Let me tell you about a “best day ever.” I am not writing this to spray about how good we were or the epic conditions, because to be honest, they were horrible. Like ski-every-type-of-bad-snow-you-can-imagine-in-a-single-run horrible. And we even made some mistakes; we were far from perfect, but I will still look back on that sunny weekend in April and think “that was the best.”
Skiing The Skillet on Mount Moran is a long sought after line. A gigantic, steep couloir you can see from the road carves an aesthetic 5500’ fall-line ski run from near the summit all the way to Jackson Lake. It’s no wonder it’s claimed a spot on North America’s 50 Classic Ski Descents. But not at no cost. The mountain is also fairly hard to get to in the winter. You either have to skin 6 miles across the flat frozen desert that is Jackson Lake where mirages of cozy slippers and overflowing pints of hefferveisen taunt you. And that’s if you’re lucky- the alternative is a not-so-frozen Jakson Lake more akin to tromping through the neighbors’ kiddie pool with skis on and purely guessing how much ice is below. Or, you can wait until the park road opens to bikes and ride to String Lake where you begin a similar mirage-y and/or kiddie pool-esque trek across both String and Leigh lakes to the base of the line. There is a lot of debate about which approach is superior (down to which Jackson Lake trailhead you should start at) and even more so about whether it is better to do the entire push in a single day or to haul all of your stuff out there to spend the night. When a group of my close ski partners and I decided to go for the line this April, we all chose differently, and as it turns out: we were all right.
Mount Moran beacons in the morning light
It was late March when Sophia mentioned to Lily and I that she was planning a trip with Iván across Jackson Lake to ski the Skillet. She invited us to come meet them out there and camp for a few nights to ski the classic and slightly-less-classic lines in the neighboring canyons. Lily immediately said yes with the enthusiasm that only Lily can translate through a text message that left me no choice but to submit to my FOMO and mentally prepare for the slog. With different schedules and more friends we wanted to invite, the plan was for each of us to approach with our own ski groups, meet at camp and then split up to ski different lines during the day. This ended up looking like roughly three groups of four starting from different corners of the park to converge at the south end of Jackson Lake in the shadow of Mount Moran.
That next Friday afternoon Lily and three others with sleds in tow departed from Colter Bay with sights set at the base of Moran. Part of Sophia’s crew left from Signal Mountain Lodge also hoping to thread the needle between a slushy lake and getting to camp at a decent hour. My crew, along with Sophia’s other two, opted for the bike approach, hopeful that the hassle of the bikes and more transitions outweighed the monotonous slog across Jackson Lake.
Surely we forgot something... (Left) A casual cruise on the park road (Right)
Easy travel on a frozen Leigh Lake (Photo Hayden Fake)
Leaving the trailhead later than planned the repose of riding bikes was promising for a mellow trek to camp. This notion was eventually interrupted with setbacks from my sled and a pending sunset. Yet, even in grueling moments of heavy packs, disagreements over navigation and walking way past dinner time, we were able to find joy in the little things like the ease of skating over a frozen lake or a wondrous echo far too entertaining for a group of grown adults. We laughed loudly at ourselves because no one wanted to talk about how the grizzlies were surely waking up and the boys helped me navigate the sled through the final shwack to where we expected the rest of the crew to be waiting at camp.
Magic hour as darkness approaches
Home sweet home
Sure enough, around 9:00pm we saw the glow of our friends’ headlamps as they cleaned up the last bits of dinner. Their excitement to see us quickly wore off as their looming alarms called them off to bed as we made camp. We had each made plans to ski different lines nearby. While weary of the conditions, our crew decided to try for the Skillet the next day hoping to ski a line in Leigh Canyon on our egress the following day.
I was first awoken by Iain and Joey’s alarm, grateful it wasn’t mine and I could keep lying there a bit longer. I heard the sound of their beacon check as they, Sophia and Iván headed off. Much too soon it was our turn to begin our preparations for the day and I reluctantly got out of my warm cocoon and put on my frozen boots. After a short approach through the trees we popped out into a clearing where our line was visible in the moonlight. We could see the headlamps of at least three other parties ahead of us and what I wasn’t willing to admit looked like wet slide avalanche debris covering the south facing side of the apron. We continued up, slipping on the firm yet no-as-frozen-as-we-would-like snow and stopping for the occasional wag-bag morning poop. The higher we got on the line and the further up we could see, we all began to realize: the skiing is really going to suck. The part of the line that wasn’t draped in avalanche debris shedding off the south face above was either a runnel channel of firm moguls left by skiers of days past or a pole length of unconsolidated snow just beginning its cycle to becoming isothermic (what we like to call breakable slush.) Yet as our crew continued up the line we seemed to motivate each other more because of how bad the conditions were shaping up. We continued to joke and make fun of ourselves and still never took our sights off the summit.
Sunrise over avalanche debris and Jackson Lake (Photo Hayden Fake)
After nearly 6 hours of climbing we topped out on the couloir to find two ladies peering down and cheering us on. They turned out to be two more of our good friends that had decided to ski the line in a single day. When we were crawling into our tents the night before they were starting their journey across Jackson Lake. We exchanged high fives and they transitioned to ski while we scrambled up the last couple hundred feet to the true summit, stalling as much as we could before we had to face the mank that lay below.
Karl topping out in the handle
Cheesin’ for seemingly no reason (Photo Hayden Fake)
Taking in the view at 12,605’
The ski had some redeeming turns, even some where the snow was dry. But it mostly consisted of me questioning why I even do this and making survival turns until I could collapse to rest my legs. It certainly wasn’t pretty but when we were finally at the base looking back up from where we came I was struck with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and gratitude. It didn’t matter how bad it was, we had done it together. We supported each other, we laughed and challenged ourselves, we learned new lessons and put to use experience and training.
A long way down to go (Photo Hayden Fake)
Caroline and Elana soak in a terribly terrific descent (Left) Caroline enjoying the breakable slush (Right)
We returned to camp where Caroline and Elana joined us for a beer before their quest back across Jackson Lake while Sophia and Lily’s crews trickled back in. We exchanged stories and beta that made me realize that everyone had one of their best days in the mountains. Not because any of the conditions were perfect (while some were better than others) or because anyone had skied in perfect form but because we were able to not care about it being perfect. As we sat at camp, satisfied in the sun, I was reminded that if we only wait for the “best days” to have a best day we are going to miss out on moments that make us better skiers and better friends. These just might be the moments that we will remember the most.
See ya next time, Moran! (Photo Nick Braun)