The Black Ice Couloir is one of, if not the, classic moderate alpine ice route in the United States. It was so named because for decades the snow would melt off in the summer, revealing ancient "black" ice underneath. Supposedly that ice permanently disappeared more than 20 years ago, making the route much harder to nail in good conditions. The route forms the north facing gully separating the Enclosure from the Grand Teton.
In fact, the crux of the route is timing good conditions and logistics. The arduous Valhalla Traverse is required to gain the base of the route, then the route climbs up where all the rock and ice from the west face of the Grand Teton funnels down. This includes the standard route to the summit, the Owen-Spalding, often filled with novice climbers and hikers likely to knock down rocks.
With the climate in recent years shifting rapid weather swings are the norm, often presenting a short spring window where the route may be in acceptable condition, but the overhead hazard is low enough to attempt it. Once at the base, the thought of retreat is not appealing.
I'd been watching weather and conditions for at least a year trying to line this one up. The window the previous year (2022) was quite short and I couldn't line it up with work and partners before a heat wave came through, accompanied by reports of massive rockfall all over the Grand. This year it looked like it was shaping up quite nicely from the weather reports, and barring a heat wave once the cool weather broke, we might get good conditions.
I called Craig Pierson at the end of June and told him I thought it was coming together and we settled on a weekend in mid July when we were both free to give it a shot. We lined up a few back up climbs in case the weather turned because we were both a bit schedule bound. We decided to drive up Saturday July 15th, and climb on Sunday July 16th.
The week arrived, weather looked perfect, and we decided to commit to it. The blustery spring weather had broken and the forecast called for lows slightly above freezing with clear days. The next day an acquaintance posted photos of the route on Instagram and the conditions looked perfect and about as we suspected, giving us some extra confidence.
We discussed gear and strategy on the phone before heading out. I picked Craig up Saturday morning and we loaded up and were on our way. We got in to Jackson early enough to get dinner at The Bird, then headed to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead to pack our bags.
We got packed up and set our alarms for just after midnight, aiming to start before 1 am and get to the Lower Saddle at first light around 5 am or just before. Sleeping in the same vehicle we tossed and turned, keeping each other up and finally falling asleep around 10 pm.
The midnight alarm came fast and we woke up, ate breakfast and tried to use the pit toilet before taking off at 12:45 am.
Most of the hike to the Lower Saddle passed quickly, although we kept a nice steady pace and chatted most of the way, trying to keep it slow to conserve energy for the long day. Time seems to pass so much faster hiking in the dark for some reason.
We did arrive at the Lower Saddle at first light, just at 5 am, and right ahead of a long line of climbers supposedly headed for the lower or upper Exum Ridge. We took a stop here to eat some food and fill our water. After leaving the Lower Saddle we had to find the beginning of the traverse and start working our way around the Enclosure to the base of the Black Ice Couloir.
It was both of our first times on the traverse, so as we headed up the trail to the upper saddle we broke off a bit too early and scrambled over some red ridge bands. Turns out we were supposed to go much farther up then traverse back down. We didn't lose too much time and turned the west corner of the Enclosure pretty soon.
After short walk we encountered our first real snow patch, put away our running shoes, donned our boots, and made our way across. It was pretty firm and in good shape at the time. The snow was low angle but if you slipped you would definitely break an ankle or leg on the talus below.
This put us at the base of the northwest ridge of the Enclosure, where we worked around another short distance and came across the "sketchy" bowl. This is the beginning of the more notorious part of the traverse. We had a massive cliff below us, Valhalla Canyon seemed to be a few thousand feet below. The bowl had snow and ice in it, but supposedly holds crumbly rock and loose dirt in the late summer.
This section doesn't get any easier with a rope as there is generally not good protection. In 2007 a party was roped up in this area and took a fall, the protection they had placed pulled out and they both fell to their deaths. We took our time crossing this section, traversing the bowl unroped. Halfway through I stepped down onto a sheet of ice and watched the whole delaminated sheet vibrate as I tapped my front points in. I quickly backtracked and found a different way. We started across the bowl just before 7:30 AM, and the first section was a bit rotten. It became obvious why as the sun hit that part while we were partway across.
