Ski: Bloody Couloir

The alarm was set for 4:10, but it never went off. I was up at 3:59, having heard Mark’s wake-up call beat mine to the punch. I felt strangely awake and ready to go – equal parts full-moon-so-bright-you-could-read-at midnight and never having really gone to sleep.

I love sleeping out. With no tent between you and nature, you’re exposed (literally) to the side of the world that wakes up when you go to bed. And sure, you get the normal nocturnal fauna – the sound of a jackrabbit near your head is terrifying until you identify it, BTW – but this night, I was also visited by a lesser-known species: the truck RIPPING right past your bivy site at 40 miles an hour! Wow! I went to bed sure that I would hear anything coming from a long distance (wheels on dirt/gravel, all that), but I didn’t wake up until this vehicle was literally passing 8 feet from my head. I was terrified!

Anyway, back to 4am. It was warm – warmer than it was a few hours earlier, for certain, and I was worried that we hadn’t gotten a hard freeze. We were still about 6,000 feet below the high point of the day, so our weather wasn’t necessarily indicative of what we’d find above, but it still concerned me. The full moon sped the final packing of the bags, we were soon on our way up the Laurel Lakes road, en route to the day’s objective: Bloody Couloir.

Progress is quick on this old mining road. Sure, it’s even faster if you are able to drive some or all the way up it, and many do – at least those with high-clearance 4WD – but even though we were probably taking the longest of all approaches (ever), the miles were coming relatively easy.

As the sun came up over the White Mountains behind us, the world began to awaken, and we came around a bend to our first view of Bloody Couloir. It looked downright close!

looking upcanyon to the couloir

The road was used for mining in the distant past, but it now serves outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe: skiers, hikers, fishermen, and those that just like ruining a perfectly good vehicle suspension.

Eventually arriving at a few large switchbacks, you too may find yourself having to convince your partner that these switchbacks, while yes, technically “longer” in distance, are a sure thing. He will counter that the (still frozen snowfield) that cuts them is shorter. Ensure that you persevere in this debate. While no doubt a viable or even preferred route in the winter with good snow conditions, the road is clearly the way to go in spring.

After crossing a few snowfields, the largest of which necessitating a change to boots and use of axes, you’ll come to the gate. Now, if you’ve just walked nearly 5.5 miles and more than 4,500 feet of vertical gain with skis on your back, seeing the gate is kind of a conflicting experience. On the one hand, the gate means that you’re at the base of the couloir. On the other hand, the gate means that some people are able to drive here, and you’re kind of an idiot for having walked it. Or at least that’s the way I felt.

We planned to take the line to looker’s left of the vertical rock pillar in the couloir and set out. The snow was still firm and had clearly gone through a hard freeze the night before. Bonus. It was also clearly warming – fast – and we could see remnants of a wet slide higher up, and a big rock release near the middle of the apron. Negative bonus.

The whole apron is skinnable, and has a great mellow angle for making good time. Things were looking up. Or rather, I should have been looking up more often. We’d seen small (golf ball and baseball) sized rocks careening down the apron past us since we’d started, and occasionally heard the sound of rockfall, but it had never risen above a level of nuisance. That is, until the time I looked up while making a turn in my skin track and literally shouted “OH SHIT!”. There was a desktop PC-sized (strange reference, I know, but it works) sized rock FLYING towards me, and I had only looked up in time to see it in its final 50 feet before it intercepted my elevation. I knew in an instant that I could not dodge it effectively and simply tried to crouch. The rock whizzed past me, missed Mark, and continued down to the base of the apron.

I was spooked. Some trip reports had talked about rockfall in the sub-couloir to looker’s right. Yeah… I could see why. If that rock had made contact, it could have been fatal, simply owing to the incredible speed it had acquired by the time it reached us. I decided it was time to stow the skis and boot up, thinking that it would allow me to keep my eyes ahead/up more often than skinning. The tactic seemed to work, though while there were more small rocks, we saw only that one killer missle.

In the end though, it proved enough to be our undoing. By the time we reached the base of the pillar, we surveyed the totality of the situation. The rockfall had freaked us out, and would likely intensify in the right sub-couloir along with the temperature. The left sub-couloir was filled with large, ulgly, wet slide debris. Not only not fun to ski, but clear evidence of a propensity to slide. The snow, while still in good shape, was going to be subject to rapid warming from the ambient temperature rise.

It was a tough decision, but we knew that this wasn’t the day to take it to the top. We paused at the foot of the pillar dividing the two sub-couloirs, ate and drank a bit, and pulled the skins off our skis. As we fueled up, we saw the guys we KNEW were somewhere behind us (they were in the truck that woke me up, and we had passed them, still sleeping, on our hike in) hit the bottom of the apron. We went through the drop-in rituals: boots to ski mode, bindings locked down, poles lengthened, and cast lots for who got to go first. I dropped in a little aggressively – the angle was mellow at about 30-35 degrees, and I expected the snow to be much softer than it actually was, but it was a fine wide-open line… all 60 seconds of it.

A long walk for a short, mellow, ski for sure, but one that remains on my tick list – to be done from the top.

Postscript: the walk out kinda sucks. That is, of course, if you’re like us and had to walk ALL THE WAY back out to the turnoff for the Laurel Lakes road. Fortunately, a kind soul let us jump in the back of his pickup for about the last half of the journey. Absolutely spent, we headed for Mammoth, visions of a shower and pizza dancing in our heads.

Beta:

It pays to take a high-clearance vehicle to cut out some/most/all of the approach. I will never again do this with the approach that we tried (park at the Laurel Lakes turnoff and walk…. walk…. walk…).

We both agreed that this would probably be an awesome two day tour in the winter, given the ability to ski back out to the car on day two.

Rockfall in the couloir is very real.

Postscript:

The next day we went to extra innings and hit Mammoth. Absolutely UNREAL corn conditions from 8a-11a.

Yours Truly, in Hangman's Hollow

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