Why merely ride your bike when you can also ski? Why just ski when you can ride your bike to the base of the peak? For one more week in Grand Teton National Park, the park’s biggest peaks are made more accessible with the use of bikes. (Starting May 1, they become even more accessible though. That day the park’s Inner Park Loop Road opens to motorized traffic for the summer season.) Last Sunday, I didn’t hear the evil waking machine make its evil noises at 4:00 a.m. Derek dealt with that. I was woken up with his gentle hand on my back. Because this happened less than six hours after I collapsed into bed, as gentle as it was, I still might have been less than enthusiastic about it. Derek later confessed, “I was a little scared of you waking up.” I have no memories between the hand on my back and my third sip of a double espresso 21 minutes later. So I can’t comment on the state of my spirit or any sounds I might have emitted. Within minutes of pulling into a primo parking spot, which we did a bit past 5 a.m., at the Bradley Taggart lakes trailhead in Grand Teton National Park though, my mood began to improve. After all, the plan for the day included riding seven-and-a-half miles to the String Lake parking lot. From String Lake, we’d take the skis off our backpacks and put them on our feet. We’d skin across the bridge spanning the northern end of Jenny Lake, along the southwest edge of String Lake, and then up the draw that descends east to the valley floor from the 11,144-foot summit of Rockchuck Peak. There were a handful of other cars in the parking lot. As we readied our gear, two more cars pulled up. Neither or these, nor the two cars that had skiers milling about them when we arrived, had bikes though. Biking north from the Bradley-Taggart lakes parking lot gets you to mountains, but there are mountains you can begin skiing up immediately from the parking lot. Pedaling away from the parking lot at around 5:20, we had our headlamps and puffy jackets on. Realizing the moon was bright enough—and with no cars to worry about—we soon turned off our headlamps. The puffies only lasted slightly longer. It was nice to not freeze while biking, but the warm weather did not bode well for snow conditions.
Safe spring skiing is all about hard freezes at night and daytime thaws. We hit the road before we got the 6 a.m. Bridger-Teton email avy report. Weather reports the night before had called for the Town of Jackson to get down to 29 degrees though. Derek and I figured that meant the summit of Rockchuck would have gotten five to six degrees colder. Riding up the middle of the Inner Park Loop road at a supremely leisurely pace, standing every so often to give our butt bones a reprieve from the weight of our backpacks (and skis), it was apparent it had not gotten that cold. We wondered whether we’d be able to complete our mission. Wet slides are the danger if snow thaws too much before you’re off it. While the 20-some pounds on our backs made it uncomfortable to sit on a bike seat, pedaling in ski boots wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I had feared. Or at all. In fact, had I not been in ski boots, I bet my feet would have gotten cold. At String Lake, we clambered up the five-foot snowbank with our bikes and locked them to a tree. Five minutes later, our skis were on and we were walking across the bridge across the Jenny Lake inlet. While the String Lake snowbanks were impressive, the bridge was mostly snow-free. Most of the first hour of skinning—we were going by 6:15ish—was horribly painful. The first 10 minutes around String Lake and to the base of Rockchuck were flat and easy. Then came the Gully of Doom. At least that’s what we called it. The snow in the GoD was not frozen hard, but the gully itself was steep enough that skinning took a serious toll on my innately weak arms. Feeling lazy, I began bootpacking. Just south of the bowl at the base of the top of the east face, there’s a ridge you want to gain to travel the final 800 feet to the summit. Between that bowl and the ridge is a 500-foot vertical slope. Winds had deposited a majority of the snow that had fallen in the high peaks Thursday night and Friday there. Booting wasn’t quite so awesome anymore. It’s not a particularly steep slope, but it was the hardest skinning of the day.
We persevered. Forty-some minutes later, we were atop one of my new favorite Teton summits. The Paintbrush-Cascade Loop is one of my favorite summer hikes. You can see nearly the entire thing from the top of Rockchuck. Also, Mt. Moran, the Grand, and St. John’s, among other peaks. Tom Turiano gives the east face of Rockchuck a difficulty level of “F” in his book Teton Skiing: A History & Guide to the Teton Range. Class “F” means it’s a line for expert skiers who have the ability to “ski comfortably on narrow slopes between 21 and 36 degrees with a safe runout.”