Ski guide Kevin Hjertaas ponders the changing of three classic Rockies lines in a warming world and what it means for the future of big mountain skiing.
Every mountain sport has its cutting edge, its outer limits: backpackers look to FKT (fastest-known-time) fast-packers for inspiration or gear insights, mountain bikers with no interest in massive airs benefit from equipment created first for extreme athletes, and generations of armchair mountaineers have been stirred to more humble adventures by the exploits of bold alpinists pushing the boundaries of risk and reward.
During the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Doug Ward pushed those boundaries for Canadian skiers by bringing the European style of extreme skiing, known for its unthinkably steep descents climbed with mountaineering techniques and skied with flair in often firm, unforgiving snow conditions, to the Rocky Mountains. He laid first tracks down numerous local faces and couloirs, but three stand out and remain some of the most sought-after descents anywhere: the 3/4 Couloir, the Aemmer Couloir and the Skyladder.
Years later, with all the advances in ski technology and technique, they still give accomplished skiers something to aspire to; and for beginners working towards their first blue run, an outer marker for context. Most skiers will never attempt them, which makes sense, they have all proven fatal multiple times over, but these three lines show how mountains are changing, what’s left behind to challenge us and where we’ll find inspiration in the future.
I came to the Rockies to chase Doug Ward’s legacy. One of the cornerstones of the life I’ve built here is the inspiration I gained from his skiing exploits. But decades have passed and the steep mountain faces he first skied, the ones on which snow just barely clings, are melting. I’m left to wonder what that means for Ward’s legacy and for those of us still chasing it.
The 3/4 Couloir: Abridged
From Moraine Lake, thousands of sightseers take in the grandeur of the Valley of the Ten Peaks every summer, a landscape that lifts your spirit as it dwarfs you. Most are content with that beauty from a distance, but for some, the knowledge that climbers are up there summiting these peaks and forging paths through those giants inspires them.
For skiers there’s an obvious line that draws attention and ignites imagination: the 3/4 Couloir. Named for its placement between peaks 3 and 4 in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the chute features in hundreds of postcards, paintings, tourist photos and even the old 20-dollar bill. Framed above tranquil Moraine Lake, the imposing wall of glacier-capped mountains is cleaved directly down the middle by a hanging ribbon of white.
In 1978, Doug Ward, a firefighter from Calgary, and Banffite Greg Hahn began a new era of steep skiing in the Rockies when they made the first descent of the 3/4 Couloir. Skiers have been trying to catch up to that example ever since. It wasn’t until May 2004 that I finally made my way up the famous chute. I’d ingratiated myself with a mentor named Troy Leahey, who was leading the climb. Hours into the effort, we neared the top, and the pitch pushed back into our faces. The bulging convexity at the top was the steepest slope I’d ever climbed, and I was scared, but lit with excitement. I’d dreamt of this moment since first reading about Ward and Hahn’s descent in Powder magazine as a teenager.
The bulging convexity at the top was the steepest slope I’d ever climbed, and I was scared, but lit with excitement. I’d dreamt of this moment…
Once on top, with skis attached to my feet, I watched Leahey tiptoe out across that stomach-tightening rollover that links the flat glacier above to the 50-degree drop of the couloir. I was intimidated. We all were. And when Leahey ski-cut the slope and snow rocketed down the mountain, my eyes bulged.
Prudence should have trumped valour. The 3/4 Couloir has proven itself deadly with some frequency since before skiers even looked at it, when only climbers were tempted to use it as access for the peaks above. But I wanted to impress my mentor in that moment, and I dropped in with all the bravado and style I could muster. By the time I pulled up to Leahey in a safe enclave, a quarter of the way down, I was ecstatic.
Moments later, a snowboarder who had joined our party when his friends abandoned the climb, slipped out on the first steep turn. He began tumbling and didn’t stop for 300 vertical metres. Right then, on my very first attempt at one of Ward’s lines, I learned how near the highs of this sport are to the lows, how dizzying and swift the contrast can be. But the man’s snowboard stopped him eventually, and though rattled, he was relatively unharmed.
Years later, I learned that our experience mirrored Ward’s more than I would have expected.
