I never really thought I would be saying this…but man…there looks like there is some cool skiing to be done in the Laramie area. This is the second trip report from Galen Woelk (see Airline Couloir post), who seems to be doing a good job of keeping the ski mountaineering spirit alive in the southeastern part of the state. Cool photos and write up Galen. Looks like a fun day. Thanks for sharing! -Steve
For Teton County exiles like myself, the search for Teton style couloirs never ends. Over here in what I refer to as the “border country” of Wyoming and Colorado, we are privileged to have quite remarkable and desolate mountain ranges to recreate in. Benefits include extensive terrain that seldom sees a ski track, and very few users. [Never a parking problem around here.] The pitfalls however are also present. The dreaded continental Colorado snow pack, big peaks, and extensive wind all combine to make skiing in these parts much more of a thinking person’s game. The result is that skiing the bigger type lines really does not get going until March, with April usually being “the month” to get after it. Come April, I tend to spend my weekends in the Never Summer Range, an 85 mile drive from my home through the very sleepy towns of Woods Landing, Mountain Home, Walden, Cowdrey and Gould, each of which [with the exception of Cowdrey] thankfully maintains a local watering hole. The top of Cameron Pass rises out of the North Park valley [headwaters to the North Platte River], and sits around 10,500 feet, with the road separating the Rah-Wah Range of the Medicine Bow Mountains from the Never Summer Range. The latter range sits South of the pass, and makes up the North Boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. As the crow flies, one could run or ski over the range to Estes Park in a long day. Attempting to drive there however would take many hours by car.
For the last several years I have been eyeing the West Face of the Nokhu Crags for potential ski lines. The Crags are basically composed of large teetering towers of loose and very nasty vertical shale. Travel on the West Face is always dangerous for fear of rockfall. On the occasions that I have ventured into the West Facing couloirs, it has been very early on very cold spring mornings, with the hope that everything that is going to come down will do so later in the day. Several years ago I took this picture of a West Facing couloir, with the idea that perhaps it would someday fill in with snow. Because the West Face of the Crags gets strafed year round with wind from the South and West, snow very seldom sticks around. However, as you will see from the shots below, the snow does end up falling on the East face, which can seem like an entirely different planet from the West Face. The only real chance of getting snow on the West Face comes from what we over here know to be upslope spring storms, [which often circle around on the Eastern Plains, and blow back into the mountains from the North.] The picture above was taken several years after a big spring storm, with the couloir still ending up with very little snow in it.
This year the month of April has been powder, powder, powder, which followed a very decent winter. Because of that, I thought that this might be the year to see if we could ski the line I had been looking at for years. From a historical perspective, I do not know if it has a name, if it has been skied or if it is referenced at all. I very much doubt it has seen much use as it seldom has snow in it, and is basically just a nasty spot of the range, that would not offer the kind of enjoyable skiing that could be found on other aspects which are adjacent to the canyon.
Our morning started at the usual 3:30 a.m. time in Laramie, with a departure from the trailhead at around 5:30. Snow had fallen in the high country for the two days preceding our trip, so we expected powder on the East Face. We did not expect that the snow would stick on the West Face, so brought gear for the expected boilerplate conditions. Our plan was to climb the couloir to the col, [rather than get it from the East side], as we wanted to see what the conditions were like. From there we expected to ski several East Facing couloirs in the morning, and climb back to the col and ski the west couloir when it received some sun.
Early a.m. climbing conditions up the couloir was like taking candy from a baby. Perfect crampon conditions, with help of a whippet in some spots. As we approached the col, the conditions remained hard, but breakable as well. The entire top half of the couloir appeared to be about 6 to 12 inches deep [total], with a couple inches of breakable ice crust on top of sugar. My partner and I both put that in the back of our mind when reaching the col and the sun, and at that point were much more interested in the powder skiing on the other side.
The East Facing couloir directly off the col I believe is called the Nokhuloir. It drops about 1,300 vertical down to the Michigan drainage, and is joined by a second couloir referenced as the Grand Central Couloir. The conditions were stellar, with anywhere from 8 to 16 inches of cold powder. Nothing like powder skiing during the last weekend in April. A snack at the bottom got my partner Pedar and I fired up to ski some more powder before retreating to the cold nasty West Face. One thing I have learned over the years, is the importance of finding partners 12 years younger than myself, born and raised in Jackson, that have a Norwegian heritage. Trail breaking becomes much easier and following Pedar’s track up Grand Central Couloir is a nice change. Another fantastic ski down Grand Central in powder found us at the bottom, and setting a track back up Nokhuloir to the top of the col again. At this point, skiing was over on the East Face, as the sun was baking the rocks and hanging snow fields on the Crag towers, with things starting to move on the East Side.
Despite the sun, temperatures remained very cold this day. Our arrival on the col found us confronted with a strong cold wind, cold temperatures, and the idea that if the West Face would soften up, it probably would not do so for hours. With that said, we decided not to wait, and put the skis on. Thankfully, on this day I brought my AT set up, knowing that we might be skiing steep boilerplate conditions. Usually I am on a free heel set up [don’t tell Romeo], but have no qualms playing both sides of the coin. As anyone who has skied in the alpine knows, what can one day seem easy and carefree in soft corn conditions, can become quite scary in boilerplate and breakable conditions. We faced the latter. Add to that that the entrance and first 1/3 of the ski had very little snow on it, and lots of hidden rocks. My biggest concern was having hidden rocks grab my skis and take me down. The whippet would not have helped much had one gone down in the top section. With that said, we did enjoy ourselves, but took our time, 2 and 4 turns at a time, with me in the lead, and Pedar following impressively on a free-heel set up. This is several hundred vertical feet into the descent from the top.
The skiing got a little more consistent as we worked our way down the couloir, with variations in conditions, from boilerplate, to breakable, to powder, and back again. For those wanting to know, the couloir from top to the bottom of Lake Agnes is approximately 2,000 vertical feet, and I would guesstimate that it averages in pitch from somewhere between 51 degrees at the top half, down to 43 degrees at the bottom near the approach to the lake. The sustained pitch and rock walls with crumbling towers all around you are what make this line so compelling. The skiing itself, could be defined as negligible. Though, nothing like a day of couloir shooting in border country. Pedar and I took the liberty of dubbing this one “Rock for Brains” couloir. If anyone knows a different name, be sure to let us know.