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Redemption in the Grand Couloir

When I arrived in Queesntown, one of the first things I did was purchase the local climbing guide. On that very first reading, I was immediately drawn to a number of 300m traditional rock routes on Double Cone (the tallest mountain in the Remarkables Range). Another item I noted was that the descent gully for these routes, known as the Grand Couloir, is sometimes skied in the winter. Instantly I hatched a plan; to one day trad climb to the summit, with skis on my back, and then ski down the couloir, a true ski mountaineering adventure. It is an ambitious plan, with a few problems. To get the conditions right, where there was no snow on the climb but enough to still ski down, is probably impossible. So either, one would have to climb at times over snow ledges which would require crampons and axes, or ski down on minimal snow cover. Firstly, I have little experience in this sort of mixed climbing. Two; while the climbing grades are moderate, I’m unsure how difficult it would be to climb with skis on my back. Three; the couloir is steep, max slope angle of 45 degrees at its narrowest point, I don’t even know if I’m a good enough skier to get down. I figured that the best approach would be to break my plan into sections. Firstly ski the couloir during winter, with good snow cover, to see whether it is within my abilities, and then, climb the rock in optimal conditions in summer to suss it out. Then I could reasonably decide whether they can be put together.

I had intended to ski the Couloir a few times over the season, but I had been waiting to go with someone a bit more experienced. Unfortunately I could never quite tee that up. So when I had a number of other plans fall apart, (see previous post) I finally committed to doing it un-scouted and solo, for lack of a better way to spend my day.

Skinning accross the banks of Lake Alta looking towards double cone and single cone.
A bit of pent up frustration helped push me on despite the gloomy conditions.

Within twenty five minutes of arriving at the Remarkables ski area I had skinned up to Lake Alta and was traversing around its flanks. The snow was firm with a thick layer of hoarfrost on top. Looking up at the Grand Couloir, it appeared that I might get stopped, about three quarters of the way up, due to lack of snow but I didn’t mind, I was determined to test myself against it, and see where I was at. It is now late in the season. On the southern banks of Lake Alta the snow has already started to run out. I took my skis off and traversed a few scree slopes, which is awkward in ski boots, before I reached the base of the couloir. A quick drink and with the skis packed away, it was time to get out the axe and crampons. Maybe, in fresh snow, you could possibly just boot pack up most of the couloir. But with the snow this firm, I was glad I’d brought my climbing gear. Especially if I wanted to make it to the top and potentially solo Double Cone as well.

Starting up the grand couloir with ice axe and crampons.
It starts off mellow but quickly ramps up over 30 degrees with a maximum slope angle of 45 degrees at the narrowest point, and it was firm, the sun had yet to come out so it was still very icy.

I’m not sure how long I climbed up. I sunk into a steady rhythm; axe, right foot, ski pole, left foot, axe… and eventually I reached the bottom of the choke. There isn’t as much of a rock step as it looks from the resort. However, it is narrower than a ski length, which means I wouldn’t be able to rail slide through. Added to that, the gradient also gets a lot steeper here (45 degrees). I went from using the shaft of my axe like a walking stick to front pointing up sheet ice. It was probably about as much as I could manage, without a second axe. I very was glad that I had a little bit of ice climbing experience earlier in the season, to help me trust my placements.

The Grand Couloir gets steep here, Ski mountaineering terrain.
My self portrait skills need some improvement. Here I am starting up through the narrowest and steepest part.

Just as I started up the steeper pitch, the sun suddenly burst out from nowhere. It wasn’t just the warmth on my back, or the sudden glare on the snow, that gave it away. All off a sudden shards or ice began to melt free off the surrounding rock and rattle down the couloir towards me. I was being rained down on by tiny missiles of frozen water, whacking against my helmet and arms. I stopped to assess the situation. I could deal with the little bits of ice and It didn’t look like anything big enough to hurt me would release. But I was certainly concerned about what the sun would do to the snow. It would improve the skiing, by softening up the hoar frost into creamy corn snow. But I doubted I was a good enough skier to ski through the choke. I’d probably have to down climb this section. That was fine now, while it was basically sheet ice and I had solid purchase with my ice tools, but as soon as it softened I was scared I might be trapped up there, unable to ski or down climb it. I decided to descend, and already in those few minutes, I could tell that the ice had softened dramatically. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the sun was gone. Very quickly the snow began to crust up again. Looking at the sky all I could see was a solid blanket of cloud, and it didn’t seem like the sun would come out again anytime soon. Frustrations aside, I wanted to keep going. I still felt reasonably comfortable and I desperately wanted to succeed. On the other hand I was fully aware that I could let my desire to reach the top cloud my judgment. This is sometimes called ‘summit fever’. Ultimately It didn’t seem like the sun was was going to make a reappearance, and If I really had to I’m sure I could have picked my way down somehow, so I kept going. The pace was even slower as I had to be doubly sure of my placements now that it was steeper and icier.

Eventually I made it to the top. I was rewarded with some awesome views over Wye Creek and Lake Wakatipu and the knife edge ridge of Single Cone and Double Cone.

View from the col looking out over wye creek and lake Wakatipu
The col is well over 2200m and one of the higher points in the Remarkables range.
A self portrait of me at the top of the couloir showing the summit ridge to double cone.
The ridge leading to double cone is intimidating with almost shear drops on each side.

My camera then promptly ran out of batteries (rookie move) so unfortunately I was unable to get any photos of the ski down. To have made it up to the couloir was something I’d wanted to do for a while, and the heavy exercise had helped me sweat out some of my frustrations. I didn’t summit Double Cone as the ridge didn’t look like something I should attempt without a rope and a partner. Also, I didn’t ski the top quarter of the couloir until after the choke point. I not sure I am a good enough skier to ski it in these conditions, and didn’t want to have to perform a self arrest if I was right.

Looking doen over the remarkabes ski resort, lake Alta and Lake Hayes, crown range in the background.
Looking down on Lake Alta, the ski area and Lake Hayes from the top of the Couloir.

The down climb was slow but it was more good practice. After all, when mountaineering, getting up is only half the journey. The ski down under the choke point was easy, well within my abilities, although it was just a bit chattery on the crusty sun cupped slopes. Ultimately I felt that this expedition had been a good day out. I felt pretty comfortable most of the time and well within my capabilities. That said, I wouldn’t have wanted to do too much more without a partner. Mostly, It was just great to get out, and use all the gear I had invested in, rather than looking at it, sitting in my room. I loved just being out in the mountains, and despite recent disappointments, I’m glad I got to tick this adventure off.

If you enjoyed this post or you are keen to meet up and adventure together get in contact with me or leave a comment below. Also be sure to subscribe via email to never miss out on my latest posts.

Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

One thought on “Redemption in the Grand Couloir”

  1. Thanks, Sam, again. I always love to read of your time /adventure/challenge/experience in the mountains. What a truly magnificent world we have. I am so glad that you are able to experience it in the way you do.

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