Thanks to Ryan Minton of Bozeman, Montana for this trip report of a trip he did to ski the aesthetic Grey Wolf Couloir on Grey Wolf Mountain located in the Mission Range in the northwestern part of the state. –Steve
In early May, I joined Josh Gage, Sam Magro, and Jason Leppi and headed to Montana’s Mission Range to ski the Gray Wolf Couloir, a dramatic line centered in the middle of Gray Wolf’s steep and rocky west face.
We left Bozeman the night before and made a quick stop in Missoula to pick up Jason and purchase the required reservation conservation permit (the bulk of the Missions are located on the Flathead Indian Reservation) then proceeded northward to St. Ignatius. A great view of the peaks bathed in evening light treated us on the way to St. Mary reservoir. As we approached the mountains I began to understand the infamy of the storied “Mission approach.” Few foothills exist, as the range juts out of the valley at a steep and sustained pitch, with thick forest guarding the alpine zone. Add to this the relative lack of trails, least of all switchbacking trails, and you’ve got a recipe for a grueling approach.
Our wake up call came early the next morning and we cooked breakfast while preparing our packs for the day. The approach involved gaining the ridge below East St. Marys Peak, which would position us to drop into the basin below Gray Wolf’s west face. We maintained a steady pace for a few hours, reaching snowline at 6500 feet.
Our first glimpse of Gray Wolf came shortly thereafter- we were both psyched and stunned by the west face. Upon reaching the access point to the basin, I pulled out the monocle to inspect the couloir. The pinch, about a third of the way up, appeared to be deeply runneled, and I began to have my doubts about the conditions- we were, after all, here to ski.
A nice corn run (complete with an obligatory tele wipeout) brought us down to the basin where we stashed unneeded gear and transitioned for the climb. Doubt lingered in my mind as I followed Josh’s bootpack up deep runnels and onto a gigantic debris pile, above which large claw-like gashes littered the runout. We soon gained the pinch of the couloir, where a rock island on the right forced us to crampon directly up a deepening runnel. The runnel, one ski width wide, consisted of hardened alpine ice, and stepped down in spots, creating small vertical sections and intensifying the overall steepness of the line. I took a mental note of the pinch, naively strategizing how exactly I would go about skiing this section on the way down. Above, the climber’s right side of the couloir appeared to be smoother, but further inspection revealed a breakable crust on top of softer granular snow. My general psych level for the line was diminishing rapidly, as the conditions for skiing looked to be marginal at best. Josh took the liberty of reminding me that it’s all part of the game, so I kept my pessimistic thoughts to myself as we gained the top of the couloir.
We topped out in the late morning, and quickly transitioned. The top of the couloir wasn’t as steep as the gut, and made for a somewhat exposed sensation as we made slow and controlled turns through the breakable (yet manageable) crust down to where the slope rolled into the steeps. A few dicey moves navigating the edge of the runnel at a rock island came as the slope steepened, but we soon regained the skier’s left edge of the couloir. Continuing down one by one, we avoided the runnel by turning through a small slot. The crust remained, but I had become accustomed to it and was now enjoying the adventure of each turn.
Shortly after skiing out the slot, I posted up above the pinch. Recalling the icy condition of the runnel, I nervously contemplated how to ski it. Maybe some side-slipping with the whippet? Or, could I maneuver across the runnel and link some turns on an equally as steep but smoother isthmus of snow on the skier’s right? But how would I get back across? My thoughts were interrupted by the noise of hardened snow chunks and rocks shedding out of a south facing tributary gully of the main couloir into the runnel- right where we planned on descending.
The bowl continued to shed lightly, nothing serious, but enough to convince us to put the crampons back on and get out of dodge as quickly as we could. Navigating down the pinch, we occasionally hugged the wall as minuscule spurts of snow and rock shot past. Warming temps made me wonder if something bigger in store. Back on the skis, we turned down more crusty snow then descended the deep claw-like runnels on the runout with care. I made a far traverse to smoother snow and skied out to our gear stash. A climb back up to the far ridge followed by a ski down some decent snow brought us to the dirt. Another hour and we were at the car. Many thanks to Josh, Sam, and Jason for a great and challenging day in the hills.
