Riding the Grand Teton with Jeremy Jones

When I pulled the rope and committed us to the East Face of the Grand Teton, I pictured the children of our crew (five kids in total, at the time). We were about to document one of the wildest descents in the Tetons, and if anything went wrong, it would all be on camera, there to be dissected.

Starting in about 2011, most of my winter work was with Teton Gravity Research, through Exum Mountain Guides, guiding descents of the high peaks for film projects. 

Up until then, very few knew what was happening in the high peaks in winter. There were a few dedicated high-alpine skiers and riders, but there was no Instagram. We lived in an invisible, parallel universe for a time.

Guiding the TGR crews was a whole new world, where the athletes were capable of the wildest riding, and I was paid to deliver the right timing for the best conditions—and do it safely. It was literally my dream job.

In February of 2013, I got a call from my longtime friend and TGR founder Todd Jones. His brother Jeremy Jones and fellow snowboard legend Bryan Iguchi wanted to ride the Grand. At that time I was about as risk tolerant as I have ever been in my career. I felt like I had developed a system for making decisions—I had tested it hundreds of times, refined it, and perfected it. I told Jones that I thought the window was about a week out. He hung up and bought his plane ticket on the spot. It was game on. 

We started dialing in the plans. 

East Face of the Grand Teton, Wyoming. Photo: Zahan Billimoria.

Jeremy had made multiple attempts in the past without success. He had intended to ride the Grand with the legendary Doug Coombs, who had since died in an accident near La Grave in the French Alps. The most notable mark that Coombs had left during his time in the Tetons had been a descent of the Otterbody Route on the East Face of the Grand. It was a King Line, super exposed, wild, and committing because once you pull the rope there is no way out but down, and the remaining skiing goes over an 800-foot cliff, which you have to rappel. So to honor the legacy of his friend, and to make his own mark by repeating the legendary descent, Jeremy and I set our sights on the Otterbody.

Our plan was to ski it in midwinter, in pow conditions. When Coombs first rode it, it was during a melt-freeze cycle, because that’s the way we did high-alpine skiing in those days. But this was a new era and the whole driving force was to experience the high peaks in midwinter conditions. If there was one skill set that I had dedicated myself to it was the understanding of the weather and snowpack patterns that made that kind of riding possible. I was all in.

“...once you pull the rope there is no way out but down...”

Leading up to our attempt we had stable snowpack conditions overall, and anticipated a two- to four-inch refresh, which would create the ideal riding conditions. But when the storm arrived, it produced far more snow than anyone had expected. By the time it stopped dumping, the Raymer plot had recorded over 32 inches of new snow. We all thought that was the end of the road for this project. Jeremy had given up a global sales meeting with his sponsors, TGR had contracted a helicopter, and for the first time ever were going to shoot in 4k with one of the most advanced cameras ever used in action sports. But none of that mattered now. The mountains had changed their plans.

So we sat and waited. We spent a few days riding pow in the lower elevations. While it seemed like the whole project was now unthinkable, in my mind it was still possible. It would come down to a single factor: settlement. Settlement is the rate at which the snow adjusts to a new load. It’s something we can read on a snow stake by simply looking at how much decrease in the height of snow there is over time as it settles. But on a slope, settlement is much more complex. Snow doesn’t just settle vertically, but also according to slope angle, and the aspect creates a shearing stress at the interface between the layers. 

How would the slope angle, sun angle, air temperature, wind, density of the new snow, etc. affect the ability of the snow to adjust to the new load?

Ultimately, this project came down to how well we could guesstimate the rate of settlement on the Grand, and whether the snowpack was becoming safer or just nearing a tipping point.

Climbing the the mostly snow-free and shady west side of the mountain, via the Owen-Spalding. Photo: Zahan Billimoria.

We studied the avalanche events that happened during that time, spoke to patrollers, watched the results from the explosives, and meticulously documented all of the snow and weather factors that could help me answer the stability equation. 

Fortunately, we would climb on the mostly snow-free and shady west side of the mountain, via the Owen-Spalding, and summit without being exposed to any overhead avalanche hazard, and then make the assessment in a top-down way. Brendan O’Neill and I would work together to guide the descent. Other guides would be on hand to help guide camera operators on the climb and on surrounding peaks.

If we had a chance, this was it, so we decided to go for it.

We awoke in camp at 4 a.m. and were moving by 5 a.m. The air temperature read -18℉  when we left, and I swear I could feel the frozen rock sucking the warmth out of my feet right through my boots. But the climbing was fun, mostly easily, wildly exposed, and beautiful.

By the time we reached the summit I knew I had damaged my toes, but as we crested into the sunshine for the first time, I had a much bigger worry: not getting avalanched off the East Face. (Despite our best efforts to keep our feet warm, I ended up with second and third degree frostbite on eight toes by the time we were done.)

Jeremy Jones climbing the Grand. Photo: Zahan Billimoria.

At this stage of the game, the only remaining question was propagation. There was an enormous amount of new snow—it was as deep as I had even seen it on the Grand at that time—and we knew there would be all kinds of sluff to manage. But what we really needed to understand to survive the experience was, is the snow going to act as a singular cohesive unit?

Brendan and I dug trenches, built snow anchors, and then lowered each other into relevant aspects. We took turns poking, prodding, and studying the snow, looking for signs of propagation. We found none.

When I pulled the rope and committed us to the East Face, I pictured the children of our crew, five kids in total, at the time. We were about to document one of the wildest descents in the Tetons, and if anything went wrong, it would all be on camera, there to be dissected.

I only made two or three consecutive turns on the East Face—the conditions were ridiculous overhead blower pow—before I had to stop to steady my mind.

With some hiccups (another story for another time!), the descent was successful. It remains one of the wilder moments I have ever experienced in the mountains, full of joy, but the kind that comes from the most intense focus.

The crew. Photo: Zahan Billimoria.

The lessons I learned from preparing to ride the mountain that day have formed the backbone of my understanding of how to ride big mountains midwinter. Back then I would have said “it is a system”, but since then I have lost dear friends to avalanches. Some died while I held them, others just disappeared, all of them brilliant, astute students of snow. 

Now I have learned there are no absolutes in the mountains, only guessing—educated, informed, and deeply thoughtful decisions, yes, but still only a guess. We can’t eliminate risk entirely, but we can reduce the uncertainty, and that’s about as good as it really gets.

There is no blueprint to surviving the high-risk world of big mountain riding—only lessons forged through experience.

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