THE SKILOPING TETONS TRAVERSE

MARK SIREK
MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 277
edited June 2023 in OUR STORIES

Words by Kaitlyn Boyle, Photos from Ben Gavelda and Will Stubb

Photo: Ben Gavelda

If you Google "Top wedding and honeymoon destinations," surprisingly, the Tetons don't come up. Instead, Maldives, Hawaii, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Bora Bora, Bali, St. Lucia, Paris, the Caribbean, Thailand, Fiji, and Seychelles top the Google charts. Which, then considering nearly every single one of those places has turquoise blue water and beaches, it is entirely unsurprising that backcountry skiing, specifically, a self-supported, week-plus long backcountry winter ski traverse complete with winter camping (like, in the snow), is not even listed as a popular honeymoon activity and on top of a 10,200' mountain isn't mentioned as a place to get married.

But Will and I didn't Google weddings or honeymoons before deciding where or how we were going to officially tie the knot and embark on the adventure that is supposed to be marriage. Instead, when talking about where and how we would get married, we agreed on two elements: the first would be eloping* in a landscape that is significant to us as a couple, and the second part would be having a celebration at home in the Teton Valley with immediate family and friends to share our vows in front of the people who love and support us. 

*Note: I also didn't Google "eloping" before choosing to do so. The definition involves" sudden" and "secret," which now explains why some people were surprised when we shared our plans to elope ahead of time! My parents eloped in 1983, my brother eloped, and about half of my married friends have all eloped. I just thought it was one of many ways to get married.

Ski traversing across the crest of the Tetons has been in our minds since the beginning of our relationship. But most years, I get busy riding bikes by the time a spring ski traverse would be viable. This year our snowpack was setting up to be quite thick, and my spring schedule allowed for a big adventure beyond the bike. Plus, we had identified our wedding party date for June, so we needed to figure out where and when to go have our micro ceremony in the wild. The Teton Ski Traverse became the logical answer. Will had to take time off work, so we chose the Spring equinox as our hopeful weather window, knowing that late March could involve some winter storms, but also longer days and general trends toward more high pressure should lead to both great skiing and great traversing. 

Photo: Ben Gavelda

Planning a self-support ski traverse is logistically involved. The route needed to be built, the systems of clothing and gear identified, rations planned, fuel calculated, shuttles planned, and on top of the normal ski traverse logistics, the micro wedding ceremony had its own logistical needs. How does one bring their dog to the wedding ceremony but not on the ski traverse beyond the first summit? How do you bring a cake up to 10,200' when your pack is full of over a week's worth of gear? Who can officiate a marriage on a peak that is surrounded by avalanche terrain? These were all questions that needed answering, and somehow I had chosen one of the more complicated ways to get married. 

Photo: Will Stubb

THE TRAVERSE LOGISTICS

We needed a route that was both a traverse across the Tetons, also viable for our window of time, and appropriate for the snowpack. We needed kits as light, svelte, and compact as possible for skiing pow and breaking trail all day. But, we also needed the clothing and camp gear to keep us warm and dry in potentially cold and snowy wintery conditions, both while skiing and camping. 

Beyond the kit, organizing food and nutrition involves a strategy and extensive planning and packing. We needed a ration with enough calories to keep us energized and recovering but no more than necessary to keep our pack weights minimal. We decided to set up two food caches so we'd only carry a maximum of four days of food between re-rations. 

Photo: Will Stubb

THE ROUTE

The route in concept was straightforward: ski south to north across the Tetons, starting on Mt. Taylor and using the Teton Crest as a handrail; ski as much pow along the way. When I told my dad the objective, his response was, "But don't you need rock climbing gear for those?" He had a good point. The iconic peaks of the Tetons are high, nearly vertical rocky peaks that only the most extreme ski mountaineers can ski. We were not going to be climbing and skiing up and over the South, Middle, and Grand Teton. We were taking the route along the crest of the range, where drainages divide between flowing east and west. Eventually, towards the north, we would have to pick a direction to exit, as there isn't winter road access to the northern terminus of the range. In an ideal scenario, we would retreat to the northeast across some of the bigger peaks of the eastern side of the north Tetons, down to and across Jackson Lake. Alternatively, we would exit a northern drainage to the west, back into the Teton Valley. We built routes and itineraries for both options, both coming to about 65 miles with around 35,000' of elevation gain and loss. We allocated ten days, including a day or two for basecamp style ski days. 

