There aren’t that many aesthetic lines left in the Bow Valley highway corridor that don’t have a ski story attached to them. But as far as we could tell, Mount Bell’s east face was one. Every skier who drives the Trans Canada has probably seen it, glowing in the morning light as it suddenly appears through the trees just west of Castle Junction. It looks big, exposed and kind of technical, with a steep upper section and at least one long rappel at the bottom.
This season, I’ve been chasing the technical side of ski mountaineering more than ever, as have my partners. It’s been one of those years. So it was an objective that had already seized our attention when a near perfect weather window appeared on the forecast. Armed with a series of beta photos from O’Brien Lake taken over the past few weeks (not to mention a good few years’ worth of eyeballing it from various vantage points), Kieran, Chris, Ryan and I made plans to go for it.
4:00 found us in the Taylor Lake parking lot, equalizing a small mountain of gear between our packs. The uncertainty of what lay ahead, as well as the commitment of the top down approach we were going to use to ski it had led us to pack plenty of screws, pins, nuts and two 70m ropes. The latter had been Chris’s idea, and proved to be a very good one.
We began slogging up the interminable Taylor Lake trail, led at warp speed by Chris. By sunrise we had dispatched a good chunk of Bell’s north couloir, and it was a quick scramble from there to the summit. Peaks and classic lines gleamed all around as we scoped what we could of the entrance, discussed conditions and and prepared to drop in.
Around 8:30 we were ready to begin the descent. Studying our photos and comparing them to summer ones, we had been expecting to downclimb the blocky terrain, maybe even have to dig our way in. We were stoked to find that the line went right from the summit. The upper pitch of unconsolidated pow above huge exposure was going to need some testing, however. A cornice would have been nice, but none were conveniently available. Classic Rockies. Always a cornice looming over your head until you need one. So we slung a block, uncoiled some cordage and I tied into a belay to go ski cut it.
The snow felt exactly how I hoped it would – perfectly unconsolidated, with a supportive crust underneath. Cautiously, I detached myself from the rope and began making turns in what definitely ranks as one of the wilder places I can remember doing so. Magnificent, fluted spines helped to funnel the slough away and, as the angle eased in the guts of the main face, I enjoyed some beautiful, deep skiing with the Bow Valley spread out below.
The guys skied down to me in my moderately safe spot, and we got to work on the more technical middle of the face. The sun had started to punch with a fury beyond what we had expected and it was time to get down to business. Move too slowly and we could find ourselves trapped on the face until who knew when. Or, much worse, get sloughed off.
Chris headed through a firm choke to the first waterfall and I followed, skiing point to point so as not to wash him out. Normally we wouldn’t do that, but time was of the essence and we agreed that he should have some support when he left sight of our safeish zone. He was building a personal anchor and had a screw 2/3rds sunk into an ice blob when the first major slough of the day engulfed his stance. It hit so quickly that nobody even had time to shout a warning. I could only look on, knowing that he hadn’t been clipped in, but also knowing that he was relatively protected where I hoped he still stood.
About 30 seconds later he emerged, snowy but otherwise unscathed. I skied over and got a second screw in to clip to. Kieran arrived. We equalized the two screws, and Chris rapped away while Ryan made his way down to the anchor. Kieran had the other rope, and followed Chris to rig the second, longer rappel while Ryan and I dealt with converting the screw anchor to a v-thread.
Seconds before we got it buttoned up, another heavy slough rolled over us, erasing the v-thread and dragging what I thought was a well secured pole and glove into the void.
Fine. That was fine.
In the interest of expediency, we decided to say goodbye to a couple of old screws instead of redrilling and rethreading a new v. The first one had been less than inspiring anyway. We’d already planned on backing it up with a screw, so what was one more?
Ryan and I rapped quickly, skied another pitch down to the piton anchor Chris and Kieran were finishing up and wasted no time getting clipped in. The combination of exposure, pitch and active overhead hazard left little room to enjoy the skiing there, though it was excellent.
Once the ropes had been threaded, Kieran gingerly moved away from the stance. One knifeblade was bomber… enough; the other, in the same horizontal crack, flexed ominously under the new load. “Don’t fucking bounce on that” we advised, as if he could have been any smoother with the icy ropes.
Kieran continued. Chris managed to hammer in a solid nut. Ryan and I added it to the anchor seconds before the mountain landed another blow. The largest slough we’d yet seen mostly glanced over us but nailed Kieran, who wisely made himself as flat as he could against the vertical ice.
We hadn’t had time to tell the poor guy that we’d backed up the pins that we were all attached to, so I’m sure that was a tense moment. Shortly after the torrent ceased, he hollered up with good news. Factoring in rope stretch, we were just barely going to make it to the fan in one 70+ meter shot. What a relief that was. Nobody wanted to have to build another station down there.
After regrouping on a little ridge below the fan, we were finally able to relax after almost three hours of focus on the face. The four of us ate, drank and coiled ropes. As we did, we reflected on an incredible experience, risk and the pugilistic nature of the descent.
All of us were sore, like we’d been in a fight. And we’d played it like one, too. Round by round, minute by minute. Blocking, dodging, remembering to breathe and staying composed. It felt like a convincing team effort and I’m stoked to have shared the adventure with such a rock solid crew. We lounged in the sun for quite a while before we wandered around to Taylor Lake and the trail back home.