Mountain Mumbles

Skier Julia Tellman ascends a snowfield in Grand Teton National Park.

My best days in the mountains have all started during the gray dawn hour, when you almost need a headlamp, but not quite. I love the building anticipation of driving the pass in the dark, summiting just as the horizon starts to turn pink.

This Saturday the gas station in Wilson was still closed when we rolled through, so a dark Porta Potti in the Grand Teton National Park parking lot had to do. We geared up in the more-balmy-than-usual dawn, and hit the Nordic skiing trail, skinning smoothly, realizing a few strides in that our headlamps were unnecessary. I love those first few hours of skinning, letting muscles loosen in silence, cruising towards the foothills.

As we left the Nordic track and turned toward Disappointment I dropped a layer. A few kick turns up the face of the mountain we turned to see the first rays of sun poke through the clouds, like the sort of inspirational photos some churches project the words to their worship songs over.

We cruised on, marveling at how much traffic the skin track had seen during this last high-pressure system. At Surprise Lake we stopped for a snack, then, as we crested the low ridge that separates it from Amphitheater Lake, our pleasant morning reverie was snapped by our first gusts of wind for the day. Overlooking Amphitheater we could finally see our objective, the Spoon.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve stood at the bottom of the Spoon. When I first moved to the Tetons I was young, dumb and ready to stop being a terrible park skier, and trying to be a less terrible backcountry skier. I had the gear, I had the fitness, I had the Avy 1 class. I just didn’t have any knowledge.

So, as one does, I fell in with a mentor, another skier who was a little less young, and just a touch less dumb. That first winter, in retrospect, was when I learned the meaning of “getting away with it” in the backcountry. I was in over my head every time I left the car, and most of the time, so was my “mentor.” So three years ago, when we went out to ski something off Shadow Mountain, got turned around and found ourselves three quarters of the way up Disappointment, I wasn’t really that surprised. I was disappointed, and a little scared, but that sort of mishap was becoming par for the course. It was only later that I found that not all backcountry skiers operated like that.

So we skinned the rest of our merry way up Disappointment, to the base of the Spoon. The Spoon is an aesthetic line, a pretty clean, pretty big, not-too-steep couloir that’s hard to miss. It’s the sort of thing you’d see from the road and say, “I want to ski that one!”

So, three years ago, that’s what my partner and I did. We dug some pits, we bootpacked up it, we ski cut the top and we skied down. Or, more accurately, my partner skied down. I side slipped a few hundred feet, crashed, ragdolled, self arrested, side slipped some more, crashed again, and made exactly four real turns, all on the apron, below the line. Then we struggle bussed our way home, stopping a few times to take off my aching ski boots.

That was pretty typical for me back then, and I’m thankful to have survived that period with nothing worse than an ability to point out a huge number of lines in the park that I’ve fallen in more than once.

The first time I “skied” the Spoon the weather was perfect. Bluebird, no wind, great snow. This time, not so much. Visibility shifted in and out with ever gust of wind, and spindrift sloughed down the low side of the line. But the stability was great, and the snow seemed skiable, so we started booting up. Two-thirds of the way up the visibility was awful, we were really out in the wind and every gust blinded us. But there wasn’t any real place to pull over and transition, so I broke trail out to a boulder at the top.

There we hunkered down, calmed our shot nerves and got ready to ski. I climbed the line with grand ambitions of skiing it the “right way” this time. Half a turn in I realized the crust was firmer than we’d thought, and I was going to be sideslipping a lot. We yo-yo’d our way down from safe zone to safe zone, survival skiing, sitting down as each gust tried to pull us off the mountain. The last third of the couloir was great, soft, fun snow, and I got my redemption there.

As we traversed the lake, I realized how high my nerves had been as they slowly cooled down. We skied out another shot to Delta, then, weighed down by exhaustion, traversed the playground that is Glacier Gulch. I stopped to eat some candy, nearly in sight of the car, desperate for fuel for those last few hundred yards.

I didn’t ski the Spoon the “right way,” but I made three times as many real turns, I skied some mediocre snow with some great people and, most importantly, we skied the line we had planned on skiing when we left the car that morning, instead of finding ourselves at the bottom of it on accident. So I’d call it a win. The dog definitely did when I finally let her out of the car in the parking lot.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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