Thursday, February 13, 2014

Return to the Swans - Lick Lake couloir

The Lick lake couloir in spring 2012. The Maola face is a more
exposed line that I skied a few years ago in memory of my grandmother.
Leah, Ted, and I took advantage of the late January high pressure system to ski the stellar Lick Lake couloir from the summit of Ptarmigan mountain. As skiers like to say, it did not disappoint. The road approach is over 5 miles long, but with kicker skins, we made good time through the eerie early morning inversion. The climb up to Ptarmigan was fairly slow, especially since we were forced out of the main avalanche path. Even with a late summit time, everyone was still OK to drop East into the great Bob Marshall wilderness.
Closing in on Ptarmigan.
The top of the run involves exposed skiing down the East ridge, and we put our steep skiing game faces on and took our time. The couloir itself was great. It is big and beautiful, and would get skied all the time if it were not for the long approach. From the lake, we took a long snack break and began the long haul back up to the crest. A massive slide had released just a few days prior, leaving a 10 foot crown and impressive debris pile at its base. We decided that the safest way back to the ridge would be to climb the bed surface of the slide, which went without incident. On a stability related note, the snow was much less stable in the Swans than in the Missions and Bitterroot. Just thinner and weaker, with more scary lurking glide avalanche potential. I wonder if this is a common trend? But I digress.
Leah, dwarfed by the Lick lake couloir.
Leah and Ted on the way out to the Swan crest, looking back at the couloir,
and feeling the vast wildness of the Bob Marshall wilderness.
From the crest, we took the big 4,000 foot west facing avalanche path back to the road.  The top had great shallow powder skiing, and the lower gully and alder exit were surprisingly fun. Even the ski out went smoothly, with about two miles of kicker skins, then a quick schuss out to the car. We returned right at "very, very dusk". I turned my headlamp on for the last quarter mile or so, and Leah and Ted decided to just pound it out in the dark. What a day.
Leah skiing down to the sea of clouds.
Ted skiing down to the sea of clouds.
Back at the road after surviving the bushwack unscathed.
With stable snow, this is a great tour. I still think that the Lick lake couloir from Ptarmigan mountain is one of the best ski lines around Missoula. The road approach could be eliminated with a snowmobile. It was great getting out with Ted, and I was glad that we were able to venture into his beloved Bob Marshall Wilderness.


  1. Way Cool! Thanks for the share!

  2. Love the photos looking down on the cloud deck.!

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  5. Nice work Brian, been eyeing this line for years! Noticed it in 2009 whilst clearing trail up to Gordon Pass from BP. What a line...Going for it one of these days