Seeking November Nirvana // Pre-Season Backcountry Skiing in the Northern Rockies
Without a little creativity, skiing in November is usually nothing more than grassy slopes or a gratuitous dose of ski damage. This year, we managed to pull off the elusive: ski mid-winter lines, keep our bases pristine, and best of all, score some fresh November powder.
November skiing in the mountain west is ALWAYS hit or miss. In the five Novembers I’ve spent in the Tetons, I’ve experienced full on winter skiing, bare ground mud slipping and just about everything in between. I’ve slashed waist deep powder turns on high alpine ridges and completely destroyed pairs of skis in places I would’ve sworn were safe. Skiing the rockies in November is a lot like playing Russian Roulette with your body, skis and upcoming winter. Nonetheless, every year the first flurries of November fall from the sky, and every year I say I won’t ski until December… and every year I find myself billy-goating over logs and bush-whacking through lightly dusted forests, probing for rocks and trying to judge the likely hood of skiing over unsuspecting cliffs, in search of what will hopefully be November Nirvana.
The Cave Couloir, GTNP
Besides climbing the local ski resort and sideslipping down a crunchy and crumbly trail back in October; November 16th was the first day I decided to try my hand at skiing. Grand Teton National Park is home to many glaciers, which, geologically speaking, provide ideal and relatively safe objectives for early season skiing. Because glaciers never melt, you can almost conclusively assume that any new snow gathered on the surface, provided you know exactly where the boundaries of the glacier are, will be free of surprises underfoot. The caveat? Glaciers, especially in 2020, are typically tucked far far away, high in the shaded nooks and crannies of only the largest mountain ranges. Thus, it was only logical to choose the closest possible glacier to minimize the amount of time hiking with skis on our backs. The Middle Teton Glacier at the top of Garnet Canyon was the choice, and on the dark and rainy November morning we set out from the Bradley-Taggart parking area into the puddly, muddy and damp forest in search of some snow to slide on two wooden sticks.
Just as we began walking, the first of many fat snowflakes began to fall from the clouded sky. The flakes ramped up in intensity as we made our way along the Valley View Trail, across Taggart Lake and up the steep approach to Lupine Meadows and Garnet Canyon. As we slipped and slid along the lightly blanketed summer trail we set our minimalist goal for the day: to make at least one turn. The goal seemed realistic, because by the 3 hour mark we hadn’t yet seen much more than a snow covered bush — and progress wasn’t exactly speedy. With the awkward load of skis, boots and avalanche safety gear on our backs and the dramatically increasing amount of snow underfoot, it didn’t seem probable we would reach the Middle Teton Glacier. However, just as we rounded the mouth of Garnet Canyon and began our climb into the heart of the Tetons, we were presented with our ski line of the day, glimmering in a pocket of sunshine no more than an hour ahead. Pitted in the south fork of Garnet Canyon was a strip of continuous, glimmering snow too perfect to pass up — The Cave Couloir. My partner, John Walker, had skied the Cave before, and without a word between us our objective for the day was established.
Our spirits were lifted by the prospect of actually skiing something exciting. I personally had never skied the Cave, although I’d seen it many a time while exploring Garnet Canyon both summer and winter. Between us and the base of the couloir was the Lupine Meadows boulder field, which proved to be quite the obstacle when dressed in a few feet of snow. After monkeying over the icy boulders, stashing our hiking boots and transitioning to skis we we arrived at the base of the couloir with high spirits. The snow was thin, but as we began to kick steps into the Cave it became clear that we were going to score some powder. By the time we topped out nearly 6 inches had accumulated on the glaciated slope. Besides my shaky early season legs, it felt like mid-winter lacing powder turns on my brand new Icelantic Nomad 105 Lite touring skis, which felt leaps and bounds more fun than any touring ski I’d ever ridden before. The playful twin-tipped ski dipped and slashed through the wind buffed sugar with ease, making for a stylish and fun top to bottom first lap. The stoke was high as we chowed down on burritos and transitioned back to boots for a second run, which seemed only fitting after the lengthy approach. With more confidence we climbed and slashed our way through the Cave Couloir a second time, milking every last inch of possible turns before retreating back to Lupine Meadows for a long and painful egress. We finally reached the car around the 11 hour mark, rounding out a day that felt like climbing and skiing Mount Denali to my virgin summer legs. As the sun set over the mountains from the national park access road I couldn’t help but revel in the prospect that we were quite possibly the only two people who skied powder in the Tetons that day — even if we took a tremendous physical beating to do so.
