Mount Moran (12,605 ft): Skillet Glacier Route
Mileage (RT): 4 (skis), 8 (boat)
Vert: 6,000 feet
Trailhead: Signal Mountain Boat Launch
I’ve been intrigued by Mount Moran ever since seeing a trip report about it on TGR years ago, then reaffirmed by a pic from a plane included in Chris Davenport’s “50 Classic Ski Descents of North America“. The draw is obvious from the start – an approach on a canoe across a lake in the Tetons to a campsite along a shore and a 6000 foot vertical ski line in the heart of raw nature. In my opinion, that’s a must do for any ski mountaineer, or any mountaineer period.
My first couple trips to the Tetons involved leisure hikes up Cascade Canyon and a few attempts at climbing the Grand. Moran was always just that cool looking prominent peak to the North. So when Mike and Jamie invited me to climb the Skillet Glacier over Memorial Day weekend, without having to use any PTO, I jumped at the opportunity. I hate having to look at it that way, but such is life for a weekend warrior.
The Tetons are an absolute mecca for anything alpinism. From a skier’s point of view, think of the Gores with double the vertical rise from the valley and 3 to 4 times the skiing vertical. That’s all I could think of over the weekend – I was staring at the Gore Range…on crack. The Tetons are a scary range, at least to me. It has a tendency to humble the uninitiated. Unless you are Alex Lowe, you simply cannot take these mountains for granted. In the couple previous trips I had taken to the area, disastrous nasty weather and unpreparedness cost me dearly on reaching the summit of the Grand. I wouldn’t say they were a nemesis range yet, but they had my attention and they made me nervous (Mike’s nemesis peak was Rainier after a couple ill-fated attempts – I guess we all have our own personal obstacles). The late Steve Romero’s TetonAT.com includes line after line of steep, committing, no fall ski routes that would put to shame just about any line in Colorado (think Landry Line, with 1500-2000 more vert and scatter all over a concentrated range and you have the Tetons). Its both a dangerous and overwhelming realization of the potential of the Tetons when you don’t live there. It’s best to just appreciate what you have in your backyard and enjoy and cherish your visits to this fine gem when you can, at least that’s my opinion on the matter.
Jamie, Mike and I made the midnight drive to Rock Springs, where we drove an extra 10 miles north of town to the turnoff for the Boar’s Tusk and plopped down for the evening. We woke up to what looked like a setting for an episode of Breaking Bad. “We’re in Wyoming, not New Mexico right?”. Mike, who is always the voice of reason and clarification, confirmed we were in fact in Wyoming and under 3 hours from Jackson. Good to know. We got in to Jackson around 11, got some sandwiches at Backcountry Delicatessen (formerly Backcountry Provisions) and loaded the canoe from Rendezvous Sports on the roof.
Since I had a base model Outback, there weren’t any obvious places to tie the canoe down to underneath the car, so some gerry-rigging was in order. Now I know why the Limited Edition is 6 grand extra.
Next stop was the climbing permit ($25) which we picked up at the Moose Visitor’s Center at the south entrance of the park. Due to some computer malfunctions and an unaware or uninformed park staff, this took a while. Mike and I checked out the store while Jamie waited patiently.
We finally got the permits squared away and a bear canister and were on our way. This was Mike’s virgin trip to Wyoming and he got a mouthful of mountains on the drive in….
After gaping at the sights, along with the rest of the hoards, we arrived at the Signal Mountain Lodge area, where we circumnavigated our way to the public boat launch where we were forced to start our adventure due to the road to Spalding Bay, the usual drop off point, still snow covered. This would add significant distance paddling across Jackson Lake (which on Saturday, was windy, crowded and rough). Given this was all of our first times paddling across a lake to a skiing objective, it definitely increased the anxiety a little. A motorized boat would’ve done wonders.
The initial leg of the canoe across the lake went relatively smooth. We opted to scale the shoreline, in case the wake got too bad or the weather rolled in. Around the time we reached our initially intended start point at Spalding Bay, the clouds had begun to envelop the area and the wind was literally tossing us in circles and shoving us in to the shore. We decided to dock ourselves and see if the winds would die down.
We tried getting back in the water a few times, but the wind and tide were sucking us right back in to the shore, like a tractor beam. No matter how hard we paddled, we couldn’t fight it or adjust to it. After a while, we eventually learned to let the current take us and then paddle with it accordingly, which helped us get around the point of Spalding Bay and out of the winds enough to return to our normal routine. By the time we reached Bearclaw Bay, the water was all but still and we reached our intended shores, 2 hours and 45 minutes later.
