Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ulrich's Couloir - Mt Stuart - Ski/Splitboard Descent

I had the great pleasure of making a recent splitboard descent of Ulrich's Couloir on the mighty Mt Stuart with my old Bellingham friends and long-time ski partners Ben Peterson and Tyree Johnson.

Ulrich's comes right of the summit and descends the south flank of Mt Stuart for 4400 ft. Photo: Jason Hummell
Go buy this photo (LINK) from Jason and put it in your living room to inspire yourself to go ski!

Ulrich's had become a mild obsession of mine over the past year. I first gave the line a go in February of 2013, in a high pressure spell with Ryan Murray. We got turned around just shy of the false summit, in a late afternoon warm-up, and subsequent barrage of ice fall. One month later I returned with Chris Petry, only to spend hours in poor vis near Longs Pass waiting for the weather to improve. Finally, on my third attempt (and Ty and Ben's first), we nailed it, in good, fresh-snow conditions.

Between ascents, descents, and variations, this was my 11th route on Stuart:

And even after all those ascents I still haven't climbed the Girth Pillar (or Razorback Ridge, or the NW Face, or the Ice Cliff Arete, or...)!

Over the years I've learned one rule for this mountain: Never, ever, underestimate Mt Stuart.

Raise your hand if you've ever had an unplanned bivouac on Mt Stuart. (LINK)

With that being said, this was the most casual ascent and descent I ever had on Stuie and I'm super psyched to have gotten 'er done in great spring conditions. As with most of my recent long missions, this adventure saw me quickly throwing my kit together after working a couple back to back 13-hour nursing shifts. Subsequently, after only 90 mins of exhausted sleep I was back in the world of the awake and motoring over Blewett Pass in Ty's Tacoma, stuffed to the gills with ski gear, male RN's (Murses), and snowmobiles.

A yin and yang of sno-machines.

We were able to drive the Teanaway River Road to just shy of the Bean Creek TH turnoff.  From there patchy snow for the first mile then mostly continuous snow led us 7 miles into the Esmeralda Basin TH. We brapped up the trail for just a bit before parking the sleds and donning our skis.

An inch of ultra-light fresh snow and howling winds above greeted us.

Anyone who has headed to this side of Stuart in the winter or spring knows how problematic the often heavily corniced Longs Pass can be. Luckily for us, I totally botched it (actually I crushed it) and we popped out on a much mellower, no name pass, west of Longs (Non-Longs Pass..).  We could now feel the full-force of the strong winds we had been hearing howling for the last hour.

From my two earlier forays to Ulrich's I knew how easy it was to waste time hemming and hawwing before dropping into Ingalls Creek, so we quickly transitioned and dropped. The high winds made us skeptical of conditions up high on Stuart, and windslab potential was our top concern. With fresh snow, and high winds, we knew the Cascadian Couloir, the most epic slog in the range, was our ascent route of choice.

Late April POW

To our delight, perfect, blower, blue-bird pow, led us into Ingalls. Best run of the day!

The stoke was high as we crossed the creek.

My alternate pass selection gave us two advantages over Longs. First, we were able to scope the slightly problematic exit from Ulrich's. Second, by the time our high traverse intersected the Cascadian, we were hundreds of valuable feet above the creek (where one would have crossed Ingalls having descended from Longs Pass).

Primo skinning conditions got us up high in the bottleneck of the Cascadian before endless bootpacking ensued. 2-8 inches of warming fresh snow led us up the now windless southern flanks of Mt Stuart. Apart from a few random pockets, the windslab potential appeared minimal as we slowly trudged our way up towards the false summit.

Tyree and myself pushing past the false summit

 Visibility slowly deteriorated as we began our ascent of the summit ridge.

Ty and Ben gettin' alpine.
Our first impressions of the line off the summit was that it was bony, steep, and looked a bit scoured. Luckily for us, the closer we got to the top, the more good to go the line became.

Gorillas in the Mist
A rime covered, socked-in, april summit of Mt Stuart is a special place to be, so we soaked it in, transitioned our gear over, and waited for the visibility to improve so we could drop.

After just a few minutes the clouds parted and Ben led the way.  We didn't take the time to snap the $ shot off the top, so here's an incredible shot of Kyle Miller getting the goods by the talented Jason Hummel.

Kyle Miller crushing pow

Ulrich's is a hard line to score in good conditions with a corn cycle ascent being the norm.  We had timed this one pretty dang good, and Ben's first turn yielded a huge face shot!

Ty slaying Ulrich's headwall
We didn't quite nail it as perfect as Kyle and Jason (LINK), but we nonetheless got it good with 2-7 inches of windbuffed pow and only the occasional patch of wind scour.

Myself off the top as Ty looks on


Visibility continued to improve below the headwall.

What Ulrich's lacks in sustained steepness it makes up for in EPIC scenery.

Myself in deep, loving every turn. 
I love seeing my kit in action. Psyched to pump out a gear-head blog about my favorite winter gear from Phantom Splitboard Bindings, Jones Snowboards, Dynafit, Cilogear Packs, Mountain Equipment, and Outdoor Research.


As the clouds parted on our descent the snow began to warm and became more reactive. We kept a close-eye on hang-fire on the sides, and ski-cut the occassional wind load to flush the couly.

Ben making his way towards the Amphitheater 

Third times a charm.

Chamonix? Nope. The Stuart Range. Ty getting his euro slash on.

Ty and Ben cruise past the amphitheater.

Myself near the final choke and traverse

Perhaps the most technical section of the line occured just before the dogleg exit of the main couloir as it choked down a bit in a few sections. This led to a traverse above the cliff band we had scoped from below. We all easily pushed through the choke and traverse, then wet slid our way down the last few hundred feet before collapsing in a pile of stoke, sweat, and relief near the valley bottom.  4400 ft of fun. We lounged in the sun and brewed up some coffee before starting up the final skin back to the top of Non-Longs Pass. 

Ty and I at Non-Longs Pass with the mighty Mount Stuart and Ulrich's Couloir in the background.
A super-fun soft descent led us back to the sleds and a round of well deserved cold beer. Ulrich's got got and the getting was good.

Thanks for the great day out Ty and Ben!