Third Time’s the Charm On Mt. Moran
Posted 3 years, 2 months ago by AJ Linnell
Waking to starry skies was unexpected, and about the best thing we could ask for. Evan Horn, Ben Jones, and I were camped at the base of the Skillet Glacier, hoping for a successful climb and snowboard/ski descent of this huge route. Skinning across Jackson Lake the previous evening, we watched as the clouds thickened and dropped until we could only see the lower slopes of Mt. Moran to keep us heading in the right direction. Light snowfall started as we pitched tents and intensified through the evening. We listened to the snow hiss on the tent walls as we ate dinner and laid down for a few hours’ sleep, wondering if tomorrow’s objective would be snatched away from us by new slab formation.
The Skillet pours down from the summit of Mt. Moran (12,605′) on the northeast face, providing almost 6000′ of steep, perfect fall-line. I had tried to get up it for a snowboard descent twice before, getting turned back by a storm 5 years ago, and by an insidious weak layer of graupel last winter. Our unseasonably warm temperatures in the last couple of weeks here have pretty well gotten rid of this season’s long-lived weak layers, so we figured that conditions were prime for a successful descent, barring any large unanticipated snowfall. Dozing off after a hot meal, my confidence was shaken by the flakes coming down outside. But waking to starry skies, we were ecstatic to see a couple of inches of new, well-bonded powder on the ground.
We skinned out of camp just as dawn broke over the Gros Ventres and lit up the day’s enormous climb ahead. Last night’s gift of powder also meant deeper trailbreaking on the uphill leg of the day. With a light wind over the summit, 2 inches down low translated to 6 or 8 inches up high.
We were able to skin the first 2000′ or so, but pretty shortly traded skis for crampons and put in a bootpack for the remaining 3500′ of the climb. Kick, breathe, step. Kick, breathe, step. Repeat. Endlessly. Rotating through the lead to keep relatively fresh legs up front, we didn’t set any speed records on this climb but it was somehow enjoyable to feel the honest work of it and breathe the fresh, thin air as we gained elevation.
And as we got higher, the wicked brutal heat that beset us midway up dissipated and a cool breeze blew down the couloir at the top of the glacier, otherwise known as The Handle.
The pitch got steeper for the final 1500′ up The Handle, culminating in a 10′ section of 55- to 60-degree climbing to crest the summit.
Wind plumes ripped off the rocks protecting the top of The Handle but we stood in a silent eddy in the sun, looking back down at nearly 6000′ of track that we had just laid-in. Which would now be 6000′ of chalky powder turns–sick. We rock-hopped over to the actual summit, a broad plateau with view of the North Face of the Grand to the south, Thor Peak and the Idaho Teton Valley to the west, Bivouac Peak to the north, and Jackson Lake and the rest of the Jackson valley to the east. Just gorgeous.
To think that we fell asleep in a snowstorm but climbed this gorgeous route under bluebird skies.
I dropped in first, giving a few bounces as I side-slipped the entrance to try and clean off some of the sluff, but nothing moved.
The powder proved to be beautifully firm, solid edging and the 1500′ down The Handle flew by until I found a protected zone to tuck into and wait for Evan and Ben to arrive.
Once we were all together again, I led out for a 2000′ pitch of lovely softness down to our gear cache midway down the route.
The sluff started getting pretty big and pushy, but with such favorable riding conditions it felt good to open it up and outrun the cascade behind me. Laying over big carves, the rock walls became a blur as I focused on getting the most out of these sweet turns.
The lower glacier started to get pretty sticky with the sun’s heat adding moisture to the upper snowpack, and we found that subtle changes in slope aspect to slightly shady gullies made all the difference in keeping the snow dry and fast. Then right above camp it all turned to mush. We relaxed a bit in the sun as we packed up the tents, listening to kiddy-pop on Ben’s AM-FM radio and downing quart after quart of water before the long slog back across the lake.
It took us 3 hours to get from our camp to the east side of the lake, longer than the previous afternoon but not bad considering how slushy the snow was over the lake ice. (The lake was frozen rock-hard, it was just the snow that was slushy.)
Arriving back at the truck in the late afternoon, cold Budweiser and leftover pizza never tasted so good. Especially having changed from wet ski boots into luscious flip-flops. Mmm.