Couloir Season: Lessons and Legends

Spring is here, and the backcountry snowpack is finally allowing skiers to cautiously explore some of the chutes and lines they’ve been waiting all season for.

Last week Fresh talked to Colin Puskas about his season exploring the Purcell Mountains with Rob Heule. When we asked Rob for photos, he sent us videos and images from one line in particular that we think sums up the tandem’s season. They called it the Fish Taco Couloir. The duo covered so much country this winter that we have no idea where this line is (and they aren’t telling anyone!). Still, this new descent seems like a real victory in a winter of tricky and dangerous avalanche conditions.


colin puskas with rob heule
Colin Puskas in Fish Taco Couloir. Image by Rob Heule


Puskas and Heule have talked about the need to stay disciplined this winter and not get too bold. They spent a lot of time walking around in non-avalanche terrain, just looking at lines to ski in future seasons. But then they found this little gem with a relatively safe approach (unlike many couloirs, which have big, steep slopes below them), a lower slope angle and a couple of safe zones within it.

It’s not the biggest or baddest descent ever, but it was a perfect, smart little reward for a season spent keeping it safe and working hard to explore new zones. Plus, it looks like a ton of fun!

We skied K-Country with Rob last year and tried to learn as much as possible from him:


k-country rob heule
To prepare for your couloir adventures, here are a few tips we’ve gathered from different Friends of Fresh over the years.

Christina Lustenberger, badass ski mountaineer:

A few seasons ago, we got out with Christina to ski the Cobra Couloir on Mt Temple. Since then, she’s continued to put up bold first descents at a fantastic rate. In those pictures, you can see that she put her helmet on when we switched from skiing the trail to boot packing up the couloir. Many couloirs, especially in the Rocky Mountains, have a risk of rockfall that can be hard to avoid. That’s why most experienced skiers throw their bucket on as soon as they are in the chute - both for the up and the down.


Lusti in the Cobra Couloir

Kevin Hjertaas, M-T-N Guiding:
-Change over early-

You don’t always know exactly how the climb will go when you start a couloir. Sometimes you change over to skiing earlier than expected for a haste retreat, or your planned changeover location at the top isn’t as big or flat as expected. It’s almost always easier to strip your climbing skins and lock your bindings into ski mode at the base of the chute. Anything you can do to make your switch from climbing to skiing easier ahead of time will help.

Bonus: switching your boots to ski mode for steep boot packs can help you get more toe-purchase and relieve some of the strain on your calves.

Eric Hjorleifson, aka @Hojboss:
-The Shin Shoe-

Do you know the “shin shoe?” If you’re a Rockies skier, you should. If you’ve ever tried to climb up a couloir with a breakable crust, you know how exhausting and time-consuming it can be. The shin shoe is Eric’s nicer name for grovelling. Instead of kicking and thrashing your way through the crust, try to kneel on it with just your toes poking through. Your shin should rest on the crust. You can also lay your poles out to distribute your upper body weight. If you are gentle, this can be enough to prevent you from breaking through, and you’ll be able to crawl on your shin shoes as if they were snowshoes.

Martin Lefebvre, M-T-N Guiding:
-Extra Gloves-

If the chute is steep, you’ll want your mountaineering axe. If it’s not that steep, you can shorten your adjustable poles right down or choke up on them as you climb. Either way, your hands end up in the snow quite a bit on the climb. And with the effort you are putting out, they’ll get wet. Those hands are above your shoulders enough to likely get cold. If you are lucky, you’ll get to the top before you need to change them, but either way, you’ll probably want a spare pair at some point.

Chris Rubens, backcountry ski legend:
-Short Poles-

Shorter poles will help keep your upper body square to the fall line and your hands out in front of you. Longer poles can lead to swinging arms as you pole plant and then drop down the couloir leaving your hands (followed by your shoulders) way up there behind you. For this reason, Chris has always been a proponent of shorter poles in steep terrain. Watch his unflappable style in pillows, and you’ll see how it should work.

Cody Townsend, The Fifty Project:
-Short Radius-

If you’ve watched his MSP movie segments, you knew Cody could charge and that he was a strong, strong skier. But skiing steep lines with him, you see how he’s mastered the art of controlled short-radius turns. He snaps them around like the old racer he is and makes it look fun and exciting while always maintaining perfect control and keeping his speed down. If you want to ski gnarly descents, it’s worth practicing those turns at the ski hill first!

What skis work best for couloirs?

It seems to be a personal choice, and there are lots of good options.

Rob Heule uses the Line Pescado. Rob makes beautiful swooping surf-inspired turns whenever he can, and these swallowtails with lots of sidecut match his technique well.

Colin Puskas uses the Salomon QST 106. For Puskas’s exploring, the versatility of the QST is perfect. They are stable when he wants to go fast, and when he wants to crank small turns, he can whip them around.

Kevin Hjertaas likes the Fresh XX by Armada for couloirs. The Smear Tech tip never hooks up, giving you the confidence to charge in tight spots. Their shorter length lets you react quickly and squeeze in turns where more traditional skis can’t.

Cody Townsend uses the Salomon QST Echo 106 for its combination of lightweight and stability. If you watch his Fifty Project Youtube channel, you can see why he likes them so much.

If you are looking for a versatile, lightweight spring ski touring ski to help you get to (and get up) those chutes, check out the Armada Locator and K2 Dispatch. Both are stable with good edge hold for confidence in sketchy places.

-Read about skiing Aemmer couloir-

aemmer couloir

-More backcountry skiing tips-
hoji and a ski guide