In May local skier and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort athlete Kim Havell became the first woman to ski the Grand Teton’s Otter Body route. Here’s a great video documenting Kim’s descent, and below is Doug Coombs’ account of his first descent of the same route with Mark Newcomb.
by Doug Coombs, 1996/97 Jackson Hole Skier
Two intrepid skiers complete a long-dreamed-of ski descent on the Grand Teton’s Otter Body route
The full moon faded away as sunrise greeted Mark Newcomb and me on the summit of the Grand Teton. It was June 2, 1996, and conditions were perfect for a ski descent, which was precisely what we intended to do.
My interest in skiing the Grand’s Otter Body route had evolved over a five-year-period, inspired by a talk with local climber/skier, Steve Shea. “In the perfect year, at the perfect time, during the perfect hour,” Steve said, “skiing the Otter Body is possible. It’s the most aesthetic, direct ski route off the Grand Teton.”
I studied the route over the years, waiting for Shea’s perfect scenario to come together – timing is critical in a radical ski descent such as this. The moment materialized after the cold, wet spring of 1996. When the weather finally broke and warm days and cool nights followed, a window of opportunity opened, one that fellow ski mountaineer Mark Newcomb and I knew would be short and sweet.
Rushing it would have been too dangerous because of avalanche conditions. Yet waiting too long would allow the route to melt, making a ski-descent through the remaining ice and exposed rock impossible. As it turned out, our window lasted only three days and was skiable only between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. We went for it on day two.
I had attempted to ski the Otter Body – a hanging snowfield shaped like an otter – in February with another partner, Andrew McLean. His exceptional climbing ability on mixed rock and ice helped us reach the top of the otter’s tail, but we turned back once we saw the scary avalanche danger above. In June on our final rappel, Mark and I used the protection Andrew had placed and purposely left behind.
Mark and I climbed by bright, full moonlight from our camp on the lower saddle at 4:30 a.m., up the Stettner Couloir on a stiff snow crust. We entered the ice gully between the Ford and Stettner couloirs on perfect, 60-degree verglas and water ice, making for “ego” front-pointing. We soloed unroped for speed, stopping for a few flashcube pictures (where Mark dropped his dad’s camera bag – oops!) in this dramatic slot on the Grand Teton. We popped out in the Ford couloir just in time to see the red sun rise, glowing on all the rocks and snow. With this electric aura, ‘Energizer Bunny’ Mark motored off to the summit. After a steady panting pace, I reached the summit 15 minutes behind him.
We discussed our thoughts. Mark was concerned that the steep, narrow crux from the East Face snowfield onto the Otter Body would be sun-baked, punchy snow with wet slides. I was concerned that the cold, shady lower Otter Body would be bulletproof, creating unedgeable conditions. Both areas have huge exposure – 2,000 vertical-foot drops over cliffs – where a fall is not an option.
Wasting no time, we skied off the summit down the East Face on fantastic, smooth, frozen granular snow. The slope rolled over to extreme steepness as it approached the Otter Body, and because of the firm snow, defensive skiing was the protocol: one turn at a time. At this point the narrow slot turned east and the snow turned to perfect corn, confirming Mark’s prediction. Good thing! It was 50-plus-degrees steep and a ski-and-a-half wide; with a direct fall line to the cliffs below. This is where the main Otter Body veered left towards the tail area of the Otter Body. It became an off-fall-line pitch filled with small, bumpy, frozen runnels.
Now my concerns where confirmed. The snow was bulletproof and spotted with patches of verglas! Desiring the aesthetics of skiing the whole run, we decided to wait for the sun to soften the snow. We placed ice screws and anchored ourselves to them.
For an hour we were stuck like flies on flypaper, hanging onto the side of the mountain. Suddenly, rock-fall from the sun-baked East Face above us started to rain down. Time to go. No choice. His skis chattering loudly, Mark turned his way down a few hundred feet and stopped above a sheet of glazed ice. “Totally sketchy down here,” he yelled up to me. Skiing down to him, I concurred with his analysis. My entire body vibrated as I skidded to a stop.
We down-climbed the ice-covered bottom 300 feet of the Otter Body, using crampons and ice axes, and then we rappelled 120 feet onto Teepee Glacier. We had hoped to ski all the way to the rappel, but the previous day’s warm temperatures and freezing night had formed a glaze of ice on top of the snow. Had we been able to stick to our plan, we would’ve accomplished the fewest rappels or least down-climbing of any other ski descent off the Grand Teton.
Once onto the Teepee Glacier, we carved up “ego” corn snow down to Garnet Canyon, glad to be away from the onslaught of debris raining down on us. Two days later the narrows up high was all rock and the Otter Body snowfield was riddled with giant runnels. Talk about squeaking in a ski run through a small window of opportunity!
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