I consider myself lucky to have had very few close calls in the mountains. At least, that I’m aware of. But this story starts with one of them.
In late November of 2017, I’d finally made plans to ski with Kieran for, if not the first time, the first time without it being some kind of group event. We’d been orbiting around each other for a while, and I was stoked to get out with someone who had been one of the more prolific steep skiers in the range that past spring. Stability was decent, so naturally, we looked to take advantage. Eventually, we settled on Mt. Chephren’s right hand couloir – unofficially named Kum Ba Jah couloir by Gery Unterasinger in a post on his blog.
I remember a number of details from that day quite distinctly. A bushwhacky approach, due to the time of season. A constant stream of jokes and banter, as if Kieran and I had known each other for years. And low cloud, which hadn’t appeared on the forecast or in our line of sight on approach, now increasingly obscuring the massive bulk of the face above. For our part, we were overly focused on stability in the fan, where we were keeping an eye out for some potential avalanche problem or another. Fixated on the snowpack, and with no significant slough coming from our particular couloir, we transitioned to booting. Somewhere above the insidiously dropping fog, the weather changed.
Before we could get far enough to really see into the couloir, the first slough of the day rocketed out. Kieran lost his footing, tumbling into me. His boot slammed my head, and the combination of that impact and the chest deep torrent of snow easily dislodged me. My airway was forced full of what felt like sand, and the world went dark. Knowing we were both caught, part of my brain calmly wondered if the light would return.
It did. There’s no need to be dramatic. We were both fine. A cheap lesson in the power of the mountains, at the price of a little bit of lost or broken gear and a faint scar over my eye. A humbling experience, and though we’ve skied countless days together after that, we never made it back.
But, we wanted to. It’s a great line, and while it has its hazards – notably a good amount of overhead – it’s nothing special from a risk management standpoint. We were just annoyed at our own foolishness and mentally assigned the couloir a malevolent personality to distract from it. With that in mind, in mid January we decided it was time.
It was a much, much better day that greeted Kieran and I at the base of the couloir, but as we approached, a few little wind triggered sloughs hissed through. Given our history with the line, we took our time and waited to establish a pattern, or even some visual or auditory clue as to the timing and size of the sloughs. You can sometimes get a pretty good heads up from the whistling wind in an echoey cirque. Other times, the flows run on a tighter schedule than a Swiss train. Once satisfied, we headed into the choke which, on this line, comes right away in a large bend. That dogleg is a critical piece, as it causes the slough to ride up on one side, leaving the actual climbing through the choke fairly well protected.
A bit of scrappy mixed got me up above the difficulties, and Kieran gave chase. As he did, a very sizable slough rocketed into the choke, putting our line choice to the test. It was certainly large enough to launch a puny human, but the assessment we’d done earlier held up and everyone stayed comfortably put. Maybe some places do have a little malevolence in them after all.
As we neared the top the angle steepened, but we were presented with a rare early season opportunity to top out around the nascent cornice. Obviously Kieran and I took it, and wallowed up to a comfortable and overhead-free ridgetop transition spot. I reckoned we could ski in from there as well and tried it, making some very small, very tricky turns in a cool spot.
The rest of the line skied well, and the snow was good enough to open up the turns a bit. Always a treat. We worked a little zig zagging traverse through the choke, which bypassed the ice and rock we’d climbed but put us in the line of fire for sloughs. This no doubt fills in later in the season, so if you are reading this for beta on a later attempt, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Anyway, by this point overhead activity had eased right off and it was a no brainer to keep the skis on. Some 500m of easy, fast powder skiing got us back to the lake.
A very enjoyable day in a line that represents an excellent step up from the more popular couloirs on the parkway, while still providing an excellent ski experience. The monkey off our backs, so to speak, Kieran and I turned our attention to new things.