After easing into what proved to be an incredible January weather and stability window on Cheops Mountain, the crew was ready to go big. Mark and Tom joined up and we left a car at Bostock in anticipation of finishing a long way from where we started.
The plan was to start at the Rogers Pass Discovery Center, then head up and over Balu Pass; dropping into the Cougar Valley to climb Bagheera Mountain. From there, we hoped to ski its mysterious and foreboding north face/couloir, down into Ursus Creek. Once you’re all the way back in that valley, the easiest way out is over McGill pass to Bostock, some 20km away from the Discovery Center parking lot. Hence why we dropped the car. This was going to take a while.
For the third time in two days, we rallied up Balu pass, this time pointing our skis over the other side and sliding away from the bustle of Connaught Creek. I knew from previous visits to this area that dropping too low too quickly puts you at the mercy of a maze of cliffs guarding the valley bottom. I thought I’d been clever enough to traverse us over the lot of them, but that proved overly optimistic. We had to break out the rope quite a bit earlier than expected. What’s a Rogers Pass epic without some sub-alpinism? I’d gotten close with the route at least, so one rap was all it took to get us down.
As we skinned up valley, the massive south face of Bagheera loomed overhead. An incredible run in its own right, it towers roughly 1000m above the Cougar Valley, full of fluted spines and broad, discontinuous couloir systems. The best time to start any long bootpack is an hour ago, and the second best time is now, so off we went. The route is straightforward: just a blast straight up the thing, which we tried our best to do.
Blasting wasn’t quite on the table but we moved fast enough, trading leads and staring out at the other giant lines in the valley as we went. We nearly got turned around by some wind slab below the summit ridge until Mark sniffed out a path through the worst of it. I pushed us to where we thought the top of the couloir was, eased out onto a little rock outcropping, peered over the edge and… woah!
It took a moment to recalibrate my brain and realize that there was a ski line amongst all the exposure. It was going to take a little effort to find the entrance though, so we put Eric on belay and he went off to look for it. As he did so, the morning’s blue sky finished going grey. The window was starting to swing shut. It was time to shit or get off the pot. We needed to be thorough and take our time to stay safe on the exposed ridge, but we also needed to get a move on if we were going to ski this thing. It’s the classic ski mountaineer’s dilemma. Rushing is bad. It causes mistakes. Going too slow is also bad because it increases exposure – a mistake in its own right.
The solution, of course, is efficient, focused movement. Easier said than done, but with a strong crew, that’s exactly what we did. First, everyone came over to the entrance that Eric found. He and Mark built an anchor while Tom, Paul and I organized gear. By the time I was ready to go, there was a rope ready for me to tie into and ease into the extremely thin, exposed top of the line. I made a good cut, then one turn on the rope before unclipping and making a few more with only the cold wind and exposure for company. A wild spot. I found a rib to stand on while the guys came down and joined me.
The snow was variable and the position airy. I continued into a little mini couloir, which would get us onto a large panel. From there we worked over a deep, firm runnel and into the guts of the north couloir proper, which was less firm but only barely. This descent was clearly going to be full on for the duration. Leapfrogging, we broke it into sections. It didn’t really matter who went first, it was all firm and a little punchy, but perfectly skiable. And steep. It demanded precision from top to bottom, which kept things engaging for quite a while. Happily, each time we encountered a crux, it revealed itself to be at least a ski width, until the very last one.
With the fan in sight, one little choke stood between us and a successful descent. I scraped on in and tried to dry ski my way through it, pressing my tips into the rock on one side and my back into the other. No luck. Annoyed, I turned around and tried it the other way. Nope. Impatience got the better of me and I stepped back, hopped my skis into the fall line and pointed it through. Choke problem: solved. Predictable new problem: speed. Chucking my skis on edge, I did my best Bode impression. Much like Bode, I soon high sided and flipped over. Since I wasn’t going super-g speed, this was fine and I stood up, shook my head at my own foolish impatience, made sure the guys hadn’t seen and skied away after hollering up a recommendation to do something else.
We all regrouped on the fan and skied fun snow through playful moraines down to Ursus Creek. The weather had fully tuned while we were up on the face. The place felt dark, and utterly empty. Only the gurgle of the creek and tiny patter of falling snow broke an otherwise deafening silence. We all took a moment to appreciate it and look back on a wild descent, before the long slow slog over McGill Pass began.
By the time we topped out, it was pitch dark and fully storming. By headlamp, we tried in vain to find a good way out to Bostock; something I’ve yet to accomplish. Tired and wet, but still at least 90% psyched, a short climb and sketchy luge track descent finally got us back to the parking lot, roughly 11 hours after we’d stashed my car there that morning.
It was awesome to share this completely wild day with such a strong and capable crew. Everything lined up for us and we got a golden opportunity to dispatch a very big line with good style. It doesn’t get much better than that. With the window thoroughly closed for the foreseeable future, it was back to powder skiing and dreaming about whatever might come next.