Last April (2006), Dustin Lemke, Chris Figenshau and I ventured into the Ross Lake area of the northern Wind River Range in search of steep couloirs and general exploration.
Randosteve skis Crystal Lake Couloir in the Wind River Range, photo: Chris Figenshau
I only had two days off of work that week, which isn’t much time to explore the Winds, but I was able to get out of work early and beeline it to the trailhead with the boys. I estimated the approach to Ross Lake to be anywhere from 5-7 miles, but most of it was uphill and I hoped we could get there before the sun went down.
As always in this area, there wasn’t much snow to be seen, but I had a feeling things would get better if we just pushed ahead, as my mind and body raced with excitement. We hiked in our ski boots up the switchbacks to Whisky Mountain and the goats. After a few miles we got to the high plateau, and we could see snow covered bowls and faces in the distance. We started to see a bit more snow on the ground, and made the call to put on the skis and try to shortcut the trail to the lake.
As the sun set, we had yet to find the lake and the terrain was getting very difficult to negotiate in the dark, with lots of deadfall, thick trees, and melted out rock out-croppings being the norm. Not really being able to see where the lake actually was due to the darkness, we decided to bivy where we were and motor down in the morning.
I had no trouble waking up early and I rallied the boys out of bed. I didn’t want to miss out on a day of skiing in here, so it was imperative that we find camp and ditch some gear as soon as possible so we could start exploring. We skied down to the lake in a matter of minutes (it’s amazing what a little daylight can do for ya) and found a nice place to call camp. We relaxed for a few, made some coffee and topped off our water bottles, cuz it was no doubt going to be burner day.
Ross Lake was still frozen solid and it only took us 15 minutes to skate the two miles from camp to its southern most point. We scoped out some lines that we passed up for now, and continued further south to Upper Ross Lake. Getting anxious to ski now, we turned a hard right, up towards Crystal Lake and what the map showed to hold a nice couloir. We where not disappointed when a solid, steep line of snow appeared as we crested the lower slopes, arriving at the lake.
Even though it was hot out, the snow was nicely aged and still quite firm. The couloir was tucked behind some big cliffs too, keeping it from getting the direct morning sun. It was about 1600′ from the lake to the top of Ram Flat, but the top 200 feet is wind scoured, low angle, and not worth our time right now. Chris snapped a few pics as we skied back down to Crystal Lake on quality Wind River corn snow. We allowed ourselves another break amongst some boulders to hydrate and eat some food.
Another short couloir was located on the other side of the cirque we were in, so we poled over to it and packed the skis once again. The line got pretty narrow as it meandered upward and some cool pinnacles added to the views. The snow petered out as the slope steepened nearing the ridge. We wanted to see more of what this area had to offer, so we scrambled up a short gully and looked over the top, deeper into the Winds…and heaven.
Surprisingly, this little line held some descent powder up high, and we hop-turned our way back down to the lake. We simul-skied down the lower slopes to Upper Ross Lake, and figured we’d call it a day and skied back to camp. Some whisky and hot drinks killed the rest of the afternoon and I soon found myself crawling into the sleeping bag and falling asleep. We had decided to get in some more skiing in the morning…before heading out, and I think we where all tired and slept like babies.
The next morning we skated to the end of Ross Lake again, and up into another cirque that held a nice looking bowl. I wanted to ski a gnarlier line that cut through some cliffs on the skier’s right, but just couldn’t get the nerve to go for it, opting for the juicy goodness of the bowl instead. The slope steepened and rolled over, and the sun had primed it just right for our turns. It was like an oven up here in this isolated pocket, surrounded by granite and snow, which reflected the sun’s rays. We splashed some water on our faces from a small snow-lake and it felt so refreshing.
None of us really wanted to leave, but we gave in to responsibility and toured back to camp, already with that end of the trip feeling creeping in. It didn’t take long to pack up our overnight gear and we skinned back up to Whisky Mountain, and the dry plateau. The route was more straightforward in the daylight and we soon found ourselves hiking in the ski boots again…on autopilot back to the car.
I find the Winds tend to produce good spring skiing, if you are willing to put in the effort, and it would really be amazing to see this area after big winter. I know there is more snow the deeper in you go, but I can’t wait for the day I get to see for myself.