As the days grow warmer and longer, backcountry skiers tap into the art of couloir skiing in the high country
Skiing couloirs changes the game of backcountry skiing from consistent powder and multiple laps, to an art form where timing, terrain selection, speed, technicality and Type 2 fun become standards on every tour. When everything lines up and the timing is right, impressive faces and couloirs are your rewards.
Hunting for couloirs will almost always take longer than you think. Most have long approaches and require riding at certain times of the day. Days spent hunting couloirs start in the pre-dawn hours of the day, hiking among the trees in the dark or in first light.
Motivation for these pre-dawn starts come from getting access to some of the best views of the sunrise alpenglow hitting peaks in the distance from above the trees.
Once sunlight begins to hit the objective or aspects you plan on skiing; the clock starts ticking. One of the biggest dangers of spring skiing come from wet avalanche hazards when the snowpack becomes too saturated with water from warm temperatures and sun. Waiting too long to access these aspects will put skiers in harm’s way, however if the timing is just right, these lines will offer perfect corn snow and incredible skiing.
As the terrain becomes steeper and the snow less ideal for skinning, transitioning to a bootpack becomes the more efficient option.
Once fully transitioned to bootpacking in the couloirs themselves, efficiency is the name of the game. There’s a fine line between bootpacking and soul-destroying wallowing. Aim to find snow that is supportive of weight and link up firm patches to keep moving smoothly. Tools like ice axes and crampons may become very useful in these situations if the firm snow turns into ice or hardpack that won’t allow boots to kick in steps.
If there’s time at the top, don’t forget to take in the view. Couloirs in the San Juans offer some of the best around.
Once the view is taken in and everyone is ready, it’s time for the fun part. If your timing was right and the decision is made to go down, enjoy skiing down steep hallways of rock that offer skiing experiences like no other.
While this might be the fun part, there are still many potential hazards and dangers to overcome. Couloirs may require skiing with an ice axe in hand, rappels, hop turns and side slipping due to constrictions in the rock, hard snow conditions, cliff bands and extreme steep pitches.
Once out of the couloirs and on safer slopes at lower elevation, enjoy the bountiful corn harvest that awaits as you ski back down at the end of the day.
Couloir skiing tests the skills acquired in the backcountry and your ability as a skier. It will test endurance and take you out of your comfort zone. By mastering this art of couloir hunting, a completely new world of skiing opens up with incredible lines and infinite possibilities to choose from.