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.
While half the crew enjoyed a second season in AK, the rest of us watched the snow melt as the mountain closed lift by lift, and ultimately, shut down last week for the 2012 season. Good riddance. For the past two months, I had been looking more forward to the sounds of sitars and Thievery Corp than the skiing. Armada Bubbas looking sad and lonely in the corner, maybe next year, friends.
The little bit of last second snow was almost a cruel joke, just covering up fallen trees and dirt patches long enough to get a couple final runs in. And honestly, the first few hours of closing day were some of the best of the year, as sad as that sounds. Why I’m even writing about a 7 inch powder day, I don’t know…other than to summarize the bookend season we had. If last year was the best of times, this was surely the worst of times. Seeing what EV could be on both ends of the precipitation scale told a tale of two seasons.
If anything, a good year to test your snow science skills. If you had none, it was a good year to get some. Silverton Avy School, et al. earned their keep this year, with plenty of examples to show would be snow gurus. EV dictated same, with what seemed like a slide a day. Fortunately, only a few serious injuries in Mushie and no deaths in EV. The rest of Colorado and the ski world as a whole wasn’t as lucky. A constant reminder in skiing, where the crossroads of freewill and inherent risk intersect.
Waxing philosophic aside, a pile of bones was about all that was left to poke at here in Vail. Full on summer now, so enjoy the off season. Get strong, train, ride your bike, go hike, get on the river, get swole, get ready for what will hopefully be a better season next year. If not there’s always the great white North. AK on the mind…see you next year.
I stand on top of the Top of The world and stare in awe at what I see. A mid-May landscape of brown and white stares right back. Barren Vail pass and a rapidly melting east vail are an indicator of just how off this season has been in terms of snow. Nothing to do now but hike and train, ski EVs to get ready for the big game. Nice also to get away from the spring break madness that has taken over the mountain. Good Lord it’s dangerous out there and I’ll take my chances with the backcountry any day.
Thought about my options and realized that with the consistent temps and sun hit, the west wall’s demise was near completion. Probably would be my last chance to rescue my AK JJ that I sacrificed last week during a moment of huberis. A few more days of the above 40 temps and sun would render the isothermic snowpack completely unsupportive and the West Wall starts ripping to the ground, entombing my ski in wet slide debris until late spring. The run to the ground scenario is something reserved usually for late April or May in a typical EV season. This year, March 13? Why not?
Rescue mission time. The only access it was to ski the run I had last time. There was no option to cut over from skier’s right West wall and be high enough to get the ski. Plus, undercutting that entire area to get across wasn’t an option.
Skied to the entrance of the Corner Pocket and thought about my last run, eating it, getting hit and losing a ski in the process. Shut my eyes for a second, deep breath and I push off onto March corn. I ski the upper, sparsely spaced old growth trees without incident.
Coming to the choke, the place where I failed last time, I stopped behind a large tree and peered in. I saw that the double stage drop was now a muddy runnel with snowmelt, bushes and mud leading to the runout area. Below in the debris zone is where my ski was supposed to be. I could see two specks of black, and a tip of a ski in the melting carved runout.
Getting down to it was the issue. There was no hucking the drop this time. It would be a tragic irony to land and go through the rest of the snow pack and lose another ski in another tomahawk. The answer lies in the river of water and mud trickling to my right. The next sequence is an ad lib that has no basis in snow science or widley accepted backcountry protocol. I don’t give a shit. Sometimes you have to do what you have to get your ski.
First time for everything. Stood on a bushy bench looking down and considered my future.
Step One. Side Stashes off. (Taking your skis off is a no no, but there was no chance to downclimb mudrunnel on skis.)
Step Two. Throw side stashes like a spear into the debris pile below.
Step Three. Grab slippery root in the mudrunnel and try to down climb over a ledge covered in flowing water and mud.
Step Four. Realize gravity always wins, commit to the muddy ass slide over the ledge and air it.
Step Five. Land onto the debris pile below in a spider monkey position.
Step Six. Wallow/ swim in the snow to find and retrive AK JJ. Use as a support to get to the Sidestashes. Get on em and get out of there.
Skied out decent corn on the old debris piles next to recent wet slide debris in the mddle of the far left west wall area. The slide went over the first roll and down near the traverse out from Tele Line. The crown was just under the cliffs to the skier’s right of my gully. It was about a foot and a half deep, the debris looked a day or two old.
Spider monkey pentrometer confirmed that the snow pack on the west wall was being bridged by a rapidly weakening mid pack crust layer being saturated with melt water. Underneath is loose and unconsolidated to the ground. The end is near.