Photo: Will Stubb

GEAR LIST

We approached gear as only what's necessary to be comfortable, safe, and still have a great time. This looked like having all the gear necessary to stay dry, warm enough, hydrated, fed, and moving along our route. The Headwall 55 pack provided just enough capacity to carry four days of backcountry skiing and winter camping gear, food, and fuel while pushing us to create a minimalist winter kit. The gear list:

Skis, boots, skins, poles

Headwall 55 pack

Shovel, probe, beacon

1st Aid Kit

Ski repair kit

Headlamp

Skin wax & mini scraper

Ski crampons

Bear spray

ECT cord, thermometer, snow crystal card

Compass w/ inclinometer

40' of 7mm cord

Ultamid 2 (set up with ski poles & Volie straps)

Groundcloth

-10 F down sleeping bag in Side Entry Pod

Thermarest neoair xlite inflatable pad

Stuff Sack Pillow

Short z-rest foam pad

MSR Reactor stove w/ 1.5L pot

Bowl, spoon

1 L Nalgene

.5 L Nalgene w/ coozy

2L Dromedary

Katadyn Be Free 1L filter

7oz isobutane fuel /day

Roll-Top Stuff Sack & Ursack for bear storage

Patgonia Stormstride pant

Capiliene Midweight bottoms

Capiliene Air bottoms

Merino longsleeve top

Houdini wind jacket

Micropuff hoody jacket

Stormstride jacket

Fitzroy Down Hoody

Sports bra

Midweight ski sock, heavy weight wool sock

Capilene midweight gloves 

Honeycomb knit beanie

Buff

Nylon trucker hat

Feathered Friends down booties

Black Diamond Tour glove

OR 2-layer storm mitt

Sunglasses

Goggles w/ sun & clear lenses

Sunscreen

Chapstick

Toothbrush & powdered paste

Garmin InReach

I-phone

i-phone cord

Battery pack

GoPro & camera in camera pod

Topo mapset

Pods and Stuff Sacks for organizing

In the half-way re-ration:

Clean socks

Clean base layers

Feathered Friends down pants

*Note: This kit was determined based on our comfort winter camping and managing ourselves in the conditions we would likely encounter. Selection of gear, layers, fuel, and food quantity is a risk management practice and should always be selected based on personal experience and skill set. 

RATION PLAN

We ultimately chose to pack meals that I planned and dehydrated to create nutritious, calorically-rich, lightweight meals that only require hot water. Food between breakfast and dinner was mostly an assortment of snacks with a bagel, cream cheese, and salami to provide the sense of "real food."

SKILOPING

Photo: Ben Gavelda

Blue skies are ideal for getting married on a 10,200 Tetons' summit in the winter. In the week leading up to our Spring Equinox departure date to elope on Mt. Taylor, models were strengthening to the point we agreed that more snow would be how spring would be sprung. But, the last day of winter, March 19, would bring clear, blue skies. We moved our trip forward a day, crammed all our packing in one less day, and arrived at the trailhead off Teton Pass at 08:30 with all the gear and logistics in place to begin the 3,000' ascent up Taylor for a small wedding ceremony complete with Hank our dog, cake, and to proceed into a ten-day traverse north from the summit. 

On the summit, our friend Blodg extracted carefully packed flowers from his towering pack, handed me a bouquet, and pinned a boutineer on Will. 

Lynne Wolfe, a retired career mountain guide and friend and mentor since college, officiated our ceremony under blue skies on Taylor. 

Photo: Ben Gavelda

Blodg then extracted a carefully packed cake from deeper in his pack and then pulled out a popped bottle of prosecco. We cut the cake with a snow saw and all celebrated with bubblies and cake on snow. 

