Location: GTNP, Bivouac Peak, Moran Canyon, Jackson Lake
Tags: Backcountry Skiing, Ski Mountaineering
Elevation, Gain/Loss: 10,816’, 4,393’ gain/loss
Distance: 17 miles RT (from Colter Bay), 20 miles RT (from Signal)
Difficulty: 4 stars
Time: 10-12 hours
Snow Conditions: Powder (lots of it), some crust up high, low energy wind slabs up high, sun/wind crust down low.
The Southeast Couloir off Bivouac Peak is an aesthetically pleasing and challenging objective in northern GTNP. It requires a long skin across Jackson Lake from either Colter Bay (7 miles) or Signal Mountain Lodge (8.5 miles) to just get to Moran Canyon. Once at the canyon, the couloir starts about 800 vertical feet above the lake shore. We skied this as part of an overnight, but it could be done in a day with the right conditions and early start time.
Dane, Tristan and I had this couloir in mind for the first of two objectives of an overnight trip to Moran Bay. We started from camp at 11:45am after dropping some gear and made our way up to the base of the couloir. It was an easy skin up, only taking 45 minutes until we were at the start of the climb. I imagine even in the dark, or poor visibility this would not be difficult to route find as it is the first major couloir off the south side of Bivouac Peak. So, we dropped our skins at the entrance to the couloir and began what would be a slog to the top of Southeast Couloir. The initial part of the couloir is tight and gradually starts to get steeper as the walls close in.
The snow in this section was about 2 feet of powder with a breakable crust below. At times, the crust would support us, but often we would break through to a sugary, faceted layer a foot below. This made the climbing challenging and time consuming. After making it over the “bulge” at the end of the pinch, the couloir opened up into a large mellow middle section.
The snow in here proved to be more challenging than down low. It was very deep, in sections chest deep and not very supportive. We trudged up this middle section for what seemed like an eternity and actually took a break to refuel and get mentally prepared for what seemed would be an epic climb up.
Eventually we found that the right side of the couloir was a little easier to bootpack up, so we stayed right and worked our way up for a while. It still was not easy, with the snow being anywhere from boot to thigh deep, but it was supportive and we made decent time through the middle section and up to the upper steep portion of the couloir.
Once we got to the steep portion of the climb, the winds began to whip off the summit and the arctic air mass that was moving in began to take its toll on the group. Our movements became a labored as our extremities started to freeze. Despite this, we pushed on for the top of the couloir and the summit of Bivouac Peak.
Eventually we made our way to the top after a few steep tight spots near the summit. We did notice small wind slabs forming at a rollover near the summit, but felt we could mitigate these with a few ski cuts. We topped out around 5pm as the sun was setting in the West and the wind howling from the Northwest. We didn’t have much time to celebrate, as the windchill was probably around -20 and the sun was setting, but it was a special summit and we all felt good about the climb.
We quickly got ready to ski as the gusts continued to pound us, covering our gear with snow in a matter of seconds. We decided to enter the couloir from the right where we could get a good ski cut on the upper slope to test the stability. With nothing moving, we tentatively made turns down the steep couloir to the first of two tight pinches.
After the two constrictions, we only had one thing to do…..ski powder all the way down to the bottom of the run. We gladly accepted our duty and made some fantastic turns down to through the lower pinch and onto the apron!
After making it down to the bottom and out of the couloir safely, we gathered our skins and made our way back to camp. We felt pretty good, considering the long day we had endured. We quickly setup camp and made some delicious Mountain House meals before climbing into our cold sleeping bags for the evening. We had one more challenging objective for the trip and needed all the rest we could get. The next day we were going to make a bid for the Sickle Couloir off Mount Moran. We went to bed tired, but excited about the great run down the Southeast Couloir and what the next day had in store.