Otter Body: Kim Havell’s First Descent
Backcountry.com athlete and pro skier Kim Havell accomplished the first female descent of the Grand Teton’s Otter Body route on May 15, 2013. Here’s her account of the experience.
Kim Havell accomplished the first female descent of the Grand Teton’s Otter Body
It’s hard not to be impressed, if not intimidated, driving into Grand Teton National Park. The impressive façade of rugged high peaks forms an imposing wall, north to south, forty miles across the Teton Valley. For expert ski mountaineers and backcountry travelers, each intricate cut of a couloir running down the mountains’ walls is a potential mission, a possible line that under the right conditions can be skied. And the Grand Teton’s Otter Body route, aka OB, which hangs directly below the Grand’s steep East Face, is one of the most sought after, and the most difficult, to get.
In fact, the route was not skied until 1996 when Jackson locals Doug Coombs and Mark Newcomb headed up to give it a try. It was Newcomb’s job interview for a guide position with Coomb’s heli-ski operation in Alaska. Newcomb passed the test, and the duo headed up north shortly thereafter. The route has seen more skiers since then, including a few in 2013, with Exum guides Zahan Billamoria, Brendan O’Neill, Dan Corn, and a few others pulling off winter descents. If you can catch it in powder or in corn, the OB offers the most turns for an aesthetic route descending the tallest peak in the park.
As soon as I moved to Jackson last May 2012, the Otter Body, along with numerous other exciting routes, was high on my list. As the winter 2012/13 season ticked on, the Otter Body soon became a question of when, with weeklong stretches of stable conditions in January and February. Building off of descents steadily accumulated with great partners and the good-weather windows during this period, I lined up a tentative OB attempt for Monday, March 25th. But we delayed our preparation plans when we heard news of Teton Gravity Research and fellow Backcountry.com team member Jeremy Jones’s crew heading up on the same day we had designated for our outing.
Earlier in December (2012), one of my main ski partners, Brian Warren, and I had re-connected while venturing off the backside of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and, along with a few other friends, including Patrick McDermott and Tigger Knecht, we began a winter-season stretch of getting into the high peaks of the Park and off-piste lines near the resort that totaled over 65 descents by June. After each mission, we talked about future possible routes and our hopes of skiing the numerous serious lines that always tempt us during ideal windows of stability.
Brian and I chatted about the Otter Body, and then started contemplating the logistics. Our paths crossed with photographer/athlete Gabe Rogel, who immediately expressed serious interest in skiing the OB, and we invited him to join us. I worked out gear and details for the climb and ski, monitoring the weather and conditions multiple times daily to set a date for our attempt. My necessary gear items included the Black Diamond Couloir harness, Venom tools, Half Dome helmet, carbon-fiber Whippet, and Sabretooth crampons, along with Salomon Freeski skis, boots and clothing, Osprey Variant 52 pack, SUUNTO core watch, PROBAR snacks, and Black Diamond rock/anchor protection including pitons, nuts and cams.
Schedules were tricky to coordinate but we quickly re-set our next date for Wednesday, March 27th. We started out at 11pm from the Bradley/Taggert trailhead with a crew that included photographer/filmer Tristan Greszko and guide Patrick McDermott. Tristan and Pat peeled off from Garnett Canyon to get into position on a neighboring peak to film. Our team of three, Brian, Gabe, and myself, headed up towards the Teepee Glacier at the base of the Grand Teton. At around 3a.m., near the start of the more technical climbing, the weather moved in unexpectedly and our efforts were thwarted. Both our parties had wild and dark ski descents, exiting out in hail and heavy storm clouds in the black of night out to the lower canyon. Using our radios, we managed to regroup near the lake below for the ski tour back to the cars amid morning lake mists.
At last, on May 15th, Brian Warren, Pete Gaston, and I rappelled down to the Teepee Glacier to cap off a successful and fun ski of the Otter Body. April was a challenging month for weather, conditions, and scheduling; Brian got injured and Gabe got busy, so I invited friend/fellow Salomon athlete Pete Gaston to join me. By mid-May, Pete and I nailed down the day and lined up our team. Brian was healed and a few others were able to join in the film effort. It was Pete’s first time skiing the Grand, my third time, and Brian’s fifth time. Our teamwork could not have gone better.
The climbing went smoothly. We took turns swapping leads up the snow and ice couloirs of the Stettner, Chevy, and Ford. Booting up the last firm faces to the top, we arrived at the summit marker around 7a.m. We put on our harnesses and organized and divided our gear. After waiting for corn and assessing conditions mid-slope, we were skiing the East face by 8:30am. We descended the soft and steep corn one-by-one down to the first rappel station on the lower face, which would lead us to the OB snowfield directly below. Once safely on the snowfield, we enjoyed skiing the deeper corn down and skier’s left towards the exit rappels that would take us to the Teepee finish.
We were quiet yet jovial, thrilled to be skiing the exposed terrain in good conditions. Communication was limited mainly to gear updates, decisions on anchors, a few jokes, and our ski and rappel order. As the slopes heated up above, our rappelling was getting wet and warm. The threat of wet slides loomed above from the hanging face. We moved carefully in order to move quickly, reinforcing the necessary anchors, clipping in solidly, and moving efficiently. On our last rappel, the chimney’s ice turned into running water. We each got a cool douse of a steady waterfall stream as we popped away from the rocks, sliding down on the rope towards the exit snow slope of the lower glacier.
Pulling the ropes free from the last anchor, we stepped into our skis and arced turns in the isothermal slush, arriving at the rocky moraine at the foot of the Grand Teton by noon. Refueling at the base of the peak for our final descent to the cars, we smiled and high-fived another challenge safely met in the mountains. Partnership makes mountain days safe, camaraderie makes them great, and it is with good teamwork that goals get accomplished.
See what it takes to ski the Otter Body: