Chris Kroger skis the Northwest Couloir of Mount Helen.
After scoping out how much white stuff was still lingering in the Winds River Range while skiing the Spoon Couloir on Disappointment Peak a couple weeks ago, and wanting to end the season on a high note after some busted June trips, I called around and sent out feelers for a partner to join me for a trip to ski Mount Helen and Fremont Peak in the Titcomb Basin region of the Winds. Though ski partners are pretty scarce this time of year, lucky for me, JHMR ski patroller and rando-racer, Chris Kroger jumped on board and was nearly as fired up as I was.
We left Jackson at about 3am on Saturday the 4th and were on the trail at Elkhart Park at about 5:30. Carrying our skis and boots on our backs, plus all the overnight gear for 4 days put my load at just under 70lbs, but we made good time through patchy snow and mud, arriving at Island Lake at around noon. Though our backs and hips were a bit trashed from the weight of the packs on the 12 mile approach, we lucked out and in a place that is known for having serious mosquitoes, didn’t encounter any.
Chris in front of Fremont and Jackson Peak on the approach to camp at Island lake.
The rest of the day was spent rehydrating, resting and buffing out camp, and we fell asleep under clear skis. With Chris and I both not being big sleepers, we both were awake at 4:30am without the need of our alarms and soon were on our way with much lighter packs, towards the head of Titcomb Basin and the Northwest Couloir of Mount Helen. Though we had our climbing skins with us, serious sun-cups and patchy snow kept us walking all the way into Titcomb, but the snow had frozen hard, making it relatively easy walking. Like a line in the snow however, as we slowly rose above the 10,500′ level, the snow smoothed out considerably and since many of the peaks in this area are over 13K’…things were looking good for skiing.
Chris hikes in front of Fremont on the way to Titcomb Basin.
I’ve always wanted to ski Mount Helen. Over the years I have heard about some great ski lines on the peak, like the steep Tower One Gully (known more as an ice climb really) and another steep Southwest Couloir skied by Wes Bunch and Judd Stewart in the mid 90’s. While it would have been rad to attempt to ski these lines, it being July and all, most of the steep lines are pretty runnelled out, making a ski descent very challenging. However, the Northwest Couloir is much larger that the previously mentioned lines, and not quite as steep, so it was holding up well and we set our sites on it.
Randosteve rests below Mount Helen and the Bunch/Stewart ski line.
Due to its northwest aspect, the snow was still very frozen in the couloir and we hiked in the runnels to avoid any soft spots that might sneak up on us. The couloir itself is an easy 2K’ of vertical, but we found our rhythm and move upwards quickly. Some ice and rocks started to fall on us as we neared the top as the sun was now hitting its slopes, but we avoided any impacts by keeping a sharp eye out for them. As we crested onto the ridge and into full sun, the snow turned very isothermic and soft, and the signs of a recent avalanche on the east slopes of Gannett made me a little uneasy. We continued up to the North Ridge and negotiated some exposed terrain on the way to the summit. Chris was in front and pushed it all the way to top.
Crown from a recent avalanche on the East Face of Gannett Peak.
On a big snow year, or at least earlier in the season, it very well may be possible to ski this line from the very top of the peak, connecting very steep and exposed couloirs until the main NW Couloir is reached. Now…that section was not really in shape, so after some downclimbing, we clicked into our skis on a prominent shoulder east of the summit and started our descent around noon. The initial section to reach the col above the couloir was northeast facing, so it had been baking in the sun for a while now. I made a few turns and got a little bit of snow to move, but it seemed to stick and mostly was just a bit soft. Chris passed me and we regrouped at the col.
The summit of Mount Helen, skiable with a bit more snow.
Since the sun had only hit snow for an hour or so in the Northwest Couloir, things were looking choice for our descent. The peaks at the head and on the other side of Titcomb Basin were an amazing site as I traversed to the skiers right and in front of Gannett Peak, the highest in Wyoming. Perfect corn snow, warm sun, and amazing views were the reward for hauling our skis this far into the backcountry…and it was worth every step. The pitch of the slope was about 40-45 degrees, so not too scary, but steep enough to make it feel like your skiing the steeps and really fun. The usual big smiles, pole taps, high fives and glossy eyed stares were shared as we gazed up at the couloir from the bottom.
Chris skiing the lower section of the couloir.
At this point, we were pretty cashed and we lounged on a dry rock in the sun. We came across another skier, who I happened to know, and we exchanged stories and tales of our spring and summer adventures. Continuing back to our camp at Island Lake, the temperature began to soar as the sun rose high in the sky and its rays reflected off the snow and the steep rock walls on both sides of the basin. A virtual oven nearly cooked us as we slowly mad our way back and it is no wonder neither of us got badly sunburned.
Greybird views from Island Lake.
Afternoon at camp was the usual collection of napping, hydrating, sipping Jagermeister, eating and planning the next day’s adventure until it was dark enough to sleep. Some thunder boomers rolled through, but it never really rained for more than a minute or two. Though we had a couple options, we had our sites set on the Southwest Couloir of Fremont for the next day. It’s a line that you see from the highway as you travel though Pinedale and high on the hit-list of any dedicated Wyoming backcountry skier. And a day…not to be missed.