“No. No way! I'm not skiing that. Look at that ice bulge. If you got swept into that, there’s no way you’d survive.”
Jarad Spackman and I peered through the lodgepole pines at the couloir we were hoping to ski.
It had proven almost impossible to get a good view of the line, which snakes its way alongside the Apocalypse Couloir on Prospectors Mountain in Grand Teton National Park. We’d both had an inkling that there was something there, but it wasn’t until Tom Turiano sent me an aerial photo that it became obvious. There was indeed a line. We just didn’t know if it would go.
Now, through the trees, the bottom of the couloir gleamed in the sun. It looked ridiculously steep. And, as Jarad pointed out, there was the small matter of the ice cliff at the bottom.
“Look at that ice!” Jarad continued. “No way, dude. There’s no way I’m going to do that.”
When you look directly at a line in the mountains, it appears steeper than it actually is. I’ve been skiing with Jarad for years, and while I have, from time to time, seen him become agitated, I know that it never lasts for long.
While Jarad continued to fret, I quietly pulled away and caught up with his younger brother.
Taller, smarter, and better looking than Jarad, Brandon Spackman is his brother’s reserved counterpart. He’s also one of the better skiers I know. A few years ago, on a peak in the northern part of the range, Brandon stopped at the icy, rocky crux of a new route, muttered, “I think I can huck it,” then threw himself off a rock step toward the only patch of snow that separated him from 500 feet of chocolate-chip-studded cliff. I gasped in horror. He stuck it. Brandon’s solid.
He’s also quietly keen. I had an idea.
“Brandon, what do you think?” I asked.
After a moment, he said, “I’d be up for it.”
A few minutes later I dropped back to Jarad.
“You know, Jarad, if you’re uncomfortable, you can always ski the Apocalypse. We’ve got all the ropes and gear we need. Brandon and I can ski the other line and meet you at the bottom.”
I knew from the ensuing silence that that had done the trick.
The Apocalypse Couloir is Prospector’s cult classic. Steep, narrow, with a fantastic ice wall lower in the couloir that creates a crystalline ambiance unlike anything else in the range, it has become a go-to for skiers seeking a little mountaineering with their backcountry. Once upon a time, aspirants booted up from the bottom, but doing so leaves one ridiculously exposed to whatever might come down from the wide basin above. Most skiers today skin up through the trees on the east flank of the peak and drop into the top of Apocaplyse via rappel. The raps cement the commitment: by the time you tuck into a cave at the start of the route, you’ve had a chance to bug out on the steep, narrow line you’re about to ski.
A few weeks ago Tom Turiano sent me a photograph of Prospectors that contained a surprise: an entrance couloir to Apocalypse that he suspected had never been skied.
A couple of Saturdays ago, Jarad and I skied a new line further to the west on the mountain. At the top of the couloir, we breached the serrated ridgeline that separates the Apocalypse Basin from the lines we had been skiing on the western side. On top of this ridge—the so-called Four Horsemen—we were greeted with a full frontal view of Tom’s line. Steep and direct, it looked to offer a wilder and more alluring entrance to the Apocalypse than the standard start.
Last week Jarad and I started talking about going back to hit Tom’s line. We wanted to give Tom first dibs, so I invited him as well. He’d been sick for weeks, and demurred; but then he sent along another photo, taken from an airplane, that depicted not only the bottom half of the Apocalypse, but also a thin, crazy-looking line just to the looker’s right.
“The unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination because it is [a]… malleable space: a projection-screen onto which a culture or an individual can throw their fears and their aspirations."
—Robert Mcfarlane, Mountains of the Mind
As Saturday drew closer, my excitement grew. Jarad and I studied the photos and swapped plans on how to connect the lines. On Wednesday, Brandon signed on. By Friday, I was as giddy as a child.
The upper couloir was for the most part a known entity: we’d had a good view of it from the Four Horsemen, and assumed it would go with one rap to the notch and another rap in the upper section. But I couldn’t stop thinking of what the second couloir might hold. How would you get in? How steep would it be in the middle? It looked incredibly deep; how high would the walls rise above you when you were in it?
And, most important: How would you get out?
Near the top of the standard Apocalypse skin track we dug a pit. ECTP21. Better than we’d expected.
