Couloir Hunting in Coastal BC
By Paul Greenwood, FOW
Paul wraps up the Mount Matier ascent. Coastal BC. Photo: Jessie Mcauley (@jessie.mcauley)
The storms are starting to move back to the Sea to Sky and with an increase in ski specific training, it comes time to review photos and video of the 20/21 ski season. Though the entire year was highlighted by many unknown variables and difficulties due to COVID-19, we were strategic and made the most of it.
The highlight for me was a three week window in April where I took time away from my day job to ski as hard as I could. Armed with the Vital 100, I was prepared for any conditions that came my way. This was truly a staycation, as we sought to explore new terrain in our own backyard. Here are a selection of my favourite lines from my Vital Season.
Mount Matier to Twin One Couloir
On rappel into the Twin One Couloir. Coastal BC. FOW: Paul Greenwood // Photo: Jessie Mcauley (@jessie.mcauley)
We started the block with a ski mountaineering mission recommended by a friend earlier in the season. Heading to the Duffey lake road our objective was a linkup of Mount Matier and the Twin One couloir. Taking the normal route up Matier we passed up the classic NW face for the seldom skied south couloir. Steep, refrozen snow led to a rappel over a chockstone. I carefully jump turned before stopping to place a bomber nut and sling a big horn to create an anchor.
Ski mountaineering is an awesome blend of steep skiing, rock, ice and snow techniques that inherently creates new problems that must be strategically solved. Regrouping after the rappel we worked our way along a ridge to the hidden entrance of the Twin One couloir. We created another rappel anchor and lowered ourselves to the top of the ski line. The steep couloir opened up below us to 800 m of fall line skiing. Beautiful chalk with pockets of pow took us to the glacier below and a long ski back to the car.
With high pressure forecasted to return, Eric Carter, Marcus Waring, and I planned our next few objectives carefully. This week we wanted to ski three potential first descents...
The Warden Couloir
First, we headed to the Wedgemont group north of Whistler. The Rethel headwall above Wedgemont lake is a formidable rampart broken by big couloirs and seams. Normally we look to this wall for fall alpine climbing. However, with enough snow, maybe they could become ski lines…
Paul looking for an entry into the Warden Couloir. Opening this line from the top required two rappels and some careful route finding as the weather closed in. Luckily, as the vis completely crapped out, the stone hallway guided us down to Wedemont Lake. Coastal BC. FOW: Paul Greenwood // Photo: Eric Carter
As we worked up convoluted terrain to the west ridge we watched as the forecasted afternoon cloud started to roll in. All we needed to do was get into the couloir as we knew we could ski it in whiteout. With the clock on we set up a rappel and nailed the entrance. Another quick rappel off a large boulder and we were in the couloir as the clouds engulfed us. The top was steep and fairly narrow. With good forgiving snow we hop turned through a choke and opened it up into mellower terrain. The Warden couloir is a fine addition to the ski mountaineering potential of the Rethel headwall.
Marcus and Paul drop in after the clouds set in. Coastal BC. Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
Next on the list was Viking Ridge off the Garibaldi Neve. Knowing the sun would be intense later in the day, we woke up at 2 am and caught the sunrise in the high alpine.
Coastal BC. Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
We had recon pictures from a fixed wing flight earlier in the week, but otherwise we were onsighting the descent. As we dropped off the ridge, we saw cornices looming overhead and knew we needed to make quick work of the descent before the sun warmed the aspect. A decision to throw the drone up for some aerial recon allowed us to spot an easy entrance into the large slot couloir needed for egress off the ridge. This 1200 m drop to the Pit River Valley was a memorable experience, only highlighted by the extremely warm slog back to where we came from.
The completed Viking Ridge descent. Coastal BC. Photo: Eric Carter
This line was exposed due to glacial retreat. We were happy to open the line, but approached it with a healthy dose of concern for the future of the alpine. Coastal BC. Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
Our third probable first descent of the week was on a section of the beautiful Nch’kay massif called the Dalton dome. This stratovolcano dominates the skyline above my home in Squamish and is extremely important to the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people. Dalton dome sports a large serac wall that has been rapidly receding with climate change. The ice melt has recently exposed a new entrance to a lower couloir.
A few early mornings in a row led us to forget a few things at the truck occasionally. Marcus forgot his skins on the way to ski Dalton Dome. Luckily it was just one big ascent up the north face of Nch'kay and then downhill to the truck! When he realized his error, Marcus quickly grabbed his cordelette and created ski chains from a series of knots. Needless to say, the cord was totally destroyed, but in true Marcus fashion he made it to the top without a complaint. Coastal BC. Skier: Marcus Waring // Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
After summiting Nch’kay via the classic NE face we rappelled off the west aspect to a high saddle where we regrouped and made our way to the top of the line. An airy traverse leads to moderately steep turns into the couloir proper.
Coastal BC. Skier: Marcus Waring // Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
Coastal BC. Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
My watchful eyes surveyed the serac for a moment before charging into the fall line and finally over the ‘shrund. This descent really accentuates the effects that climate change is having on our local terrain.
Our third week took us to the east end of the Duffey for a mini expedition. We made camp in the Downton area, expecting clear weather and steep chalk. Instead, we were greeted with a dump of cold smoke overnight.
Aesthetic lines galore in this zone. Coastal BC. Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
Our first day proved to be moody as we worked in and out of the clouds. Sticking to mellow terrain, we tested the snowpack and we were pleased with the low density snow. A cold night led to a stunning morning and we headed to our main objective on Lost Peak.
The Lost Couloir. Coastal BC. FOW: Paul Greenwood // Photo: Chris Christie (@christieimages)
The north couloir on the wall is continuously steep and immediately draws the eye. I spotted this line in the summer while I was scrambling on a nearby ridge and knew I needed to come back. We decided to forego the direct boot pack in deep snow by heading around the south aspect. As I clicked in and skied the first turns on belay, I knew I was in for a good time. A quick shoulder check during my opening turns showed that the slough was moving fast so I decided to punch it ahead and rip down the line.
Perfect snow out of the Lost Couloir. Coastal BC. Photo: Paul Greenwood (@gnarlyroot)
As I prep for the next season, I once again reflect on the last one. Though the greater ranges were calling to me, we pivoted into some amazing local adventures. Staying close to home enabled us to keep our carbon footprint low, explore terrain in new ways and connect with the mountains that we stare at every day.
Is it time to push into the unknown? Find the perfect setup for your next alpine objective.