Photo: North Buttress Couloir to the right… and the more severe Northeast Couloir to the left.
Words and Photos by John Plotz
Colchuck Peak is modest when compared to its gargantuan neighbor Dragontail Peak. However, its diminutive stature is actually its strength. Indeed, Dragontail has many enticing lines to climb and ski. But by its sheer bulk and vertical relief, its routes usually turn into multi-day endeavors, especially in winter when one has to park four miles from the trailhead. Colchuck Peak on the other hand, has many quick-hits that run the backcountry skiing gamete from no-fall couloirs to the relax-and-ride glacier. The North Buttress Couloir falls between those bookends. From the lake, this couloir rises 2,000′ to a notch. From there, time and energy allowing, one can traverse south and ascend another 1,500′ to the summit of Colchuck via its Northwest Face. And what can be climbed can certainly be skied!
The North Buttress Couloir is steep and still a serious ski descent. A fall on its steepest sections would mean a long slide back down towards the lake and possibly colliding with a few rocks en route. As well, the couloir usually has an icy crux in the first 1,000′, requiring a couple tools, rope, and ice screws to ascend. But the normal ice hasn’t formed this year, instead we found the route covered with soft powder.
Photo: It’s steep, even if not extreme…unless ice forms. Then steep becomes extreme.
Scott McCallister and I found this to be the case as we kicked steps up the gully. The soft snow made for slower going, but that also translates into bigger grins on the ski back down. Scott utilizes a split-board for his descents, and managed just fine in this couloir. From the base of the couloir to the notch, it took us one and a half hours of solid work to get to the top of the couloir.
Photo: Scott boarding in the couloir.
Overall, I found this ski tour to be one of the most enjoyable in our area. The access is very straight-forward, and there are no route-finding problems. Just boot straight up the couloir. And if there’s no ice in there (like this year), one only needs lightweight crampons and an ice axe. In the upper portion of the couloir, I shelved the axe and used two ski poles. Keep in mind, one of my poles is a “whippet” so I still had self-arrest capabilities. In the right conditions, this tour ranks as one of the classics of our high Leavenworth alpine!
Details Details: North Buttress Couloir
Skill: 3+ (advanced to expert).
Fitness: 3 (advanced).
Access. Park west of Leavenworth near the Bridge Creek Campground about eight miles up the Icicle River Road. No parking permits are needed to park here in winter or spring. Note: Doing the trip later in the spring when the Eightmile Road has opened to vehicles and you can drive the first 4 miles of the approach makes the trip considerably shorter. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park at the trailhead once the Eightmile Road opens.
Approach. Walk and/or ski 4 miles up the Eightmile Road to the Mountaineer Creek Trailhead; then follow the trail to Colchuck Lake. Overnight skiers usually prefer to camp at the south end of the lake. You’ll save time if you visit early enough in the season to ski across Colchuck Lake (on an average year, the ice on the lake starts breaking up around mid-May). More details about the trail to Colchuck Lake can be found in the Hiking guidebook.
Equipment. Appropriate ski-touring gear, ice axe, crampons, avalanche gear, and helmet. In icy conditions a rope and ice climbing gear may be needed for crux sections of the route.
Map. Map of approach trails below. Map of ski lines around Colchuck Lake and Aasgard Pass below as well. The north buttress couloir is not noted on our map but the NE couloir is the main north-side cleft in the mountain starting east of the summit.
Permits. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed to park at the Mountaineer Creek Trailhead once the Eightmile Road opens in late spring. If you’re spending the night at Colchuck Lake, self-register for a wilderness permit at the trailhead. After mid-June, wilderness permits for Colchuck Lake are issued on a restricted basis. More info about wilderness permits.
Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.