It’s late May and the snow is becoming scarce. Warm weather over the past week has rapidly melted snow across SW Montana, but if you know where to look the skiing is still excellent. That’s why George Downing and I headed toward the Beartooths with a mission to ski the elusive Chamonix Couloir.
To access the area, you drive to Roscoe, Montana and follow the East Rosebud road through town and toward the Beartooths. The road changes from pavement to dirt multiple times. Green grass, nice homes, meandering rivers, and massive mountains line the drive. The only “white” around is on the distant snow capped peaks.
After a lovely drive, which is about 42 miles south of Columbus (the I-90 turnoff), you reach the East Rosebud Lake Association. This little hamlet of homes is from 1894 is in quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve seen in a while – a crystal clear lake, giant granite massifs in all directions, few people, and endless ski potential. A USFS camp site and trailhead are located on the east side.
At the trailhead, the map shows how big the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness really is. With a few hours of daylight left to spare, we organized gear and went for a short hike up the trail. At 6pm it was about 60, sunny, and no snow at all on the trail. We weren’t sure where we were going to ski.
George and I went on a brief scouting mission – about 20 minutes up the trail. Where we encountered this family of moose. We stopped there and scouted out our options. We wanted to ski the Chamonix Couloir, but the only line with snow in it was the prominent line in the below photo. We had no idea what it was called. We later chatted with 3 different sets of locals. No one has a name for this couloir. That’s why we named it the East Rosebud Couloir or the ER couloir for short. As you can clearly see this line from the East Rosebud lake, the name seemed to make sense. If someone has a name for this line that is commonly known, please let me know.
There is no forest service gate on the road to East Rosebud. This means this entire zone is easily accessible mid-winter. We planned out alpine start for the ER couloir. We did a quick Jet Boil Mountain House meal at the truck, packed our bags, and tried to get some shut eye around 8pm. It was still light. At 4:15 we hit the trail. It’s intimidating heading into the middle of the wilderness in the heart of Grizzly country in the pitch black. Our best bear scare tactics were a must. Bear spray was easy access, pointless conversation was continuous, ski pole smacking was constant, and there were plenty of “Heeeeyyy Beeaaar!”
Around 5am, the pre-dawn light came back. It didn’t stop us from making plenty of noise, but at least we could see a bit. The trail was smooth cruising as there was no snow. It is a well maintained summer trail that sees plenty of traffic. We wore our approach shoes so that we could travel faster. We still managed to watch the sun rise too. Spectacular.
After about 3 miles, we arrived at the base of the ER couloir. This NW facing line is located about 10 minute hike before Elk Lake. We transitioned to ski boots and crampons, cached our boots and bear spray (maybe not the best idea), and looked up. The avalanche path was full of debris and rocks, but at least the snow was supportable. We had about 3600 vertical feet to the plateau. Off we went.
The route goes about 1500 feet before it opens up in various options (as seen below). There are numerous different shots coming down into the lower couloir. Ultimately we skied the main line in the first photo below. The panoramic shows all of the options. We ascended on the ridge on the right side of the shot and skied the main line on the looker’s left side of the photo. There were other ski tracks up this way.
George set a killer bootpack, while my extra 20 pounds wallowed a bit. Slowly we made it up the line. Between wallowing through snow in a granite garden and kicking steppings, we eventually transitioned out of crampons for a rock scramble over loose granite. After a few hundred feet of hop scotch we opted to find another boot pack, where it was more exposed but much more supportable.
At around 940am we summited. On the Alpine USGS Map, we made it a bit past 10422′. This is where the plateaus of the Beartooths begin. The Beartooths are astonishingly cool. There are glacial carved valleys, with walls that go straight up. Then at the top there are long mellow plateaus. It’s unique to say the least. At the top, we encountered some waist deep snow (see photo) and some breathtaking views. The ski lines are exciting and endless. There’s enough out there to keep anyone entertained for a lifetime.
One line that looks filled in is the South Facing Excalibur Couloir. It’s the main line near the center of the below photo. It is fully skiable and ends at Rainbow Lake, which is on the main trail heading up the East Rosebud drainage.
After wandering around the top, drinking copious amounts of water, and eating a Pro Bar it was time for a 3600 foot couloir ski. We were not expecting good conditions at all. Variable, unsupportable, isothermic snow mixed with debris chunder was what we thought we’d see. In reality, the skiing turned out to be pretty darn good for late May. At the top it t was firm, supportable, begin to corn.
The main couloir was consistently shaded, but it was sheltering some debris. As long as we skied slowly and carefully, with some calculated side slipping, the ski wasn’t too gnarly. It was easy to piece together 10 to 15 turns before traversing to the other side of the debris and finding more turns. Of course, not every turn was incredible, but most were enjoyable.
Above is a good shot of the line. We came in from the right line. Below is a shot of George making May turns with a nice Beartooth backdrop.
After a grueling bootpack and a sporty ski, we made it to the bottom – back to the safety of bear spray and the comfort of approach shoes. We transitioned and put skis and boots on our packs. Then we began the 3.2 mile hike back to the Trailhead.
It’s fun skiing in May – especially on Memorial Day weekend. We passed dozens of hikers and families out for a stroll. Most people were shocked that we had skis on our backs. Others were stoked. A few rattled off ski lines in the area, but no one knew the name of the line we had skied. So we named it. The ER Couloir.
You will need Google Earth To View This Map.
Destination: ER Couloir aka East Rosebud Couloir
Elevation Gain/Loss: +/- 4300 ft.
Distance: 9.1 miles
USGS Quads: Alpine, Sylvan Peak
3.2 miles from Trailhead to base of couloir
Visible from bridge going into East Rosebud Lake Association
Next time we’ll ski the Chamonix Couloir…