High School Couloir

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Looking down on the lower constriction. Photo: Mike Hopkins

Boom Mountain, AB

An fun mini-alpine mission that you can do in a day from Calgary. The approach is easy and fast following the cross country ski trail from the Boom Mountain parking lot, before cutting into the trees on the left just after a signed fork in the trail. The couloir you’re aiming for is the first major line to the east of Kindergarten Couloir. Lots of cool features in this one: twists and turns, ridges, and small cliffs to drop. Though not much steeper than it’s neighbour, High School Couloir is a bigger and more serious challenge, with overhead hazard from large cornices, three small rockbands to climb, some exposure, and many chokepoints.

January 16, 2016

“Guys, that looks AWESOME!!!” – Before my friends could respond I was already fully committed to finding a way up and down that scrappy ribbon of snow snaking its way through the cliffs and down the north face of Boom Mountain, in Banff National Park.

I call the ribbon scrappy because, as my friends were quick to remind me, there were at least two cliffs to scale and what appeared to be a very tight choke near the top, obscured just enough that you couldn’t tell if it was doable without walking all the way up there.

Didn’t matter that it was scrappy, I would try it, but it would have to wait until next time because we had just finished riding Kindergarten Couloir a couple hundred meters west of this line, and my friends were ready to call it a day (OK, I was pretty tired too… it’s still early season, right?….right?) I promised myself I would come back to this line at the next safe opportunity.

 

Four days later I got my chance. All the boxes checked out and it hadn’t snowed a significant amount since I was up there last.

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Photo: Mike Hopkins

I recruited my little brother, Mike, to come along. Always psyched on a chance to push himself, I knew he could handle the misery of trudging uphill in -20C toward a goal that might not even exist, and more importantly, I knew he wouldn’t be heartbroken if we had to pull the plug for whatever reason.

 

As we stood at the base of the couloir, the choke near the top looked even tighter than before, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t go.

I began cutting trail up the fan anyways, using a patch of trees on the left side for cover when possible. At the mouth of the couloir we quickly switched over in a protected corner and began our bootpack ascent.

A short time later we were strapping in and riding down with our tails between our legs. Having made it less than halfway up the line I got spooked by major signs of significant solar radiation affect (a huge surprise on a north facing line in January). No point in pushing it, I told myself, especially with the sun beating down on the south side of that massive cornice above us…

 

After waiting a few days for a nicely timed warm front to help settle the snowpack, Mike and I again found ourselves back at the Boom Mountain parking lot, in the pitch dark. This time we were starting earlier and we were going to move faster than last time to beat the sun affect.

The cross-country ski trail provided fast and easy travel for the hour or so that it took to get to the base of the line. We arrived in the meadow below Boom Mountain and were treated to one of the most unique sunrises I’ve ever seen. Darkness gave way to navy blue, which gave way to the deepest purple you can imagine. The peaks to the northwest were dipped in the faintest orange of the rising sun, a slight alpenglow bathing these rock giants.

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Epic sunrise begins. HSC is to the right of the large fan, with the top out at the notch in the middle of the picture. Photo: Mike Hopkins

We paused to marvel and take pictures before sliding along our old skin track and into the constriction of the couloir proper, while the morning sun burned red and orange to the east.

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Photo: Mike Hopkins

As expected the snow was significantly firmer than on the fan for the most part, with numerous windslabs hiding in unexpected places.

After passing a massive spine feature we came to a fork in the road. To the right you could walk up another couple hundred meters around two more spines before the line terminated below a gigantic cliff face. But to the left, after surmounting a small cliff, it appeared the line would continue to the top.

After climbing the small cliff we continued through a cool S-turn hallway of snow, with a nice little ice shelf in the middle for good measure. This was followed by another section of deep snow where the couloir opened up.

 

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About one third of the way up. Photo: Mike Hopkins

At this point the route forked again, to the right a short ways up it appeared to end abruptly below another large cliff, with massive cornices above, but once again to the left our trail continued up a smaller hallway.

As we rounded a rightward bend we found ourselves at the base of a nasty looking rock gully – the choke we had seen a week ago. It consisted of two small rock steps separated by a narrow band of rock-peppered snow, shoulder width at its most narrow.

The first rock step climbed easily, but the second step turned out to be harder than expected.

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Finding some pow just below the first cliff. Photo: Mike Hopkins

It required a lot of axe scratching, some awkward stemming, a whole lot of foul language, and even a couple snowboard-bars (like knee-bars in rock climbing, but with your snowboard). I paused at the top, turned to Mike and said “Well that was terrible, good luck.”

Uninspired by my display, Mike gave it a valiant effort anyways. Ultimately he decided to downclimb the first step and wait for me rather than climb the second step.

I continued on alone, with the top cornice in sight. Travel was quick and easy most of the way, because the snow was bulletproof. I made a note of this and decided to stop riding well before the choke on the way down, to avoid sliding on my bum through it, which could be painful.

The cornice at the top of the couloir was massive, and I spent as little time as possible standing underneath it, especially given the fact that by this time the sun would likely be hammering the other side of it.

After quickly switching over, I began cautiously riding down. I didn’t really trust the layer near the top of the snowpack, and I didn’t want to go for a ride into that rock gully.

 

After downclimbing the gully I switched over and rode down to meet Mike.

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Headed toward the lower constriction. Photo: Mike Hopkins

The next section had great knee deep powder all the way down to the first cliff. Probably the best snow of the day. I timidly dropped the ice shelf, speed checking HARD immediately after as I was afraid of getting swept off the first cliff we had climbed, which was still a distance away but probably 30 feet tall if you followed the fall line (much shorter on riders left side where we had climbed it).

I rode the last of the good powder down to the top of the first cliff, paused, set up, took a deep breath… and then went full-gorby off the cliff. I had underestimated how hard the snow was at the bottom of the cliff, and hammered into it like a bird hitting a freshly cleaned window. Thankfully I at least landed with my board under me, but it didn’t stay there for long. It flipped above my head for a split second before I was able to force it back under me in some sort of awkward breakdancing move. Mike had much the same experience I did, though he opted for the baseball-style slide to home base approach.

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Chundery styrofoam. Photo: Mike Hopkins

The rest of the couloir was epic fun to ride, though the snow was fairly solid. I dropped the last ice section and again speed checked right away, hammering into a windslab just in time to keep myself upright, it wasn’t pretty, but it worked. I ended up pointing it through the end of the constriction to avoid any more battling through the chunder-coated Styrofoam snow.

It felt good to reach the end of the fan and watch Mike rip through the remainder of the couloir. A quick lunch break and then we enjoyed a leisurely cruise back to the van, with a light snowfall shrouding the mountains around us.

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Heading out. Photo: Mike Hopkins

 

Since I’m not aware of any other name for it, I chose to call this line High School Couloir, to keep with the school theme started by whoever named Kindergarten Couloir on the same mountain, and I felt this line is much more challenging than Kindergarten so it warranted being a few grades higher.

 

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