Rescue mission a success. I skied out with three, being careful not to clothes line myself on the traverese out. Another first in my fifteen seasons here. Prouldy displayed my hard earned, slightly muddy trophy on the bus.
Sam, a EVI follower who I didn’t know, aked me if that was the indeed the rogue JJ from EVI. I laughed and confirmed. Talked about the state of EV and the crazy year on the way in.
EV season started two months late and ends a month early. Not much left in between.
Bluebird weekend with the Snowball festival. EV saw big numbers. 140 by two o’clock yesterday, 90 by noon today. Top of the World today reveals tracks everywhere. Temperatures rising again over 30 degrees.
Saw JD the Poma. He mentioned that he has seen plenty of large groups yesterday teeing it up everywhere. Tracks in the middle of west wall with no slide activity. Tweeners was stomped and Abe’s as well, confirming JD’s story. Met up with Law at the top by chance, grouped up with MFD and Atomic Mid Fat. Followed them down to Old Man’s. Cornice had risen dramatically with the wind arriving with the clearing storm.
Waited and watched the first two try to attack the cornice with a rope. Without the proper weight in the middle of the rope the rope cut nothing but plate sized chunks of snow while exposing them both to the edge of the overhang. They inched their way off the Old Man’s entrance with every rope toss and ended up over King Tut’s still trying to lasso a part of the cornice. I waited with Law above and watched. Good to leave a person in a safe area if you decide to tackle a cornice. I learned that lesson after my turn at cornice stomping left me with a ski in midair. A pole from Law behind me helped me back up to solid ground.
Skied lower down above the entrance proper as the calf roping continued. I asked them to back off a second. I probed the edge of the new cornice section at the entrance with my pole and gave a few good stomps. A sizable chunk of the newly formed section of cornice dropped and impacted the crown area of last weeks slide, the old bed surface in the middle of Old Mans almost completely filled in with the recent new snow. The chunks exploded on the scarp and ran through the frying pan. No step down, the new snow in the middle of the bowl held tough. Even with three hundred tracks in EV the last couple days, the rest of Old Mans was a blank canvas.
Dropped the entrance, skirted the debris and skied a surprisingly good Olds tree chute far right. Exited through lower trees where the snow was rapidly warming.
Headed out into the moonscape of the scoured world. Wind event 2012 is in full swing and EV is not immune. One look at the Gore Range says it all. Mountains bathed in white a few days ago are stripped bare, the precious contents transferred to Nebraska. Flagging on the peaks yesterday was huge, clouds of snow pluming off anything above 10000 feet. Really a sense of deja vu, the Poma hike scoured, the anti-tracks of travelers past sticking out in relief, exposed by the winds. It reminded me of early December conditions. DPS and I headed out just to see what the results of the wind, not expecting any phenomenal skiing. There has really been no periods of consistency with weather or snow this year and everyday seems to bring something new.
Not much traffic, no surprise there. Top of the World really wasn’t that bad wind wise, the worst of the event is hopefully over. Snow conditions were variable, meaning I skied seven different kinds of snow during our Tweeners run. Rock hard scarp gave way to thin window pane like wind slab. Old pow in the trees, old pow with a cracker crust in any sun hit lowers out of the wind. East facing sun crust of different variations. It was a snow condition buffet, and I had my plate full. I survival skied the run, but enjoyed it nonetheless. Hanging out with DPS on the ridge, looking around and shooting the shit is always a good time.
The run out to the water tank was the capper. The wind had brought down smaller limbs and pine cones and scattered them like confetti on the run-out. Flying through the luge on a mostly brown carpet with the crunching of the pine cones under the skis capped a strange, otherworldly run in a otherworldly year.
On the ridge we watched Benchie and Old Mans reloading, the plumes of snow cartwheeling into the scarps. The crown in Olds is still visible. The fracture profile looks pretty similar to the slide I set off with the ski cut heard round the world early in the year. Strip on the right side of Old Mans is holding tough.
I’ve chosen a couple of strip runs next to old slide paths this year. These strips of snow have provided good skiing, while mitigating the danger with the old slide path interrupting the open faces. Pow strips have provided this year when we couldn’t step out into the open faces we wanted to ski. Can’t ever remember choosing runs in EV this way during any other year.
East faces are crusted from sun and warm temps. Upper north aspects are cross-loaded or slid out. Lower protected trees are the best skiing at the moment, out of the sun and wind.
Bottom line in EV, we need the reset button pushed in a bad way.
