Middle Teton Weekend

Middle Teton with the Grand peaking behind

Julia and I boogied down to the Tetons this prior weekend to play in the hills and attempt to get some sun. Given our recent short spell of heavy snowfall in the mountains and rain/snow in the valleys, it was somewhat of a crap shoot regarding conditions at higher elevations but we went for it to see what was in store. Our objective was the SW Couloir of the Middle Teton via Garnet Canyon. This is a normally a relatively easy-going, early-season, snow slog couloir that starts from the saddle between the Middle and South Teton. Our arrival early Saturday afternoon at Lupine Meadows entailed rain and thunder as well as a warning sign of mama griz and cubs – two not-so-inspiring beginnings to a trip.

Safety is not guaranteed

Moments prior to sunshine at the TH

But if you are familiar with spring in the Rockies, wait five minutes and the weather will change. As soon as rain gear was donned, sure enough the storms passed over and the sun came out. As for the sign of big bruins, it is like the weather – expect fickleness and the likelihood of encounters, and one will not be in for a surprise. So off we went, in the new-found sun and peeking views of the alpine.

Change of weather

Fairy Slipper on approach

Most of the Teton approaches cut to the chase, and as an admirer of things vertical I am very thankful for this no-nonsense access to the alpine environment. Our destination was the South Fork bivy sites below the South/Middle saddle. The saddle is circa 11,300′ and the South Fork bivies are somewhere around 1000′ below the saddle. So we bivied above 10,000′ at South Fork after about 5 miles and 3,500′ elevation gain from Lupine Meadows TH. On our way up we encountered the usual suspects (lazy marmots, JH locals, international/national tourists, pikas, deer, etc), the occasional early-season wildflowers, and even a black bear with cubs enjoying the fine afternoon.

Black bear and cub

We were the first party into Garnet Canyon despite our late start, and one of an eventual two (or three?) parties that evening in the canyon. This year’s early June conditions are similar to last year’s mid-July conditions, and for that we were excited to get into the high-country so early in the season.

Garnet Meadows below Middle Teton

Water collection en route in Meadows

At our bivy we changed from our wet trail runners to our mountaineering boots and pitched the BD Firstlight in the intermittent, but heavy winds. After the tent was secure, we proceeded to split camp duties which entailed gear sorting, water collection, dinner prep/cooking, and preparing for our early morning departure.

Psyched at South Fork bivy

BD Firstlight secure below Middle Teton

After a hearty dinner of rehydrated pasta parmesan and vegetables, we retired to the lovely alpine vistas and the unfortunate freight train-like-winds. Despite thinking that we’d sleep like kings for our day’s effort, the winds and occasional rain/sleet storms kept us very-much alert and awake through the night. The tent was securely anchored with ice axes and rocks but throughout the night we were slightly lifted off the ground when the winds were truly persuasive. The ebb and flow was predictable, with the winds first quieting and then suddenly blasting us with enough force to get under the tent. It was fairly unnerving to say the least. The pre-4am alarm went off and the winds did not relent, so we opted to wait an hour or so to feel it out.

Valley sun from South Fork

After over two hours of howling winds and a low ceiling, we decided to pack up and go to the saddle to assess the situation further. The conditions were less than optimal, given the lack of an overnight freeze and the high winds. Most of the snow was in the same conditions as the previous evening, and consisted of a mixture of slow-going corn and isothermic slush – not quite the neve that we had hoped to encounter. Some talus and boulder navigation also was encountered prior to the saddle which steeply drops to Iceflow Lake and beyond into Idaho.

At the saddle looking towards SW Couloir, MIddle Teton

Back down

Here, we decided that it would be most reasonable to turn around given the continued high winds, the lack of visibility above the saddle, and the previous morning’s storms. There’s always next time, and also other routes, so we backtracked to our cache and proceeded to plunge step down to snowline and warmer temperatures. Once off of the snow, we transitioned back into trail-runners and out of our boots for the few miles of switchbacks back to Lupine Meadows. While warmer than the approach, the return trip was quick and easygoing with no sketchy bear encounters. Once back in the valley, we headed to town for our semi-traditional tacos and margaritas. Tetons and tacos..two T’s that I will not turn down!

Moss Campion below Cloudveil Dome

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