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The Endless Uphill Winter

I told myself I wanted to climb and ski all of them. I had a book full of pictures of skiable lines in Grand Teton National park for inspiration. But I didn’t just want to ski these lines, I wanted to charge down them. But before I could do this I had to completely redefine myself again, shift my focus and prepare like I have never prepared before. This was an intimidating goal but something inside me burned and I couldn’t help but go all in in the direction that pulled me.

Part One: Walking Uphill (Building Uphill Mads)

After an invasive surgery in June 2022 that left a five-inch scar on the inside of my right ankle, I was forced to look at how I treat my body and my mind. The previous season I had been featured in two big production films, Legs of Steel’s, ‘BeautyFullSend(Opens in a new window)’ and Warren Miller’s ‘Daymaker(Opens in a new window)’. I had given each project all of my energy and effort. During the winter 2022 season I mostly focused on inbounds skiing. I slammed my body into the ground and expected it to rebound like it did when I was 18. I skied bell to bell as many days as I could in a row and prided myself in skiing harder, faster, and longer at the resort every day. I came out of the 2022 season with two major concussions and a grapefruit-sized ankle that needed surgery. 

After surgery, the “summer of rest” ended up being harder than any slope I’d ever skied, or any mountain I’d ever climbed. I was in constant turmoil with my mind, fighting it every chance I could. Come fall, I was beyond ready to get back to my normal active self. I wrote down a list of goals, objectives, mountains to climb; listing how I would move forward and treat my body. I did know one thing, I would have to pivot my skiing style from previous “downhill Mads” to “uphill Mads.” There was no way my massive ankle was going to fit into a tight, stiff race boot. I was forced to shift my focus. 

For months I trained my ass off in the gym, at physical therapy, on the bike, on the trail, up and down our local town hill Snow King(Opens in a new window). I told myself I would walk uphill every single day, it didn't matter if it was for an hour, 15 min, or four hours. I would build my endurance and aerobic base back from zero. 

For the first two months of winter, I didn’t ski inbounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort(Opens in a new window) or put on a race boot. I didn’t want the outside pressure to change the way I was treating my body or push me in a way that could get in the way of my healing. I was simply walking every day uphill in the backcountry with a less stiff, and more spacious backcountry boot that my ankle could fit into. I was also thoroughly enjoying the quietness and challenge of ski touring in the backcountry every day. Instead of 85% of my day slamming downhill at the resort, I was now spending 85-95% of my day walking uphill.

Part Two: Logging Vert and Grand Teton National Park Sending

By the end of February I had skied the East face of the Middle Teton, a 50 Classic Ski Descent in North America(Opens in a new window), numerous lines off of Nez Perce, Shadow and Prospectors Peak, Albright, and spent countless days ski touring the front four mountains in GTNP, on Teton Pass, and Snow King. By March 5th I had walked uphill more than 170,054 vertical feet. 

I spent every morning looking at the avalanche reports and weather forecasts and every ski tour making observations and digging snow pits to gain knowledge and information about what was going on in the Tetons. Quickly the most intimate relationship I had was with the snowpack. 

Around March, I realized that I needed to start really charging downhill again. My ankle was feeling a lot better and I was yearning for some high-speed sending. I went up an entire boot sole length, from a 23.5 to a 24.5, and with the help from my inbounds ski partner and boot wizard, Zach Hartinet, who grinded and punched the ankle pocket, my ankle bone now rested in a larger cavity.

I had my uphill endurance but now I needed my speed, confidence and stomping legs back. Bell to bell days at JHMR(Opens in a new window) in bounds and in the side country did the trick… quickly. Though very different from long backcountry days, I quickly remembered how awesome chairlifts are for maximum runs and the ultimate downhill ski training. I would log 25,000+ vertical feet of descending in one day, lift-accessed at the resort. I was back in the sending mindset, but made sure I didn't make the same mistake as I had the previous year. I would stop a run or two earlier than I normally would, a little before my body was feeling tired or over-fatigued. Pacing myself.

Part Three: The Grand Teton

All of a sudden it was March 16th. The first sunny day in what felt like three months. A recent storm brought new snow in the alpine and things felt like they could be lining up and setting out to ski the big one in this two-day weather window. This could be our window. My ski partner Jimmi Ryan(Opens in a new window) and I went into the park with binoculars to look at the face of the Grand Teton.

A person using binoculars looking out at the Grand Teton mountain range Image courtesy of Madison

The forecast for March 17th looked promising. Light to no wind, temps starting in the single digits and moving into the teens to twenties, and mostly sunny skies. Observations and forecasts talked about human-triggered wind slab and soft slab avalanches, 1-2 feet in depth on steep unsupported terrain exposed to the sun. 

