GREAT WEST COULOIR, MOUNT COLONEL FORESTER, VANCOUVER ISLAND
By: Joe Schwartz
Elk make good trails. Not surprising, really, when you consider that the bulls are up to 900lbs, with giant clodhoppers for hooves. Small herds of these formidable animals roam the mountains of Vancouver Island, and when one encounters a well-trodden elk trail, it’s easy to mistake the path for a freshly cut piece of singletrack winding through the old growth.
It’s on one of these elk trails that we find ourselves, working up a steep mountainside of majestic old growth cedars, deep in the heart of Strathcona Provincial Park. We left the human-built Elk River trail a while ago, searching for the elusive terrain features that will unlock our access into the Butterwort Creek, a lush, untouched hanging valley that would be an ideal elk hangout in the summer. This valley will take us right up underneath the West side of Mt Colonel Foster and towards our objective, the Great West Couloir.
The elk know where to go, and we follow the animal path as it snakes through cliffy terrain on the only obvious bench system, taking us straight into the Butterwort drainage. We hit snowline, and finally lighten our loads, putting skis and boots on the feet and sliding up this forgotten valley.
Mt Colonel Foster is a gem amongst the Island Alps. The 4th highest peak on the Island but perhaps the most formidable, with its East face towering over the Elk River with over 1,000m of relief, taller than Yosemite’s El Capitan wall. Many notable alpine exploits have gone down on this mountain, from solo winter ascents in the 70’s by Himalayan legends to casual free-solo routes in more recent years by the late Marc-Andre Leclerc and his partner Brette Harrington.
Our objective, the Great West Couloir, is on the rarely traveled West side of the mountain. As with many Island ski missions, there’s very little beta on the route. Unconfirmed rumor has it that maybe some snowboarder once rode the line, but that is of little concern to us. It’s another classic Island adventure, where the most route information we’re getting is from the elk that put in the perfect trail we just left behind.
We wind up the valley, eventually finding our way to a small lake nestled right at the base of the ascent up to the Couloir. After sneaking in a schmooey spring slush lap in after dinner, we settle down for the night.
The next morning dawns clear and cold, any slush from the day before now frozen in place. Ski crampons are on right from camp, as we trudge up towards the base of the couloir. As we switch to boot crampons, hope flickers that recent spring storms may have left some softer snow in the upper reaches of the line. That hope is squashed as we work our way up, and find just a dusting over a hard surface. It’s a straight forward climb, with the top 50 degree section providing some excitingly steep front-pointing. We crest over the top into brilliant sunshine, with the vast expanse of the East face beneath our feet. It’s quite a stance.
After a rest, some water and snack, the toes get locked on the tech bindings, and we turn around out of the sun and face down the shade and still very hard conditions of the Great West Coulior. Ice-axe in hand, I tentatively edge into the line. Any slip here would not end well, so I play it very safe off the top, and link some very scrapy turns as I move into the crux of the couloir. We make our way down safely, with the snow really not improving the entire length of the line. Remembering we’re not really here for ski quality, more the ambiance of traveling around this historic peak on skis, in a place few go.
Back at camp, we high five, pack up, and enjoy fun slushy turns through the old growth back down into the valley. We take our time moving through this terrain, enjoying the sensations only spring skiing can bring. The smells of returning growth, sounds of rushing water, and the sensations of moving through terrain, comfortable only in the way that one is after a full season of time on skis.
Spring skiing also brings a high snowline, so before we know it we’re back at the elk trail. Skis go on the back, and we make the long slog out to the highway, content with another Island adventure in the bag.
Former professional mountain biker and new father, Joe Schwartz is currently a resident of Vancouver Island and an ACMG Ski Guide. Look out for more of his writing and follow along his adventures at @joeschwartzy.