The V Couloir is a lesser skied 1,000 foot technical couloir on the north side of Prospectors Mountain. Mid-fifty degree skiing above exposure, a mid-run ice fall and likewise rappel, and notorious overhead danger characterize this exceptionally scenic yet serious ski mountaineering descent. On April 28th Connor James and I tackled the beast in iffy conditions, enjoying a generous smorgasbord of blower powder to breakable crust, dazzling corn, a blizzard, bluebird skies and a rain squall, all in a single day’s work.
The V Couloir first caught my attention while flipping through Connor Miller’s Black Book earlier this year. I’m a sucker for exposed skiing and the level of focus it demands, and the “V” ticked that box in spades. Google recon uncovered a mid-run rock/ice bulge and likewise descending rappel, and confirmed the V is not an optical illusion – she’s steep. Add to the appeal list my very little time spent on Prospectors Mountain and you have a recipe for a “must ski ASAP” line. With the last of a heavy April storm surge trickling I pinned the north facing bad boy as this season’s potential final powder opportunity, and wrangled my trusty ice buddy, Connor James, for the mid-week strike.
We started our day at 5:30 AM from the southernmost Grand Teton National Park boundary just outside Teton Village. The road to the Granite Canyon trailhead was closed for god knows what reason, but lucky for us we had forethought to bring bicycles. In the past few weeks I have enjoyed many bike-ski-bike days, to the degree that casting off in pitch blackness with headlamps, skis on my back and the sound of whistling tires was beginning to feel normal. Today we chose to pedal further than the traditional horse trail approach for the Banana Couloir, continuing at least another mile to the fringe of Phelps Lake before switching to skins at one of the many unofficial trails south of the watershore. I’d like to say our approach was calculated, but truthfully we just shot from the hip. To deploy presumptuous line of sight tactics in the Tetons is a reliable recipe for a disastrously inefficient bushwhack, yet today we escaped largely unscathed, eloping over matrices of drainages and vaguely following GPS confirmed summer trails to Open Canyon and the base of Prospectors Mountain. Was it the most efficient way? Likely not, but it worked.
From the heavily overgrown Open Canyon we GPS located the outflow of the “V Gully”, the massive drainage just north of the distinct Banana Couloir. These gullies are difficult to tweeze from below and have been the site of many navigational errors. We found the base in poor condition, and spent the first 500 vertical feet in ski boots, yarding on bushes and tip-toeing over half melted creeks until reaching the snow-line around 8,000 feet. From there it was a straightforward game of ski crampon plug and chug, 2,000 feet and two-some miles to the head of the gully. The morning was warming fast, but cloud cover and a light breeze kept snow surfaces cool. With a gentle pace we reached the distinct alluvial fan of the V Couloir at 9:30AM.
First impressions? What a beauty. Steep and aesthetic, a few doglegs and chokes, an exposed upper bowl stacked on a healthy band of cliffs – I was jacked, and the snow looked damn good too. The obvious crux appeared white, but a slight glimmer hinted of water ice in disguise. From internet recon I knew a small band of rock or ice typically bars clean entry to the upper bowl, and as such we brought an uber-thin rack of two cams, two ice screws and a half dozen wires and pins, along with a light 50 meter half-rope. After 800 feet of straightforward booting through disappointingly variable conditions, the crux was a mere 10 foot step of rotten ice (WI2) which we surpassed easily sans rope, but would require a descending rappel for our comfort. While dark clouds swallowed the sky and Connor put the finishing touches on our bootpack, I searched the eastern wall for a fixed anchor to no avail – presumably buried in the five feet of recent snow – and installed a fixed high-snow anchor comprised of two nuts and a mossy knifeblade piton. I joined my partner on the stormy summit at 11:10AM.
The weather flip from bluebird skies to apocalyptic whiteout was both appreciated and detested. Combined with warm temps, the unfiltered sun was releasing substantial debris from the western wall above the couloir, and threatened to weaken wind slabs in the upper bowl. The apocalyptic snowy whiteout mitigated those problems but reduced visibility to a measly few body lengths – quite the tradeoff. The only way we managed a safe descent was by skiing within immediate view of our boot-pack. Fortunately, the first two dozen turns from the summit to the crux were magically light, secure and trancelike, some of this season’s best. 50 feet above the anchor the slope spills over in excess of 50 degrees, and with mega exposure was no place for misstep. Originally I figured I would down-climb the final bought to the anchor, but a supportive crust seduced me into a few more blood pumping jump turns, one of which point-released a bathroom sized windslab over the icefall with intimidating force – time to tread lightly. One more ninja turn and I was tethered to the anchor, waving Connor down for some pictures.
We rappelled the crux easily with our 50 meter line – I bet a 30 would have sufficed. Below and off rope, a 100 foot block of very steep skiing, likely 55-60+ degrees, led to a wider couloir of only slightly lesser angle. These were the hallmark turns of the day, quite precarious on an unforgiving bulletproof crust dusted with a mere inch of confectionary sugar, just enough to provide a nibble to my ski’s edge. Through the lower breadth of the V Couloir, where the slope relents to just shy of fifty degrees, we battled a manageable but nonetheless funkadelic breakable crust sandwiched by powder old and new. Some turns were phenomenal, though sadly they were the exception. Concerns about further wind slabs and the mass amounts of slough chasing my every turn prompted mindful skiing from wall to wall until we could finally “open it up” on the lower apron, which was swamped with a winter’s worth of compacted spindrift and skied like an April storm day at Mount Baker. By the V Gully moraines I could hardly see my skis, my sunglasses shrouded in a veil of rime ice. A howling wet wind pierced my layers in the cruelest way, and staring up at Connor’s last turns in the V Couloir, all I saw was a war zone. Fifty degree jump turns are a lot friendlier in sunny weather, and cliffs are a lot easier to navigate when you can see the tips of your skis
All in all, despite difficult weather and snow conditions, skiing the V Couloir was an engaging and excellent ski mountaineering adventure. I look forward to skiing this line again in stable powder conditions, where the lower couloir would be an absolute ripper of a descent. Many V Couloir parties continue on to ski one of the three Apocalypse Couloirs branching from the lower north shoulder of Prospectors Mountain, but late-April isn’t the time for low elevation couloir skiing. Instead, we enjoyed another 2,000 feet of rainy powdery corn-ish snow to Open Canyon, down the gentle diverse slopes of the V Gully, only dropping skis for the final 300 feet. The slog to our bikes was only slightly soul crushing, involving a lot of skating, side stepping, log hopping and creek jumping, among other shenanigans. The low forests south of Phelps Lake probably won’t last long into May, though I am hoping to get my girlfriend out for a corn ripper on the Banana Couloir before true summer sings. A half hour of muddy gravel biking saw us to the car around hour nine, with another excellent Teton ski descent in the bag. This winter has been fruitful, both in adventures and partners, and for that I am beyond grateful.
I hope you enjoyed this article. As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise. Need some new sticks capable of climbing and skiing anything your wild wicked mind can imagine? Head on over to icelanticskis.com and check out the Natural 101, my tried and true ski mountaineering katana.
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Mountains are dangerous. Skiing them is more dangerous. Can’t we just admire those beautiful peaks from the parking lot? With binoculars and a lime Lacroix? Hmm… Nevertheless, mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to the titled date. This article is written strictly for informational purposes only. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk!