Great West Couloir – Winter

The chilly northeast face of Mt Colonel Foster and Landslide Lake

As a climber and guidebook author I’ve been on both sides of the perennial pitfalls of written route descriptions. All climbers seek accurate beta and writers do their best to research and present it, but we all know that there are some notorious bloopers out there. Over the past decade alpinism on Vancouver Island as exploded and that’s likely due to a whole list of factors but one of them is definitely related inversely to the stock pile of Island Alpine guidebooks in my office storeroom. As 2012 rolled around I began to realize that my 2003 print run was almost sold out and that there were close to 5,000 people out there with that book on their shelves, eventually expecting an update. Not to mention the new climbers that would be without a choice if I didn’t pull my finger out! Thus began a three year mission to rewrite the Island mountaineers bible.

Along the way there were many new routes to include, classics to revisit and inevitably mistakes to correct. I discovered one of the more egregious errors as I reread Ferris Neave’s account of his climb with brother Hugh and Karl Ricker on the west face of Mt Colonel Foster in the 1958 CAJ (p.41). It became glaringly obvious that I had completely misinterpreted the couloir they had climbed, assuming it was up a strikingly obvious crescent-shaped snow chute in the middle of the west face. On closer inspection I realized their route had taken a much less distinct gully between the Southwest and Southeast peaks which had led them onto the summit ridge painfully far from the Main Summit. That trio were more than capable of reaching and claiming the Island’s last great summit prize but their miscalculation of the peak’s high point stymied their effort and left it to Mike Walsh to finally reach the Colonel’s apex a decade later.

Luckily Neave’s account is so well-written there would be no need to repeat the climb to craft an accurate description – made all the better by actually now being able to pin-point its location! But the process of correcting the misunderstanding began to make me ever more curious about this west couloir. What was it all about? The main reason I had made the confusion was because it is such an obvious line. Despite being in the middle of the sunny west face it holds snow from bottom to top most years all the way into fall and it tops out on the summit ridge only a couple of hundred metres from the main summit. This enigmatic couloir clearly had potential to become a standard route to the top of Mt Colonel Foster, a summit renowned for repulsing attempts to climb it.

The more I worked on the new guidebook edition the more I found myself thinking about Mt Colonel Foster and the Great West Couloir.

Sunny west face of Mt Colonel Foster, winter.

In July 2014 my wife Renée and I headed for the Great West Couloir opting to approach it from the North Col. This turned out to do us no good as we discovered that despite the map giving the impression of the couloir being in the middle of the west face, the approach is half as long again from the North Col as the South Col.

A few months later the new edition of Island Alpine Select was out the door. The Island was blessed with a nice early winter cold snap and I had squeezed in a couple of good days, including a quick trip with Hunter Lee up King’s Peak where we looked over at Mt Colonel Foster and plotted a trip to the west face. Hunter had used the couloir as a descent off a climb up the east face the winter before and confirmed it’s character. 

The cold weather held through Christmas and between unwrapping presents and eating seasonally decadent meals the obsessive checks of the forecast promised a perfect weather window between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. Plan in Place Josh Overdijk, Hunter and I were once more back on the Elk River trail headed toward Mt Colonel Foster.

It was a little strange hiking up a clear trail in the dead of winter. We didn’t reach snow until Landslide Lake and it was so consolidated we were still carrying snowshoes until about halfway across Landslide Lake when we started to get water pooling on our boot tracks and it seemed prudent to use them to spread our weight. Not to worry the forecast was for the temperatures to drop that night and stay cold until the 31st, two days from now. Just enough time to get up and down.

We bivvied at Foster Lake under a crystal clear star-studded sky with the silhouette of Mt Colonel Foster’s East Face looming impossibly overhead. We were actually chewing over a variety of objectives including climbing an east face route but eventually we all had to agree that the face was still a bit lean and so the next morning we pushed up the south chute toward the South Col. There had been about a foot of fresh snow a day or so prior and we were half expecting to be spooked by the snow stability. But the more we looked, observed and studied the more reassuring things became. The slog up to the South Col went without incident. The steepest thing encountered all day was Josh’s learning curve on the snowshoes! 

Spindrift whipped up by a cold northwest wind at the south col

There was a stiff, bitterly cold wind ripping through the col as we huddled behind a large boulder for lunch. With the wind at our backs we ascended a bit above the col and then began the traverse across the wide snowfield below the west face toward a treed spur ridge and flat shoulder overlooking the bottom of the Great West Couloir. The golden light of the low winter sun was glorious as we trudged across the snowfield. There is massive exposure above Donner Lake here but again the snow just seemed locked solid onto the slope and we made it across to the shoulder just as the sun set.

Crossing the exposed snow slopes below the south peaks as the sun set.
Note the camp on the lower west ridge (left).

We quickly found a sheltered spot amongst the thick, gnarled mountain hemlock trees and made a hasty but welcome supper. Above our little camp the jagged towers of Mt Colonel Foster were every bit the impressive alpine scene.

Stunning sunset glow over Matchlee Mountain and Mt Donner

A pre-dawn start saw us dropping off the spur ridge on its north side into a massive cirque under the north half of the Colonel’s west face. The whole cirque seems to funnel up toward the Great West Couloir showing how the glacier and subsequent avalanches that scoured out the cirque were being fed from the high terrain surrounding and at the top of the couloir. We slogged up with our snowshoes as the slope tapered into the gully. As the ground steepened we stashed the shoes off to the side and switched to crampons.

Pre-dawn start saw us at the base of the couloir as the light returned.

The angle was moderate with no technical climbing but the situation was awesome. The rime coated walls bounding the couloir were fearsome looking and being isolated as we into our third day of travel now, the sense of adventure was a thrill to soak in. After about 350m of grade 1 snow there’s a short 50m grade 2 outlet leading onto the upper glacier on the summit ridge. Once again the wind was relentless through the notch at the top of the couloir. We were left in little doubt it was winter.

Josh & Hunter retreating back along the Utopian Fin

Josh and Hunter made an attempt for the summit but I was happy enough to be on the summit ridge. My quest had been to see the couloir first hand and figure out if it was viable as a year round route to the main summit and standing there below the Corporal gendarme that was now left in no doubt. With the only caveat, which applies to pretty much all Island alpine snow gullies, that conditions are bound to be best with full snow cover it’s pretty safe to say that the Great West Couloir is the fastest, least technical route to the summit of Mt Colonel Foster and eliminates much of the loose rock, long rappels and frequent bergschrunds encountered following the summit ridge from either the North or South Col.

After a valiant attempt along the summit ridge finding sketchy unprotectable rime on a crucial slab, Hunter and Josh returned to the top of the couloir and we headed back down.

Our descent down the couloir went smoothly and we were back at our bivvy spot in no time.

Descending the Great West Couloir.

I was a tad reluctant to leave so soon, the west shoulder really is a beautiful place, but the warming trend forecast underscored the need to avoid lingering so we headed back. We traversed a lower line across the snowfield back to the South Col and made our way down the south chute as darkness settled in.

Heading back across the west flanks toward the south col

After a questionable rappel in the lower part of the chute, that kept the adrenaline flowing, we were back at our first night’s bivvy spot at Foster Lake for a late supper and a very deep sleep. Next day we retraced our steps out the Elk River trail and headed home for New Year’s.

Great West Couloir: AD AI1 (lll) 325m
FWA: Hunter Lee, Josh Overdijk, Philip Stone 30 December, 2014

Read about a spring ascent here: Great West Couloir (spring 2019)