Early Season Couloirs in The Rockies

Words By:Brandon Willms

Report by Brandon Willms

This week found me finally making the transition from liquid to frozen H2O. Following a great kayaking season that ended with an amazing week of high water creeking, the snow started to fall and my mind shifted to things winter. Watching a few mountain adventure flicks seemed to seal the deal. So on Monday, I hooked up with touring partner, Dylan Chen, and headed out to Banff in search of that elusive November Pow. The start to this year has been pretty typical as far as problems that we face in the Rockies (look to Simon's blog post “Early Season Hazard’s”).

The idea was that we had to find some well protected North that would hold snow all summer if we were to have any hope of finding a debris free base. I suggested a line off of Lefroy Glacier that I had been to before, which probably would have been primo, but always has overhead hazard. However, Dylan had been tipped off to a couloir on Mt. Bell that I hadn’t yet heard of. It seemed a little ambitious for the first tour of the season, but I had been training for a few weeks and we had plenty of time. The weather was looking good. There were low winds and light snowfall forecasted for that day and the days leading up to it. The bulletin was reading Low. The line looked impressive. Heck……let’s give it a try. Worse that could happen, we bail and get a turn or two on the lower slopes……which has always been enough to satisfy my early season cravings in the past.

Photo: Mt. Bell Couloir as viewed from Taylor Lake

Getting up to the lake was easy going. The summer trail was well maintained and even though it had hardly any snow, we skinned up in no time (taking note that we would have to boot pack a lot of the down, or destroy our planks). My one concern had been whether we could safely cross the lake, but that turned out fine as it was sufficiently frozen. As we crossed the lake, the line came into view, and we could see two other riders already halfway up the couloir. “Nice, we don’t have to break trail”, which wouldn’t have been tough in this shallow snowpack, but give thanks for small blessing right? We were not at all worried about having the pow snaked, as it was a wide line and if there was any at all, there should be plenty to go around.

Gallery 1

The lower slopes were as expected, shallow snow and quite rocky. We negotiated that with a mix of skinning and boot packing and made it to the base of the couloir. It looked awesome! It was in great shape! We took a break and waited for the other two skiers to make their descent. There was no lack of hooting and hollering as they came down and it was obvious we had made a good choice. After a short chat with them, we were chomping at the bit to get up there! We started our bootpack up this glorious line. Digging a couple test pits and feeling the snow along the way, we felt it was solid. Well consolidated, not much for distinctive layers, not to slabby, not too soft, well bonded…….everything you can ask for in a Rockies snowpack.

Photo: There is so much room in there!

Once we topped out, there was some strong wind gusts picking up and it was clear some windloading was starting to take place. However, we were still comfortable with what we had found in the guts of the couloir and there was a very mellow entrance. So we did our changeover and I embarked on my first turns of the season. It was glorious! I have never ridden such a good line on my first day! Me and Dylan were all smiles as we made our way down. There was perfect snow almost from top to bottom. The ski out was a bit more work, but all in all, it was well worth it.

Gallery 2

Looking back on that day, it was one of the perfect days to ride that line. It may be a while now before it’s good to go again. The Rockies is very often hit or miss, and it can be hard to predict, but when it’s good it’s Gold! I hope you all have a chance to experience some of the early season treats! With the coming storm cycles, everything will be changing, as it always does. Be cautious and observant out there.

Happy Riding!