Photo: Ben Gavelda

Lynne, her husband Dan, Blodg, and Ben with the camera, then escorted the dogs down off the east side of Taylor as Will and I skied north, mostly hand in hand, to begin our journey across the range that unfolded under clear skies as long as I could see. We skied our favorite shot off Taylor and gleefully enjoyed our first honeymoon camp in a strong sun that quickly dried out our wet gear from a spring-like day while enjoying wine in a can and wedding cake in a Ziploc, toasting to ourselves and our future. So far, married life has been fantastic. 

Photo: Ben Gavelda

***

The unmistakable sound of snow on a Dyneema roof awoke us the next morning. Peeking outside, the mountains that had shadowed our camp at sunset were nowhere to be seen. The cloud ceiling was just overhead, and a few inches of fresh snow had fallen while we slept. We broke trail with relative ease, even carrying full packs through fresh snow, up above the Teton Crest, where we found a couple north facing powder shots through cliff bands down to a bench below. We were doing it - traversing and skiing great snow! We stopped mid-afternoon and set up our UltaMid with our seven mm cord strung between two trees to hang it from. We dropped our overnight gear under the shelter as the snow continued to fall rapidly from the sky and set out to find more afternoon skiing from camp. The wind ripped sideways once up on top of a prominent ridgeline. We peered over cornices into couloirs to be met with milk jug visibility–it was impossible to see the cliffy terrain below us. An eagle soared by, squinting into the snowy sky. We skied back the way we ascended, disappointed but hopeful the following day would provide another opportunity to try this zone again.

Photo: Will Stubb

Despite being under trees, snow streamed into the cracked UltaMid door as we cooked that night. We woke throughout the night to continue to push snow off the walls, and in the morning, we looked outside to the scene of a snow globe. 

From our Garmin InReach, we received a message from our friend Caitie. Hank had come down from Taylor, tired but happy after our wedding day, and had settled into cuddling her head. Snow was increasing through the week, with a mid-afternoon lull between storms on Tuesday afternoon and even more snow in the long-term forecast. It was Tuesday morning and still white-out snowstorm conditions. The visibility still wasn't suitable to return to the ridge with the shots we wanted to ski above camp, and we didn't have time to wait for the lull and to make progress along the route that day. We decided it was best to use the break in the storms to cover the miles across the Death Canyon Shelf, where we would then be on the east side of the Teton crest and in more familiar terrain before the next storm system settled in.

Photo: Will Stubb

More snow beyond there could pose problems, but first, we'd prioritize covering some ground. Spirits were high as we moved that morning. While we couldn't see far, it was inspiring to be in the Limestone cliffy landscape tucked at the back of Grand Teton National Park. We schemed a future trip–one that utilized a tram and a backcountry yurt to ski back here another time. A perk to a honeymoon across the home range is finding more places to return to later in life. 

Photo: Will Stubb

From a pass before the Shelf, we got cell service for the first time since leaving Taylor. Will confirmed the weather. Snow. More snow and then more snow. Reports of avalanche activity were slowly increasing as wind and storm slabs continued to grow. We changed our plans for our scheduled basecamp day in the alpine; these weren't storm skiing peaks that surrounded us. We made a quick call to arrange an alternative plan and then pressed on into the snow globe. We naturally spread out across a long, broad ridge. The light was flat. Will was enjoying taking photos in the surreal white room we skied through, and I stubbornly broke trail forward. Sun started to poke out, a relief that immediately turned sour. The spring sun rapidly warmed the snow, and snow began to clump under our skins and heels and weigh down our ski tips as we pushed forward. 

Photo: Will Stubb

We inched across the Shelf, my hip flexors screaming from the effort of breaking trail through fresh, heavy mashed potatoes. Will snapped off the end of his pole, smacking it against skis and boots to clear the snow. We arrived at camp tired, dehydrated, and hopeful it would cool down with the onset of the next storm. It started snowing as I was in the middle of melting snow at camp - the first time I sat outside to use the stove since our first night. We caught a glimpse of sunset under the clouds through the crevice Teton Canyon carved to the west. Tomorrow, day four, we were descending from the alpine. 

