in the Tetons and work on our ever growing project list.  Yesterday was one of his four days off this month so in between working 30 hour shifts, we figured we'd better drive 10 hours, get a true alpine start and get scared a little; you know, make him feel alive.

We have a theory that three people for big objectives is overall faster than two given matched abilities.  I think overall psych stays higher and trail breaking/load carrying can be divided enough to offset the natural delays built into a three person team.  We went about looking for a capable partner and eventually selected Tom.  For a little back story, Tom is a professional triathlete who tore up the ski mountaineering scene this year.  He made the US team, raced well at World's, and beat me in every race.  He's a great skier and has unlimited enthusiasm although it's sometimes muted behind a quiet demeanor.  It may be best to describe his enthusiasm through story.  On Wednesday morning, I called Tom to offer the invite at 11 AM.  "Give me 10 minutes and I'll call you back."  Three hours later he was packed and standing in my drive way after canceling whatever other obligations he may have had.  The caveat(s) were that he had never been to the Tetons.  He had never been ice climbing.  He had never been tied into a rope in the mountains or even rappelled.  Ha!  He was about to get an introduction to all of that with eyes wide open.

With so little time (we had an evening and a day) we wanted to do as much as possible.  I know there are probably a thousand cool things to ski in the Park but it's hard to ignore the Grand.  Our plan was to start there and if all went well, keep skiing until we ran out of psych, time, energy, or as conditions dictated.  Luckily, while driving up, we got a hold of Zahan who gave us the beta on the GT after guiding the Ford/Stettner that day.  "Blower pow from the summit!" he said.  With a full moon and lingering snow from the trailhead, we were amply psyched so as to not get any sleep before the alarms starting going off.

We made good time skinning from the trailhead to the Meadows on refrozen smooth snow.  I barely noticed the heavy pack, energized by the moon light, a fair amount of caffeine, and dancing thoughts of the coming day.  We slowed as we ascended the headwall and then the Teepee as conditions began to worsen.  Breakable crust was hinting at the damage done by the previous day's warm sun and portended struggle.

Below the Teepee Pillar with a full moon (photo by JD)
At the Glencoe col we finally felt full force the wind that we feared after seeing some moonlit plumes on the higher ridges.   We retreated to put on harnesses and spikes on the leeward slope.  I asked Tom if his crampons were on tight and he just replied something along the lines of, "Good to go." He's a quick learner.  Entering the Stettner, we hoped to find the boot track from the guided party the day before but instead found ourselves seriously wallowing as the nasty wind stung our eyes and faces with spindrift moving in all directions.  Heads down we focused on the task at hand and simply booted up, pausing occasionally to catch our breath and to wipe the growing icicles from our eyes.

Self portrait in the Chevy
Suddenly, in the early dawn things didn't look right.  I turned on my new 700 lumen bike/head lamp and we realized we missed the Chevy.  Damn.  We down climbed and were surprised to find the Chevy still fat with only two small ice bulges.  Tom swung an axe for the first time and seemed to enjoy the position.  He intuitively seemed to being doing the right things or responding instantly to instruction.  It would kill him to slow us down so he clearly was always thinking and anticipating to make his actions more efficient.

Jason surmounting the last ice bulge in the Chevy
Finishing up the Chevy (photo by JD)

Out of the Chevy and into the Ford it was like we stepped onto another planet.  The heinous winds ceased, the sun was up, and the summit no longer felt in question.  We plodded along, trading leads up the Ford until we pulled out onto the Southeast Face of the Grand where it surprisingly just made more sense to skin.

Climbing out of the Chevy and into the Ford Couloir (photo by JD)

Jason and Tom nearing the top of the Ford Couloir
The air was still, the lighting brilliant, and the snow while crusty was soft underneath.  We were stunned as we skinned all the way to the summit.  We let out some whoops, shared a frosty Red Bull, and then had to get serious.  I had wanted to ski the Otter Body for a couple years and it felt like the day to do it.  We all voiced whatever doubts we could muster and then quickly rationalized them away.  In my excitement, I forgot to even put one boot in ski mode (that's scary given little resistance Alien's have in walk mode), hip checked first turn and told myself to calm down.  We hadn't fully committed and promised that even the slightest sign of instability or premature heating (we skied off the summit at 8:00 AM) would prompt us to shift back to the Ford.

SKINNING TO THE SUMMIT! And putting Aliens on the Moon! (Photo by JD)

Mostly psyched but I think Tom looks like he's going to cry for some reason...maybe just so overjoyed!  (JD)

We made somewhat enjoyable turns down the sub ridge dividing the Ford and the East Face on increasingly stout breakable crust.  We convened below a small rocky outcrop and it was time to commit.  I traversed out onto the East Face until I could see straight down the STEEP narrow choke to the Otter Body and the abyss beyond.  I wanted to take the fall line and avoid the steep roll over to the skier's right but previous slough and the overnight freeze made me reconsider.  My freshly tuned skis skittered on the icy surface and I turned back.  I was nervous but my desire to get off the face overwhelmed any notion of waiting around to let things soften.  We would just deal with it and ski slowly.
Tom skiing off the GFT for the first time! (JD)
Tom skiing on the moon
Jason sending chunks of crust into the abyss as the East Face begins to steepen

