Historian’s Choice: the Mt. Murchison Mega Couloir

I’m a sucker for an interesting bit of mountain history. Both fortunately and unfortunately, here in the Rockies, much of the history of even the most famous ski descents has gone unrecorded. But, when it does turn up it’s often presented in a wonderfully elusive, fragmented way. A forum post here, an aside in a climbing guidebook there, maybe a blog post or two if you’re really lucky. It’s modern folklore of the highest caliber for the tiny subset of the population that’s interested in seeking it out.

At a difficult moment, in what’s proven to be an unusually challenging spring, Kieran and I set out big line hunting on the basis of just such a history. The first mention of Mt. Murchison’s Mega Couloir was found in the now offline Biglines.com Rockies Classics thread. There, local steep skiing icon Ptor Spriceneiks made a single reference to it, entirely unsubstantiated by any kind of explanation. I feel it safe to assume that if he brought it up then he probably skied it – likely for the first time (although I’ve been unable to get him to actually confirm that).

The line in question, scouted on a bail day.

Some years later, a crew of Quebecers reportedly rolled into Lake Louise, spewing mightily about their first descent of the same line; which they had decided to name Indiana Jones Couloir. Both parties at least suggested that the line was enormous, and that was enough to pique our interest.

A week prior to this day, after finding an ominous little storm wreaking unforecasted havoc on our chosen objective, we’d taken a drive up the parkway and found that the Murchison Couloir looked in, and was unaffected by the isolated loading occurring further south. That day was wasted, but we made plans to return during the next window.

6:00 found us working our way up through scrubby, burnt forest and cursing low tide conditions. There was little doubt that the couloir had flushed itself out when we arrived at the base. The fan was full of weird, loose ice balls and the overhead far above was looking quite dry. Banking on better conditions up high, we stashed our skins and stumbled up massive runnels while ice balls got caught in our crampons.

It was weird.

Kieran getting blasted in the face by wind and ice crystals. Or trying to wink. I can’t tell.

Sure enough, though, a planar surface presented itself in the sheltered guts of the couloir. Not only that, but recent fresh snow had been perfectly preserved in there. Conditions were perfect. If only we’d brought our skins up with us, because it turns out that this couloir isn’t nearly as steep as it looks.

It’s also long, but after much awkwardly angled slogging, we topped out to an incredible view of Mt. Murchison’s fearsome North Face. Another obscure line which I hope to one day experience.

The cool side of Mt. Murchison.

As usual, Kieran and I were determined to ski from the top, which meant quite a few moves of dry skiing. Loose, Rockies style dry skiing.

Kieran, contemplating the free base grind he’s about to get.

Once back in the main couloir, the descent was magnificent. Perfect, low density powder on a nice crust, with minimal sloughing due to the relatively low angle. This made up for the unskiable ice balls and runnels down low. That may be the only type of snow I’ve ever encountered that I’ve been completely unable to ski. It was really something.

A bit of really terrific couloir skiing.
Decent exit conditions, with the couloir standing tall in the background.

The morning’s crust more or less held up below treeline, and we were able to ski to within sight of the car. Both of us felt very lucky to have found a worthy and memorable line in such ideal condition. Knowing it might be a while before another such opportunity presented itself, we savoured a leisurely drive back down the parkway in the brilliant sunshine.

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