I just had to get back into the mountains on Friday, and the weather looked promising. Photographer Chris Figenshau joined me to ski the North Couloir on Buck Mountain’s West Peak. Instead of going directly up the south fork of Avalanche Canyon, we decided to skin up 25 Short and then ski Turkey Chute down into the canyon, before heading towards the north face of Buck Mountain.
The north face of Buck Mountain holds some of the gnarliest and most aesthetic ‘skiable’ couloirs in the range. The Bubble Fun Couloir sits on the lookers left and ends in a 200′ rappel, so it’s not for the faint at heart and I think less than 10 people have skied it. The middle line is know to some as the Newk Couloir and fills in better with more snow. Right now it doesn’t look very skiable, but sometimes it does fill-in enough to ski without any rappels. The couloir on the right is the North Couloir on Buck’s West Peak. Though the ‘lightest’ of the three, it is still a very serious descent.
The weather was looking good and we even commented on how nice and calm things were. I even took some time to put on sunscreen, which is a rarity, and I think that is what jinxed us. After a quick bite and transition back to skins after skiing Turkey Chute, we continued up towards the North Couloir and where we would stash our skins and begin bootpacking.
The North Couloir of Buck’s West Peak is an awesome descent for the steep skier. It is very steep at the top, close to 55o I bet, with a hard dogleg to the right at the bottom. You are staring at the hazard for the entire ski and every turn must be solid. A fall anywhere in this couloir would send the skier over the cliffs below and potentially into a body-bag.
We climbed up the gully that accesses the ledge that brings you into the North Couloir without any problem. We plowed through a few deep, slabby pillows of snow…definitely something to remember on the way back. About halfway across the ledge, we noticed that the weather had taken a serious turn for the worse. The wind was now blowing hard and the visibility had deteriorated considerably. The spot we were in was pretty protected, so we hunkered down for a bit to wait it out and see if things would change. The wind let up and the clouds lifted enough for us to feel comfortable about continuing higher, so we did.
The snow seemed quite nice in the lower half of the couloir. It was up to my knees in spots, and was mostly relatively soft, stable powder.
The couloir gets steeper the higher you go and the snow conditions began to get considerably more firm. Luckily, it wasn’t very icy, so we would have no problem getting enough bite with our ski edges…saving us from a slide-for-life situation.
Putting the sunscreen on jinxed us I know it. As soon as we got to the top of the couloir, the wind picked up and the clouds rolled back in. We waited for about 20 minutes again, hoping for a break, but it just didn’t happen. We decided to go for it, before things got even worse.
I made a few quick turns to get a feel for things and a better view down into the couloir, then I let Chris have it since it was his first time skiing this route. Chris is a very solid and smooth skier, and I wasn’t worried about him handling the firm conditions. In fact, he mentioned that he actually loves skiing hard, edgeable, predictable snow. As the pitch increased, he seemed to free fall into the clouds, and out of view.
As the snow got better lower in the couloir, so did the visibility. We could finally make out the cliff and the traverse at the bottom, as well as our slough pouring over the edge. The wind was still ripping and blowing snow whipped over the rocks, really setting the mood.
Luckily the couloir flattens out a bit near the traverse…and the exposure. Chris dug his tails in and I made a couple more turns towards the cliff for the camera.
The traverse out can be a hairy as you want it to be, depending on your proximity to the cliffs. Most of the time I have found there to be significant wind-loading on this ledge, so staying high is recommended. Chris kicked a small slab off milli-seconds after this photo was taken, and I did the same further down.
More steep and fun turns remain while skiing the pitch back down to the canyon floor.
The short couloir is a little thin this year, and required some negotiating. These moves are a dime a dozen when your skiing the village, but in the BC and in variable conditions, they can sometimes be intimidating.
The weather conditions seemed to be only getting worse, and it looked like the winds where now completely nuking up on Buck. I’m glad we skied the couloir when we did, because things were shutting down quick up high.
We ran into meteorologist Jim Woodmency after crossing Taggart Lake and we were back to the car in no time. This photo is for him, because it reminds me of those on his website, MountainWeather.com.
I think both Chris and I felt good about having pushed through the elements and tagging another Teton couloir. A lot of the time, weather can shutdown a trip like this and it is nice to occasionally succeed when conditions aren’t ideal. Thanks for the fun day Chris!