Skiing The North Couloir on McGown Peak In Idaho’s Sawtooth Range
Location: North Couloir, McGown Peak, Sawtooth Range, Idaho
Starting Point: Stanley Lake Trailhead (6500′)
Distance: 9.5 miles
Time: 6.5 hours
Top Elevation: 9,790′
USGS Maps: Stanley Lake
After a killer week in the PNW, it was unfortunately time to head home. We had ticked off The Fuhrer Finger, the Leuthold Couloir, the Newton Clark Headwall, and Worm Flows. To avoid one super long drive, we decided to stop by one last impressive mountain range between the PNW and SW Montana – the Sawtooths.
One line that’s been calling my name for years is the North Couloir on McGown Peak – so Jeremy Wood and I packed up the truck and hit the road for Stanley Lake, Idaho. We made good time across eastern Washington into Idaho. Just as the sun began to set, we caught our first glimpse of the Sawtooth Range.
We turned left on the recently opened FS Road #455 – only 3.5 miles to Stanley Lake. We bumbled along the dirt road staring up at McGown Peak and tomorrow’s ski descent. In early May, there is no one at the campground and we had the place to ourselves. Don’t expect to get this lucky though. The Stanley Lake Inlet Campground is usually one of the busiest campgrounds around, so book in advance.
Crashing in the back of the Tacoma, we were excited to wake up and see the alpenglow hitting the summit of McGown Peak and highlighting our line. We moved the car just up the road to the Stanley Lake Trailhead and put on our dirt walking boots. The parking lot is about 100 meters from the start of the trail off of FS 649.
Trail #640 is well maintained, although there were some downed trees. Stay on 640 for about a mile and take a left turn on to Alpine Way Trail #528. This trail takes you into the Sawtooth Wilderness. This terrain is quite marshy and we had to log hop across several wet zones – luckily we carried extra socks.
The trail eventually crosses a larger stream after 1.5 miles. A downed tree just upstream makes the crossing easy. Ideally, you should stay on Trail 528 until about 7100′. Then go cross country and bushwhack up into the McGown Cirque (8300′). We lost the trail quickly due to the solid May snow cover and ended up skinning up terrain that was quite steep. We still made it though.
Once in the basin, you’ll note three obvious ski lines. The North Couloir is the big guy in the middle that goes almost to the summit of McGown Peak. It’s a classic ski descent that made the list of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America.
We threw on ski crampons and skinned up the apron to the entrance of the couloir. There we transitioned to boot crampons and set a booter to the top of the North Couloir on McGown Peak. The angle of the couloir was consistent steep. I measured 43 degrees in the upper section. Then in the last 50 vertical feet the slope angle really ramps up. It’s steep. really steep. Glad I had my ax.
At the top of the couloir (9790′) there is a large platform to drink water, eat snacks, and transition. Due to the warm, sunny weather we decided to ski right away instead of making a 4th class snow climb/scramble to the summit of McGown Peak (9860′ | 3005 m).
The top section was firm and required axes and steady footwork to regain the skiable portion of the couloir. It was apparent that many people belay this section due to the numerous webbing anchors left at the top. We didn’t, but it certainly would have added a nice degree of security in a 50 degree plus, firm section of a remote couloir.
Once in the main couloir, the terrain was consistently steep, but straightforward. Definitely a no fall zone. The North Couloir on McGown Peak runs about 800′ in the walled couloir and the apron continues for another 500′ for a total of 1300′ of fall line skiing. We broke the couloir up into several pitches and made the most of it. The corn skiing on the apron was perfect.
Back in the cirque, we set off a couple of wet loose slides. So we decided to ski out on the mellower terrain back toward the trail. GAIA GPS on my iPhone was helpful to navigate through the thick trees. We made it back across the stream via main log and put our dirt walking shoes for the quick walk back to the Stanley Lake Trailhead.
My Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch says we covered 9.5 miles and 3260′ in 6.5 hours. Skiing the North Couloir on McGown Peak is an easy access, big mountain couloir that’s definitely a classic. Ski it if you can.
We hopped back in the truck and hit the road for SW MT. Another successful late season road trip in the bag. Now it’s time to go home and explore the home ranges.
See our route for skiing the North Couloir on McGown Peak in the Sawtooths of Idaho:
Here are additional photos from skiing the North Couloir on McGown Peak in the Sawtooths of Idaho:
This trip report from skiing the North Couloir on McGown Peak in the Sawtooths of Idaho is from May 3, 2016.