There were 2 other visible parties already camped out along the shore, with a large gap in the middle to call home for the night. We found a nice little knoll a couple feet above the shoreline with just enough room for a 3-man tent and some branches to hang gear on. It was nice to know that the bruins could only come at us from one side, more or less. I know I’m a tad overly paranoid about that issue, but read Stephen Herrero’s “Bear Attacks” people and then tell me I’m paranoid. Not to mention people have had to wade idle in the bay while families of Grizz passed on by.
We cooked on the rocky shore that evening with a calm presence about the place. I wasn’t sure to be relieved or worried, as the afternoon’s build up seemed to have gone in to hiding for the time being. Having a history with Teton storms, I wasn’t convinced the worst was over yet. Nonetheless, dinner was peaceful, and delicious….
After some 4-cheese tortellini, salt and pepper pistachios, some handfuls of Extra Cheddar Goldfish (The Golden King Soopers is hiding their Pringles!) and some Country Time Lemonade, we decided to call it an early evening with anticipation of an absurdly early start. After talking to some locals camping near us who had skied the Skillet earlier that morning, all we garnered from the conversation was “no freeze in 10 days or nights” and “runneled”, as well as “character building ski descent”. Terrific. With afternoon temps expected to reach the high 50’s and 100% chance of sun, I was mentally and physically preparing myself for a grudge match.
Before hitting the sack, I sat along the shore admiring a little stocking stuffer from mother nature. She can giveth just as much as she can taketh.
Lights went out around 8:15pm. Around 10:30, mother nature brought a little micro burst of pain, showering the area for a good 30 minutes. I wanted to curse loudly, but nobody else was really moving, so I didn’t want to worsen the already worsened mood. Every 30 seconds, just when it seemed like the burst would fade, it came back twice as hard as before. It ceased abruptly and we were able to enjoy the final 90 minutes dozing off. I think I actually got some genuine shuteye. I was pretty nervous, but at the same time, I had this overwhelming sense of stubborn resilience, and I knew I was going to give this mountain my all in the morning. No more 8 hour drives through podunk Wyoming to get skunked again.
12:30am rolled around too soon and we hit the trail around 1:25am (Jamie is very methodical when it comes to stats). This was the first approach where I can remember almost the entire way up AND the way down later that day. It had 3 defined segments of suck, but they were manageable. After skinning over barely supportable snow and weaving in, out, over, under and through downed logs, we reached a head wall with the creek to our right and no obvious way through, so we decided to go right up it. I was reaching the beginning stages of nerd rage already and it wasn’t even 2:30am. This would be a new record! It started off with deep sighs, which quickly metamorphosed to audible grunts, pretty soon reaching levels where I was just putting my head down and trying to run over large trees.
As luck would have it, one of those trees I tried to run over spit me right out on to the lower apron of the glacier, where we saw 3 headlamps bobbing there way up what looked to be an unobstructed snowfield above tree line. Finally, we were on the glacier. Without much pause to celebrate, we began trudging up the hill in to the night. Jamie took off ahead with Mike and I putting one foot in front of the other. We had an idea where we were, but no idea at the same time, we might as well been on the moon. We just kept following those lights above us in to the dark abyss that was the Skillet.
Light was creeping its way in to the Teton valley ever so slightly and by the time we reached a landmark rock outcropping that we had spotted the day before from afar, it finally showed its face.
I was filled with emotion. I had been wanting to be this high in the Tetons since the last time I failed on the Grand. Climbing in your home state can cause temporary periods of complacency, but achieving a goal such as this is a nice reminder of why this is all so much fun.
The sun rising also meant we were on a race to ski the line in semi-reasonable conditions. We noticed a ton of wet slide debris across all aspects, but there were pockets of untouched corn. There were also 3 people ahead of us and we were thinking they were thinking the same thing. We had to hustle.
As we reached the dog leg of the route, we looked back and saw no less than 20 climbers making their way up the Skillet. Good ole holiday weekends. Now that the sun was out, we also noticed that we were surrounded by 100% Grade A grundle on all aspects and that this descent was going to be full on survival skiing. Fortunately, the venue was too beautiful to really care, we were just thrilled to be able to summit a Teton peak.
The fellas below seemed to be using the grundle to their advantage and appeared un-phased. Some even opted to travel across the grundle as opposed to the nicely laid down boot pack to the climber’s left of it. Grundle can be irresistible.
Some fear the grundle, others use it to their advantage. Mike and I would find out where we fell in that category on the descent. We pushed onward and upwards, reaching a comfortable rhythm up the main body of the Skillet, reaching the 50+ degree handle around 7am. We both realized around that time that we needed to be skiing in less than 30 minutes and we still had 1500 feet to go. This peak would not relent! We finally topped out around 7:45, leaving our packs at the top of the col of the Skillet and hiking the final 50 feet to the flat summit. Amen!
