An unforgettable trip to the Chamonix Couloir.
Chamonix is a name synonymous with the Alps, après skiing, and very large, aesthetic descents. Not to mention, this town in France is the birthplace of ski mountaineering. To the avid Montana skier, however, the name also implies the Chamonix Couloir, aka the Cham. Remote in the rugged Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the Cham is a gargantuan ski run weighing in at 4,000 feet of vertical relief. While the approach meanders along the popular Beaten Path trail, getting to the top of the chute is not so straightforward. Guarded by a notorious labyrinth of rock and ice, the honkin’ corridor is not visible from the trailhead, nor is it easy to imagine there being a ramp of snow amongst the craggy, towering granite walls. Unless you’ve been there before or seen it from across the valley, it’s hard to imagine a ski run there without having navigated the lower maze, which has thwarted plenty of aspiring skiers.
Last April, after hearing favorable reports from the area, our crew of three amigos began following the forecast ardently. With fresh snow scheduled for Thursday and bluebird skies on Friday, we sprung at the opportunity. As we set off from the truck at daybreak, a fresh coating of dense spring snow provided just enough cushion to mask our skins from the sharp rocks on the trail. Just a few minutes in, we roused a mountain goat lying in the middle of the trail, which casually strolled off as we continued on our way.
Navigating the maze of scree, boulders, and icefalls took some time, but we gained access to the chute without taking off our skis. With over three thousand vertical feet still to climb, skinning up the couloir took hours. There were numerous side channels and icefalls to navigate. The massive mountain façade gleamed in the morning’s alpenglow, and the scale of the mountains was reminiscent of the Alps—each section offering unique and exotic characteristics that added to the nostalgia.
After a few minutes of wallowing in difficult booting conditions, we reverted back to skins. Ultimately skinning nearly 3,500 feet of the ascent, we were finally able to set a solid boot-pack up the top pitch. Due to reports of an infamous ice bulge near the top of the main route, we ascended an alternate, south-facing vein using the fortuitous fresh coating of spring snow to buffer steep, rocky steps to the majestic plateau.
Atop the sun-soaked expanse, grandiose views of the Wilderness were revitalizing after seven hours of gruntwork. The first couple turns were surreal as we warily approached the ice bulge at the top of the Cham. Fortunately, we were able to skirt around this precarious precipice and sidestep down a pocket of powder mixed with loose “chocolate chip” rocks. Leap-frogging down the seemingly endless couloir in superb boot-top powder with intermittent zones of sun crust was mesmerizing. Near the bottom, a glorious field of powder we had avoided on the ascent was still untouched by the wind and sun. As we approached a gully funneling into the lower maze, we opened it up. Completely relaxed and engaged in the experience, I entered the chasm at speed, only to come screeching to a halt at the brink of a 20-foot icefall. I barked up to my amigos, but it was too late as they rained in and also had to slam on the brakes. With exhausted legs, we peered up gloomily and decided to size up the icefall instead of hiking up and around the obstacle. The run out looked groovy so we figured, “what the heck, when in Rome… or Chamonix for that matter!” A quick hop into the fall line and zip down the crystal blue ramp gently transitioned into smooth velvet and turned out to be perhaps the most joyful 4.2 seconds I’ve ever experienced while backcountry skiing.
As I've come to learn over the years, finding enough snow and prime conditions takes plenty of patience and perseverance in the Beartooths. This zone hosts some of the choicest and biggest lines in the state, but also lies in the rain shadow of Montana’s highest peaks. Weather and snowpack can be extremely variable and unpredictable making every trip an adventure, which is just what we were looking for.