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.