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The Couloir Connection

Dropping in
posted: 08/16/2002

Riding a detachable high-speed quad is like riding an urban elevator. There's barely time to talk to strangers, so why bother? Better to go still as a gecko, avoiding eye contact at all costs. On long fixed-grip triples like Telluride's Chair 9, however, you're obligated to converse. If you don't, the ensuing 10 minutes drag on like 100, and the bilateral silent treatment gets intense.

It also doesn't pay to clam up. On a recent powder day, I found myself alone, burning to ski a couloir off the back side that was loaded with windblown snow. The couloir promised twice as much fluff as inbounds, but attempting it without a partner was out of the question. So when a snowboarder plopped down next to me just before our Chair 9 bench went airborne, I started yapping. Before long, we were discussing the rock-lined chute. We both wanted to ride it. First, though, we needed to run checks on each other's credibility. Ergo, we thrust. And then we parried:

"Got a beacon?" I asked.
"Yeah, digital. Do we both have probes?" he replied.
"Mine's in my shovel handle." He didn't need to know it was an eight-footer, not a 10.
I pointed to a benchmark route: "San Joaquin looks good today-skied it?"
"Two years ago, right before splitting for A-K..."

Comfortable with the other's experience (or at least bamboozled by each other's mastery of lingo), we committed to skiing the couloir. Together we would rip open a geological Oreo, my skis and his board set to find creamy frosting between walls of volcanic rock.

We beelined across a shoulder; 20 fluff turns through Douglas fir led to the mouth of the chute. Below lay one of the finest sights in skiing: a steep channel of soft snow framed between exposed ribs of mountain, a seemingly random confluence of precipitation and tectonics that recurs every year to test and thrill humankind. Well, skierkind and snowboarderkind, anyway.

The rider entered first and laid down a series of sharp, precise turns. Plumes of dry powder-six percent water density or less-rose in his wake. Once he reached a safe zone, I dropped in, swinging like a pendulum between the walls of the natural gully. The snow was pillowy, and all seemed right with the world. We had broken the silence, and skied a memorable descent.

Now I need to break another silence. No one ever talks about couloirs anymore. According to what we see, hear, and download these days, skiing takes place solely on mammoth steeps. There is no Vermont; only Alaska. But how many of us have actually heli-skied the barely attainable, hardly affordable Chugach? Only a tiny percentage. For most of us, couloir skiing is, and always has been, more relevant.

Most skiers stay near the Lower 48, working to solve the complexities of their own mountains. The better skiers eventually try couloirs. Maybe the chutes above Jay Peak. Maybe the storied, German-named funnels at Taos. There, in mountains one can actually drive to, wait true challenges. Granted, surfing perversely tilted A-K glaciers is tough, but no more so than linking turns in a tricky vein where there?s no Plan B. Couloirs tell you where to turn, dammit, and you don?t argue. The current fascination with ski celebrities on mega-fat skis scribing virtual figure 11s on big faces obscures the fact that skiing's Big Mountain movement owes much to tight wiggle turns between rocks. In fact, Big Mountain-the phrase used to describe the wide-open style of said ski celebs-wouldn't exist without couloirs.

Think back to 1988, when every great ski area boasted a NASTAR course; when snowboarders were insinuating that skiers lacked edgy couth; and skiers wore far too much For Members Only to argue otherwise. Skiing needed a slap upside the head?which blessedly arrived in Greg Stump's landmark ski movie, The Blizzard of Aahhh's.

The film's Chamonix sequence reveals Glen Plake, Mike Hattrup, and Scot Schmidt disembarking the Aiguille du Midi tram, when Schmidt alerts their guide he intends to shralp the Couloir Poubelle, or Trash Chute. Dropping 15 vertical feet with each turn, grunting like Monica Seles into his mike, Schmidt shreds the 50-degree, 660-vertical-foot shot before rocketing onto the apron. Then Hattrup and Plake step into Poubelle, Plake wearing a helmet-mounted camera. Plake loses an edge and smacks into Hattrup, sending both reeling toward a crevasse. The footage makes ski-film history. In another scene, Stump and cinematographer Bruce Benedict focus tightly on Hattrup knifing down a narrow chute.

The film lingers on his rhythmic turns before pulling waaay back. The effect is mind-blowing: Hattrup is but a tiny speck in the Couloir Chapeau, 4,000 vertical feet of 49-degree windpack. By making such a giant commitment?on unwieldy 207-cm boards, no less?Hattrup crystallizes the emerging extreme-skiing phenomenon. Before long, Americans are launching into Corbet?s Couloir at Jackson Hole and billy-goating down Crested Butte's North Face en masse.

Thanks to the juice it got from Blizzard, the American extreme skiing movement became the rage until it gave way to the next phase: Big Mountain. Not that skiing's Big Mountain thrills have convinced the nation's Super Sizers to adopt our sport. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, skiing dwells low (way beneath bowling) on the list of popular athletics.That should serve as a reminder that Alaskan photos don't encourage people to become passionate skiers-skiing does. It isn't a spectator sport, it's a participatory sport, and nowhere are you less of a spectator than when you're in a chute, clinging to a wall of snow like a cat on a telephone pole.

Three weeks after running the Telluride couloir with the snowboarder, I luckily found myself with a friend in the Swiss Alps, atop a 10,568-foot peak called the Bec des Rosses. Unluckily, it was an abysmal snow year in the Alps, and savage rocks poked up like alligator snouts in all conceivable descents.

More tension than usual attended the ritualistic donning of the transceivers. A few jitters accompanied that cool Secret Service feeling that comes when you, a special agent brimming with steely resolve, position your "piece" on your torso, then cover it with a jacket. You pat the transceiver there next to your rib cage. You reassure your comrades: "Hey, I don?t want to use this, but I will if I have to...."

The couloir began with a gripping crux that had us sidestepping over rocks above razor-edged cliffs in a no-fall zone. Skis chattered and slipped every time the texture beneath their millimeter-thick edges changed from stone to ice. As my pulse hammered in my temples, I wished, rather fervently, that my helmet rested on my head instead of on my duffel bag back at the lodge.

If you haven't felt a whole-body nervous-system response to skiing lately, if sliding down snow has become stale, go ski between granite walls. See what unfolds. Atop the Bec des Rosses, the rocks petered out and survival turns gave way to joyous hops. Giddiness ensued just minutes after my heart had lodged in my throat. We damn near ran the gamut of human emotion in 100 vertical feet.

We skied a couloir.

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