At the Apocalypse entrance, we skinned 150 feet to the north, stuck our heads over the edge of the cliff and peered down. Though difficult to see from our precipitous vantage, there was definitely a cleft just below us.
We rapped from a wizened tree to the perfect V of the notch at the top of the couloir. By the time Jarad got down, the adrenaline was pulsing in my veins. He and Brandon kindly let me go first. Frankly, I’m not sure they would have been able to hold me back.
The top was pocked in shards of rock. I slid toward a constriction on the skier’s right, dropped to my ass and scooted through while the brothers' banter floated down to me.
I righted myself, swiveled my skis, and promptly ran into the wall on the skier’s left. I bounced off, jumped a turn and a moment later slammed into the other wall.
This thing was tight.
It was also steep. As I jumped my way down toward the cliff, each tight turn grew progressively more precipitous.
Skiing with consequences is a tricky proposition. You need to be fully cognizant of the risks, and simultaneously compartmentalize them so that they compromise neither your decisions nor your turns. As I wrenched turn after turn in explosive hops that yanked my tips away from the rock walls on either side, I kept my focus on the terrain rather than the cliff below.
A rock step went with a little sidestep/buttslide. Just below it and above the cliff, a beautiful orange wall rose up on the northern flank of the shaft. I poked at a snow-plastered crack system with the tip of my pole. A fine seam emerged, then a slot just big enough for a number 2 nut. While first Brandon and then Jarad hopped their way down the shaft, I slammed in a blade, diddled in a nut, then slotted a hex in a constriction above.
We’d been calling the line The Rapture, in part as a play off the adjacent Apocalypse, and in part because we knew it would entail a fair number of rappels.
“This thing is already living up to its name,” I said to Brandon as I pulled together the cordalette.
Fifty feet of rappelling deposited us at the bottom of the cliff. The shaft plunged away toward an exit into the main Apocalypse hundreds of feet below.
Skiing a line as steep, narrow, and high-walled as this is what I dream about. A number of weeks earlier we had skied The Elevator Shaft, one of the steepest, narrowest lines any of us had done. The sensation of walls soaring above me while I executed each one of those exacting turns had imprinted itself on my mind. I’ll likely remember them for as long as I can ski.
Now, I inhaled. The air tasted clean. The anticipation of what I was about to ski had amplified my senses. The sound of my friends’ voices felt reassuring.
Then it began to recede.
The harder you go in the mountains, the greater the intensity becomes. As I peered down the couloir, my sensory perception dilated. I dropped, and the details began to unite, sound merging with vision fusing with movement blending with snow and rock and mountain and flesh and boots and skis and fear and joy as I turned and turned and turned.
In what felt like a moment I was at the bottom looking back up at what I had just skied. Gasping. Panting. Giggling.
Brandon came bounding down the couloir, then swooped out of it in an explosion of controlled speed. Jarad followed. Our laughter resounded off the walls all around us.
Now we were in the crux of the Apocalypse. It felt like a boulevard after what we’d just skied.
One by one we dropped to the base of the upper Apocalypse. Decision time. Should we call it a day and continue out the Apocalypse’s lower couloir, or commit to an adventure?
We’d brought two 200-foot ropes with us, as well as knifeblades and a selection of nuts, tricams and hexes. We’d studied the photos and done all we could to scope the route. The only thing left to do was decide whether we wanted to go for it.
The day had remained largely in cloud, and by now, the sun had completely left the basin, which helped ease the anxiety about warm releases we’d shared on the way up. It took less than a minute to decide.
We booted up the basin to a rock outcrop, where I slotted a nut and slung a gnarled root. Brandon belayed while I traversed the slope. Soon, I had another anchor in, and one by one the brothers followed.
One more rope length brought me to the top of the couloir. I peered into it. It was impossible to see what lay below, but what I could see looked both steep and deep.
We can always drop in for a better look, I thought to myself. If we don’t like it, we can climb out.
Commitment can be an incremental process.
I downstepped to the rock wall we’d noted in the photos and set up a nutted belay. Soon, Brandon was sidestepping down to me. A few minutes later, Jarad appeared above us, backlit against the top of the ridge.
“Looks like we’re committing,” he said. The tension felt electric.
