When winter comes in full to the Tetons, the landscape becomes a pristine, quiet, and sometimes intimidating canvas of snow, ice, and rock. It is during the winter months that the high peaks of the Tetons become a gem in which few choose to endeavor, but those who do, find solace and limitless adventure. On January 12, 2012 I had the opportunity to guide a very talented client up into Garnet Canyon for a big day of ski adventure. Peter has been an Exum client for many years, but had not yet had the chance to go skiing among the Tetons biggest peaks in the wintertime. We had received 6 inches of new snow the previous day, and the weather 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 Teton’s biggest peaks. We left Jackson in the dark 6 am hour to head for the Taggart Lake trailhead. This trailhead is the last possible place to park before the park’s winter road closure. Approach times can be a little longer in the winter because of the road closure, which tends to keep most people away, while those that are motivated get to experience a winter wonderland in its most peaceful state.
We started skinning up along the Taggart lake moraine as the sunrise peaked its rosy glow along the eastern horizon. Temperatures dipped below -15 degrees F, but that did not stop our enthusiasm one bit, as the fresh crystalline snow sparkled and the Grand Teton, Middle Teton, Nez Perce, Owen, and Teewinot peaks 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. And above us we could see the beautiful powder snow that was to be our descent’s delight in the not too distant future.
Ascending, we weaved our way through bedrock benches and snow covered fir and pine forests. The surrounding big boulders were covered in pillows of powder snow, and provided a treat to the eye as we snaked our way up into Garnet Canyon. Disappointment Peak’s fine gneiss ridges and varied aretes began to dominate our skyline, and warmed the inside of the canyon with solar energy.
Just below the ‘Platforms’ bench, we stopped for an early lunch in the sun, sheltered from ridge top and canyon winds that were beginning to pick up. Turkey sandwiches, salty potato chips and chocolate… you can never go wrong! After our short break we continued into the meadows where the sun doesn’t shine most of the winter and the Middle Teton towers above you. The wind was whipping around us with fervor, and the ridge tops were a sea of spindrift and sunlight. Wind chill factors were cold, and we had to continually fight to keep our faces covered from the frigid temperatures. Stopping wasn’t an option as this point, and 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 around 11,000’ 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 sat small and distant nearly 7 miles away. What a treat to be up here on this day! And how amazing it is that we can actually travel through weather and altitude in such an extreme environment, while still thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It felt like a gift to be amongst 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 whole way. Then down through the ‘Meadows’ and gigantic snow covered boulders. As we reached treeline 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 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 of skiing, I couldn’t help but feel a deep satisfaction. A hard day’s work, earned a great day’s skiing. But even more than that, it was the peace, the quiet, and the intrinsic beauty that was ours to enjoy for the day. As we skinned out the final pitch towards 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 stay with us.