The north face of Mount Macdonald is a special place. To say it towers above the highway east of the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre would be an understatement. That its dark, forbidding rampart is split by not just one, but a handful of world class couloirs never ceases to amaze me, and I’ve been on a mission to ski my way through them for years.
That mission started in 2016, when I skied the number nine slide path – an incredible couloir line – with Luke Seed. Around the same time, I also ticked gullies number one and two, both of which are significantly less impressive but still excellent ski lines in and of themselves. I didn’t return to the face until late this January, when excellent stability on north aspects lined up with a day of unsettled weather as an inversion broke down. Add in the recent days we’d spent getting familiar with conditions, and it was the perfect opportunity to cross the number 10/11 couloir off the dream lines list. Or at least try.
As is customary for many of the big lines in this section of the corridor, we stashed our skis at a gun placement near the base of the line and parked over at the Hermit. Then the crew, consisting of myself, international man of mystery Valerio Arquint and Rockies crushers Kieran Crimeen and Kaitlin Paris all walked the kilometre or so back along the shoulder so we could start skinning. With plenty of low cloud obscuring the face, we took the time to ensure we were, in fact, heading up the right path.
We were, and after some 450m of skinning, the real work began.
The line is split into three distinct sections. The first (from the climber’s point of view) is a wideish, diagonal couloir which we took turns setting a bootpack into. Travel was quick and the face above quiet, so the meters ticked by fairly uneventfully. We did find a neat crevasse in there, which surprised us and served as a good reminder that the snow in these couloirs never melts.
Then, the crux. Path 11 ends rather abruptly on a little ridge, but the line continues across an exposed traverse into the upper couloir of number 10. It’s not difficult, but it is a little scary. After a conversation about everyone’s comfort levels, I got plates and crampons on and worked my way out – all the while feeling for changes in the snow. I found one nasty thin section I didn’t like, but was able to circumvent it and soon I was kicking steps into the upper couloir.
Nobody seemed likely to catch up, so I went ahead and finished off the bootpack. Again, the number 10 path ends on a narrow ridge, but this time there’s nowhere to go but back down the way you came. Unless you’re into winter alpine climbing for its own sake, I suppose.
So we transitioned and, turn by turn, enjoyed excellent conditions in the upper section of the line. Below the traverse, things got a little variable, but it all ended with powdery pillows back to the highway.
The feeling I’m always left with after skiing one of these spectacular couloirs is gratitude. They’re not hard to access, nor are they particularly technical (though that’s relative). But they’ve each seen only a small handful of descents. To ski them, things really need to line up. It’s human nature to assign personalities to the ambivalent forces of nature, but even knowing that, it feels like Mt. Macdonald somehow chooses to allow passage only rarely. That’s something special, and it’s a big part of why I return to this face.