Backcountry Skiing Couloir off Lake Peak in Wasatch

This season has been wild so far, with regards to our snowfall and snowpack her in Utah. We got dumped on in October, which is never a great start for any snowpack to prevent a season-long persistent weak layer. November followed with not a single flake of snow, which lead to a rotting snowpack from the early season snow. Then came a record-setting December which gave us nearly 10 feet of snow in some areas. But then a freakishly dry January rolled in, where it hadn’t snowed past the 7th and combining with warm temperatures, we had incredibly safe avalanche conditions in the Wasatch Mountains. This meant we could get out and explore steeper terrain with little to no avalanche risk.

After discussing our options the night before, we got to the White Pine trailhead in Little Cottonwood Canyon in the dark at 6:30AM. The group of us, JB, Pete and Tommy, all got geared up before having one last briefing before we headed up the trail. We settled on a few options, but they all involved getting up into the White Pine basin area and deciding once we found something we liked. I know, this is usually very dangerous and can lead skiers into heuristic traps; however, we recognized this and felt very confident and safe knowing what and how safe the conditions were in the area. So we did our beacon checks and headed up the trail.

The sun lit up the North side of the Little Cottonwood Canyon, providing an incredible backdrop as we climbed up the drainage to our zone. Once we got high enough, the sun reached us too, warming us just enough to really enjoy the tour. After we reached the basin, we went over all our options: Red Top Mountain, Red Baldy, White Baldy, or Lake Peak. After some discussion and deliberation, we settled on an unnamed couloir (or chute) off the shoulder of Lake Peak. And as for our approach, we wanted to go up our own way, rather than taking the established bootpack up Boulder Basin or up the Lake Chute. So we skied out towards the ridge between Lake Peak and Rainbow Peak and started a bootpack up to the ridge. This is where things started to get interesting.

Initially, we were cruising. The snow was very hard and effortless. But that all changed when we reached the snow deposits since we were climbing the leeward side of the ridge slope. The snow transitioned from a hardpack to sugar in an instant. We went from standing on top of the surface, to sinking up to our waists, swimming through it. No matter how hard you tried, it felt like quicksand pulling you back down. Pete, looking more like Legolas, from Lord of the Rings, some how managed his way to stay on top and scaled the ridge in no time. As for the rest of us, we struggled our way up, pushing our heart rates to the limits in order to keep momentum. Eventually, we all reached the ridgeline, gassed, but stoked, especially for the view of Pfeifferhorn we were gifted with.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you see it, we were really only halfway there at this point. We still had to scramble our way up the rocky ridge to enter our line. Tommy made a smart call, based on his comfort level in snowboard boots, to ski a steep line right next to the bootpack. He dropped in and straight-lined an excellent run down to the runout. Once we knew he was in a safe place and could see us from below, JB, Pete, and I, moved on up the ridge. The snow was in such variable conditions, it made more sense for us to stay on the rocks as much as possible. I loved this option, seeing as I feel way more confident on rock than I do on snow. And after post-holing our way across some of the snowy sections, we reached the entrance to our line.

The line, from above, looked steep, but very manageable. The couloir itself was about 20 feet wide and about 100 yards long before it opened up to a massive runout. One by one, we dropped in, and found some excellent skiing. The upper section was very icy, so I sideslipped my way into the line. But after a missed first turn, I recovered and really worked on my jump turns through the steeper section. After a succession of sluff managing turns, it opened up and I was able to lean into some massive GS powder turns, making the whole day worth it so far. We all eventually regrouped at the bottom, with smiles you couldn’t rip off of us even if you tried. The sun was out, the snow was surprisingly amazing, and we still had more to ski.

The rest of the way down was more of a choose your own adventure. The low angle sections we had left to descend were perfect. The snow felt like we were at a resort, with out consistent the snow felt and how hard, yet forgiving, it was. Realistically, it was dust on crust, but after the sun baked it for a couple hours, you could really lay over a edge and hold some fast paced turns.

Was the line the best thing I’ve ever skied, no. But was the approach and climb something I’ll never forget, absolutely. This was one of those incredible days in the mountains. The objective didn’t really matter. It as more about enjoying the experience, the company, and all aspects of moving through the mountains on-top of snow. And this day really did have it all.

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