Friday, April 12, 2013

Grey Wolf peak, West couloir, FKT

Grey Wolf!
After working out the bugs on a stormy semi-recon-semi-speed attempt a week prior, I made a concerted push to ski the West Couloir of Grey Wolf peak as fast as possible.  It can go faster, but it ended up going in 3 hours, 55 minutes from the Riddell lake trailhead to the St. Mary’s trailhead, which I think is a fastest know time.

Why Grey Wolf?
The west couloir of Grey Wolf peak is one of the best ski runs in Montana.  It is long, steep enough, aesthetic, engaging, and alpine.  It is also a little tricky to get to, runnels severely in the spring, and has a long history of failed attempts.  All of this combines to produce an outing which is long but not daunting, provides a good test of mountaineering skills, and can also be done safely. 

The Tour
After working a half day, I drove out to the trailhead and set off at the decidedly non-alpine time of 2:30 pm.  I casually skinned the shuttle to the Riddell lake trailhead, set the watch, and started up the road to the old trailhead at a bright pace.   The approach to treeline was reasonably fast, and not too mushy or gloppy given the late hour of the day.  As I traversed into the Riddell lake basin, afternoon snow squalls rolled in, and visibility went to near zero by the time I hit the Riddell/Scenic lake pass.  I was still ahead of schedule, but made a major unfortunate detour in the whiteout, climbing the wrong couloir on the east face of the peak.  
Weather deteriorating near Riddell lakes.

About to retreat at the top of the wrong couloir on the east face.
Realizing my error, I quickly ripped skins and sideslipped the icy, debris riddled couloir back down to the correct couloir.  Back on track, I made a hard push up the East couloir to the East/West col.  At the col, I was surprised to see fresh ski tracks from a party camped out in the No fish lake basin.  Further evidence that the West couloir is becoming more popular (just a few years ago it would see just a couple of descents a year).  The West couloir itself was fairly runneled, and the skiing was challenging, especially on race skis.  Soon enough I was schussing across the lower fan, aiming for a skin track which I hoped would save some time on the exit.  The clouds had blown out by this time, and the evening light was absolutely spectacular.  The skin track ended up going too far north, and I followed it way too long before making a long traverse to the south and eventually gaining the St. Mary’s ridge about 300 vertical feet below the normal jump off point.  With about 30 minutes remaining, I skied as fast as race skis, tired legs, and isothermal snow would allow, yipping and clapping to alert grizzly bears of my presence all the way to the car.
The West couloir, from the top, with feeling (and race skis).
At the trailhead.
Happy and tired at the reservoir.
The tour:  I started the clock at the boulders which make the new Riddell lake trailhead, and stopped it at the St. Mary’s reservoir trailhead.  The tour was up the Riddell lake trail, over into the scenic lake basin, up the East couloir, down the West couloir, up to the shoulder of St Mary’s peak, and down the trail to the car.  6,200 vertical feet, according to Google earth.

Splits (approximate):  Old trailhead: 0.13;  Half way saddle: 0.37; Riddell/Scenic divide: ~1.30; Top of West couloir 2.28; St. Mary’s shoulder: ~3.30; Trailhead 3.55.  

Philosophy:  It is completely understandable to question the desire to do tours like this for speed.  I would encourage any dissenters to just get out there and ski the couloir in a way they find satisfying.  Also, doing the tour as a point-to-point is a little arbitrary, since the fastest car-to-car time would probably still go via the normal route from the St. Mary’s reservoir.  Nevertheless, my car-to-car time checked in at right around 4.45.

Equipment:  Dynafit Race skis with race bindings, wall to wall nylon skins, Scarpa Alien boots, ski crampons, Helmet.  OR Ferrossi climbing pants and Lycra top, racing pack, 2 servings Perpetum (thanks Colin), 1 GU 0.75 liter of water.  This was not enough fuel.

Room for improvement:  The detour up the wrong couloir cost me a lot of time, as much as 30 minutes.  Also, the detour on the skin track out of the hole cost a few minutes.  Overall, conditions were acceptably fast, and the skiing was OK, so no complaints.  It is less of a mountaineering adventure this way, but I think climbing the East is faster than climbing the South and traversing high on the peak.  I think a sub-3.5 hour outing is possible – someone should go do it.

Finally - be careful out there!


  1. Well done man! Think skiers in speed suits look more tasty to Grizzly bears?