The September that won’t stop snowing! It’s becoming a bit ridiculous how good conditions are, all the big rockies ice lines you usually can’t touch until April are coming into shape, in early September. Ludicrous. To that end, Luke and I decided we wanted to go for a ski. We decided on the 3/4 couloir*, since the day looked to be a poor choice to go on a big glacier from visibility and access was currently so easy with the Moraine Lake road still open.
*It is more accurately known as the 3/3.5 couloir, as it is between peak 3 (Bowlen, 10,078′) and peak 4 (Tonsa, 10,016) of the over 10,000 foot peaks encircling Moraine Lake. However, there is another couloir, but on a west aspect dropping down from between peak 3 and 4. Therefore, the unnamed lump “peak 3.5” was born to correctly identify the two different couloirs. However, 3/4 is its more common and less complex name, hence its proliferation.
The 3/4 couloir is pretty feared around these parts, for good reason. It is the most obvious way to get to the Neil Colgan Hut, the starting point to climb many of the Ten Peaks. However, it has many vertical walls of poor quality rock, which tends to shift with each freeze-thaw cycle, coming down during the melt and then hurtling down the steep, hard ice and into the unsuspecting climber. The ACC has long since discarded the 3/4 as a suggested route to the hut, after the Perren Route and Scheisser Ledges were established, involving moderate rock climbing a safe distance from the dangerous gullies. However, in winter and spring, the 3/4 is an objective in itself for keen skiers. With the cushion of the right quality of snow, the rockfall danger is greatly reduced, the snow stopping the rockfall in a cloud of beautiful pow. With all the recent snowfall, we knew that things falling on our head were a much smaller danger than usual, the snow itself was now much more of a concern.
We met at Luke’s place in Lake Louise at a quite reasonable hour of 7, a schedule over 5 hours later than my first crack at 3/4 two years back in May. Snow quality makes all the difference in this thing. We drove up to Moraine Lake, a luxury I didn’t have before due to the road still being closed for winter. It wasn’t long until we were putting on our crampons where the couloir first closes in. The scree below was still not near snow-covered, but the ice above looked to be holding substantial accumulation. We booted, and booted, and booted. The most interesting thing about climbing this couloir has to be how massively foreshortened it is. It always feels like you’re almost at the top. The snow at the bottom was mostly sluff, which helped to extend the overall skiable length of the couloir by bringing some of the fat pow up top to the low elevation of the bottom. Nothing wrong with sharing. Midway and up, it was knee deep booting, and for the top quarter, it was fully up to mid-thigh. I brought the Billygoat plates, mostly as a joke but there was some secret hope there too. Well, they came in pretty handy.
Once at the top, I thought it would be a good idea to go check out Mt Fay. I doubted it would be skiable, but it’s always worth a look. The day was overcast, with light flurries and cloud immersion on and off, so the couloir wouldn’t get out of shape. We went up to the hut to hang out for a bit and recharge. Luke decided he wasn’t in good enough shape to make the not-insubstantial distance to a good view of Fay’s north face, so we went back down the headwall and across the glacier to the top of our line. Just when I thought I’d be able to sink my new ice tools into something…
There is no doubt in my mind now that it would’ve been a mistake to go toward Fay. Despite the cloud and snow and literally no sun, the day had warmed just enough for the snow to start getting frisky. It was such a small change, but affected the fresh snow quickly. If we turned around at the top of the line and went right back down instead of the two hour mosey toward the hut, it would’ve made all the difference in the snow’s ability to stay put. However, the issue was one of sluffing, we knew the snow wasn’t consolidated enough to move in an unpredictable way other than one thin windslab near the top. The runnels and minor complexities of the couloir’s bottom in this early season state helped as well, by flushing the sluff down specific lanes and leaving others safe. So I had some fun with it.
For one panel, I misjudged a few things. I made my turns on the soon to be moving snow, and on the last turn before the exit, shoulder checked for the sluff a bit too long and ended up too high to nicely cross the one decent runnel crossing. To remedy, I pointed downhill more than planned, building speed to exit the panel before the sluff caught up. I didn’t expect the surface on the far side, which had sluffed before we got there to be quite so uneven and hard, and while trying not to traverse too hard so as to flip over downhill, ended up using up more horizontal distance than intended, stopping just short of the far couloir wall where the snow got better. The rest of the run was a series of quick turns, and then moving to the side before the sluff caught up, great fun. At the bottom, all the sluff we had pushed down helped to cover up all the rock even better than before, giving poor quality skiing but much nicer on the skis, and much better than downclimbing. Then walk back down on super moist and soft scree before it flattened out. After all that radness, a couple of days in a hut to chill out and burn stuff.