Skiing The Y Couloir on Black Mountain in the Absaroka Range
Location: Y Couloir, Black Mountain, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana
Trailhead: Pine Creek Trailhead – 5640 feet
Distance: +/- 14 miles round trip
Time: 6-10 hours
Top Elevation: 10981ft
Vertical: 5300 ft
USGS Maps: Dexter Point, Mount Cowen
With nice weather in the forecast, Jeremy Wood and I headed to the Paradise Valley to ski the Y Couloir on Black Mountain in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. I first heard of this line in Turiano’s book, Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone – a must have for anyone heading to this zone.
Black Mountain is located just a few miles south of Livingston. Our starting point was the Pine Creek trailhead and we were brimming with excitement as we paralleled the Yellowstone River. Towering peaks rose thousands of feet over the valley to our east. Montana is awesome.
Our plan was to sleep in the back of the Tacoma at 5640 feet and hit the trail at first light. There wasn’t a flake of snow anywhere to be seen, but we were convinced we’d find the goods up high. It was going to be a big day, so we fueled up with the deliciousness of Mountain House and an occasional mouthful of mosquito. We hit the Therm-A-Rests shortly after sunset.
Sunrise was around 6:25 and we were taking the heel-toe express down the Pine Creek trail by 6:15. With skis strapped to our backs and regularly making bear calls, we trudged up the trail in the mind-numbing morning light barely even registering the 200-foot Pine Creek waterfall a few miles down the trail.
Weaving through old burn zones under massive avalanche terrain, the Pine Creek drainage makes you feel small. After a few hours, we finally hit snow. Finally it was time to transition from my La Sportiva Boulder X approach shoes to my ski kit. With skis on my feet, I felt at home. After 3.5 hours, 5 miles, and 3400 vertical we arrived at Pine Creek Lake, where we got to lay eyes on the Y Couloir on Black Mountain.
Sitting in a glacial cirque the picturesque, Pine Creek Lake was still frozen solid. We crossed the frozen lake at 9032 feet and we’re impressed by how many ski tracks there were in the couloir. Black Mountain is certainly a popular ski destination – and for good reason. This high alpine area is filled with cirques, chutes, couloirs, and coolness. It would be a great place to camp for a few days – at least we were there for today.
In the rocks, we ditched our approach shoes, bear spray (things would have to go horribly wrong to run into a grizzly in the middle of an alpine couloir), and a few other odds and ends to shave a bit of weight for the final 1900 vertical. It was impressively warm as we set our skin track toward the couloir. We made it about 1/3 of the way up the couloir before we transitioned to crampons for the boot pack.
When we hit the shade, we were forced to make a decision. Should we ski the East branch or the West branch? Due to the warm weather and solar heating, we opted for the west branch as it seemed a bit quicker.
It had taken us about 6 hours and 5300 vertical to reach the top of the couloir – a bit longer than planned. But the views were totally worth it. The Absaroka Range doesn’t appear like much when you’re fishing on the Yellowstone, but you get up high, and you’ll realize they are an endless playground for mountain enthusiasts – especially Mount Cowen. Whoa!
Jeremy and I skied the west branch of the Y Couloir. As I clicked into my Liberty Variant 97 skis, I noticed how steep this couloir was and it had seen quite a few tracks. Those tracks left the snow a bit haggard – especially up high, which kept us on point.
Skiing one at a time, we regrouped only once in the 1900 foot descent. On the apron the snow soften and the ghost tracks were hard to notice.
We played hide and go seek with out shoes and bear spray, but finally found them – right where we had left them. We repacked and admired our tracks in the Y Couloir of Black Mountain. It was time to head back to the trailhead.
Scooting across the frozen Pine Creek lake, we we’re keen to ski as far as possible. As we entered the steep canyon that is home to the summer trail, we noted some grizzly tracks in the burn areas. We worked left under the steep north facing terrain. This allowed us to ski decent snow down to approximately 6900 feet – not a bad descent in a low-tide ski year. It’s very rare that you can ski this route the full distance back to car, but it’s not unheard of.
It was nice to get out of ski boots and back into shoes, but when we hefted our ski and boot laden packs, we were a bit bummed that we still had to hike a few hours back to the car with extra heavy packs. Life is easier when you’re on skis. At least we had gravity on our side.
The day was a complete success. We covered 5400 vertical feet in 14 miles in right at 8 hours. We got to ski a beautiful couloir in a wild mountain range. I’m already looking forward to heading back to Black Mountain to ski the east branch of the Y Couloir in the future. This is definitely a line to add to your hit list.
Here’s a bit of GoPro footage from skiing the Y Couloir.
(It was first day with the GoPro and the first edit. GoPro filming and editing skills hopefully will improve.)
View our route on HillMap
Here are a few additional shots from skiing the Y Couloir on Black Mountain:
We skied the Y Couloir on Black Mountain on April 21, 2015.