American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Wyoming, The Grand Teton, Hossack-McGowan Couloir, First One-Day Winter Ascent and First Ski Descent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 1997

The Grand Teton, Hossack-MacGowen Couloir, First One-Day Winter Ascent and First Ski Descent. On February 16, Hans Johnstone and I started from the Cottonwood Canyon parking lot hoping to climb the Hossack-MacGowen Couloir to the summit of the Grand Teton and descend it on skis. Tom Turiano, Stephen Koch, and Jeff Fell are some of the most notable names on the list of ski mountaineers who had tried skiing the Hossack-MacGowen on previous occasions. They and others made their attempt in the spring or early summer, often climbing the entire route only to find soft, runneled, unreliable snow and ice. Hans and I were the first to attempt it in winter conditions.

We began our ascent at 3:30 a.m. carrying our alpine skis and ski boots on our backs and wearing mountaineering boots and randonnée skis. The mountaineering gear performed critically through technical sections of the ascent while the alpine ski gear performed optimally through the steepest and most exposed sections of the descent. Once we were on the terminal moraine of the Teton Glacier the snow was firm enough to walk on with crampons, allowing us to jettison the randonnée skis and pick them up on the descent.

We reached the Teton Glacier just as the morning sun spilled brilliant pink and orange down Mount Owen and the Grand’s north face. After a couple of hours of steady slogging up firm, consolidated, chalky snow, we faced the cave traverse from the lower to upper couloir. Unroped for speed, we traversed across thin ramps of snow up and right to a short chimney filled with steep snow. From the top of the chimney we climbed easy but exposed and unprotected rock slabs to a final tongue of snow that led to the apron of snow which, around the corner to climber’s right, connected to the bottom of the upper couloir.

The rest of the ascent entailed trudging up perfect snow through the upper couloir and across the east face snow field to a huge wind-scoured groove below a rock feature known as the Horse on the mountain’s south side. We were 50 or 60 vertical feet below the summit, which was too rocky and wind scoured to descend on skis. The time was around 1:30 p.m.

The descent back across the east face and down the upper couloir offered incomparable skiing amidst spectacular exposure. The steady 50-to 55-degree pitch of the couloir kept our attention, though its width and the perfect snow enabled us to link turns the entire distance to its termination above a 1,500-foot cliff.

From there we traversed (skier’s right) around two corners and across an apron of snow just about steep enough to keep our up-hill knee within biting distance of our chins. Near the end of our traverse we set up a half-rope rappel off a snow bollard that dropped us over an eight-foot vertical snow and rock step. A second half-rope rappel off a piton diagonaled down and to the skier’s right across a four-foot runnel, and a final half-rope rappel dropped us over a 15-or 20-foot vertical rock corner, depositing us 60 or 70 feet above where we traversed (climber’s right) on the snow ramps during the ascent.

Several turns down some of the steepest snow yet brought us into a 150-foot section of couloir narrow enough to force us to side-slip. Beyond that we skied for another couple of hundred feet before making one last 40-to 50-foot rappel over an 80-degree ice bulge. The skiing became easier below that as the couloir widened and the pitch eased, bringing us to the final five-foot drop over the bergschrund near the base of the couloir. We arrived back at the Teton Glacier around 4:15 p.m. and made it to the car by around 6 p.m.

This was the first successful ski descent of the complete Hossack-MacGowen Couloir. Also, according to Renny Jackson but unbeknownst to Hans and I at the time, it may have been the first successful winter ascent.

Mark Newcomb, unaffiliated

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