Free Drop Off to the Bow Valley and Calgary
Commonwealth Peak, North Face Couloir
By Kieran Crimeen
A couple of weeks back Joel got a heads up from one Andrew Wexler aka The Best Skier On The Mountain that he should check out Commonwealth Couloir. This was a line I’d put on my ‘never even consider’ list so I was apprehensive to say the least. Still, Joel has a winning smile and it’s hard to say no to the guy so we went up for a look.
We were stymied at the first cliff band by snow, rock, spindrift and a general lack of ability. Retreat was the only option but the fires in the Temple of Stoke had been, well, stoked.
On Sunday we picked up Antoine and merrily drove off to Burstall pass to try and see what could be done by dropping in from the top. This eliminated the need to climb the cliffs and reduced overhead hazard, however we’d have no idea if it would be possible to find anchors to rap the cliffs or if the snow was any good. Still, the two blog posts we could dredge up said there were fixed anchors so in Wexler We Trust.
Early starts are pretty. I could appreciate them more if I wasn’t so grumpy in the morning.
Travel was fast to the west col of Commonwealth Peak. It was so fast I tried to slow it down by going the wrong way a couple of times. Anything for a breather, Joel and Antoine really hit the gas and flew to the start of the summer scramble.
Skis on the back we boot packed up, then down, then up again. Poor decisions were made and I’m going to pin them on Joel and Antoine, myself being utterly blameless despite leading the way. Eventually we discovered the correct route up (hint: it’s the same as the summer scramble and is marked with orange flagging tape) and arrived at the Summit Ridge, a section so scary it deserves capitals. On one side was a cornice and The Abyss, and the other was a steep snow slope and also The Abyss. It gets around.
This is what the right way up looks like. It looks scenic AF and people should be smiling and there’s butterflies and birdsong.
The ridge of doom.
Arriving at the end of the ridge we were faced with two choices. The right hand option just looked like right out man so we went left, hoping to find easy entry to the line. Unfortunately after downclimbing and thrutching through a slot I realised it probably didn’t go due to cliffs and whatnot, so we headed back up and down to the gnar right option. I climbed in, downclimbing the cornice over gravel and slab and found a well consolidated 10cm storm slab. Fearing that this might slide on my first turn and take me over a cliff, Joel suggested we cut the cornice.
Antoine downclimbing to the couloir entry. This was comparatively mellow terrain. Seriously.
This was quicker said than done, as the cornice was big and we were full of zeal. We went to town on the bugger.
After an excavation project that put the operations in Crowsnest Pass to shame we scrabbled across the gravelslab into the couloir. Ski time. I was gripped. It had to be at least 55 degrees, sustained all the way to the first rap. I made my first turn, dropping about 6 metres in elevation. And again, and again. I was so focused that I forgot my fear, making great jump turns down to where I thought the anchor should be. It wasn’t there. Joel came down and we took our skis off and dug like angry badgers looking for grubs. Antoine stayed at the top, nervously eyeing another cornice which was beginning to get sunlight. I got fed up with searching and pounded in a knifeblade whilst Joel hammered in a nut. The rap was about 20 metres, a 30m rope and some anchor extension will see you down in this high snow year.
Antoine on rap no. 1. Unfortunately ptex repairs aren’t free so we elected to put the skis on the back.
The second pitch was every bit as intimidating as the first, especially after being bombarded by debris as the other two rapped. There was no real safe point here, so we hip hopped down to our old friend who had denied us two weeks ago. Again, we took the skis off and started excavation. No bolts, pins or even promising cracks were present. We had nowhere to put gear, no fixed anchors and no way up the way we came. Joel and I discussed building belay seats and rapping off skis but each option left one guy being forced to downclimb.
Pitch two. I’d like to say I rotated this photo but I didn’t, it was really that steep.
I was struck by a piece of rock hard inspiration that pinwheeled down the couloir. I’d recently watched a ‘How to Skimo’ series starring Andrew McLean, and episode of which covered deadman anchors. Having absolute confidence this would bail us out we dug the deepest T-slot the world has seen, backed up the rap with a pair of skis and I headed down into the known. I was pretty happy with the anchor, I’d bounce tested it thoroughly and it was also pretty cool.
Bottom of cliff no. 2, we’re all safe and sound and wet and cold. Let’s get out of here!
Antoine and Joel joined me below the last cliff. We were cold, tired, hungry and stressed out but also incredibly relieved. The last pitch was manageably steep and eased off into the fan. This was our line of the winter and what a line it was. Joel and Antoine ripped the last pitch with ease. The snow outside of the couloir was isothermal but we didn’t care. The ski back to the road was slow going but we didn’t care. Commonwealth Couloir was in the bag and we’d never have to go back there again.
Joel managed to hitchhike to the car and as Antoine and I waited and chatted, he revealed that he’d only ever skied one couloir prior to this one. Not bad at all, now he can stop skiing.
It’s a fantastic line! It is not for the faint of heart. Interested parties should be comfortable on sustained 50-55 degree slopes and have a good mountaineering skill set, including familiarity with mixed climbing and rock and snow anchor building. A couple of bugaboos and few knifeblade/universal pins as well as nuts and plenty of cord are needed. You can get away with a 30m rope for the raps. Other standard skimo kit such as axe and crampons are required. There’s no easy way out once you’re in so you gotta commit and give’r!