Riley Soderquist has skied down Andean volcanoes in South America, traveled to the Alaska Range and made a first descent of the steep north face of Capitol Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. But year after year, one ski mountaineering jewel has eluded him: Grand Teton.
On one of his three attempts between 2018 and 2021, high winds blew so fiercely that Soderquist turned back. On another trip to nearby Jackson, Wyo., conditions were so poor he didn’t even try.
But his goal of skiing down the Grand remains within sight.
“It kind of seems like something that I’ve been training my whole life to do,” Soderquist said. “I’m kind of looking for that last iconic piece.”
In North America, Alaska’s Denali is often near the top of the to-do list for serious ski mountaineers. The imposing faces of British Columbia’s Coastal Range also beckon.
At 13,775 feet, Grand Teton is not the highest mountain in the state of Wyoming. It offers less fall-line skiing than other mountains in the same range. Snow can be challenging to find in good conditions. Descending can be flat-out scary.
But in the lower 48 states, the serrated peak of Northwest Wyoming is a unique testing ground for some of the country’s most ambitious backcountry skiers.
“It combines the most amount of skills of anywhere in the continental U.S.,” said Peter Stone, who skied Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain, at 19. “I think a lot of people see it as, like, this thing you have to do before you can do the intense kind of steep ski skiing, like the French style or go put up first descents in the Karakoram,” Stone said, referring to the mountain range in Central Asia.
Part of the allure is aesthetics. A sharp vertical relief means the Grand’s summit rises about 7,000 feet above the surrounding valley; in the afternoon sun, the peak can appear silhouetted against the sky. Another part of the appeal is simply the challenge.
“It’s something that represents an entrance into a higher level of ski mountaineering,” said Aaron Diamond, a guide at Exum Mountain Guides, who has made about 10 descents, mostly on his splitboard.
While many highly skilled skiers and riders may theoretically be capable of descending a 50-degree chute, the Grand makes an additional ask: You must be a competent ice climber with solid knowledge of rope work, belay techniques, anchors, rappelling, steep snow and exposed terrain. You must also be extremely fit. Preparation for the 12- to 16-hour, 14-mile trip typically involves a yearslong commitment to training and waiting for the right conditions, which often fall from March to May.
Owen Silitch, 24, a student at Montana State University, estimated he had climbed the Grand eight times before making a successful ski descent in March 2021.
On that trip, the snow was hard packed. His skis shuddered every time he made a turn. The entire way up, he worried about the possibility of falling chunks of snow or ice.
“There was a lot of experience that led up to that day,” he said. He didn’t rule out skiing down again, but he said he would likely try other lines in the future that didn’t demand a “no-fall mentality.”
He now joins a club of just hundreds or perhaps more mountaineers, many of whom have gotten their start on the peak.
Bill Briggs, who is credited with helping to establish steep ski mountaineering in the United States, made the first known descent of the east face-Stettner couloir on June 16, 1971. Other descents by a more popular combination of the Ford, Chevy and Stettner couloirs were later made by Steve Shea, Jeff Rhoads and Brad Peck before the end of decade.
For a long time, however, skiing the Grand was rare, particularly in the winter. “It was considered suicide because of avalanche danger,” said Thomas Turiano, the author of “Teton Skiing: A History and Guide.”
As an understanding of winter avalanche hazards improved and skiers upped the ante, several difficult descents were made throughout the 90s, including on the Enclosure couloir (1994) Black Ice couloir (1994), Hossack-MacGowen couloir (1996) and Otter Body route (1997).
Another breakthrough came when the venerable skier Doug Coombs made the first successful guided descent of the Ford-Stettner couloir with Mark Newcomb. Doug Workman, a guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, followed suit and has now guided down over a dozen skiers.
“People realized that if it’s getting guided, then maybe I could do it myself, and the combo of that with just the explosion in the sport and equipment, which basically has occurred since 2010,” Turiano said. “It really has taken off.”
Brenton Reagan, a lead guide and marketing director at Jackson’s Exum Mountain Guides, estimated that the Grand now gets skied anywhere between 20 to 200 times in a season.
“There aren’t that many people in the world who can ski the Grand Teton, but when the snow is stable and the weather is good, it’s surprising how many live in this town or come to the town to do that,” said Reagan, 47, who has made about three descents from the summit.
Typically, Exum makes 10 to 15 guided trips each season for $3,175 per person. Most navigate the risks on their own.
On the ascent, the classic Ford-Stettner route is a highly exposed ice and snow climb, with satellite ridges, steps and spires leading to the summit. The descent is virtually no-fall terrain involving four 60-meter rappels over the ice pitches and a traverse of a short-hanging snowfield. A slip can mean tomahawking over multiple 500-foot cliffs.
Other hazards are simply nature’s way. High winds can create giant slabs of lightly packed snow, increasing the risk of an avalanche. Climbers or skiers can hit a weak spot, causing a slide.
“The snow and wind and weather are sort of the architects of all that stuff,” said Diamond, the mountain guide. “Then there’s the rockfall.”
On July 11, 1982, Dan McKay fell while climbing the Otter Body route with the intent of skiing down. No one else is known to have died making an attempted ski descent.
But with Jackson as a mecca for some of the country’s highest-caliber skiing talent, many say the culture and the surrounding area undoubtedly promote risk.
“There’s no beating around the bush — it’s a really dangerous activity,” Silitch, the student, said. “With climbing, you’ll probably get really injured, but you’re not likely to become completely detached from the mountain. But when you’re skiing, all that’s connecting you to the mountain is your two edges.”
So why do it?
For many, the technical challenges of the Grand remain, as does the personal quest.
“For a lot of the folks that are going up, I think it’s less an entry-level than a lifetime-achievement kind of thing,” Diamond said. “Skiing off a mountain like that is a really lofty goal.”
Stone, who skied Mexico’s Orizaba, said he hopes to take future trips to Alaska, the Himalayas and the French Alps. But he said the Grand was “a really special mountain” and skiing down it was one of his biggest accomplishments.
“It’s one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever felt to be able to travel on the Grand Teton in the winter,” he said. “I would like to be able to ski off it anytime that it’s right.”