“Hey Heather. You wanna try skiing an ice climb??”
I first learned of the North Couloir Ice Climb on Bell Mountain’s north face sometime around 1990. As a budding climber and aspiring Alpinist working at Solitude Sports in Idaho Falls, i was poised to hear all of the “local” climbers talk about grand adventures. In particular the Idaho Alpine Club made an annual trip to the north side of Bell Mountain where club members would swing and kick their way up the north couloir. To a fifteen year old boy, this club outing might as well been to the summit of Mt Everest!
(left) Heather traversing below the 1,000′ North Ridge of Bell Mountain June 18th, 2011
I never did make it on any of the club trips to climb ice on Bell Mountain. As a matter of fact, my very first time climbing Bell was via a long and beautiful 5.5 techical rock route up the North Ridge with Jessica Shaw in 99′ or 00′. I looked into the North Couloir and recalled vivid memories of conversations a decade earlier. It wasn’t until the spring of 03′ that i finally climbed ice on Bell Mountain, although it wasn’t the North Couloir but rather a personal eye-opening mixed rock and ice adventure on the Northwest Face with Brian Wood that we called Hells Bells. Subsequent trips with good friends followed in the years since.
My drive to explore the alpine has been rekindled with the ski mountaineering concept and adventurous ideas seem to flow easily from my brain. Perhaps all of those years wandering around the Lemhis and Lost River Range in search of ephemeral mixed climbs i somehow back logged ideas of skiing certain things. I guess now is as good of a time as any to live in the moment for what i am motivated for; especially this year with its record breaking snow accumulations.
Chad Alldredge, Heather and I attempted to ski that long-lost Bell Mountain North Couloir ice climb today. Cold over night temps and a forecast of morning sun followed by clouds and snow by late morning made for some of the best spring skiing conditions we’ve experienced so far in the Lemhis.
We approached via the standard Southwest Ridge. After a long uphill battle to the summit dome, we then traversed along a bench underneath the Northwest Face as I’ve done in years past to reach the base of the North Ridge. Once around the base of the North Ridge we started up the North Couloir.
Recent small sluffs had left the majority of the couloir with a bumpy and dangerous surface. Small sections of good snow could be skied alongside the chunky areas so we continued upward.
Soft snow gave way to hard snow followed by ice-covered snow as we entered the choke near the top of the couloir. The angle was steep and the skiers right wall near bled into the fall line. One of the biggest laws i live by in the mountains is to be honest about my ability… and the last bit of couloir with the hard icy snow was not part of my skill set today. Heather and Chad agreed that we should move across the couloir and down slightly to get back onto manageable snow.
No problem! We came to ski, not get in over our heads. Another day with different conditions and we’d have a winner.
After stomping out a platform underneath an overhang along the couloir wall, we switched over to ski mode just in time for snow to fall out of the sky and the winds pick up. Snow showers had been flirting with us for about an hour, but the wind intensified our position.
Chad jumped in first and skied the sweet spots in between the chunky piles down to the end of the couloir to wait for me and Heather.
Once we dropped below the confines of the couloir, the snow became as sweet as corn can be! We continued down into the canyon below; skiing wide open bowls and gullies down to the treeline. Once in the trees, we skied… and skied… and skied down canyon until we finally reached the end of the snow at 8,400′. I figured we skied about 3,000 vertical feet of continuous snow, only encountering two small short-lived areas of isothermal mush and followed massive bear tracks down for nearly a mile. Funny, but the bear knew were to go to avoid the mashed potatoes!
After switching back to hiking shoes, Chad, Heather and I walked through pleasant Aspen groves for about 30 minutes before reaching the truck.
As we bounced down the 4×4 canyon road i smiled as my mind drifted back to 1990 and that fifteen year old boy working at Solitude Sports.