Doug Ward is everything we expect ski heroes to be: fit, handsome and an unending well of energy. He ski raced and competed in moguls (both professionally) before turning to the challenge of the backcountry. Undeniably a gifted skier, he still felt the need to push it in front of his peers in the 3/4, like I did. He recounts, “Greg made these perfect giant slalom turns straight down it. It’s a picture I’ll never forget. I had to try and copy it.” He skied over that upper bulge with all the panache he could, and to this day, it makes him smile.
On another occasion in the 3/4 Couloir, a friend who wasn’t entirely invited joined Ward’s team. The young man was on borrowed skis and blew out of them on that steep start. He, too, tumbled the first 300 metres and recounting it, Ward’s smile is replaced by bewildered eyes and shaking head, “He cartwheeled like a doll thrown from a crib.” Like our snowboarder, Ward’s friend walked away and everyone was left to contemplate the tension inherent when joy is so near disaster.
Ward recalls, “I skied 3/4 13 times, sometimes solo, but it never got any less intimidating.”
Now maybe it has.
As the glacier above has receded and shrunk, the entrance bulge, one of the famous couloir’s defining characteristics, has all but disappeared, creating a less intimidating start to the run. In 2021, with a couple of friends, I approached 3/4 from the back side, and as our ski tips inched over the edge, we looked down between them to Moraine Lake, 1,000 metres below; a warped, reverse image of the iconic postcard.
But the imposing bulge was gone. We smiled with relieved tension and dropped into a fun, enjoyable run. At the bottom, our cheers echoed off the walls and up the valley. After high-fives, I looked up at the iconic ski line, stoked but wondering, “Is it diminished if it’s any less intimidating?” It’s still impressive and dangerous, but what happens to a legend that becomes easier to repeat?
“There’s a sadness there. It seems an era has passed.”-Doug Ward, 2023
Aemmer Couloir: Endures
From Wiwaxy, the classic beginner slope at Lake Louise, new skiers can easily aspire to dozens of more challenging runs around the resort. Above them though, on the Summit Chair, an expert skier likely looks south towards Mount Temple for similar inspiration. There they see the most iconic chute in the Rockies: the Aemmer Couloir—an elevator shaft through quartzite on the northern shoulder of Temple. It is perhaps the most coveted couloir in the Canadian Rockies, and it was a highly-coveted first descent back in the late ‘70s.
“I knew of seven trips that had [attempted but] not made it. A lot of people were trying. It’s all about figuring out the timing and the conditions,” Ward says.
Ward made the first successful descent with Kevin Hahn and Bruce Hanson in 1979, and they did it on hard spring snow.
“All of those lines I skied from May onwards,” Ward explains. Instead of exposing himself to the avalanche danger of a winter snowpack, he would wait until the snow had melted and refrozen several times and could be trusted. But that meant he had to ski hard, icy slopes up to 55 degrees, where a fall would be uncontrollable and potentially fatal.
Last spring, a few friends and I were hunting similar conditions, though not by choice. The sound of our skateboard wheels on asphalt woke wildlife along the Moraine Lake road that morning. The road was still closed for the winter, but a startling heat wave had melted away the snow. We were hoping to find a Ward-style descent on firn snow somewhere. Firn is snow that has survived through at least one summer but is not yet glacial ice. It’s harder and more stable than winter snow, and there was a time when you could count on firn to keep the Aemmer skiable year-round.
Years before, in 2012, I’d made a similar trip on the same dry road but in the fall as a friend and I sought somewhere to ski before winter arrived. We enjoyed a fun adventure-ski in the legendary couloir, but it was a long day, and as we walked the dry pavement in the dark for the second time that day, I swore to bring a skateboard for the trip home if I ever did it again.
So that’s what we did last May. Only this time, there would be no skiing. The winter’s meagre snowfall was all but gone and the base of firn snow had shrunk—the anemic snowpack that remained did not look skiable. So we turned around near the base of the couloir and skateboarded home in ski boots along a picturesque mountain road. A month later, no snow was left on the lower third of Aemmer, firn or otherwise, making a Ward-style descent on spring/summer snow impossible for the foreseeable future.
