Skiing the Grand Teton doesn’t just happen, especially in winter. But last February, Exum Mountain Guides’ Bill Liberatore and Nat Patridge successfully led local Jackson, Wyoming, lawyer Dave Defazio down 50-degree couloirs and exposed snowfields on the Teton’s highest peak—its first guided winter descent.
People have been skiing the Grand during spring for years. Winter, however, changes the 13,770-foot peak into a different beast. “Forecasting for weather and a stable snowpack is essential and absolutely dictates when attempts are even considered,” says Patridge.
Despite legitimate snow-stability concerns, there is an upside to a winter descent. Because of below-freezing temps, wet avalanches are not a hazard. And you don’t have to wait at the top for the snow to soften into corn. But it doesn’t make the skiing any less dangerous. “Clients need to be willing to really understand the risks of winter climbing, not just sign the waiver,” says Scott Cole, a retired mountain guide of 27 years. “If I were ski guiding the Grand, I’d need to know that they’re capable of this without endangering my life.” Defazio, for his part, started training three years ago by skinning up Snow King ski area several days a week and performing technical descents on lesser Teton peaks with Liberatore.
Exum plans to offer this experience again this season—weather and snowpack permitting. The best time for a winter descent is the second half of February through March. “Skiing the Grand in winter is the ideal time,” says Patridge. “It allows you to ski to the valley floor and take advantage of its 7,000 vertical feet instead of walking halfway down with your skis on your back.”
- SKIING MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2009