Backcountry Expeditions: Terminal Cancer Couloir
In late April, Riley Bathurst, Matt Oravitz and I made the five-hour drive from Tahoe to Elko, Nevada, 30 minutes north of the Ruby Mountains. The objective is to ride Terminal Cancer Couloir, an 1,800 foot narrow couloir with vertical walls and a channel ranging between 10 and 30 feet wide, first pioneered by Brad Royer and Moe Barker back in 1979.
We head south from Elko just before sunrise, weaving through the open plains of Eastern Nevada as we approached the Ruby Mountains. Lamoille Canyon marks the entrance to the Ruby’s and the scenery quickly changes from sparse rolling hills, to rugged peaks and open bowls.
As we drive further up the canyon a bend in the road reveals a perfectly straight line, carved with craftsman-like precision into the side of the mountain. The angles look so sharp and intentional that it’s hard to imagine they were carved out, ever-so-slowly by wind, snow, and water over millions of years. We park on the side of the road and look for a good place to cross the fast-moving stream that is rushing down the canyon, carrying recently melted snow from the historic winter. The answer: Pop off the boots and socks, roll up the pants, and try to stay upright through the strong current and slippery rocks submerged below.
After an invigorating (i.e. chilly and less-than-graceful) crossing, a quick scramble up the bank on the far side of the stream leads to some low brush and a great view of the route up the couloir. It’s still early and the snow at the bottom of the couloir is firm, with signs of wet slide debris from a storm that brought a couple inches of snow a few days earlier. We see several tracks and a well-established boot pack trail from previous adventurers.
The initial approach to the couloir is straightforward but we found ourselves stopping regularly to admire the striking beauty of the surrounding mountains. As we enter the first notch of the couloir, rock walls shoot up on either side. After a few hundred feet, these tight confines give way to a hanging snowfield, which splits up the upper and lower portions of the couloir. The pitch gets steeper as we hit the second notch of the couloir as the sheer rock walls become taller and more defined.
We reach the top of our objective only to find another intriguing zone across from us. Having come all of this way, we decide to venture out a little further. After a quick ski down, we find ourselves bootpacking up a north facing slope with some truly exceptional snow. The top of this face reveals a panorama of massive peaks, tempting chutes, and untouched bowls in the amphitheater beyond. We take a look at the topo map in the Snowledge app to get a better sense of our surroundings and check our elevation. We’re at nearly 10,000 feet and the impressive peaks across the valley reach upwards of 13,000 feet.
After taking in the views and planning all of the lines we’re going to ski on our next trip, we clicked in and made short work of the face above the couloir. The snow was light and fresh from the storm four days earlier and we’re all smiles by the time we hit the bottom of the face. A quick hike gets us back to the top of Terminal Cancer and we’re warmed up and ready to go.
The first few turns in the couloir are tight and the snow is firm, but the rock walls quickly open up and the turns become chalky and soft. The chute eventually gives way to a hanging snowfield, which is only accessible later in the season, when the snow has filled the middle of the couloir. After a few big turns, we’re back in the tight confines of the lower couloir and testing our fitness with several hundred additional feet of jump turns. Eventually, the run opens up and it’s an easy cruise back down to the bottom to grab the beers we left chilling in the creek. Those beers couldn’t have tasted better and one thing is very certain. We’ll be back.
Snowledge Stats for the Mission:
- Vertical: 2,668ft
- Runs: 2 (including the face above the couloir)
- Top Speed: 34 mph