Vertical Logic

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Otter Body

Three words that have been resonating in my head for the last 24 hours. It’s been that long since Andy and Jason Dorais and I reached the Bradley-Taggart trailhead after a perfect day in the Tetons.

It all started with a text from Andy Wednesday morning, “Call ASAP. Tetons?”. Of course I missed the text and didn’t return with a call for a few more hours. But as fate would have it he couldn’t round another person up in that time. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into before even speaking with him. “Tetons” meant skiing The Grand -- the GFT! He confirmed and I told him I’d call him back after I checked if I could swing it. Secretly I was mulling over the ramifications of accepting: steep ice, mandatory rappels, committing lines and one of the most coveted ski descents in North America. I emailed my boss and called Andy back within 10 mins -- I was in.

Nevermind that I hadn’t swung an ice axe, or rappelled off anything. I was chuffed on an invite to the Tetons, these dudes had been there and knew what it would take. That was enough for me.

That afternoon we all met up at Andy’s, packed up our gear, threw it in the back of his truck and hit the road. On the drive I entertained them with my naive questions regarding Teton geography and unpracticed skills I’d need the following day. At least they were laughing at the absurdity -- not turning the car around.

Andy had been in contact with Zahan and he was finishing up guiding The Grand as we were driving. He left a message, relayed by Andy but the only thing that came through in translation was, “Blower pow off the summit!”. The stoke meter was through the roof and we hashed out all the possibilities for the following day. Ultimately the plan was to bring the kitchen sink for the baddest stuff on the mountain and if we had energy to keep going! An ambitious group indeed.

We reached Jackson as the sun was setting, repacked gear in an open bay of Z’s garage and laid on a couch or floor for a sleepless hour before we set out for Bradley-Taggart. We started skinning directly from the parking lot. Skiing in the accessible Wasatch, it’s easy to practice the light and fast methodology. My pack is always feathery compared to the pack I was now putting on -- filled with a myriad of ice climbing equipment plus lots of food and liquid for a big day.

The moon was full and bright and made it feel as though we were traveling at twilight despite being 1am. We moved efficiently for heavy packs. Passing the Taggart and Bradley lakes, then onto the Boulders and Meadows with the Middle Teton in plain sight, illuminated by the moon. The moon was blocked by our objective as we made our way up the Teepee glacier, only to come out once more below the Teepee Pillar with ourselves stunningly silhouetted.

We reached the top of the Teepee glacier in less than 3.5 hrs. I thought to myself, “Not bad only 1700 vertical to go, we could ski this thing in the moonlight!”. After putting on crampons and harnesses at the Glencoe col the mountain quickly responded to my hubris. The winds were now whipping, the Stettner couloir showed no signs of Z’s tracks from the day before. It was a deep snow wallow up the Stettner, our vision blurred by the couloir walls, blowing snow and encroaching icicles on our faces.

Then we missed the turn to the Chevy -- we booted right passed it in those conditions. Luckily when presented with an unfamiliar fork the Dorais brothers recognized the error and with Andy’s massive light we were able fumble around for it. In the Chevy I pulled out the climbing gear I was carrying and responded to orders for items. Andy took the lead and Jason and I fed out twin ropes. The ice bulges were small but the winds and spindrift washed over Andy likes breaking waves. Andy then belayed Jason and I. Despite never having ice climbed I was eager to get moving -- I was now shivering.

The first ice bulge was cake and I was over it without issue. The second and slightly bigger bulge, maybe the size of a car, gave me a moment of pause when I had trouble sinking the pick. A piece of advice was shouted down, “Flick your wrist!”. I gave it a try and sure enough the pick went in with a satisfying thunk. Over the last bulge, we were now done with the ice tools and rope, so they were stashed away and we switched back to whippets.

Somehow hours had gone by since the Glencoe col due to the weather, booting conditions and messing with ropes. Thankfully though as the day was breaking and the change of aspect in the Ford couloir the weather became incredibly pleasant. The winds completely stopped.

When we arrived onto the southeast snowfield, the sun was now upon us. The summit was there for the taking. We switched to skinning for the last few hundred vertical. It felt amazing to skin all the way to the summit. The vantage is often described as moonlike -- my first summit of The Grand can only be described as euphoric.

Now the question of the rest of the day needed to be answered, as it had been kicked around the whole ascent. It was 8am, about an hour later than our projected “slow time” and the link up possibilities seemed to be in doubt with the clear skies and rapid warming.

We had all of the necessary Otter Body beta and equipment, so we thought. Ultimately we were pulled toward the OB like gravity, its allure was too hard to ignore.

The descent was unreal! We had pleasant turns in some dry but wind affected snow before we took a hard left towards the OB. Jason took the lead towards the choke in the East face which would drop us onto the Otter Body proper. As we neared the choke it was impossible to ignore the convexity and exposure of the slope. It rolled over into the abyss. Jason worked his way down the skiers right of the choke and then cut in under a landmark rock for safety. Andy and I followed.

Andy took the initiative in the choke and we watched on. The firm, but grippy snow in the sun gave way to a slick icy surface as the slope steepened in the choke. Andy stopped and found the rappel anchor and began readying the rope as I came down next, then Jason.

Andy rapped and then it was my turn -- my first ever. I was probably a bit slow, but otherwise it went well. I was on the Otter Body itself and we were committed to the line. When we were all off rappel it was now my turn to take the lead, since Jason was putting his skis on and Andy was coiling the rope.

The Otter Body is a shelf above a massive cliff which drops to the Teepee glacier. It hugs the mountain until it ends abruptly in the Otter Body chimney. The shelf itself would be a comfortable skiing slope if it wasn’t for the exposure and increasing convexity. The turns can only be described as exhilarating. I linked one after another until I approached the shade of the chimney. There I encountered steep slick snow once again. I stared transfixed eager to continue making turns, no steeper than the previous few, but on an unforgiving surface. Under the crust was dry sugary snow which would have made self arrest very difficult or impossible.

I stood there in indecision and looked along the walls above and below for the first rap anchor to keep my mind off the slope. No signs of any anchors the walls were caked with snow.

Andy joined me and had the same perception of the snow in the shady chimney. Without hesitating he ripped his skis off and started scraping the walls and down climbing. Jason arrived and the two of us followed Andy down climbing. I had hopes to continuing skiing, but the snow only worsened and the chimney became narrow and rocky. Still no sign of anchors until Andy spotted something on the skier’s right wall, not where we expected it. Andy rapped off it and then found the next one quickly.

This was to be our final rappel and after some debate about whether to go right or left of a large rock Andy disappeared over the 30m cliff. Shortly after Jason and I heard a loud shout which sounded like,  “TEEEPEEEE!”.

I enjoyed the adrenaline of the my first overhanging rappel and the relief of setting down on the Teepee was overwhelming. The metaphor for the moon was complete -- I had just reentered the atmosphere and touched down safely! I took great satisfaction in yelling “Off rappel!”.

With the East face still looming above, we moved quickly before the full on celebration. I punched it down the Teepee which felt flat compared to our previous slope. I made some clumsy turns in heinous breakable crust, arrived at the base of the Teepee. I watched the other two hack their way down the Teepee and arrive safely. At which point we gave way to spontaneous cheering!

The exit was more variable refrozen snow, which confirmed for us that we had a solid buffer before any wet activity -- we made the right call.

As we skied out, I looked at the Middle Teton and other peaks marveling at the inspiring terrain around. I look forward to coming back!

No comments:

Post a Comment