Photo: Ben Gavelda

To no one's surprise, it was snowing when we woke up. We packed up, stashed our overnight gear under the tree at camp, and we followed our soft tracks from the prior afternoon back up. At 10,000', visibility was flat, and we found a shot to ski a couple of times. Skiing in that light required all the intuitive balance I have. There was just white on white, nothing contrasted the snow from the sky, and skiing felt like an act of trusting gravity and my legs to respond to the surface I couldn't see. We returned to camp, reloaded our packs, and began the long descending traverse out Teton Canyon. Will nailed the route finding to lead us to the top of a 1,500' shot into the canyon floor, and for another fleeting moment, we elatedly skied great snow in big-enough terrain along our route. We slid and shuffled through the warm lower-elevation snow under towering canyon walls through steady snowfall. 

Photo: Will Stubb

We arrived at the confluence with the North Fork of Teton Canyon late afternoon. The Teton Canyon Yurt awaited us peacefully. A four-mile groomed Nordic track accesses the yurt from the Teton Canyon winter trailhead, but neither the groomer nor any skiers had passed by that day. We let ourselves into the yurt and rejoiced at our cleverness for calling the owner of Teton Backcountry Guides from our ridge with cell service the day prior. Here we would be able to finally fully dry out, stretch out, and access appropriate ski terrain for the storm conditions. Within 10 minutes, we had all our layers hanging above the pellet stove. We pulled sleeping bags heavy from condensation out and draped them over the bunk beds. Out came the UltaMid, our boot liners, insoles, skins, gloves, hats, buffs, maps, goggles, and glasses. I piled the remaining food from our ration and rationed out what we needed to get to Grand Targhee Resort later the next day. We made endless rounds of hot GU Roctane, tea, and bouillon broth as our cells filled up on water. We played cribbage with our feet propped up by the fire, read stories from magazines out loud, and looked hard for any forgotten boxes of wine (to no avail). Our bladders caught up to the hydration, and everytime I went out to pee, the snow was only falling harder. 

Will was snoring on my shoulder before I finished reading about the Greatest Snow on Earth, the Wasatch, south of our winter wonderland. 

I woke up feeling rested and grateful for a long, warm, deep, snow-free night of sleep. There was 10" of fresh snow in the walkway from the yurt, on top of everything that had fallen the day before. We topped off water, used the outhouse, cleaned the yurt, stashed our overnight gear nearby, and started breaking trail up Table Mountain. The storm slab was deep and reactive, sloughing easily in steeper terrain, and we carefully chose the shots we skied, amounting to a full and tiring day of great snow, breaking thigh-deep trail, and having ongoing conversations about risk management and what we need to do to ski safely that day. We opted to spend more time skiing and then hitch up to Targhee, rather than break trail 3,500' up in a snowstorm to the resort. By the end of three laps we'd skied over 6,000' of powder, had tired legs, and were ready for our resupply at Grand Targhee. 

Up at Targhee, we enjoyed beers, poutine, and burgers at the restaurant. Through the window behind Will, I watched it snow relentlessly. Guests came in, brushing snow off their hats and shoulders, exclaiming about the snowpocalypse that had arrived. Our faces were flushed from warming after days of being in the wind. We studied the forecast discussion and weighed it against our route. 36" of new snow was expected in the next two days. Our route was going to return to the alpine and skirt across large basins, cross passes, and traverse narrow ridges. Sloughing and slab avalanches were becoming more reactive, and our route was in the heart of where the storm would favor. We toyed with alternative routes, but they all deviated lower and farther from the traverse objective and felt contrived. Over dessert, we agreed it was time to call it a success. We had gotten married and skied from Taylor to Teton Canyon, a good distance along the Tetons by any measurement. We were leaving the northern part of the traverse, characterized by more remote, bigger peaks, for another window of time when the snowpack and weather allowed. 

We didn't have the conditions we'd hoped for. But looking back, we got to move through a snowy, magical landscape together. Aside from the one eagle, we didn't see another soul for four days. We broke a trail that filled in behind us, and within 24 hours, no one would ever have found a sign of us passing through together. In that way, to move as a small, two-person team in a challenging but beautifully inspiring landscape that distilled the experience into just us in the snow is an experience we could never have planned for, but one that will be a memory burned in our wedding anniversary of March 19. 

Photo: Ben Gavelda