Howling ridge top winds today had me thinking of severe wind slabs. Anything North facing and open had to be severely crossloaded in the upper areas due to the north westerly winds gusting at times over 40 mph. Temperatures were warmer by ten degrees from the previous day. Headed out into the whiteout to the Top of the World where no one one was. Grey, windy and spooky, it was a throwback day in EV.
Continued the Tweeners excursions as visibility was almost nothing and it offered the sneak through the wind loaded upper areas. Traversing across the ridge to Tweeners, the hollow drummy sound of hard wind slab let me know that Benchie and Old Mans open areas were not to be trifled with today.
Matt and Peter caught up with me later after my run to let me know they had a windslab rip on a ski cut in the left side of Abe’s. Thanks for the info, confirmation of the wind slab issue. These young guns are part of the next generation of EV skiers that will be out there long after I’ve headed to the elepphant graveyard of powder skiers, Edwards. I appreciate them taking the time to be involved. If this site gives the up and comers out there any useful info that helps keep them safe, it is a success in my eyes.
Spent some time trundling person sized chunks of wind slab at the top of the skier’s right side of Benchie. No cornice on the roll, so I could do this. Watched as the wind slab chunks hit the incline and snow density change in the middle of the bowl, looking for propagation into the middle areas and over the cliffs into the flats. It can be an indicator of what is going on below the firm upper scarp areas in both Benchmark and Old man’s, where the snow softens and the angle eases. No reaction to the hard slab chunk explosions.
Moved over to Tweeners and did the same, taking advantage of the lack of the cornice to stomp around a bit. Again nothing moving after the initial slide for life the chunks did. Skied it with no activity, again no sluffing on the run, or cracking up top in the wind exposed entrance. Pleasant surprise.
The world below the ridgeline was completely different. Calm wind, relatively light new accumulation( a few inches) and skiing boot deep fresh powder on a supportive base. Stayed on the ridge line all the way to the end.
The face below Tweeners is notorious for sliding. Facing slightly NE, it tends to get crusts with the sunhit, then covered by storm snow. When instability is bad, this triangle face can let you know. Didn’t spend more a than a few seconds on the face, felt the crust at times underneath the varying depths of new snow. Again, much to my surprise, it held with out so much as a sluff through the run.
Had the world to myself, enjoyed the solitude in the Forgotten Trees with some fine pow skiing. Watching the snow stack up on the deck as the next system moves through(four inches at 9:45 of the fluff at EV base)Day off tomorrow should get back to the pits and multiple runs.
Our first official retraction. It was bound to happen. I swore off Tweeners, but today I cracked. Faced with the snow(although not the 39 inches in Steamboat) and increasing winds overnight, potential for wind slabs and stories emerging about tragic, multi fatality accidents like the one at Stevens Pass had me eating my words and standing down from anything open and wind loaded.
Although the accident happened two thousand miles away, the account resonates with every backcountry traveler. The world we hang out in is actually a small one. Experienced and using safe zones used for years. Scary. 100, 500 year cycles? Not even the most snow savy traveler can predict the end result when forces collide and all the variables line up for a huge avalanche cycles measured in centuries, not decades. We humans on our sliding sticks are capable of some entertaining things in these areas, but we are not in control.
Headed up solo first thing, got past the masses and ended up behind only DPS and J, no surprise there. Nice to hang out with some long time friends up top with no one else around.
About six new in EV, but of course the prevailing north winds filled in areas deeper. Left Abe’s for the crew behind us and skied Tweeners.
Three tracks in and not really even a sluff. The only sign of any slide activity was a small natural in Old Man’s at the point where the slide ripped last Wednesday, the new snow not holding on the old bed surface. We were the first out so not sure what went down afterwards with more traffic. Find out tomorrow.
Had a nice day in the trees and let the Old Man be.
Saw a two guys I recognized from yesterday at the Pitkin stop again today. Geared up, waiting for the bus and ready for battle in EV. MFD all-time/ Pontoons and his buddy mid-fat Atomics/ Naxos (the worst AT binding of all-time, sent myself to VVMC on those things). Asked them about yesterday, what they saw and such. Just interested in their observations from a big cycle day.
Didn’t think anything of it until I got to the bus stop after my lap. Saw MFD Pontoons standing alone. Said hey and inquired about the whereabouts of mid -fat Atomic. MFD said that his buddy kicked off and lost a ski. He was now alone in the Racquet Club chute. I asked him, matter-of – fact, why he wasn’t he with him? The answer.
MFD said that mid-fat didn’t know where he was exactly in the chute, but MFD had a good idea where he was. He was in touch by cell phone and was going to go around, find him then render aid.(Really?)
