A Winter Day in the Tetons – by Exum Guide Jessica Baker
When winter comes to the Tetons, the landscape becomes a pristine, quiet, and sometimes intimidating canvas of snow, ice, and rock that very few choose to visit. Those who do, find solace and limitless adventure.
On January 12, 2012 I had the opportunity to guide a very talented climber and skier. Peter has been an Exum client for many years, but had never skied deep in the Teton backcountry. Six inches of snow fell on the day before we planned to go out, and the forecast called for sun and very cold temperatures – seemed like a good recipe for a ski tour into Garnet Canyon, the true heart of the Tetons.
We left Jackson in the dark. We were headed for the Bradley-Taggart Lakes trailhead, the last possible place to park before the Grand Teton National Park winter road closure. The long winter approaches tend to keep most people away, so the few who are motivated, experience a winter wonderland in its most peaceful state.
We started skinning up along the Taggart Lake moraine as the rosy glow of sunrise appeared along the eastern horizon. Temperatures dipped below -15, but that did not curb our enthusiasm, as the fresh crystalline snow sparkled and the Grand Teton, Middle Teton, Nez Perce, Owen, and Teewinot towered above us in grandeur.
Dropping down into Bradley lake Basin briefly, we watched golden light strike across the big peaks, beckoning us to go further. Above us we could see the beautiful powder snow that was to be our delight in the not too distant future.
Ascending, we weaved our way through bedrock benches and snow covered fir and pine forests. The surrounding boulders were covered in pillows of powder, which provided a treat to the eye as we made our way into Garnet Canyon. Disappointment Peak’s fine gneiss ridges and varied aretes began to dominate our skyline, and warmed the interior of the canyon with solar energy.
Just below the ‘Platforms’ bench, and sheltered from ridge top and canyon winds that were beginning to pick up, we stopped for an early lunch in the sun. Turkey sandwiches, salty potato chips and chocolate… you can never go wrong!
After our short break we continued into the meadows where the Middle Teton towers above you and there is little winter sunshine. The wind was whipping around us with fervor, and the ridge tops were a sea of spindrift mixed with sunlight. Despite the fact that we were continually fighting to protect our faces from the frigid temperatures, turning back wasn’t an option we wanted to entertain. We made a quick decision to go up the north fork of Garnet Canyon where there was more shelter from the wind, and better snow.
Zigzagging the skin track up through the steep lower headwall of the north fork, Peter dialed in his kick turns, and I monitored the snowpack continually for any instability. About an hour later we arrived in the morainal basin just below the upper headwall to the Lower Saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons. The wind was bitterly cold and blowing consistently with gusts up to 60 mph. As we stood there, at about 11,000 ft., we decided it was time to go down to avoid any further wind loading on the slopes below.
Before our descent we took in the sights of the magnificent basin, while the valley floor sat small and distant nearly 7 miles away. What a treat to be up here on this day, and how amazing that we can actually travel through weather and altitude in such an extreme environment, while thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It felt like a gift to be among the high thrones of the Tetons, and now we were going to ski down beautiful faces of powder snow. Life is good!
We clicked into our bindings, tightened our boots, and started descending our nearly 5000 vertical feet of skiing. First, down the headwall with cold smoke flying in our faces the entire way. Then, down through the ‘Meadows’ and gigantic snow covered boulders. As we reached tree line we hugged the north side of the canyon to take advantage of some of the best snow of the day along the flanks of Nez Perce, and finally we skied the lower benches of perfect powder that fed us onto the frozen shores of Bradley Lake. As I watched Peter ski down our final 800 vertical feet, I couldn’t help but feel a deep satisfaction. A hard day’s work, earned a great day’s skiing. Even more than that however, it was the peace and quiet, and the intrinsic beauty that was ours to enjoy for the day.
As we skinned out the final pitch toward Taggart Lake, the sunshine hit our faces, and we looked back towards Garnet Canyon. Perhaps it is a connection that cannot be described, but in our faces we saw satisfaction on a deeper level, a wildly deep connection to a place and an experience that will always be with us.
Jessica would be thrilled to ski with you too, so call our office today (307-733-2297) and schedule your backcountry adventure!