By: randosteve|Posted on: June 26, 2007|Posted in: Trip Planning | 8 comments

Gabe side-steps through a narrow section in the Bubble Fun CouloirI’m no master…but I do have my own thoughts on some aspects to the the sport of ski mountaineering.

Ski descent ratings can be very helpful when traveling to a new area or trying to describe the line you just skied. Unfortunately, unlike climbing, there isn’t a universal system that has been adopted by skiers. There are a few systems out there that have been developed to help do this, like the Toponeige, S-System (or Traynard Scale) and the Alpine Grade for Ski Alpinism developed by the Swiss. His royal blogness, Lou Dawson, even has his version called the D-System.

Now, all these rating systems have their own benefits and most try to describe both the exposure and steepness of the route. Some, like the Toponeige, even work the ascent difficulty into the rating. Reed raps into the Stettner CouloirOthers, like the S and D-systems, divide the rating levels into as few as 7, to as many as 23 levels of difficulty. Combine these with the Alpine Grade from the Swiss, which describes the slope angle, and one can get a fairly good idea of what to expect when dropping into a new line…assuming you know what the specific number and letter combination mean. I feel this is the one flaw to these systems and often it seems to be a little bit subjective. Why not just state the angle of the descent and difficulties encountered, instead of correlating it to some arbitrary number or level?

Instead of trying to come up with a number or letter to describe the difficulty of a ski descent, why not just include route specifics in the rating. For example, here are some ratings for some Teton lines, the Southeast Couloir on the South Teton, the Hidden Couloir on Thor Peak and the Ford/Stettner on the Grand.

Southeast Couloir- II, 1500′, 55, SS
Hidden Couloir-IV, 1000′, 50, AD/R
Ford/Stettner-II, 1500′, 50, AD/R

The first part refers to the location and/or approach difficulty of the route and grades range from I-V. A higher number means that the descent is logistically harder to get to. It’s pretty easy to get to the Southeast and Ford/Stettner in winter, as long as you are relatively fit, Downclimbing through breakable crust below the Hidden Couloirso they get a pretty low rating of II (maybe III). But the Hidden Couloir requires a whole day of approach, without motorized assistance of course, prior to the descent. These ratings should be given for the winter accessibility conditions as opposed to a…after the road is plowed…or lake melts out scenario.

The next number refers to the overall length of the route in vertical feet. For the Hidden Couloir, this number describes the couloir itself and not the rest of the skiing one does to get back down to Bearpaw Glacier, which would add about another 1000′. The slope angle comes next, and I would say this should be noted as the average angle and not the steepest part of the couloir. I say this due to the variability of steepness one encounters form year to year depending on snow depth. Generally speaking, the more snow there is…the less steep the angle would be of a route. But this sometimes works in the opposite direction at the top of a couloir that is overhung by a cornice.

Straight lining the exit coulior below the Southeast Couloir on the South TetonStraight lining the exit couloir below the Southeast Couloir on the South Teton

The fourth part of this description refers to specific aspects or technicalities one may encounter on the descent. If a line can be skied cleanly there would be nothing listed here. Some characteristics would include: SS=side-stepping/slipping, DC=down-climbing, RP=rappelling or even SL=straight-lining. I think these parts of the equation would vary considerably depending on the skier’s abilities and conditions of the route.

I’m sure many people out there think all this stuff is just hot air, but I feel like as the sport of ski mountaineering progresses and more people travel to different areas to rip the gnar, ratings like these can come in very handy in choosing your objectives.