After getting a decent warmup on the north face of Peyto Peak the week prior, it felt like spring might be on. Christian and I decided we’d better go find out. Since the highway between Golden and Lake Louise is closed during prime ski mountaineering season this year (and last year, and next year; ugh) we agreed on Hwy 93 south as a meeting spot. Christian is Canmore based for now so it didn’t really matter to him, but I figured I’d like to get a few hours of sleep. We tossed around a few ideas – a big linkup on Mt. Stanley maybe? I suggested Tumbling Couloir, forgetting that Christian was one of the very few people who has already skied it. In the end, we settled on a little quest into the unknown.
My day started poorly at 2AM, with the power off. With considerable moaning and a notable lack of caffeine, I dragged myself out for the long drive down through Radium and back up to the Boom Lake trailhead where Christian was already waiting. The idea was to slog up the long, flat Boom Lake trail, then head up towards the SE face of Quadra Mountain; climbing it to access and ski the classic north face. From there, we’d choose our own adventure. Three options seemed apparent. Climb back out over Quadra-Bident col (boring). Continue all the way to Moraine Lake via 3/4 Couloir (intriguing, logistically impractical). Or ski a mystery couloir we’d both seen dropping out of view below the north face’s imposing seracs, then climb back out over Consolation Col. We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves so we packed plenty of gear, started walking and resolved to figure it out later.
Eventually, we ambled onto the moraines at the base of Quadra and found ourselves looking at the couloir we’d need to climb. We’d hoped to get a look at the crux at some point during the approach, but that just hadn’t happened. There was still one choke that was too deeply recessed to see into. Oh well. Up we went.
The cruxes turned out to be simple. We were glad to have brought axes and crampons, but they were just steep snice runnels at worst. Most of the climb was regular old couloir booting – albeit with excellent views to distract from the tedium. The snow underfoot was a lousy buffet of crusts and chunks from our recent warmup, so we really hoped the descent over the other side would work out as we approached the top of the line. Returning the way we came would be unpleasant to say the least.
At the top, I skirted what we were sure was a massive cornice, found a spot to look over and whooped my relief to Christian. The north side looked perfect. Cold preserved powder, no visible ice. Just what we were hoping for. When conditions are that good you get to open it up a bit. We both got some nice GS turns in as slough poured into the bergschrund below. Awesome.
Regrouping on the glacial bench, we talked our options through once more. Skiing out to Moraine Lake seemed like a lot of work, and we’d have to beg someone to come pick us up. Just climbing back over Quadra-Bident col still sounded boring and besides, we had plenty of time left in the day. That only left one option – go stick our heads into the mystery couloir.
As we approached the top of the couloir, the bench we were contouring got narrower and narrower. From the valley the position looks outrageously exposed but in reality, it’s only kind of exposed. Thoughtful skinning got us to the bottom of a nose-like feature, where we… couldn’t see a thing. So we popped our skis off and wallowed up to the top, where a small windlip at the top of the nose still blocked our view of anything useful. A couple of turns below, our last reasonable option at least yielded an entrance, but we still couldn’t see shit. We had enough rope and rock pro to solve a lot of problems, so after some discussion, we decided that this would do.
Taking turns, we dispatched the upper couloir fairly quickly. The snow ranged from good to ok minus (a term we coined while experiencing it). There was a sizable cornice overhead so we had the means and the motivation to move efficiently. It was nice skiing, deep in what felt like the maw of the mountain. Soon we found the crux that we had been expecting, and the snow turned pretty treacherous. Probably due to the concentration of slough and previous cornice failures above.
At the crux, the couloir splits into two passages. The skiers’ left passage clearly sees the bulk of the flow from above, as well as considerable serac hazard, as we were now below the Quadra glacier’s terminal edge. With that in mind, and although the left looked easier – maybe even skiable in different conditions – we decided to rappel the right. That put us out of the bowling alley but did require a solid anchor, which Chrisitan got to work building. It actually took a while to get something to stick but eventually, we had a two piton station installed that we were both satisfied with. The rappel was about 20m on this side, for anyone reading this for beta in the future.
The lower couloir, which mercifully only comprises about a quarter of the line, was awful. Full of crusts and debris of all kinds, including an unsettling amount of serac chunks. The fan wasn’t much better, but after a line like that, the release of skiing out into the open again is enough to overcome nearly any kind of snow, no matter how foul.
All that remained now was the matter of getting back to the car. I was coming off of a suspiciously covid-like illness and felt pretty low on energy. Christian had just wrapped up an even more debilitating winter of heli guiding. We felt that these excuses were more than sufficient to explain our brutal pace as we slogged back up Consolation col. The snow was awesome and if we’d had more energy we might have done a lap to enjoy it. As it was, both of us just oozed over the top and cruised a long corn run down to Boom Lake. We traversed pretty hard to hit a slide path down to the lake, as we couldn’t remember how broken the cliffs at the back of the lake were. As it turned out we probably didn’t need to, but it worked fine.
The Boom Lake trail did its best to spoil a fine day out, but was unsuccessful. This was a spectacular, wild circuit through amazing terrain. The onsight style we did it in made for an adventure skiing experience that I don’t often get in the Rockies any more. That’s not a knock on the range, just the downside of familiarity and experience. The moral of the story is that I should probably drop into unknown valleys more often.