Wow, what an aesthetic line. It looks like it could even be linked to the summit via some exposed traversing. Bummer the conditions weren’t a little better.
Out of curiosity, how much is the fee for the reservation?
Kinda reminds me of that North Couloir on Crestone????
The annual pass is $15, or a week for $8. We purchased ours at Bob Wards in Missoula.
For the record, those of us who have been skiing this line for years call it the West Couloir of Gray Wolf Peak. There is also the South Couloir, and the East Couloir, which drops off the saddle the other side of the West Couloir.
Pretty cheap access to the reservation.
Yeah, it’s kind of like the couloir on Crestone, but the one on Crestone has that big, bad cliff at the bottom whereas this one on Gray Wolf is nice and straight.
Colin, thanks for the clarification. I think most people would refer to the south couloir as the main greywolf couloir. Frank, skiing west off the summit without downclimbing shenanigans would likely prove difficult or impossible. But never say never I suppose.
Do you think that Moran’s Skillet has a runnel that looks something like this in early Mayish?……trying to get an idea of what the runnel conditions would be like up there.
Way to stake out what you think of as your territory what with Steve coming up here and daring to write about it and all….."those of us who have been skiing this for years"….
I would think the runnels are pretty big right now in the Skillet since it’s been warm for the past 2-3 weeks. On this side of the Tetons, there has only been light freezes if that…and most recently…rain! I think snow conditions are ahead of average for this time of year…meaning more burnt, suncupped and runnelled.
I wasn’t intending to stake any kind of claim–sorry if it seemed that way. If I came to the Tetons, skied the Ford-Stettner but called it the Grand Teton Couloir, I’m betting there would be some historical clarification.
Also, FYI, I don’t believe it was Steve who skied it and wrote about it. He posted a guest report.
I had initially heard the line referred to as the Gray Wolf Couloir, and since to me it seemed to be the most striking line on the peak (although I must say the East Couloir looked great as well!), it made sense and I simply continued to reference it as such. Thanks for the clarification. I can’t wait to get back out that way in more wintery conditions. Sounds like you’ve skied in the Missions some- spent any time around Lucifer Lake?
Funny you should ask, but got sick and missed a trip this last weekend into Lucifer. Friends skied Glacier Peak. Great job on the West Couloir! The first time I skied it (which may have been the first descent back in 2003) it was in similiar conditions, with that terrifying, man-eating icy runnel right down the pinch. Anyhow, next time you’re out here, feel free to give me a shout (543-7448). The Missions have so much potential. Cheers, Colin
Colin. I know at least two people who’ve been skiing that line since at least a full decade before your 2003 descent. And yeah, the Missions are sweet.
Cool! I love that about skiing steep lines, that you can never really know if something has been skied before. Would be great to know who these folks are, to exchange other info about the Gray Wolf area. Last year I know Brian Story skied two lines off the summit, that I assumed were first descents, but perhaps not. It’s kind of funny that we even care who skied or climbed anything first. Does it really matter? Colin
I have been hearing rumors of a first come first serve cabin around gray wolf peak. True or false.
Dan…I will see what I can find out for you. S
Hi Steve and Dan,
I’m not aware of any cabin going up, but who knows. If there were one, it would likely be illegal, since Gray Wolf lies in a wilderness area and also on tribal land. There is already an existing, first-come first-served cabin up the North Fork of the Jocko, southwest of Gray Wolf Lake. I’ve stayed there a few times, and it’s nothing to write home about in terms of ski terrain. Better to camp at Gray Wolf Lake. Also, the cabin is a bitch to locate in the winter unless you have GPS coordinates.
Snow in the mountains–yeah!