Located in the remotest corner of the Tetons, the Hidden Couloir is one of those lines people love to talk about, occasionally attempt and rarely pull off. A small team of skiers have their sights set on it. Cue a four-day adventure like no other…
After the Teton Range of Wyoming experienced the snowiest February on record, a small team of ski tourers found themselves deep in its midst, camped at the edge of an idyllic frozen lake. The decisions they made as a group to head out there, and continued to make as each objective was plotted, assessed, climbed and skied, kept them stoked on skiing and brought them home safely.
Group dynamics are a key part of staying safe in the mountains: group size, experience, communication, individual aspirations and even what you had for breakfast, all play a part in walking the line.
The Teton Collective is made up of Teague Holmes, professional ski mountaineer; Mali Noyes, Freeride World Tour veteran and nursing student; Fred Marmsater, skier/ photographer, and Tim Cohn, Exum Mountain Guide. Providing a true smorgasbord of freeride, medical, media and mountain craft expertise, the Teton Collective communication lines were opened early, well before they had even clipped into their skis…
15 FEBRUARY 2019
Dear Team Teton Collective,
Leigh Canyon is far away. It’s a long approach by Teton standards, a range that has earned a bit of a reputation for big slogs. In summer, the remote canyon is host to some of the best alpine rock routes the Tetons have to offer. A canoe, portage and second alpine lake crossing lead to several hours of grizzly bear-infested bushwacking and, eventually, the south buttress of Mt Moran. In winter, it’s much more involved, and due to winter road closures, it’s also much farther away.
Assuming someone might bother with all these shenanagins and continued for another hour or two further past Mt Moran, you’d come to a mountain few have heard of. You can’t really it see from anywhere, it’s the eighth highest peak in the Teton Range at 12,028ft: Thor Peak. Obscure, remote, hidden. For a small portion of North American backcountry ski mountaineering enthusiasts, Thor Peak, accessed via Leigh Canyon, is best known as that mountain that is “really far away, somewhere in the Tetons that the Hidden Couloir is on”.
I first heard about Hidden Couloir as an old school spring mountaineering route when I came to the Tetons with a couple of my early climbing mentors at Teton Mountaineering, Jeff and Neil. Jeff’s cracked ecrin roc helmet still hangs at TM, their ascent, near-miss and story of adventure represents what it is to be a climber in the Teton range.
In 14 winters in the Tetons, I’ve only been to Leigh Canyon twice. Once on a 20-hour push in -25F temps, we skied the SW Couloir of Mt Moran. The other, we attempted the Hidden guiding a trip for Exum Mountain Guides. Conditions looked perfect, stability was good, snow was great, weather looked bomber. The day prior our group had skied the south-west couloir of Mt Moran and the Fallopian Tube of nearby Mt Woodring in perfect snow.
After an alpine start from camp, my co-guide for the day and I started off with three very strong clients. We made it almost halfway up.
Seldom skied, occasionally fantasised about, the Hidden Couloir embodies our home mountains and the swift, silent locals that pioneered them. Remote, hard, scary, stingy and nobody really cares because where the hell is the hidden couloir anyways. It’s one of those lines that people love to talk about, occasionally attempt and rarely pull off. It’s a guaranteed adventure right in the backyard.
27 FEBRUARY 2019
Dear Teton Collective,
Looking at the forecast I’m concerned with the high avy danger and the park being closed yesterday (haven’t looked if it is closed today?). I’ve checked in with Dave Richards – Director of Alta’s Avalanche crew – and he was concerned about the avalanche warning:
“Conditions are still very dangerous. Up to 50 inches of snow with four inches of moisture has fallen in favoured areas since Saturday. Temperatures will be warmer today and did not drop below freezing at the lowest elevations overnight. Very large avalanches could release naturally. Large human-triggered avalanches are likely. Very large, destructive avalanches could run full path through mature trees and well out into run out zones.”
Tim, good to hear that you are optimistic about things shaping up on Sunday and Monday. I just wanted to express my concern with entering the park in high danger conditions, but I am not as familiar with the park as the rest of you are and I respect everyone’s experience and opinions. I am preparing and packing up all my ski stuff for any condition, planning on leaving this afternoon. Expecting this drive to be brutal.
27 FEBRUARY 2019
Dear Teton Collective,
I agree with Mali, avalanche danger is high. While it’s unstable currently, the pendulum should swing to more stable conditions in the near future. I have complete confidence in the whole team’s ability to forecast and travel in the mountains finding safe routes and good skiing while staying out of harm’s way. We’ll look over the data and make decisions together.
27 FEBRUARY 2019
I agree with all points raised – I think the stability is going to come around fast. I was at the Wydaho zone yesterday and where there is no wind effect, the snow is glued – very stable. Thanks to everyone for rallying when conditions look challenging. We are definitely going to keep things tight and conservative until we know more, and this storm cycle moves out.