MFD said Mid-fat knew from yesterday that his bindings were “loose”, and he should’ve cranked them down, but ignored his advice. (punishment for using Naxos?)
Loaded the bus and sat watching MFD render aid by text.
When it hits the fan, who do you know that you can trust to keep their head and help you? How do you know? Solo missions might get a bad rap, but is it better than having a useless partner? Finding able partners isn’t the easiest thing, and might not be the buddy who is leading you into EV. No easy answer.
Went to check out the West Wall slide from yesterday. My personal powder hunting tempered by the recent events. Hit the ridge on a beautiful sparkling morning, with a couple of inches of fresh again as the snow cycle remnants moved through. Not many people out.
Checked out the track in the skier’s right side of the Wall that was put down by the skier who triggered the slide. He skied the first gully skier’s right in the Wall where you can sneak through through cliff band with minimal/ no air. A small sluff on the line, but that seemed to not relate to the actual avalanche. The actual slide was remotely triggered 75 feet to the skier’s left of the track towards the middle of the bowl. The crown was a foot to two feet deep.
Dug a pit on the 25 degree lead in to the roll over in the middle of the Wall, above the small, butried rock band that lines the top. Representative of the E aspect, but not the incline, as the face below the band rolls into the thirties at least and gets more sun than where I was going to dig. Heres what I saw.
Air temp: 3 C
Surface temp: 3 C
0-60 cms: 3mm facets/ fist –
60-70cms: melt/freeze crust/ pencil
70-80 cms: .5 mm facets(coulmns?) fist –
80-145 cms : .5 mm sintered rounds/ 4 finger
145-160 cms: .5 to 1mm stellars (new snow)/fist –
Thick crust with small, loose facets above the crust, below the dense, sintered old storm snow. Significant temp gradient around the crust.
Did a couple CT tests.
Here’s what I saw.
First column: CT-12 at 65cms Q1. Ran on the facets above the MF crust.
Second column: CT-2 Q2 at 35 cms. This column ended up next to an evergreen shrub. Broke within the depth hoar. Interesting the crust was knife hard around the shrub area.
Filled in my pit and headed out to the bus on a Tele Line ridge run. No obvious new activity.
Another Mushroom burial/injury on 2/16, not sure of all the details. Heard that the Kitchen was the place of the first accident a couple of days ago, not sure the exact location of this one, but Mushie strikes again.
The day after my showdown in Old Man’s I was back out in the mix. Not for the great skiing, but for a dubious anniversary. EV lost a great skier on this day some years ago in King Tut’s during one of the biggest seven-day cycles I’ve ever seen. I wandered up on the accident in a different party and ended up recovering Gus with a good friend of mine. A sobering reminder that there is a fine line between pushing it and pushing it too far. It was the first pack of the day and other friends rounded out the locals only group.
I was seriously spooked from yesterdays verification of a trigger happy snowpack, and was all about a crappy Mushie run. I let everyone know about what had transpired the day before and let them make up their own minds. We had come in separate groups and a group of geared up quickly and stood ready at the small tree platform above the skier’s left entrance of Abraham’s. I couldn’t resist the urge to spot them and see what was going to go down. I called coming and skied up to them, happy to let someone test the left side of Abe’s first. A shelf like cliff guards the entrance and is a prime spot to trigger a release. I’ve seen it break and flush at the exact spot.
They dropped, cut left into the denser tree slots. Both were able to cut left and then descend without incident. Other groups joined me at the spot and then took turns skiing similar lines. Nothing. It sounds crazy, but I was a little disappointed. All this build up from yesterday and I ended up crying wolf. I realized that I had let yeaterday’s incident and the fact of Gus’ tragic aniversary skew my judgement and assesment of a different day, different conditions in a very different area. The human factor by far, both the positive and negative aspects, is the most variable of all.
After six people had gone, Big J wanted to bring up the rear, so I gathered myself and dropped over the shelf cliff and into the left hand slot of Abe’s. The snow was at the knee and a little wind whipped, the fear of punching through in the back of my mind. It was evergreen slalom, and had to be wary of catching a non-exposed part of a tree or log.
The evergreens anchored the snow pack and combined with a day of settlement, the snowpack seemed to be a little calmer.
Aired over the little choke and into the flats and to my ski partners, happy to have gotton the first Abe’s out of the way. A few deep pow turns, thankfully without incident on a perfect day was just what I needed. Big J and I took our time and skied out with Brenden stopping along the way to enjoy the day and remenisce. I caught a glimpse on the way out of Old Man’s and turned away quickly, wanting to be in the moment and put it a literally and figuratively behind.