Story and Photos by Andrew McLean
There are two types of skiing; 1) couloirs and 2) everything else. Also known as chutes, slots, splitters, pinners, gullies, coulies, my little darlings, and many other terms of endearment, couloirs are lovely to behold and even better to ski. Functioning as a mountain’s trash funnel for loose rocks & ice, it took the French to name them (koo-lwar) and more importantly, turn them into playthings. Snuffling through an open powder field is nice, but not nearly as exciting as being locked into a steep, unrelenting slot with dark, towering rock walls on each side. It’s better yet to rappel into a couloir, eliminating any chance of an escape other than skiing or falling down the entire thing. While powder runs end with a faint glow and tingling legs, finishing a couloir is more like being shot out of a cannon or emerging from the womb with a feeling of being reborn. There is an addictive cosmic energy associated with couloir skiing that leads to the desire for more, bigger, longer, steeper and narrower slots.
In the ski resorts, Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole is the country’s most famous couloir, but Alta’s Main Baldy Chute and Dogleg Chute are even more tall, dark, narrow and handsome. La Grave, France offers up an all-you-can-eat menu of lift served delicacies such as the Trifide Couloirs, Y Couloir and the 2,700’ Freux Couloir, which appropriately ends at a bar. But for pure tram-side classics, nothing beats Chamonix with such classics as the Cosmiques, Jager, Gervasutti and Poubelle couloirs, to name a few of hundreds. When the nearby Whymper Couloir was first skied in 1968 by Sylvain Saudan, it morphed from an Alpine climb into the birth of Extreme Skiing, neon and headbands.
But beyond the lifts is where couloirs come into their own. There’s a sublime satisfaction to picking out a line, figuring out how best to ski/ride it and then putting the plan into action. The backcountry is stuffed full of couloirs, but they require a different mindset to tackle.
Couloirs are unforgiving places to be caught in an avalanche, which makes timing and snow conditions critical. My personal favorite couloir snow is old recrystallized powder, which grows from the ground up rather than falling from the sky. It takes a series of cold nights and clear days to grow a carpet of recrystallized, but once established, it is edgeable, easy to climb, generally stable and fun to ski.
Corn snow is a close second, but it is fleeting and many tight couloirs don’t get enough direct sunlight to form up. On big open couloirs, perfect corn often forms up in the spring, if only on one side of the chute. Timing a couloir for corn is tricky as they can go from welded in the morning to a slushy avalanche in the afternoon with only a short window of perfect corn. When in doubt, go early and wait it out at the top rather than starting up too late.
Ice can be unforgiving and dangerous, but at least it is consistent. Doug Ward, an ex-ski racer from Calgary who has chalked up numerous first descents in the Canadian Rockies, swears by ice for steep descents. It’s an acquired taste that trades avalanche safety for edging insecurity.
Many couloirs feature some sort of rappel which adds a tasty bit of spice. These can range from a simple handline for security all the way up to free hanging spinner. Once clipped in, the lowering process is easy, but the important part is to be prepared. Put your harness on way ahead of time in a nice flat spot. Organize a daisy chain and locking carabiner so they are tight and out of the way, yet ready to clip into the anchors when you get there. Remain calm above cliffs.
Leaving the rope(s) for others is a nice thought, but they get wet, encrusted with ice and soon become totally useless. Once they melt into the creeping snowpack, it puts an incredible strain on the anchors. Just pull them. As with rock climbing, many rappel anchors are designed to have ropes threaded directly through them, so adding webbing & rap rings just adds potential failure points.
For better and worse, special avalanche considerations apply to couloirs. On the good side, couloirs are often confined and low volume, so they have less spatial variability than a big, open slope. They can also offer up nice hiding spots, or micro islands of safety tucked up against the walls or behind a rock. Cornices often form at the top, which can be chopped & dropped to test stability (watch out for people below). On couloirs in the 45+ degree range, snow often sluffs off instead of accumulating, which in theory, gives it the same odds of avalanching as a 31 degree slope. A 53 degree slope has very low odds of avalanching, but plenty of other things to worry about.
On the negative side, avalanches are bad enough on their own, let alone getting tossed and mulched by them in a chute. One of the major dangers with couloirs is heavy windloading at the top, which forms a snow pillow right in the starting zone. Hucking cornices and landing on these tempting pillows is a bad idea. Windloaded headwalls are especially tricky if you are booting up from the bottom as the final 100’ might be all that separates you from the summit. So close, but no cigar.
Another tricky concept with couloirs is that they can have 270 degrees of exposure in a tight distance. The chute may face north, but it will have east and west facing cheeks that get differing amounts of sun, shade or windloading all within fifty feet.
