Pencil Couloir, CO Report: Gripped in Icy Wet Slide Debris and Bulletproof Snow

Dominic Gawel | BackcountryBackcountry | Conditions ReportConditions Report
Credit: Dominic Gawel

Report from April 9, 2021

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Today was unmistakeably a type-two fun kind of day. After bailing on our last attempt on Mt. Axtell’s Pencil, my roommate Josh and I finally checked the Crested Butte classic off our list.

Despite cold daytime temperatures, we still opted to leave fairly early to avoid any possibility of a wet slide and to try to ski the line in optimal mid to late morning corn – we did not get corn. 

We got up early, drove to Crested Butte, and parked at the Kebler Pass winter closure. The heatwave over the weekend took a toll on the snowpack, and bare spots are starting to form on the road. We skinned up the Kebler Pass road for two miles before heading up the Mt. Axtell skin track.

Josh and I made a fairly good time to the top of the couloir, about three hours after parking. We reached the top around 10:30 AM and waited for about 45 minutes to let conditions soften and let the snow corn up.

Eyeing up the Pencil! Credit: Dominic Gawel

After waiting for some time, we figured it would not get any softer for hours, so I dropped in. The entrance has just about every type of snow condition somewhere on it, and this was a good indicator of what was below.

We regrouped right before the entrance to the Pencil. Josh dropped in first, quickly learning we would have awful skiing conditions the entire way down. I followed through the choke, and we started to make our way down the icy mess.

The couloir wet slid during the heatwave last week, leaving behind channels where the snow slid down. After the significant freeze, the channels remained in a bulletproof icy pattern – many of them were less than the length of your ski. This made for exceptionally challenging skiing conditions.

It took a lot of effort and focus to maintain an edge on the frozen channels, and one mistake could mean getting your ski stuck in the channel and falling. At some points, I only could maintain edge contact with the tip and tail of my skis. Overall, the descent consisted of survival skiing, sidestepping, and a few jump turns. It was hard to be confident enough your edge would hold while turning.

Looking down into the choke! Credit: Dominic Gawel

After making it down to the bottom of the couloir, we passed up the avalanche debris and finally made it to some halfway decent snow. The hardpack was refreshing after being gripped, maintaining focus, and control down the couloir. We skied back down to Kebler Pass road, where we skinned a mile and a half back to the trailhead.

Avalanche Forecast:

Credit: CBAC
Credit: CBAC
Credit: CBAC

Weather Forecast:

Credit: NOAA

Snow Water Equivalent:



Kebler Pass road only has a few more days of snow on it! Credit: Dominic Gawel
Looking towards the Wang-Chung Chutes on Mt. Axtell. Credit: Dominic Gawel
Josh Jones after making it through the rough conditions! Credit: Dominic Gawel
I finally got some decent turns on the icy crust below the couloir! Credit: Dominic Gawel

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