We returned to our couches with stoke high as the sky, excited to plan another adventure into the Tetons the following weekend. I thought we’d found the secret, the holy grail of November skiing. But after a week of drizzly weather and no signs of snow in the high alpine, my spirits began to diminish. Another week of dry-land activities came and went until the weather forecast started to warn of a possible system building. As the days drew closer the system tracked north, but instead of spending another snow-less weekend in town, I approached John with the proposition of chasing the storm north. The morning after Thanksgiving, we set off from Teton Valley for a two-day weekend in Montana, armed with little more than a map, a hotel reservation, an incoming snowstorm and a determined mindset to again, find somewhere to make “at least one turn.”
Lionhead Ridge, West Yellowstone, MT
Montana is well known for excellent backcountry skiing, with ranges like the Gallatin and Beartooth, and resorts like Big Sky and Bridger Bowl boasting amazing terrain with relatively easy access. The Lionhead Range, also known as the Henry Lake Mountains and unlike the above, is one of Montana’s most remote. Seldom accessed in the winter, the Lionhead lies just north of Island Park, ID, and provides mostly snowmobile terrain and casual walks for cross-country skiers. However, for the adventurer who seeks isolation, beauty and dramatic vertical relief, and doesn’t mind several hours of pre-ski wallowing through dense forest, these mountains pose an epic and mysterious challenge; for beyond the typical lookers eye lies steep mountains, aesthetic ridges and tantalizing alpine lines just begging to be skied.
We only had a few hours of daylight left by the time we reached the top of the pass separating Idaho and Montana on US HWY 20. Because the approach to the Lionhead is much longer than the Tetons, we weren’t expecting much skiing that afternoon. Instead, we scouted an objective for following day, got familiar with the approach trail and kicked in a brutally deep skin-track through the nearly two feet of fresh snow that had accumulated in the past week. The Lionhead had been the receptor of at least two-fold the snowfall of the Tetons, and the higher we climbed the increasing base depth only became more evident. We returned to the car empty handed in turns but with a clear cut objective for the following morning: Lionhead Ridge.
Do to near blizzard conditions we never actually saw Lionhead Ridge our first day, but judging by the map we had paved over half the way. Getting an early jump from bed and opting for hotel room Instant Pot oatmeal instead of the breakfast buffet, we were back on the trail just after sunrise. The temperature had dropped well into the single digits, bone-chillingly freezing for December. Following our tracks from the day before, we made quick work of the three-hour ascent to Lionhead Ridge. Right as we topped out on our first high point, the morning clouds lifted and exposed our first glimpses of a true winter wonderland. Lionhead Ridge had a bit of it all, cliff bands, tight couloirs and best of all, wide open and conservative faces shimmering with deep, light and fluffy powder. By the fifth hour we gained the first summit of the ridge, electing to forgo Lionhead Peak proper due to unstable avalanche conditions. All morning we’d been hearing “woomphing,” a sign of avalanche activity and instability in the snowpack. From our first “summit” we had a 1500 foot, lightly treed fall-line descent to the basin below, and a pretty obvious ridge to re-ascend. We ripped skins and got straight into the goods, slashing knee deep powder turns through the effortless snow, hooting and hollering to the canyon bottom below.
John took the reigns and kicked a brutal up-track back to the top of the ridge, where we transitioned a second time and indulged in another glorious powder run. The snow felt bottomless, exactly how I’d expect a mid-Feburary storm cycle to feel. John and I “party-skied” the second lap much as we did the first, with faces grinning ear to ear. By the time we gained Lionhead Ridge a third time, dense fog had blown in, nature’s way of telling us it was time to return home. Thank goodness we did, because although we were following our approach track back, travel was much harder than we anticipated. A few hours of white-out weather, windswept rocks and questionable navigational decisions eventually got us to the car just after sunset, rounding out a 6,000 vertical foot ski tour of epic proportions. Beaten to a pulp, I collapsed into the seat of John’s Subaru as we made our way through the snowy night in the direction of Teton Valley. The next morning I awoke to pounding thighs and aching calfs, but also an all too satisfying confirmation that in the past five years of reluctant, neurotic and often hap-hazardous pursuit, I had finally found what I’d been seeking. I’d found November Nirvana.