When to Go and When to Say No
The Skillet Glacier Route and the 5 Red Flags
By: Izzy Lazarus
Phantom Team Rider
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides
The Skillet Glacier route…does it ring a bell? Maybe you have the 50 Classic Ski Descents on your coffee table, maybe you’ve been following Cody Townsend as he pursues his goal of skiing all of those lines or perhaps you’ve laid eyes on the behemoth of a mountain that is Mount Moran, [the 12,600’ peak in the northern Tetons] and wondered what it would be like to carve turns down its 6000’ east face.
I’ve lived in and been riding in the Tetons for the last several years, slowly gaining a more intimate knowledge of the range as both a rock climber and a snowboarder. I’ve been honing my skills to prepare to ride the bigger lines in Grand Teton National Park. What I’ve learned is that you can know how to use ropes, you can be the fittest and the fastest you’ve ever been, you can have all the right gear and do all the planning …and even still, you might still get turned around from your objective. Having the humility to listen to the mountains when they’re telling you to go home is one of the most important lessons I have learned so far.
The Skillet on Mount Moran is a big adventure with many prerequisites for enjoying its fruit. It requires a 6 mile approach across Jackson Lake. If you’re attempting to ride this line, especially in winter, it's advantageous to camp across the lake, so get your winter camping scene dialed! This sets you up to start your 6000’ ascent right away, as soon as you can convince yourself to leave the warmth of your sleeping bag that is. You need the skills to ascend 45+ degree snow, potentially with the use of ice and crampons (depending on current conditions). You need the knowledge of how to assess complex terrain and an alpine snowpack. You need the fitness to spend hours on your feet, skinning, booting-packing and riding up and down thousands of feet of wild mountainous terrain. Your team needs to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively about your plan for climbing and riding. Arguably the most important skill to have honed is… patience. It can be the hardest pill to swallow in a world filled with adrenaline and euphoria.
Here is my own story of learning to be patient and adapting to challenge and adversity in the mountains.
March 2018: My roommate and I had been watching the weather and the snowpack diligently all winter. The Tetons were entering one of its magical, mid winter periods of stability. The snowpack was deep, there had been little avalanche activity in the range and the weather for the next several days was looking promising. Earlier in the season we had set our sights on riding a few different lines in the northern part of the range and were focusing our attention to finding the right time to go for it.
We packed our gear and headed out across the lake. Low visibility conditions made the lake crossing slow but eventually we set up camp at the base of Mount Moran. There was a bit of phone service at our camp so we were able to continuously check the forecast. The next day showed intermittent cloud cover and snow but nothing major. We decided to ride the Fallopian Tube on Mount Woodring (an adjacent peak) because neither of us had ridden it before (my partner had previously ridden the Skillet). That day on Mount Woodring stands as one of my favorite days in the mountains to date. We rode deep, stable, powder in a seemingly endless corridor of Teton granite. When we arrived back at camp, the length of the day we were finishing took its toll. We were tired, with sore feet and most likely very dehydrated. When we checked the forecast again, it showed that the weather was going to deteriorate over the next 24 hours. Ultimately we made the decision to cross the lake and return home instead of trying to ride the Skillet. Our decision was justified when we woke up the next day to rain in the valley. My curiosity for the line was heightened. We were right under the line, but it was not the trip for us.
Fast forward two seasons and the opportunity to ride Moran came to fruition again. I was offered a position to tail-guide a Skillet Glacier Trip. My psych levels were rising at the idea of getting to ride the line that had eluded me before. It seemed as though the stars were aligning for me and my team. The snowpack was deep. Our early season, persistent weak layer was buried under two meters of snow and had been dormant for a considerable amount of time. People had been skiing big terrain, all over the Teton Range with success. As the date of our departure neared, the weather had been stable with not much new snow. We packed up our gear to camp and ski for three days. Stove, fuel, tents, extra gloves and socks, sleeping bags, ice axe, crampons, helmets etc… all shoved into duffels and onto our drag sleds. Then…the day before we were to make our journey across the lake, the skies dropped almost 10” of new snow in the high elevation mountains. Without much wind, we weren’t deterred…yet.
