Horseshoe Couloir

Horseshoe Couloir

tl;dr video at bottom

Horseshoe Couloir is the beautiful hidden twin of Corbet's Couloir at Jackson Hole. It slices through the prominent cliffy Northwest aspect of Rendezvous Mountain and is visible to the careful tram rider to the North as the tram docks at the summit. Its a two minute ski from the top of the tram and ten minute skin back to the resort boundary, which makes it a terrifyingly accessible line. That said, its skied much less than all of the slopes South of the boundary, or even than the rest of the lines in Granite Canyon. What likely deters most is the transiently mandatory rappel/air and the fact that you, unless you're willing to slide all the way out Granite Canyon, need skins to get back to civilization. Its beautiful.

Liza and I talked the night before and wanted to do something that required minimal time and effort, a recipe for complacency. Horseshoe seemed to fit. My friend Chris and I had been planning on skiing it together for quite a while, but with my erratic lifestyle, his nine-to-five schedule, and the wild weather this year, the stars just never aligned. He attempted to ski it with someone else earlier this season, so I felt much less guilty about pulling the trigger with another partner.

I'd been up in Grand Teton National Park the day prior and the snow on similar aspects and elevation to Horseshoe had been notably stable and unaffected by the insane warm temperatures and rain events of the week prior. At the summit of Rendezvous the weather station had read below-freezing temperatures from the 24 hours prior, which made me feel even better about the snow and how loose the definite wind slab interfaces were sitting. All things considered, it seemed like a good day for it.

We parked in 1 Hour Parking because, fuck it, and got on the tram. I brought a 50m 8mm rope in case the cliff wasn't filled in. Sometimes the cliff is 5ft, other times its 30ft. Best bring the tools for the first time each season. At the top of the tram we slid over to the first gate, took our skis off, and hiked over the windswept ridge of Rendezvous Mountain. Once on the snow on the Northwest flank we did a beacon check, made sure our boots were in ski mode, and checked in briefly about our mindset. Liza was a bit worried about the terrain, notably the cliff and accompanying rappel. We talked about exactly what would happen if one were to take a fall high in the couloir. 

Was it a "no-fall zone" i.e. does a fall equal death? The answer was likely no. A fall in Horseshoe would probably be self-arrestable unless 1) the skier is hauling ass or 2) the snow was extremely slick. We'd ski the line cautiously and the snow was, in all likelihood, going to be Wintery. We both agreed, as parties always should, that if things weren't looking good or if bad emotions are creeping in we'd just skin back to the top of the resort and ski Rendezvous Bowl.

After talking through our expectations of the experience we slid down to the mouth of the couloir. Here we looked at and talked about the snow. I dug a little hand shear and found a subtle little wind slab about three inches deep that popped easily. We talked about how we were in the most wind loaded spot in the couloir, which meant that the little slab was probably not present deeper in the line, and also about the consequence of the little slab going. In the worst case scenario one of us may lose our balance and be pulled off what we were assuming was a small cliff in the middle of the couloir. After deliberation we thought that the little slab was likely only up high where we were and that it probably wasn't big enough to really affect us any more than a little sluffing that we could manage easily.

Something else of note was that Horseshoe had already been skied, it looked like the day prior. The little wind slab had been knocked down by the previous skiers and that made us even more okay with our decision. Other tracks shouldn't often affect decision-making, but in this case, when our concern was only the little wind slab knocking us off balance, it actually seemed to make sense to take note of the other tracks and consider what that meant.

Ultimately this: The likelihood of the little slab going was low because it was pretty settled and others had already banged it out and the consequence was relatively low if the lil' thing did appear and slide. Go time.

Liza entering Horseshoe.

Liza entering Horseshoe.

We put on our harnesses, talked about our communication plan, and I dropped in first and skied to where the rappel station was on the second rock skiers right in the couloir. We'd agreed that I'd yell up the height of the cliff when I got there.
"There is no cliff!"
Liza laughed.
"I see the rap station, but I don't think we'll need it."
"Like, no cliff at all?"
"Nope."

Liza standing in place of the "cliff".

Liza standing in place of the "cliff".

No rappel necessary. Horseshoe was totally filled in. I waited in the safe zone where the rappel anchors are as Liza slipped down to me, and then past me over the "cliff" before skiing out the rest of the line and cutting right to a safe zone. Once she was out of sight I hooted and charged and found Liza before sliding all the way out to the Ten Sleep skin track. It was phenomenal, all of it. Horseshoe is a gem.

Me exiting.

Me exiting.

So, did we do well or did we get lucky?

  • Weather
    At the Summit we had 24 Hour [min=25, max=31], zero new precipitation, [avg=19mph, gust=37] with almost no snow available for transport. Being North facing there'd been no sun affect. The weather a few days prior'd been a bit fussy with highs around 40 at the Summit, but it'd been below freezing for at least 24 hours before we dropped in and Horseshoe is completely shaded 24/7. The rain hadn't made it to this elevation a few days before either. I think we did well here.
  • Snowpack
    We'd been crushed by snow and wind that came in warm the week prior. Horseshoe had definitely been hammered with falling and transported snow, but with temperatures in the high 20s for a few days with little wind until the last 24 hours it seemed like it'd had time to settle. Wind instabilities heal quickly, especially in calm warm conditions.
  • Terrain
    Horseshoe was certainly high yellow light terrain or Liza and what I should really consider yellow light terrain for me too. Thus, I think given the weather and snowpack situation it was well within my skill set and an excellent challenge for Liza. A fall may have resulted in injury, but not death. It seemed reasonable.
  • Human Factor
    Communication We were fairly intentional here. We had a clear bail strategy and outlined concretely how we'd exchange information during the ski itself.
    Gear Without knowing how big the cliff was, I think we brought an (maybe) adequate amount of gear. Harnesses, I brought old hexes and cord to build an anchor with if necessary. The only fuck up I think was me bringing my short rope (45m). I don't think it would have reached if the cliff was 20 or 30ft. It seems like you'd want at least a 60m if the cliff were that big, otherwise you'd be leaving some rope. I would have also brought a personal anchor system.

    I think we did well today. The two notable things were probably Liza having to sideslip the first 200ft of skiing - which is, like, a fine thing to do when ski mountaineering...or really ever in yellow or red light terrain - and me bringing what was likely too short of a rope for a large rappel. Otherwise, I think it was an expertly executed experience.

    When all was said and done we were car-to-car in under two hours...
Shady Lady Couloir

Shady Lady Couloir

In-Bounds Mayhem

In-Bounds Mayhem