On a rowdy couloir, it is tempting to think the crux is the steepest section, but from an avalanche perspective, it is often much further down where the line transitions through 38 degrees into an apron. This is an area where upper sluffs accumulate and mentally it is easy to think you have made it through the hard part, only to be surprised on the relatively easy apron.
Couloir crowding is a new phenomenon. It is considered bad form to intentionally ski down on top of other parties, but this concept is problematic in a tight couloir where the ascent/descent line is the same. If a party is nearby, couloir etiquette dictates waiting at the top until everyone is clear, but with big, popular lines, there can be ten parties spread out over 3,500 vertical feet of climbing, with more parties showing up. It could literally take all day and encompass dozens of people waiting at the top until the line is clear, and there is no saying that the other parties are going to be willing to wait. More and more, late starters should expect to be skied on and should do everything possible to protect themselves, like putting in a sheltered booter off to the side or even choosing a different objective. There is a new shared responsibility for all backcountry skiers to be aware of both those below and those above.
Getting To the Top
There are arguments to be made both for climbing couloirs before you ski them or dropping in from above. In reality, this decision has more to do with where they are located, with some being logically accessed from below and others from above.
Climbing a line before you ski it gives you a perfect preview of what to expect, but also puts you in the avalanche line of fire for much longer. It can be hard to tell what conditions are like thousands of feet above you, but wallowing in waist deep snow at the beginning apron is not a good sign. A perfect scenario is one-hit booting without crampons where the snow is soft, yet supportable. As mentioned above, the headwalls of couloirs are often the most dangerous section, so skirt way off to the side or forgo the summit if need be.
When booting up a couloir, try to climb using the walls or bends in the chute to protect you from avalanches or rock/ice fall from above. Often times, sluffing snow will create a more dense, bootable track right up the center, but not always. It pays to switch around a bit, trying to feel out the most supportable snow. In other times, keeping your skins on and doing a million kick-turns does the trick.
Dropping in from the top also has its pluses and minuses. On the minus side, you don’t know exactly what you are getting into as far as avalanche or ice conditions go, and retreat can be difficult. On the plus side, if you have a rope, chopping & dropping a cornice is an excellent way to test stability. Ideally, the weight of the dropped cornice will trigger any slides which will flush out the couloir. Another scenario is that the cornice thumps down, breaks up and dwindles away, which is far less conclusive. In this case, anchor the rope, lower into the couloir and aggressively ski cut it as hard as you can, wall-to-wall while still roped up. Another advantage of dropping in from the top is that you will be spending less time in the couloir and have skis on for quick mobility.
Ride the Lightning
Part of the thrill of skiing couloirs is that you are forced to adapt to the terrain and make turns in a dramatic location. Hop turns are a basic tool of the trade and are easier if you keep your upper body facing downhill at all times and keep each turn under control. From an avalanche and partner perspective, I prefer to leap-frogging down couloirs, where the first person skis a pitch, then pulls off in a safe spot behind a rock or fin, then watches as the second person skis down, passes the first person and continues down to the next safe spot. Repeat. This keeps people spread out, skiing one at a time and watching each other. It also keeps people from stopping above each other, which is especially dangerous in a couloir from both an avalanche and falling perspective. If you do plan on stopping at the same spot, the first person should snuggle up to a rock or tree on the uphill side, which forces the second skier to stop below.
A Few of My Favorite Things
I found my personal couloir calling in the early 1990’s in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. At the time, backcountry skiing meant skinny skis, 3-pin bindings, granola and a soul patch beard. Couloirs were considered avalanche paths and denoted on maps by an “A” with a circle around it – the sign of anarchy. Things have changed since then and here are three favorites from over the years…
Lisa Falls – Wasatch Mountains, Utah
This was a classic Alex Lowe mind-blowing adventure. We spent hours laboring up the backside, to find ourselves standing on top of a 5,000’ south-facing, untracked pinner couloir filled with waist deep 5% powder. The run went on forever and it was the last year that I bought a season’s pass. The hook was set.
Terminal Cancer – Ruby Mountains, Nevada
Although currently on the endangered species list from being loved to death, the T.C. couloir is amazing in its stark purity. From below, it resembles a perfect karate chop cleft right through a rock face and is short, but stunning. To find it, head up Lamoille Canyon and look to your right – there’s absolutely no doubt about it. This was the site of the deepest snow I’ve ever skied, which was 5-6’ of sub 5% powder that had drifted in from the flanks and filled the chute to the brim.
Messner Couloir – Denali, Alaska
Although we were vastly unqualified to ski this at the time, we got lucky with conditions and weather which led to the run of a lifetime. Starting at over 19,000’, the Messner is a HUGE hourglass shaped couloir that tips the scales at just under 50 degrees at the top and drops close to a vertical mile before taking you right back to your tent at the 14.3 camp. It’s like skiing in outer space, only better.