Luckily, most skiers today prefer to ski Aemmer in soft wintery snow. It’s more dangerous from an avalanche perspective but also more enjoyable and forgiving to ski or ride. In fact, even as the line has lost firn snow and become slightly narrower, the number of people enjoying it every season has increased. Unlike the 3/4, Aemmer has changed only subtly and lost none of its allure.
Further north, another of Ward’s iconic lines tells a different story. For the thousands of visitors who drive to the Columbia Icefields every summer, wonders abound. The size of the peaks alone would impress, but draped in broken ice and surrounded by wind-swept alpine, the icefields are awe-inspiring. Those who take the time to walk the year-markers that show the great glacier’s recession are left with a different type of awe, a tactile lesson of climate change. Hanging above their heads is the ski mountaineer’s example.
“I question if ya think Skyladder goes anymore?” It’s 2022, and Ward is skeptical. “The snowpack is hollowed out and doesn’t have consistent hold on there because portions have deteriorated.” He’s not wrong. Skyladder is disappearing.
It’s such a classic that the name alone stirs fantasies: Skyladder on Mount Andromeda. Ward skied it solo in 1996 and the photos were mesmerizing; the face a white blanket drooping over the shoulder of 3,450-metre Andromeda down to the iconic Athabasca Glacier.
In 2008, when I finally laid turns down the face, the surroundings were all I’d imagined, with views spread across the continent’s apex. But a lack of snow on the face made it less enjoyable than I’d hoped. We had to skirt the edges due to exposed ice, and wind had crusted the lower run. After years of coveting the line, the reality of it came up short.
As seasons passed, Skyladder shrank, and my desire to return faded. I’d written it off entirely until an American ski superhero named Cody Townsend captured the snow world’s attention with his ambition to ski all of the lines featured in the book, 50 Classic Descents of North America.
In that glossy coffee table book is a glorious, though already shrunken, picture of Skyladder. In that image, it is 100 per cent a “classic descent.” In the spring of 2022, when Townsend came, it was a scrawny version of itself. But Townsend’s story was too compelling for me to resist; his race to ski all the most iconic lines on the continent first and before they disappeared. So I packed a rope and crampons and drove north for one last day on the fading legend.
We awoke in beautiful pre-dawn and made good time, gaining the North Andromeda Glacier easily, where in years past seracs had blocked the glacier and presented a real challenge. Easy travel through the lower rock bands gave way to the upper face, which still showed ice but had carveable styrofoam snow around it. The views remained entirely undiminished.
And the skiing was fun. The mood was almost carefree as we traded snapping turns and snapping photos. Soon we were down, and it was time to shoulder skis again to walk the gravel road back as diesel monster buses chugged past, taking tourists onto the shrinking Athabasca Glacier and leaving us in a cloud of dust.
One other party skied Skyladder that season. I doubt any have skied it since. As I stare at the Columbia Icefield Centre webcam now, I see for the first time the rock face hidden by Skyladder’s snow and ice all these years. For now, at least, this classic is gone.
Through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Ward was unbelievably prolific, making numerous first descents all across the Canadian Rockies, like the north face of Mount Stanley, which, though it is changing with thinning ice and receding glacier, gets numerous repeats by happy skiers and boarders every year. In Kananaskis Country, Ward’s descents of mounts Marlborough, Northover, Warrior and Defender are less famous, though impressive all the same. But it’s Mount Joffre that nags at me. An ideal Rocky Mountain north face, it has always held snow from its lower glaciated slopes up its steep triangular face and right to the summit at 3,450 metres.
I mention it to Doug in late spring 2023 and he reflects inward, “I still have desires to get out there, too. I haven’t hung them up. But it’s harder now. You have to go further, and with it comes extra risk sometimes… That physical prowess and unending energy isn’t there anymore. Admitting that is a hard thing.” At 64, Ward still skis hard and well. He has more energy than almost anyone I’ve met.
But he looks around and sees the future. “You don’t want to fade away. It’s interesting to be in this transition.” Our conversation has circled between the snowpack, his ski lines, his age and his legacy. I’m not sure at that moment which one he’s talking about but as he pauses, I dream of skiing Mount Joffre before it melts much more.
When he speaks again, he may be addressing me or thinking aloud, “We’re witnesses to the time we are in.”
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