Michael (the lead guide), Nick (our client) and I drove out to Jackson Lake mid morning. Grey skies obscure our view of the peak initially. We started our long, slow walk across the milky abyss. The wind picked up through the day. We picked our heads up between gusts to see the mountain. Windows of visibility showed us snow being transported across the whole mountain. The wind was blowing snow across the Skillet, even without constant visibility we could infer that the slope was being loaded. When the skies would open up for a brief moment or two, we could see snow being transported by the strong winds.
We set up camp in the shelter of the trees. Our camp was located in proximity to where we anticipated our ascent track to be. Winter camping to ski is such a full value experience. You learn to melt snow, to perfect your layering and thermoregulation, to build kitchens from the snow and most of all, you get to enjoy the winter environment for more than just pow turns. As the sun set behind the mountains, the lake reflected the pink alpenglow. It was silence except for the occasional gust moving the trees above us. We eventually transitioned to the tent where we began to formulate a plan for the following day. We addressed our “go, no go” decision making points. We checked the forecast again…and again. We set our alarms for the ungodly hour of 3am.
3am came on fast and furiously. The winds had picked up and even our seemingly sheltered campsite was getting shook up by the invisible hulking gusts. We poked our head out of the tent, no stars visible. Shit. With the previous day's wind, the current wind and the lack of visibility it seemed as the window of opportunity to ride the Skillet was getting slammed shut. There are “lines'' that can get ridden, or at least attempted in these conditions. If you can tour up a safe, backside route you might feel better checking it out. The Skillet is not like this. Once you pop above the treeline, you have 3,500’ of steep, complex terrain hanging above you. If you can’t see what’s above you, there is a good chance of getting caught blindsided.
With that, we tucked ourselves back in for a few more hours of sleep. When we woke up again, the sun was up but not out. The wind was still whipping and visibility was low. We decided to ski the trees above camp. When it doesn’t work out to ski a 50 classic line, 3000’ of steep, north facing tree skiing is a good plan B. We had a good time riding the backyard and felt good about our decision to stay off the Skillet. We returned to camp and packed up. The lake crossing back to the east side was vertigo inducing flat light, mixed in with a headwind. Ah the mountains!
In town we fueled up on hot food and cold beverages. The following day was clear, cold and still. Mike and Nick hoofed it back into the mountains, this time for a day mission. They were able to ride a technical ski line in the central part of the national park. Nick left the next day with wide eyes, hungry for more Teton skiing. He plans to come back, with more skills, more fitness and his humble attitude.
You might be disappointed to hear that I still have not had my glory day on Mount Moran. It is ok. I am still as stoked as ever to keep trying, patiently waiting for the right day, with the right partners. I will continue to gain experience and knowledge of the mountains. Just because I didn’t “send” doesn’t mean I didn’t learn. Over the past several trips, I learned the best spot to camp, I dialed in my winter camping gear and systems and I got to ride a line that was new to me and totally awesome. I have learned what it means to prepare for this kind of trip as a guide. We also toured up the approach slope for the skillet and tracked our route on a GPS for next time.
My partners and I were able to use our knowledge and experience to make good decisions and still find good riding. One of the simplest tools that I continually reference in the mountains is the Five Red Flags. When you’re out in the mountains, I am asking myself - has there been recent heavy snow? Do I see any recent avalanches? Is the wind moving snow? Am I hearing cracking/collapsing as I move through the mountains? Has the temperature changed rapidly? Having a set of questions you’re asking yourself, cues you’re looking for can keep you from exposing yourself to hazards. On my first trip, the warming of the weather after 8” of new snow was a warning sign. Combined with group fatigue we were steered away. On my second trip, 10” of new and strong winds were a strong signal for us to tread with caution and ultimately defer to another objective.
One day, maybe, I will ride the Skillet. It could be next season, it could be five seasons from now. When I do, I know that I will feel proud of myself and my skill development. But mostly I will just be really stoked!