After crossing the bowl we took a moment to figure out which way to go. All the options were pretty much a "scramble" but being in mountain boots and with a lot of air below our feet we wanted the easiest way for sure. We put away our sharp things and scrambled around the corner, quickly coming to the bottom of the Enclosure Couloir.
We crossed the bottom and worked up onto the snow ramp leading to the base of the Black Ice. The bottom of the Black Ice is guarded by a "5.6" rock pitch. It's not an unfair grade, but with a pack, mountaineering boots, and exposure it was exciting. We pulled out the rope for this pitch and Craig led. We both felt fine climbing it without crampons and tools, just using our gloved hands. Craig found a few suspect pitons at the top of the pitch and brought me up.
After topping out the rock pitch we put the rope away and soloed our way up the firm snow in the lower part of the route. It was mid morning by this point, and we had seen no significant rock or ice fall.
After a few hundred feet of snow we were pleasantly surprised to find some high quality alpine ice in the final sections. We decided to solo in sections to avoid hitting each other with any ice we may knock off, and I went ahead first. We had a few nice pitches of ice before hitting the lower angle section to the Upper Saddle.
The hike down was uneventful, save for a few water stops and leg cramps. We were happy to have a change of socks and some running shorts to change into. The hike down is in the sun almost all the way midday. We got back to the car, ate a little, rested for a minute, then found Wendy's and decided to drive home to Salt Lake.
Weather, Clothing, and Splits
The weather leading up to our climb had been blustery and spring like, mostly overcast and chilly. Some snow and flurries but nothing too substantial. A few days before we went up the weather broke and the forecast looked clear and calm. The day before, the forecast for the Lower Saddle was a high of 60F and a low of 40F with 24 mph gusts. The trailhead had a forecast of 84F and 45F at night. It felt quite warm all day, even hiking up in the night.
For clothing I brought:
- Light hiking/climbing pants (Patagonia RPS rock pants)
- Wind pants, but did not use them (Montbell Versalite Pants)
- Sun shirt (BD Alpenglow)
- Wind jacket (Montbell Versalite)
- Vest (Montbell Thermawrap UL)
- Puffy, used only on the Lower Saddle for breakfast (Montbell Plasma 1000 Down Jacket)
- Light buff
- Running shorts
- Running hat
For food I brought everything in the pic below, plus two plain bagels, some Nuun tablets, and some roctane powder in my water. A bunch of Nuuns on the way down saved me from leg cramps. I ate everything except: one bar, one Maurten, three PB cups, and 3/4 of a bagel (it opened in my bag and got stale and gross). The protein drink mix was really nice to have after we finished the climb as my appetite was a bit low and I had trouble eating the peanut butters.
For climbing gear, everything in the photo below came along, as well as one 50M twin/half rope, two Petzl Quarks with the hammer and adze removed, and my harness. We both wore running/approach shoes until we hit the first snow patch on the traverse, so we had our mountaineering boots packed up for most of the hike. In retrospect I would have been fine with one Quark and one hybrid tool like the Petzl Gully, as the ice was quite moderate.
Timing and Distance:
My watch recorded 16.75 miles and 6,926 ft of elevation gain. This seems about right, considering we topped out the Upper Saddle and not the Grand, and the standard route to the summit is about 14 miles and a little over 7k feet. The miles may be slightly high, and its probably closer to 16.
- Car to car 14h44m
- Left trailhead 12:44 am Sunday July 16
- Got to Lower Saddle for first break 5:00 AM
- Left Lower Saddle 5:20 AM (at first light)
- Rounded west buttress of Enclosure 6 AM
- Arrived at loose bowl on traverse 7 AM
- Crossed Enclosure Couloir 8:15 AM
- Started up rock pitch 8:45 AM
- Finished rock pitch and started up couloir 9:30 AM
- Started up ice pitches 10 AM
- Arrived at Upper Saddle 11 AM
- Arrived back in Meadows 2:15 PM
- Back to car 3:30 PM