I was thinking of doing a trip I’ve wanted to get done for a while, heading up the Ice River to ski the east face of Mt Vaux down the Hanbury Glacier, but as my weekend drew closer, the weather didn’t look good enough to commit so much time and energy on the full day approach. But the seed was planted, Vaux was on the mind. I looked at this old shot I had of Vaux’s south couloir on the SW ridge, but dismissed it as I didn’t have anything current on its condition, and couldn’t get out to grab a shot in daylight without wasting a day, the last day before the weather came in. But on my last work shift, something just clicked and none of that mattered anymore. Given the long lasting avalanche problem we’re about to have on these facets and the super-solar aspect of the couloir and amount of real estate that funnels into it, I thought this could well be the last chance at it this year.
I ran home and cobbled my gear together, packing extra heavy due to the amount of unknowns. Rope, v-thread kit, rock pro, and planned to bring a 2×4 for a rappelling off a deadman anchor, the latter of which I forgot. I felt confident that I could get a good idea of the top third of the line from the high perch at the top, due to the steepness ramping up at the top, and also felt fine with the bottom third near the creek, which showed up nicely on Google Earth. The only thing that bothered me, and was out of my shots from the SE (Chancellor) was what exactly was going on in the mid section, next to a large cliff on the ridge that closed in the couloir. I had a shot from the SW (on the Beaverfoot FSR) from late May ’14 that showed it clean, but May on steeps in the Rockies is unbelievably fat in comparison to most of the winter. In any case, I didn’t trust what I saw, and skepticism can be good for your health.
After the packing of course, came the madman driving. I parked at the plowed pull-off for Hoodo Creek then walked down the highway to the base of Vaux’s west face slidepath, then started straight up the thing. I struggled skinning up, all that was left of the snowpack was just facets to ground. I’d be skiing the couloir to roughly the same elevation, but reasoned with the sustained steepness of the couloir, it had probably avalanched all the way down and coated the rock in something more supportive than the native facets. Or hoped, anyways. If I didn’t get avy debris to run on, the alternative was a choice between walking down or destroying my skis.
All the way up, I was looking fruitlessly for the start of a large weakness in the rock running across the entire SW ridge, from the south couloir I wanted to ski to the much mellower slope of the west face. I knew it ran nearly perpendicular to the fall line of the west face so the fact I couldn’t locate it didn’t mean much of anything, but still it was a long period of uncertainty that I’d have to walk down the extremely faceted lower section of the west face to return to the car without getting my coveted line. Eventually though, the line of ascent showed itself and it looked like a far better climb than the scrappy weakness I expected to find. The lower part was a proper couloir, but after that it was more of a but a diagonal scar in the rock face, with big exposure below. The upper portion of the climb was some mixture of faceted pow, faceted out wind slabs, or just pure facets on rock, changing layup order and depth with each step.
Once topped out, the line was incredible. Huge spires on either side towered above the ridgetop and a perfect, un-corniced knife ridge of snow led down the steep, twisting guts of the couloir down through the sea of cloud to valley bottom. Chancellor north face beckoned across the valley, and west across the Beaverfoot, islands of peaks poked through the flowing sea. Behind, the upper west face of Vaux glowed in the afternoon sun. A sublime, absolutely perfect moment in the mountains I will treasure.
Easing into the couloir, I could not convince myself to make turns. The snow was quite hard, the sun having left the surface a couple hours ago had now re-frozen, and the couloir was tight, and it was steep, and the exposure was real and self-arrest seemed like it probably wasn’t going to happen. But mostly, I’m used to having an intimate knowledge of where the snow is good and where it’s bad gained by climbing straight up the line when the stakes are so high. This time I did not, and didn’t know what visual cues in the snow corresponded to what condition. So I sideslipped. After the first hundred meters the slope decreased, the couloir widened, and I had enough experience on the snow to start drawing some conclusions about what to expect from the snow based on looks. The first couple turns verified my view that doing so up higher would’ve been incredibly risky. After a few more poorly executed turns, I remembered the technique demonstrated by Vivian Bruchez on “Downside Up”, firmly planting the downhill pole behind the heel of the downhill ski and also the uphill pole infront of the toe of the uphill ski, then pushing down hard on both poles and things somehow just happen, and in a blink you’re a complete 180* to the other edges, and due to the push from the poles the landing is less jarring. Learning ski skills from a ski flick, who’d have thought it?
After re-learning crucial skills, the couloir started having a wing of snow on either side to play on, with a higher likelihood of hitting smooth weather-worn choss but also much better snow. So I played on them and got to get some more flowy turns in. That was fun for a while, then I approached the cliff band on the ridge that had worried me. It did indeed, run across the couloir. The great fracture in the ridge that made the couloir was strong enough to crack it too, however a chockstone had gotten stuck in the narrow opening the weakness made. I tooled around for a while thinking through the options before deciding the ice around the area was too soft to trust to hold a v-thread and the rock was way too junky to place rock pro, especially for a novice. I changed to tools and crampons and tried heading out right to a possible salt-and-pepper face that traversed over the maw then found its way in further down. The initial traverse was really narrow, and I felt the rock underneath the snow was probably downsloping pretty badly, and there was a whole lot more of it to go. It just felt wrong. It did give me better insight into the descenders right option around the chockstone, it looked like if I could get my final two tool placements down low enough, I could hang off them and reach past the overhang to the snow and ice below the chockstone with my feet. I had my new Camp Nanotech axe out for its maiden voyage, and knew it didn’t swing particularly well, mostly due to its really low weight. It was sufficient for the soft ice though with a barrage of swings while the Sum’tech battled on valiantly and took up the slack with one-hit sticks. In order to maintain three points of contact, next time I’ll just use my hard head to hammer the Nanotech in if needed.
After the choke, the couloir went on into the cloud. Occasional runnels started up and the skiing and endless couloir walls continued. Just above treeline elevation, the couloir was still the only way down, but the debris from all the avalanches that rocked down started piling up, covering it wall-wall with frozen ice chunks just begging to catch a downhill edge. It got so bad I just walked down until the debris was over. At treeline, the walls broke down and there were ways off the debris, as well as out of the remaining chute. I stuck with it though, knowing the facetted hell that awaited outside of the confines of the avalanche debris littered slope. The chute ran through one final cliff, and I bailed off to the side through the burnt forest to avoid it. Once through I rejoined the chute, though the debris had not made it this far so I had two feet of facets on rock and log to ski. Then I was finally at Hoodoo Creek. I sacrificed the skis for a while instead of walking and risking punching through a masked hole between the rocks and logs of the creekbed and risking a broken leg or something nasty. Eventually I the howling got to me and I started walking, though progress was painfully slow. Relieved when I finally saw the hoodoos, I popped onto the maintained Parks trail and was able to ski and sidestep and push most of the way to the car, and due to the winter traffic the trail receives setting up the snow, did so without much suffering for the skis.