Skiing the Grand Teton in the winter is a whole different game. It was a goal of mine going into this season. I knew it would be challenging but I had been preparing the entire season for it. Like I said, my closest relationship this winter was with the snowpack. So much so, that many of my friendships and relationships were placed on the back burner. All of my energy and strength was focused on the snow-covered mountains and skiing the best I could. This felt like the only way. I am not someone to ever half-ass anything I do. It would haunt me if I didn't give my 120% and dedicate everything to my goals. I wanted to ski these big peaks in style, charging fast and sending hard. 

The evening of March 16th, the night before our projected sending day, I sat up in bed and wrote in my journal, “Jimmi, Moody and I are going for the winter descent of the Grand Teton tonight at midnight. I am slightly nervous. I have a yeast infection and just started my period. Something my male counterparts will never understand and that is okay. I am strong. I want to climb this mountain so bad it aches inside of me. These mountains pull you in and I have been obsessed ever since I moved here. I want to prove to myself I can do it. I have trained all season for this. I feel physically ready. Now I just have to manage the feeling of fear.” 

To me, this is a very real journal entry. Though personal, my emotions, current health, and nervousness were the thoughts that circled my mind as I tried to fall asleep. I visualized and had this gut feeling that we were going to do it successfully. But nothing is certain in the mountains. You could do everything right and still, something could go wrong. Now it was time to forget everything and simply focus on the process. 

Climbing and skiing the Grand Teton in the spring is the most common and popular. The route is more trafficked and approachable. On a sunny spring day, the Ford Chevy Stettner Couloir sometimes sees four or more groups going for the summit. In contrast, skiing the Grand mid-winter is far less popular. There are more variables to take into consideration during this time of year. Avalanches, new snow, wind slabs, sun, warming, sluffing, wind, buried anchors, longer ice climbing pitches, breaking trail, shorter days. Less people to talk to beforehand about conditions.

March 17th, 2023

23:30: Five degrees. Running on 2 hours of sleep, I met sleepless Jimmi and Moody at the Home Ranch lot where we carpooled in Moody’s van into the park. Looking out the window as we drove out of town watched drunk people walking home from the bars. Nice perspective. 

01:30: Six degrees. Trailhead, skin track, darkness, silence. One frozen step at a time. We took turns setting the skin track in fresh snow. 

02:00-06:00: As we made our way past the Meadows and started up the Teepee Glacier we realized we were making impeccable time, actually too fast for our desired schedule. Moody took the lead as we made our way up a heinous slope of wind-loaded snow and refrozen debris. Some steps were solid, some had us holding on for dear life, slipping back down a few feet. Not easy trail-breaking in the darkest of hours. One of the more nerve-wracking parts of our day.

We wanted to be at the first ice pitch at sunrise so we could rope up and climb at first light. We slowed our pace down a bit, managing our body temps as best we could. Slow down too much and you start to freeze, move too quickly and you begin to sweat, which then freezes. 

While transitioning at the top of the glacier, a party of two who had been tailing us from a distance, caught up. We shared some friendly banter and they asked us about our equipment and what ropes we were bringing.

A skier climbing up a snow packed mountain, in full gear Image courtesy of Madison

07:31: We put on our crampons, harnesses and necessary equipment and gear, and started up the first pitch, Jimmi taking the first lead, setting the bootpack. Things became very real very quickly as we began climbing up the gut of the couloir. I looked behind me and saw the alpenglow shine on the Middle Teton with the most beautiful rose light. I took a deep breath. The next 1,300 or so feet we would be breaking trail. Jimmi led the ice climbing pitches, I went second, Moody third. We were all tied together, moving up the couloir as one unit. Making it past the first crux and onto the Ford, I felt excited. I thought I would be more nervous about the ice climbing but for whatever reason this was my favorite part of the day. I looked up at the next section, a massive ice bulge jutted out mid-pitch. There is no room for mistakes, a miss of an axe placement, or a fall. These are times when you don’t think about the consequences, you just don’t f*ck up. I moved quickly up to the ice pitch and began swinging and stepping. Each placement felt so solid, I felt in my element, in a flow. I was beyond impressed by my partner Jimmi, leading up the ice bulge and ice sections with confidence and ease. We had to move cohesively as a team and we moved quickly and efficiently.

A portrait view of a snow covered peak in the Tetons Image courtesy of Madison

09:12: The final push. We made it out of the ice climbing sections and now had 750 vertical feet of breaking trail and bootpacking to go. We transitioned into plates and crampons and continued making our way up. Every step took a lot of energy. In the winter you are dealing with all sorts of snow conditions as well as breaking trail, sometimes sinking in a few feet to get a step. We had now been awake since midnight, and at 13,000 feet our legs felt pretty heavy. The only thing you can do is take one step at a time. Moody suddenly had a surge of energy and took the lead. He broke through the new snow and hustled up the right side of the couloir. I watched him charge upward, kicking in knee-deep steps, as my calves cramped and I moved in three-step increments, shaking each leg out between the next set.

