I love saying the word couloir, because the only correct and reasonable way to say it is with an over the top French accent. This makes me happy. In addition to saying the word couloir, I have found that I enjoy skiing them. It’s weird, but I just do. Here’s a little story about a couloir at the top of the world that turns dreams into realities.
Ross and I had been talking about skiing Mt. of the Holy Cross all winter. It is the easily most iconic line visible from Vail, where the both of us grew up skiing. The couloir is a giant cross of snow etched across a massive rock wall. We had already done a few big missions this season and our confidence and enthusiasm were high. It was early April; spring was approaching and the marginal amount of snow was melting. We knew we had to do it very soon or have to spend another year wishing we had. The problem was that we didn’t have snowmobiles, because we suck. The Cross is deep in the wilderness and the approach without sleds would add a day to the trip. So I thought of another plan. I had been ski touring off the back of Beaver Creek a bit and had been eyeing up the access to Holy Cross. I google earthed a route from the top of the Beav back along a ridge to Mt. Jackson. From Jackson, it’s a ski down to the valley and then skin up to the bottom of Holy Cross, spend the night around the Bowl of Tears and ski the Cross the next day…..easy.
I got Ross stoked on the idea and the weather looked great for a couple days. Time to go! We organized our food and camping gear together to spend one night out. We split the four season tent, food and Ross carried the Jetboil. Add in some mountaineering equipment and toilet paper and we were outfitted to slay the dragon.
We met up the next gloriously blue and calm morning. I left my car Subrina at the bottom of Tigwon road and we took Ross’s Jetta (Dick Magnet) over to B.C. You feel like a true boss strolling through ritzy Beaver Creek village with mountaineering packs and ice axes. After saying hola and bon voyage to the homies at Surefoot we got on the chairlift and began the journey to Mordor. We started skinning off the top of the Cinch lift. The skin to the top of BC (the Bald Spot) is a lovely mellow pitch at about 1.25 miles. It took us about 45 minutes. From there we were able to see our entire objective.
“What’s that?” asked Ross.
“Holy Cross” I said.
“Sweet, its right there!”
“Yep, I’m a genius”
What did appear farther away was Mt Jackson, which Ross observed and noted. I agreed but we decided to head towards it and see how it went. We skied down the back of Beav and skinned across Grouse Mountain. The weather was holding strong and blue but the wind picked up reminding us that we were outside in the high alpine. From the other side of Grouse we determined that Jackson was still pretty far away. We decided it was a better idea to bypass skiing Jackson and take a more direct route towards Holy Cross since that was our main objective.
It was a leisurely ski down Grouse through open, rolling trees for the first half. Then we got in to the trees and the snow became a little sparse, then we got to the dirt. The last 1,000 feet down to the valley was entirely melted. We put our skis on our packs and down hiked through the woods, cursing occasionally. This was turning into the adventure I expected. We finally made it to the river valley below, which was snow covered. We looked back up at Jackson. The exposure of the bottom was a bit better so if we had skied it, we could have skied almost the entire way to the valley floor. It would have been more skinning but we could have avoided that whole walk through the woods. We were still making decent time though.
We had lunch in the valley and started skinning up the Holy Cross side. It was steep zig zagging through woods. We eyed up pillow lines that might be worth a 6 mile skin. The snow was sticky and started to glop up on my 10 year old untreated skins. Nobody brought glop stopper. This when the going got a little tougher. I found the best way to knock the snow off was by whacking my skis with my rental poles. This worked great until I snapped my pole in half sending one end boomeranging away. I recovered the half of my pole and continued on with one and half. Learning experiences! Thankfully the snow had gotten less sticky at the higher elevations.
It was late afternoon now and Ross and I hadn’t talked in two hours. We made it to the ridge of Holy Cross past where the hiking trail goes up, and looked down at a nice place to camp. We skied about 800 feet down an icy chute to a perfect camp spot. It was flat, it had a cave, and there were trees nearby so we could gather pine bows to put under our tent. Camping in the belly of the beast is not something I will soon forget. I also repaired my broken pole with two sticks and duck tape.
We awoke at dawn and had coffee and oatmeal in the tent. We gathered only the necessary gear together and started skinning up to the bottom of the Cross Couloir. It felt great not to have a heavy pack. The sky was blue and the wind was calm. We skinned around to the north east side of the peak and started zig zagging up to entrance to the couloir. It was firm but we knew it would be corn by the time we came down it. We made it to the entrance of the couloir and got our first really good look at it. She was beautiful. Tall and thin with subtle sexy curves. Consistently steep up to blind rollover entrance and flanked by two rock walls. One other surprising feature was the single track down it! Some solo shredder apparently got it the day before. Touché. We switched over to crampons and ice axe to start boot packing up.
The snow was ideal for boot packing. Kind of like a cream cheese corn mixture with blower in there too. The boot pack was the most fun part of the trip so far. We felt confident in the snow pack, the weather was great, and I was hiking up the freaking Cross Couloir with my buddy. The top of the couloir is the steepest part. It was exciting hiking but not gripping, just extremely fun. We made it to the summit which was a bit windy. The view from the top of Holy Cross is one of the best in Colorado. 360 degrees of snow capped rockies from Denver past Aspen. We soaked it in for a bit and had some tea and crumpets.
So without further adieu we skied her. I let Ross take the honors. The top few turns were firm and I skied slow and cautiously. After a few turns the snow softened. The sunny side of the couloir was corn and the shaded side powder. I gained some confidence and started lacing some smooth turns exploring the different aspects of the couloir. I stopped halfway down to let my slough go and give the legs a break. Then I charged it down staying closer to the wall and the snow was powder almost the entire way. I had a couple face shots and some of the best turns of the season, in definitely the sickest place I’ve been all season. I exited on the right before the couloir closes out to a mandatory rappel and met up with Ross. Even though we had hiked up it we were still shocked at how good the snow was. Also my stick repaired pole held up perfectly. It doesn’t get any better than this. Now we had another thousand feet of corn down to the Bowl of Tears.
We made it back to camp and packed up our stuff and headed out. We ended up following the ski track of the solo person who skied it the day before. It lead us to the way out perfectly like a guiding forest angel. We were completely spent by the time we made it to Subrina and so happy about the whole adventure. We didn’t ski Jackson, but we got the Cross in epic conditions and we did it without sleds. Nature taught me a few lessons and I gained deeper appreciation for the mountains near my home. The next day I went to Alpine Quest and bought glop stopper.