Glacier route on the Middle looking pretty nice...
Jason now took the lead and made a dozen turns over increasingly steep terrain before he was able to traverse left and pull under a small rock that was our pseudo island of safety.  I joined him and then Tom came down.
Jason leading down to get a view of the choke to the OB
Pretty gnarly exposure

Sliding into our pseudo island of safety to join Jason

Tom joins us as I take a concerned look at the choke down to the OB snowfield (photo by JD)

Now on the "sharp end" so to speak, I made one turn at a time above the choke that leads to the Otter Body itself.  I kept stopping and straining my eyes, hoping to see the anchor.  Just the day before I had asked Z if we could just side slip the choke as if it would be no big deal.  Now, it was real.  It felt serious and legitimately terrifying with the whole East Face above me and the very airy Otter Body below.  I quit making turns and started slipping my way to the first rock outcrop where I suspected the anchor to be.   Then I took my skies off and down booted the last few feet only to find that I'd been duped and the anchor was ten feet further.  I didn't care anymore about skiing the whole thing though.  The position was tremendous and although I was able to appreciate our surroundings, I wanted off before it got too hot.

Making increasingly steep and icy turns down to the choke (photo by JD)

Tom's turn as I ready the rappel (photo by JD)

Tom came down as I readied the rappel.  One sixty meter rope just did the trick.  I waited to the skier's left as Tom came down onto the Otter Body as well.  With Jason now on rappel, Tom went off in search of the first anchor and made crisp turns toward the Tail.  Z had told us that the OB had a sort of lip on the outer edge and that it would "cradle" us back toward the rock.  That was utter BS and it felt like it wanted to puke us off the big cliff down to the Teepee.  Still, the main portion of the snowfield was more mellow than what we had previously encountered and I enjoyed the firm turns toward the tail.

Tom rapping on the Otter Body snowfield (photo by JD)
Tom coming off rappel...the first of his life!
Tom leading out toward the Otter's tail

The author enjoying turns on the Otter's body (photo by JD)

Jason approaching the tail and the end of the line for skiing
It goes for some but not us... at least not in those conditions on that day.
As I approached Tom the angle was steepening and the snow getting even icier.  I felt less and less control of my edges and pulled the plug.  I was going down by foot or on a rope the rest of the way.  The others readily agreed and we started down booting in the deep shade of the tail.  Brushing away snow from the rock while looking for the supposed fixed anchors, I couldn't help but keep thinking that we should be skiing the tail.  It was probably 55 degrees but in those conditions, it simply wasn't justifiable given my skill level.  The icy crust would not allow ski penetration and might as well have been bullet proof.  Added to that was the loose snow underneath that wouldn't allow for a proper self arrest in the event of a fall.  Better to keep down booting and looking for anchors.

Our beta was that three double rope raps from fixed anchors is becoming the standard but as we down climbed we hadn't found any.  Since adventure skiing was the name of the game we had brought a handful of pins and nuts and I started looking for a place to build a suitable anchor.  Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw some tat sticking through the snow.  Sure enough, it proved to be adequate and off I went in search of the next one.  Having completed one rap in his life now, Tom was quickly becoming an expert and came down next.  With Jason down too, I rigged the last rap after adding a pin until it rang high and true.

Tom starting the first rap down to the Teepee
Nearly overhanging, the last rap is a joy as the feeling of hitting the Teepee is imminent.  Yelling "Off Rappel!" never felt so good.  Not out of danger yet since I was still exposed to the whole East Face, I was laughing and psyched nonetheless.  Once the others were down I was screaming with excitement.
Tom about to set down on the Teepee with the big cliff overhead
We then made likely the ugliest turns the Grand Teton has ever witnessed down the Teepee through gnarly breakable with heavy packs until we truly were safe to pull over and repack our junk.  Looking back up, I couldn't believe it.  Every route is a different experience for every skier but the mythical nature of the Otter Body will live on in my mind forever.

The author PSYCHED to be on the Teepee (photo by JD)
Yeah, Tom was psyched too!

Thanks to Z for the beta and the hospitality and to Jason and Tom for another great day in the mountains.  It was one of the best!

Gear List:

SCARPA Alien 1.0 with gaiter
Ski Trab Maestro skis
Plum Race 145
Black Diamond Whippets
Ski Trab Race Helmet
Ski Trab Dragon speed suit and wind pant, and gloves
Outdoor Research Centrifuge Jacket, Transcendent Hoody, Helium II Shell, and Luminary Gloves
Grivel Quantum Tech Tools and other assorted heavy climbing stuff...

Tired Tom 


  1. I can't believe you taught someone to rappel on the OB! That line scares me every time I read about it. Nice work, especially Tom!

    1. Isn't it awesome! He was as cool as a cucumber too.

  2. Awesome! Fine work ticking that one. Glad you tuned your skis prior, not that it helps much on ice that steep..

    1. Thanks Adam. It wasn't ice but it sure felt like it... Looks like you've been having fun lately too!

  3. Nice writeup, looking forward to an attempt on the ford-stettner in a month.

    Very nice to get a conditions update! Congrats on a sweet line!

    It sounds like you didn't get a change to ski the Glacier route, but from the pic it looks in good shape!

  4. Pure awesomeness! Thanks for the ride, great pics.

  5. Blown away every time I read your blog. I've climbed the GT a bunch in the summer and it scares me even then, can't imagine skiing it. My 'old-man-meadow-skipping' is pathetic in comparison, but it keeps me alive. Great job and thanks for sharing.