10:18: The final, final push. Short pitches, we each took turns breaking trail and getting closer to the summit. Now on the East face and only a few hundred feet to go, I took the lead. Knowing the summit is close always gives me a spurt of energy I didn’t know I had. Time vanished. It felt like we were taking steps on the edge of the earth. Around us, no footprints, no other people, no outside noise existed. It’s just you, your partners, the mountain, and your thoughts. There is a connection that is hard to describe when you are fully immersed in the moment. Your body is pressed against the slope, the steel points of your crampons and your ice axe are your only connection to the mountain.

A skier climbing up a snow packed mountain, in full gear Image courtesy of Madison

11:28: A few final steps and our team was on the summit. I was immediately hit with a wave of emotion. I took a moment to myself as we took off our backpacks and rested. I felt so proud and strong. I shed a tear. I thanked the mountain for allowing us to climb it today and for safe travels on the way up. I can do hard things. Something I know but for whatever reason feel like I have to remind myself constantly.

Fully transitioned and ready to ski, we waited so that we wouldn’t ski on top of the two guys, potentially sending snow down on them as they climbed the ice pitches. Upon reaching us, it became apparent they didn’t have the proper equipment to repel safely.

Our party of three now was now a party of five. Which made for a tricky and slow descent.

As they transitioned, we dropped in. Moody first, me second, Jimmi third. There is something really special about witnessing your best friends make turns down an exposed and technical face with control and style. I smiled and then skied off the summit. The snow was variable and challenging. According to Jimmi, who had been up there twice before, this was the least amount of snow on the Grand he had seen. Though we had a deep winter, all of our storms came with a substantial amount of wind.

We each took turns leading and making our way down the face. Very difficult and exhausting skiing brought us to the top of our first rappel. I skied the best I could for the conditions and didn’t care that the skiing was challenging. I revel in skiing well in adverse conditions.

Two people in full ski gear looking up and away Image courtesy of Madison

12:50: The first three rappels went smoothly but the final rap, shit hit the fan. 

On the final rappel, Jimmi went first. Moody and I were in-direct to the anchor system, the other group was in a safe zone out of the way in the snow. As Jimmi was about a third of the way down we heard a loud snap. All of a sudden I felt a violent pull and got slammed on the back of the head. Moody’s body and skis collided against my head as he blew over top of me. Jimmi self-arrested but was caught by the one nut that held. The other anchor piece had blown. We were all okay but definitely rattled. My head spun as we rebuilt the anchor and then rappelled down the fourth and final section, finally out of the couloir. 

15:30: We transitioned at Teepee Glacier and got ready to ski the rest of the way down. We made some really fun Giant Slalom turns, arcing back and forth across the slope, down to the Meadows and then out Garnet Canyon. When we got back to the trailhead our team exchanged hugs and congratulations to one another and soaked it in. 

My goal of skiing the Grand mid-winter was accomplished. It wouldn't have happened without the support, strength, and trust of my partners, the day-in and day-out training, the relationship built with the mountains and the snowpack, and years of skiing, the resting, planning, the belief that I could do anything I set my mind to. Dedication, passion, commitment. Qualities that my partners have and that we all expect of each other. 

Everyone may be on their own individual journey but what a pleasure it is to share these moments with one another, being witness to your friends’ growth and connecting on the deepest level.

Part Four: Spring and Decompressing

Ticking off a few more objectives in Grand Teton National Park after skiing the Grand was a blast. I skied a line off of Teewinot Mountain, a steep couloir off of Mount Woodring, and another 50 Classic, “The Skillet” on Mount Moran. Putting on cold ski boots in the middle of the night and skinning for 15+ miles was now a very familiar feeling. The winter seemed endless, all the memories forever etched in my mind.

Throughout the season I found a deep appreciation for my dedicated partners. Each one dialed in their own way, all with different unique skills and skills they brought to the table. I soaked in as much as I could, learning from each of them, whether it be mountain skills, their decision-making process, risk tolerance, or about themselves and their personal journey. The outdoors is an amazing place to learn about people and about yourself. I became more and more familiar with the terrain, the snowpack, and what humans are capable of… all in my backyard. I developed a new zest for life, for skiing, for adventure and that felt so good. Sometimes it takes an injury or setback to show you that you can create a new path forward and that you are stronger than you think you are.

Spring and summer will be a great time to focus on other activities, while still training to be a strong uphill athlete. But there is nothing quite like skiing. Nothing I am more happy being obsessed with. Over the course of the winter I logged more than 270,000 vertical feet uphill ski touring… something I had no idea I had in me. A new benchmark to go off of for seasons to come.

This was my best season yet, and the coolest part is… this is just the beginning.

Words by Osprey Athlete, Madison Rose Ostergren(Opens in a new window)

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