“What do you think about giving me a belay on this section while I have a look?” I asked Brandon. “I’ll try to knock as much snow into the couloir as I can to flush it out.”
“OK by me,” said Brandon.
This was what I loved about ski mountaineering, and what had made me giddy the day before. When at last you’re peering down a line that hasn’t been skied and the anticipation of what lies ahead wires you with adrenaline, you experience sensation with an intensity that I’ve never felt anywhere else except climbing.
The silence was awesome.
Would it go?
There was only one way to find out.
I’ve never skied on belay before, but in this case I didn’t mind having a rope. I pounded the pillows and flutings as hard as I could to get the snow to move. I wanted a good solid flush to wash out the couloir before we committed.
A fifteen-foot drop spit me into the couloir proper. I could see the cliff we’d spied in the photos. Below that, the line plummeted, swallowed by the walls on either side.
At the edge of the cliff, I cleared away the snow until a rock prong appeared. I slung it with a piece of cord, then tapped in a chockstone cap to keep the cord from popping out.
Brandon skied down to me, followed by Jarad.
Below us, beyond the drop, lay the start of the couloir.
It looked incredible.
I rapped first, my boots skittering over ice and vertical rock. At the bottom I looked back up. The chockstone that capped the cliff was a thirty-foot boulder, as round as an egg.
Below me the couloir hurtled downward, steep, with walls deeper than I’d ever seen.
The greatest freedoms I’ve ever experienced have come when I’ve committed completely. All week I’d imagined this moment: making this rap, pulling the ropes, and eliminating every option but one.
When Brandon reached me, I knew he felt it too.
One of the best parts of a good adventure is doing it with friends you trust. I didn’t have to worry about Brandon or Jarad, and they didn’t need to worry about me. All we had to do now was focus on our skiing.
“Brandon, why don't you go while Jarad’s rapping. It’ll take him some time to get his board on, and while he’s doing that, I can drop in.”
“OK,” said Brandon, and a minute later he was disappearing into the bowels of the mountain.
Jarad arrived, and we chattered excitedly as we pulled and coiled the ropes.
“The Rapture!” I said.
“I know!” he said.
We were in it now, and it was deeper than we’d dared hope.
While Jarad clicked into his board, I dropped. The walls soared above me. The further I skied, the higher they rose, and as a rollover gave way to a glimpse of the couloir below, my confidence grew. Turning became rhythmic; at the same time, the walls expanded to fill the periphery of my vision. I was skiing in a slot, the deepest I’d ever experienced. It felt like I was inside the mountain.
Turn after turn the couloir spun out below, offering no place to stop, just steep-sided walls. My legs began to burn, but I had no desire to let up. The sensation of immersion increased until I felt as if I’d been swallowed by Prospectors and was simply falling in a weightless void, gravity feathering my turns, the powder perfect, the ambiance a muted sensory overload of skis lost in snow and heartbeat pounding in ears and the wall’s dark sides enveloping me on either side.
And it went on, and on, and on.
When the couloir at last opened up, I emerged to find Brandon tucked into the first safe zone I’d seen since our rap. It felt different now than it had at the start. We had passed through the mountain as through a tunnel. Brandon, perpetually quiet, was grinning. Somewhere above us Jarad was inside the mountain, experiencing the rapture on his own.
A few hundred more feet of skiing brought us to the slope Jarad and I had viewed that morning. A zipper crust had formed on it during the day, and we skied defensively, setting up a rap higher than absolutely necessary to avoid any hidden ice that lay beneath the snow.
A rap over the ice bulge later, I landed in steep, soft snow. We were back in the Apocalypse. From here on out, everything was known.
I offered up a prayer of gratitude to Tom, for sharing his secrets, and to Prospectors, for granting us passage.
Jarad rapped down, followed by Brandon. As we collected the ropes, our laughter echoed off the soaring, silent walls. The ski out would tap our reserves, we would bonk as dusk fell, our vision would narrow to the field of our headlamps, and when we got back to the vehicle the beer would be as cold as the air and we’d be so tired we could barely talk.
But for the moment, that didn’t matter. We were bigger now than we had been when we entered the mountain. It had expanded us.
Which is, of course, why we’d come in the first place.