Now I thought Shasta had the coolest summit views in the lower 48, but Moran gave it a serious run for its money. You be the judge.
Jamie had been on the summit for a solid 20 minutes, waiting for us. We took some summit shots, talked to some locals about some lines in the area, admired our place in this world and then prepared for the descent, with Jamie getting a head start since he was down climbing the route on foot.
Mike and I then dropped in around 8:15am, easily over a hour too late. We paid for it mostly, but had moments of reprieve. Here were some of the highlights :
The Ski Logik Howitzers – aka “The Grundle Busters” – had been fooled on this day. They are used to hard packed, dug in, rough grundle, but Teton Grundle was a whole different ball game. Instead of biting into and thrashing away the snow, the Grundle Busters would plow in to the grundle, only for the grundle to give way, playing Jedi mind tricks on the skis. What this meant in technical terms is I didn’t perform any clean stops – I just landed and fell down when I got tired of skiing. Mike, being the sage wizard he is, was able to control this more so than myself and Jamie just plunge stepped 6000 feet down the entire face, so the joke was on the skier’s on this day I guess.
I joke about the snow pack, but it wasn’t a bad experience by any stretch of the imagination. Aside from being exhausted, it was an incredible adventure that struck a cord in me personally. This was Mike’s first Wyoming summit and actually his virgin trip to the Cowboy State, so I know this was meaningful to him and Jamie obviously is fond of the place as he’s climbed a bunch here over the years and knows it pretty damn well.
As Mike and I waited for Jamie at the bench below the rocks, we had the pleasure of witnessing some significant seracs break on the cliff faces along the looker’s right side of the Skillet, one of which caused a noteworthy slide on the slope we had just descended 10 minutes before. It was amusing and terrifying at the same time. Rockfall was constant, but most of it never really touched down to the valley floor, despite being really loud. We knew it was time to GTFO.
As we neared tree line, Mike and I tried to figure out the most efficient way to descend to camp. Jamie took the high road along the left side of the creek and every time we saw him, he looked to be effortlessly strolling down the path. We, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out if we needed to shoulder our skis and slog out, or continue to find snow lines to the lake. After we had enough of picking out way through the woods, we finally forded the creek and put the skis on the pack for the remainder of the reproach. The rest looked something like this:
A hellacious 1/2 mile schwack later, we reached the shores of Bearclaw Bay with skis on our backs and sand on our ski boots. It feels odd typing that, but thats what it was and it felt amazing. You don’t get to experience something like that too often.
We packed up the canoe quickly and got on the now calm bay, making double time back to the boat launch. Climbing a line like Skillet in such blitzkrieg fashion seemed disrespectful, but we didn’t have the luxury of time and had to keep moving. Mike was on paddle and I was sitting bitch, enjoying the view…
We reached the boat launch within 2 hours, quickly loaded up the rig and made way for Jackson with food and beverage on the brain. We dropped the boat off with ease and met up with a friend of a friend at Local, a “local” burger joint in downtown Jackson with Pakos on tap and burgers the size of your upper torso. We did pass this establishment en route…..
After re-fueling, both in food and in gas, we made way South towards Pinedale, where we found a nice campsite for the night….
Wyoming is sweet in the sense that anything is fair game with regard to dispersed camping. You can locate a forest road, drive a half mile and pitch a tent just about anywhere you damn well please. The population of Wyoming is around 575,000, which is around the size of Colorado Springs, and its the 10th largest state in terms of total area, so you can do the math. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Toys” with Robin Williams, you can get a sense of the landscape. Rolling fields of green grass as far the eye can see with the Wind River Range as a perfect backdrop. Its tough trying to figure out what is heaven in NW Wyoming.
Sunrise was our alarm the next morning and we decided to break up the drive with a 5.4 rock climb leg stretcher 10 miles north of Rock Springs on an isolated “desert tower” called Boars Tusk. The highlight was a 200 foot rappel from the summit and a 1-pitch bird shit riddled climb.
Mike and Jamie really started geeking out with the LOJ’ing from Boars Tusk all the way to Eagle County. I learned a lot, when I paid attention, but most of the time played some Stones and Tull to pass the time. I will NEVER succumb to county high pointing. Mark my words.
Nonetheless, solid trip with solid partners in a solid venue. We all got a new iconic Teton peak, elusive Sweetwater County 7er tower and most importantly, discovered Gaper Guides. Twas a trip to remember – thanks for reading.