28 FEBRUARY 2019
Dear Team Teton Collective,
I am currently parked in the Hoback canyon. Traffic is stopped and there are police lights and large snowplows driving back and forth. It could be backed up for a crossing herd of elk, a grizzly bear sighting or perhaps the local roadside Moose jerky stand – I hear it’s outstanding. The snowbanks are 12-feet tall and it may be snowing at around two inches an hour.
I can’t wait to be on my skis pulling a 60-pound sled through a snowstorm out in the middle of Lake Jackson with you all. Please remind me of this if I complain about the wind.
If you go to the grocery store without me, please don’t forget hot sauce, cheese and whiskey.
The tone was set. The Teton Collective were motivated for adventure, but never at the expense of safety. The following day they were on their way.
We made our way to camp, located at the base of Mt. Moran, after a five-hour ski-in pulling sleds. It was a perfect blue bird day, the first sunshine in a month. The collective stoke was high and uncertainty was high to very high. We observed signs of significant avalanche activity in the northern range. We spotted crowns and debris along the way and tried to piece together a picture of stability, hypothesising which events ran when and which layers were reacting. Clouds rolled in around 5pm as we made camp. Setting up our home for the next four days as darkness encroached, we ate dinner – big bowls of pasta – in the cook tent.
Excited to be installed in such an incredible spot, we discussed our options for the next day. As we crawled into our tents for a much needed refresh after a tiring day of sled-dragging, it started to snow.
We woke in the early hours, it was still dark out, but clear, and bitterly cold. Incredibly, we stayed warm throughout the camping experience – the toughest part was managing to get our feet into ski boots each morning.
After a breakfast of eggs and coffee it was time to don our skis and skins. We decided to make our way towards the south-west couloir of Mt Moran just after sunrise. We liked that it had had a day in the sun to adapt, and the consistent aspect and angle of the run meant we only had to solve a small part of the stability picture to make a good decision. A longer tour in simpler terrain would have potentially given us more information about different aspects and layers of concern, but you don’t go all the way to Leigh Canyon to go powder skiing in the forest.
As we climbed the couloir – skinning and bootpacking with ascent plate (which Mali nicknamed ‘billy plates’) – we found great snow and bomber stability. Six hours passed. Around 200ft from the top of our line we encountered a change in the snow and some windslab. Being new ski partners, the interpersonal elements of decision making in the mountains were especially challenging.
We decided that the time it would take to assess our concerns further simply wasn’t worth it for a few extra turns. Setting off 200ft shy of the summit, the run did not disappoint – good snow, chalky and powdery. We were so fired up at the bottom we decided to check out a north-facing couloir across the canyon called the Fallopian Tube, off the north side of Mt. Woodring. We put our heads down and hammered up from the canyon bottom, up the apron and through the steep narrow passage to our high-point.
From halfway up we had a great view of the exit of Hidden Couloir on Thor Peak; the couloir is a steep, narrow line that ends in a 300ft cliff band. We spotted a slab avalanche that had pulled out in the storm right beside our escape from the couloir to reach the rappels. With the substantial hangfire (remaining piece of unstable slab) in such an exposed spot, reaching the rappels would be dicey.
Back at camp we refuelled on warm food, warm drinks, made sandwiches for the following day, set out our gear, then went to bed early – the Hidden Couloir beckoned.
Once more we woke to a cold and clear morning. After a successful first day of skiing, we discussed our options. The Hidden Couloir on Thor Peak was at the top of our list going into the trip and we had taken a good look at it the previous day from the Fallopian Tube. It had looked promising, so we decided to go for it.
We had camped strategically close to Thor, it is just behind Mt Moran, so we skinned up the valley and then started bootpacking again with crampons on.
The Hidden Couloir is a very steep, narrow line that ends in a 300-400-foot cliff band. We had spotted a small slab that had pulled out at the lip of the cliff adjacent to where we needed to get to start the rappels. Deterred by the heavy consequences of avalanche activity exiting Hidden Couloir, we made the call to go instead for the Spiral face instead – a face that curves around the mountain hitting multiple aspects making it even harder to get in perfect conditions.
As a group of five, the skiing would also be much better for the whole team on the larger slopes of the Spiral face instead of Hidden’s narrow chute. We skied one at a time, skiing each section methodically – it is a huge decent and exposed. The snow was incredible. It was epic to tick off another Teton classic.
Were we disappointed not to have completed the trip’s original objective, to ski Hidden Couloir? No – skiing from the top of Thor was an accomplishment in its own right.
We returned to camp for celebratory IPAs, which we had to warm up into a liquid state.
As some of the party had to exit early, our group size shrank for the final day. We woke up early to wave them off and set our sights on the Drizzlepuss Tower of Mt Moran. We took turns breaking trail, wallowing on our billy plates up the final 50 degree headwall in waist to chest deep snow as we approached the summit.
Skiing waist-deep powder at 12,000 feet down the exposed face wasn’t a bad way to cap off our wilderness adventure. As we reached the end of the 5000 ft descent back to Leigh Lake to pack up our camp and load the sleds, we realised we hadn’t seen another soul on our journey.