Words By Nicole Jorgenson
Photos by Nicole Jorgenson and Adam Wirth
Couloir is a French term used to describe a narrow gully on a mountainside, often steep in nature. Couloirs are commonly viewed by mountaineers as skiing objectives; their steep rocky walls, beautiful esthetics and fun, thrilling ski descents create a natural draw to those travelling with skis in the mountains. Before having skied my first couloir, I didn’t quite understand their seemingly manufactured magnificence.
One day, a group of four of us were skiing on Copper Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains – my three ski partners were experienced backcountry travelers and mountaineers and important mentors to me. The day began early with below zero temps, which for me mandates a necessity to not stop moving. Snacks had to be on the move. Eventually the weather did become a bit more bearable and we reached the top of Copper peak, the spot from which we spotted an attractive looking couloir just on the other side of the drainage. None of us had heard of it, likely one of the many un-skied couloirs in Idaho’s alpine, and we concurred to make our way over to it to, quite possibly, be the first group to ski it.
Slowly, one foot after the other, occasionally glancing up to see the miniscule amount of progress I’d made up the rocky tunnel: that is often how you ascend a couloir, for they can become too steep and narrow to continue switch backing with skis underfoot. I vividly remember each heavy step up the boot pack of my first couloir, skis strapped to my pack, because it felt as if I was climbing straight up the side of the mountain. And I’d have to brace myself so as not to get vertigo and fall over with each peek at the view below. I remember thinking “this is steeper than it appeared from the bottom. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to ski this.” But when we finally finished climbing what felt like 100 flights of stairs, put our skis on and prepared to ski down, I finally began to understand the magic draw of these so-called couloirs.
At the top, I braced myself on a small perch I had kicked into the snow, slightly terrified, peering down the narrow, snowy chute below me. I remembered how steep it seemed as we climbed up. But as I took a deep breath, took my first jump turn into the soft snow, I began to relax and enjoy picking my way down. I felt small and insignificant hopping my way between those rock walls, a tail of light snow following each of my turns. And as I neared the bottom I came to the realization that I felt as if I was having my own little party in the mountains, in some unknown gully on a mountainside. All the emotions from the process of getting up and down that couloir – fear, exhaustion, awe, fun, thrill, contentment – combined to create a feeling of pure bliss, a party, one might call it, in the mountains.